Australia’s historians don’t have as good a track record as lawyers when it comes to contributing their expertise to the campaign on behalf of refugees. It is telling that three years after the Tampa affair, my book is the first substantial history of Australia’s responses to refugees and asylum seekers. I expected there to be not one but several accounts of Australia’s humanitarian record before mine – written by historians who enjoy the privilege of a tenured position in an Australian university.
Is there perhaps an easy explanation for the relative silence of the historical profession? Maybe historians have little to add to the current debate, which is informed by contributions made by lawyers, political scientists, philosophers, medical doctors, and others. The difficulty I had in attracting funding to research, and write about, Australia’s humanitarian record could be evidence in support of such an explanation. For example, one of the first agencies I approached, the Department of the Parliamentary Library, wrote to me (soon after the Tampa affair): "Although the historical analysis of policy surrounding asylum seekers is important, it does not bear significant impact on asylum seeker issues today."
As you may have guessed, I am convinced that such historical analysis is relevant, and ought to have an impact on the current debate. And fortunately, A Just Australia and the Myer Foundation have thought likewise.
An analysis of what happened in the past may usefully inform our conduct in the present for at least two, fairly basic reasons: histories are relevant if they make us aware of the otherness of the past, or rather, of the exceptionality of the present. They can teach us that the present is not just a continuation of the same old story but something that should surprise us. They also teach us that the present is not the seamless and inevitable outcome of the past. Histories are also relevant if they make us aware of how the past lives on in the present. I would like to say a bit more about these two, seemingly contradictory, issues: the past’s legacies, and its incompatibility with the present.
During the 1940s, 1950s, 1960s and 1970s, refugees were admitted to Australia as long as they were believed to constitute a "migration gain", to use the jargon of the Department of Immigration. Very few exceptions aside, they were not resettled because of humanitarian considerations. In fact, those who most urgently required permanent resettlement were often those whom Australia refused to take. In the 1950s and 1960s, they were usually referred to as the "hard core". The hard core comprised single mothers, people with disabilities, the frail and elderly, and people who were mentally or physically ill. Successive governments, from Chifley – via Menzies, Holt, Gorton and McMahon – to Whitlam, promoted the view that refugees should be offered resettlement places as long as their resettlement was in the national interest. It was in the national interest to resettle a 25-year-old displaced person who was physically fit and eager to work under the direction of the Australian authorities. It was supposedly not in the national interest to resettle a 50-year-old displaced person who had spent several years in German concentration camps and was chronically ill as a result of her ordeal.
In the late 1970s, the Fraser government formulated a distinct refugee policy. But the public servants administering this policy were identical with those who had previously thought of refugees primarily as immigrants. In the long term, there was no fundamental change to the Immigration Department’s approach to those seeking Australia’s protection or applying to be resettled here. Even after the so-called Mackellar principles, the government’s response to refugees remained part of its broader approach to immigration.
A departmental culture of assessing prospective settlers according to whether or not they constitute a migration gain, of tightly controlling access to permanent residence in Australia, and of seeing the Department of Immigration in the forefront of agencies entrusted with ensuring the inviolability of Australia has had more than 50 years to develop. It will be difficult, if not impossible to change that culture overnight. Therefore, in my opinion, if a future government were prepared to make substantive changes to Australia’s refugee and asylum seeker policies, it would need to set up an agency to implement those changes, rather than entrust its implementation to the Department of Immigration.
Let me now say a few words about the relevance of knowing about fundamental differences between the past and the present. In John Howard’s Australia, many of us have come to accept that the government draws on collective angst, indeed manipulates and fans this angst, in the pursuit of electoral gain. Previous governments recognised the dangers inherent in such an approach. In 1938 and 1939, Joseph Lyons and his government were opposed to resettling large numbers of European refugees. Their response to the tragedy unfolding in Europe was arguably hard-hearted. It made also good political sense, as the majority of Australians would not have welcomed a sizeable refugee intake. But Lyons did not encourage the public’s anti-alienism and amplify widely held fears about the immigration of Jewish refugees.
In 1946 and 1947, public opinion was not in favour of Australia’s acceptance of Jewish survivors. Repeatedly, the influential president of the Australian Natives Association warned that Australia should not accommodate the "refuse of Europe". Returned servicemen’s organisations issued similar warnings. In response to such opposition, Labor’s Minister for Immigration, Arthur Calwell, curtailed the entry of Jewish survivors. But not once did he endorse the views put forward by the Australian Natives Association. Although their policies were at times as mean-spirited as those of the Howard government, the Lyons and Chifley governments of the late 1930s and mid-1940s refused to endorse xenophobia motivated by racism. John Howard, by contrast, has legitimised the fears articulated by Pauline Hanson.
The appreciation of a past that is markedly different from the present may allow us also to imagine solutions beyond the straightjacket of the status quo. Between 1945 and 1948, the Australian government moved first to create a department solely concerned with the implementation of its immigration policy, and then authorised the new department to recruit up to 200,000 migrants sponsored by the International Refugee Organisation. Notwithstanding the motivation behind the large-scale recruitment of refugees, the approach to Australia’s perceived need to increase its population was visionary.
While Calwell’s vision was for a Greater White Australia rather than for a solution to the European refugee crisis, his ambition to increase Australia’s population made a significant contribution to easing the plight of Europe’s displaced persons. Does not the scope of today’s global refugee crisis call for a response as bold as Calwell’s approach to the International Refugee Organisation in the late 1940s? Would not incremental reform (such as the replacement of mandatory detention by a detention regime that spares children) merely mitigate and thereby confirm the status quo? Over a 12 month period in 1949/50, Australia, with a population of hardly more than a third of today’s, accommodated some 100,000 displaced persons and refugees at a time when the country, and the majority of its citizens, were not nearly as affluent as they are today.
Let us imagine an equivalent of Australia’s post-war immigration program. During the last financial year, Australia provided 4,376 places under its refugee program. Could we not afford to provide ten times as many? Such a one-off gesture would be destined to impress the rest of the world. More importantly, it would be brazen enough to challenge Australians to collectively enact qualities that are supposedly part of their national character. Could Australia not also afford a general amnesty for illegal immigrants and a gesture that granted all asylum seekers and refugees who are now in Australia or its off-shore prison on Nauru permanent residence visas?
This is an edited version of a speech given at The Avenue Bookstore, Melbourne, on 9 June 2004 to launch Klaus Neumann's book, Refuge Australia: Australia's Humanitarian Record.