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Commentators out of touch on refugees

By David Flint - posted Thursday, 15 November 2001

There were two reactions to the Government's handling of the Tampa incident. One was the overwhelming support of the public. The other was the overwhelming condemnation of opinion leaders.

Rather than this dichotomy, the nation is better served by consensus. Self-government, federation, the world wars and postwar immigration are examples.

It is, of course, in the nature of any elite that they believe themselves endowed with greater wisdom. This is not always so, as the infatuation of many with Marx proved.


In France in the 1960s, there was an extraordinary adulation of Mao's Little Red Book. Australia's elites were at their best in the 1980s in achieving economic reform. The government and opposition were in agreement and the nation accepted their leaderships, at times reluctantly. But when a part of the elite tried to impose a cultural agenda - new flag, reconciliation beyond the practical, and a republic - they failed.

And the public got it right on East Timor, while the elites were in denial.

More recently, almost all of the opinion leaders were motivated by compassion for the unauthorised entrants. But the public believed those already in the queue, in the refugee camps, living in fear of persecution and who had observed all the proper rules should have priority.

This is not "playing the race card". It is confirming the obvious - that Australia decides the rules about who comes into this country. Those rules are fair and generous and not at all discriminatory.

Most critics did not accept the popular fear that what was a trickle could easily have become a flood. Australia is an attractive country, and the chances of a favourable assessment were - at least until Parliament finally acted - very high.

Without the Government drawing the line, the influx would have grown until the number of unauthorised entrants would have been substantial. The charge on the Budget would have been in the billions.


At some point, some of the opinion leaders who are now so critical of John Howard would have begun to think the unthinkable - that is, that the flow of ships from Indonesia must stop. Would that point have been at 100,000 people, 200,000, 500,000? At what stage would the opinion leaders decide that open entry was no longer viable?

At some stage, the flow would have led to significant and serious social instability. It is not hard to think of examples in other countries.

So when would Howard's critics have drawn the line? Most were unusually coy about indicating the number of unauthorised arrivals they would propose.

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This article was first published in The Australian Financial Review on November 7, 2001.

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About the Author

David Flint is a former chairman of the Australian Press Council and the Australian Broadcasting Authority, is author of The Twilight of the Elites, and Malice in Media Land, published by Freedom Publishing. His latest monograph is Her Majesty at 80: Impeccable Service in an Indispensable Office, Australians for Constitutional Monarchy, Sydney, 2006

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