Human rights

Review: Klaus Neumann's 'Across the Seas: Australia's Response to Refugees  – A History'

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Across the Seas by Klaus Neumann

On the eve of Palm Sunday, refugee advocate Kevin Bain reviews Klaus Neumann's 'Across the Seas' in which the history professor explores the ways in which past politicians have approached asylum-seeker issues with the aim of inspiring more creative thinking about asylum-seeker policy.

WITH THE State Premiers now calling out the increasing absurdities, more sympathy in opinion polls and a change of PM, most of us expected some changes in refugee policy by now. Yet both sides of politics are stuck with their sotto voce reservations and extreme policies of offshore detention and boat turnbacks. The government feels vulnerable on the children in detention issue, but focuses on exaggerating their achievements, and repeatedly so.

The Scanlon report on Australian social cohesion confirms the Australian paradox of high support for the Humanitarian (offshore) re-settlement program (75% in 2012), and low support for permanent residency by asylum seekers coming by boat (24% in 2015). What is now a constant within the political class is a fear of arousing the conservative rump, but new research may presage a change of mood (see below)..

Many advocates feel the past was a better time, when leaders were prepared to take a stand despite the risks, and fight backward ideas. However, what this new book by Klaus Neumann does well is show that, during the 1945 to 1977 period, Calwell, Peacock, Whitlam and Fraser had shifting and inconsistent approaches when refugee controversies erupted, reflecting domestic public opinion, notions of refugees’ “worthiness”, and Australia’s national interests and Cold War obligations. Politics has always wrestled with moral decency in this field, as recent policy shows.

Kevin Rudd had echoed Howard’s policy before the 2007 election, but within three months brought in refugee reforms on the Pacific Solution, children in detention, and Temporary Protection Visas. Rudd Mark 2 in 2013 retreated spectacularly when the inflow of asylum seekers and the rate of unemployment rose, and Tony Abbott’s slogans took effect.

A recent mixed message is the about face under pressure by Abbott to promise resettlement for a surprisingly generous 12,000 people from Syria, yet the coded language from Canberra nominated women and children from “persecuted minorities” for priority, to placate the conservative electorate, who we are told don’t want young Muslim men. In a further zigzag, at the time of writing only 30 have been favourably assessed, compared to Canada which promised 35,000 at around the same time and has taken about 25,000.

The book’s author, a history professor at Swinburne University, surprises with the fact that it was Arthur Calwell, the immigration minister after WW2 and White Australia advocate, who initiated Holocaust survivor immigration, and without seeking Prime Minister Chifley’s approval. He outsourced the selections to Jewish organisations rather than his department, with no upper limit on numbers.

Calwell had the unions onside; in his Political Memoirs, Malcolm Fraser told Margaret Simons (Malcolm Fraser, the political memoirs, MUP 2015) that White Australia was the quid pro quo and suggested it was necessary. Yet Smith’s Weekly, the Australian Natives Association and the RSL whipped up opposition, claiming soldiers returning from Europe were being delayed. Previously Calwell had been the only member of cabinet to publicly counter rising anti-Semitism, but he now ordered ships to limit the Jewish passengers:

“We had to insist that half the accommodation in these wretched vessels must be sold to non-Jewish people. It would have created a great wave of anti-Semitism and would have been electorally disastrous, for the Labor Party”.

Neumann says this rule was not strictly enforced; deviations in policy and practice recur often.

This was the start of an immigration policy based around Displaced Persons. Neumann says that anti-communism drove the U.S, policy but Australia had a hard-nosed economic perspective: refugees were a labour force. Cost factors and politics also governed selections: for the five years after the war, Germans were problematic, and most migrants were taken from Central and South-Eastern Europe because they were cheaper (the International Refugee Organisation paid most of the cost).

Calwell did not want Republican Spaniards  (“who have been engaged in civil wars”) and intellectuals (whose qualifications would not be recognised in Australia). There was strong competition for young, healthy, non-Jewish Baltic Displaced Persons and our Immigration Department “skimmed the cream” of postwar Europe.

Assimilation of immigrants became an economic imperative, and in the 1950s Calwell appealed to Australians to drop the “unpleasant tones” of DP, Balts and  Displaced Persons.The term New Australians quickly became common, but only for non-British migrants, and carried its own innuendo: Tania Verstak, Miss Australia 1962, and of Russian heritage, spoke out against the label. But which Australian culture should the newcomers adopt? The legal basis for Australian citizenship, rather than British subjecthood, was absent until 1948, and our society was divided on sectarian religious lines: Irish-Catholic Australia versus the Protestant Ascendancy.

