Immigration Minister Peter Dutton has copped considerable criticism for his comment on Sky News’ The Bolt Report last Monday that one-time Coalition prime minister “Malcolm Fraser did make mistakes” in bringing some refugees into Australia in the 1970s. Yet the authority for this claim is none other than Fraser himself. Here is the story.
Soon after becoming prime minister in November 1975, Fraser was approached by some of the leaders of the Maronite (Christian) Lebanese community in Australia. They were concerned at the plight of fellow Maronites in the Lebanon civil war.
Fraser agreed to the proposal that Australia should accept those Lebanese fleeing the civil war. They were not refugees in the strict definition of the term, since they were not fleeing persecution. Rather, they were caught up in an armed conflict. And so was established what was termed “the Lebanon concession”, meaning that a concession to Australia’s existing policy of refugee intake would be implemented to take account of the special circumstances applying in Lebanon.
In the event, it turned out that few Maronites wanted to take advantage of the Lebanon concession. However, many Muslims did — particularly Sunnis from the rural north and Shi’ites from the rural south. This despite the fact the civil war was taking place primarily around the Lebanese capital, Beirut.
Under the relaxed selection criteria to enter Australia under the Lebanon concession, a person only had to state that they were fleeing the civil war and that they had a relative living in Australia.
Few, if any, applicants were rejected.
Immigration Department staff sent to the region to administer the program had no way of checking whether the applicants had a relative in Australia. Moreover, many Lebanese had a definition of “family” that even extended to village members whom they had not met in years.
It turned out that 90 per cent of Lebanese who entered Australia under the Lebanon concession were Muslim. During 1976-77, there was a net migration of 12,000 Lebanese to Australia. Historian James Jupp pointed out in The Australian Peoplethat between 1971 and 1981 the proportion of Muslims among the Lebanese population doubled from 14 per cent to 31 per cent.
I first wrote about this matter in late 2006 — that is, before the release of the cabinet papers for 1976. Because I had no way of checking my facts, I phoned Fraser and asked him about the Lebanese concession. He replied along the following lines: “Gerard, I have no memory of any of this but it’s the kind of thing I would have done.” In Malcolm Fraser: The Political Memoirs, the former prime minister admitted to having a “notoriously fallible” memory.
The cabinet papers in the National Archives of Australia reveal that the Lebanon concession was an unmitigated disaster. In September 1976 cabinet considered a report that concluded that Immigration Department officials were “completely overstretched” and had lost control of the program.
The report expressed concern about “the possibility that the conflicts, tensions and divisions within Lebanon will be transferred to Australia”.
By November 1976 the situation had deteriorated further. Immigration minister Michael MacKellar told cabinet that a high percentage of applicants under the Lebanon concession were illiterate and were being admitted to Australia without “any regard to their economic viability, personal qualities or capacity for successful settlement”.
On November 30, 1976, the Fraser government abandoned the Lebanon concession. It was replaced by the normal criteria for Lebanese immigration applicants that applied previously; namely, “economic viability, personal quality and ability to integrate”, which applied equally to Muslims and Christians.
As Dutton made clear in parliament on Tuesday, his reference to the fact two-thirds of those charged with terrorism-related offences in Australia are “from second and third-generation Lebanese Muslim backgrounds” was related to Muslim Lebanese-Australians whose parents and grandparents entered Australia under the Lebanon concession, or as a beneficiary of family reunion schemes for Lebanon concession “refugees”.
When Australia is taking refugees from civil war zones, Dutton’s comment is timely and responsible. After all, the person who first realised the Lebanon concession was a mistake was Fraser himself — four decades ago.