An influx of large numbers of anti-communists was a continuing threat to Labor, who had seen the annual Captive Nations Week during the 1950s and 60s become a platform for Liberals such as Douglas Darby, Wilfred Kent Hughes and W.C. Wentworth to enlist rightwing Baltic émigré organisations into domestic politics and fuel the Labor split. After the sudden collapse of the South Vietnam government in 1975, Neumann documents a high level of panic within government circles and the media about boat people heading for Australia. A huge exodus was predicted, but didn’t eventuate: not one refugee or boat arrived in 1975.


Like the sectarian divide, the Cold War context of the post-war Vietnam exodus is sometimes forgotten, but was of great relevance to the US acceptance of large refugee numbers, and loomed large in Labor’s cautious response, both in Australia and New Zealand. Neumann criticises the anti-refugee rhetoric from various leftwing unions, Whitlam and other Labor politicians as irrational, but without context this misses the point.

Labor’s disgust with the Vietnam war no doubt coloured the comments about war criminals, ‘black marketeers, dope runners and brothel keepers’ fleeing to Australia. Some of the Vietnamese were collaborators escaping retribution for murderous U.S./Australian policies such as the village assassination program ‘Operation Phoenix’.

East Timor created a diversion for Whitlam, who had enough domestic crises already in 1975 without embracing a new one. When Liberal Premier Hamer said Victoria would provide arrivals with services due to Australia’s responsibility to its Vietnamese allies, Whitlam asked if this offer would be extended to the Timorese evacuees from the December 1975 Indonesian invasion of Dili. He told the U.S. that Australia would prioritise their assistance to the Timorese but departmental documents show that he did finally relent, and was committed to resettle 840 more refugees in 1976. Implementation was stopped by the Dismissal but Neumann concedes that if Whitlam’s approach to refugees had been politically driven, he would have given more support to left-leaning refugees from the 1973 coup in Chile.

Whitlam was more of a modernizer than a Big Australia supporter, unlike Calwell. His nation-building was not about increasing population, but developing capacity i.e. neglected social, urban and network infrastructure. Surprisingly, the Fraser coalition had been strongly critical but in 1976 admitted fewer refugees from Indochina than Whitlam did the previous year while increasing immigration numbers.

According to Katrina Stats, Fraser’s large Vietnamese re-settlement program of subsequent years was arguably an attempt to forestall the political threat of “uncontrolled borders”. He is often given sole credit for the internationally negotiated evacuation and resettlement plans, but acknowledged that without bipartisanship from Labor, he would not have been able to do it. “If I had bothered to take some polls about Vietnamese and Cambodians, people would have said no”, he told George Megalogenis (Australia’s Second Chance, Penguin 2015). Neumann credits Fraser’s immigration minister, Michael MacKellar, as “building on ideas raised by (Labor’s) Grassby, pursued (against the odds) by Cameron, and supported both by Willesee, and, after 11 November 1975, by Peacock”.

Neumann suggests that an earlier half-hearted defence of the boat people by MacKellar and Peacock later became stronger, and it was the Foreign Affairs department and Andrew Peacock who spoke out against public xenophobia just before the 1977 election; perhaps it’s no accident that the Coalition had a safe lead in the polls. Ironically, in 1984 it was Peacock who wanted to preserve the “European nature” of the immigration program, but this was rejected by his party.

Fraser’s compassion did not extend to the support of asylum applications by Thai students after military shootings at Thammasat University in 1976. Thai students in Australia were judged to be “hardcore radical critics” of their government and good relations with the military government were uppermost. Some students were allowed to stay, but some were deported; no asylum applications were granted.

Thammasat University Massacre, 6th October 1976. Bangkok. Thailand.

Surprisingly, the author says it makes “good sense” to end his history at the 1977 election campaign, because

“the public response to refugees that we are now accustomed to had been fully formed. . . Ideas about ‘queue jumpers’ (and) refugees who need special assistance. . . first appeared in 1976 and 1977.”

Yet, there have been new experiences. The first detention centre (at Villawood) was only opened in 1976 (for deportees, not boat people), and compulsory detention began in 1992 under Labor’s Gerry Hand. New aspects are policies of offshore processing and people swaps, increased militarisation, secrecy and free speech constraints on domestic politics, contracting with grubby dictators and unprofessional service providers, massive operational failures in assessment and resettlement, and the calibration of torture and punishment under the banner of high ideals.

There are many new “public responses”. For example, the conflation of religion and ethnicity with refugee identity is a major evolution in public perception: the Vietnamese refugees were not seen as Buddhists linked to an international religious movement. Also new is strong support for Asian migration, yet opposition to asylum seekers. A recent report from Melbourne University’s Centre for Advancing Journalism says religious bigotry is behind the negative attitudes nowadays, not racism or economic anxieties. The policy introduced by John Howard in 1996 of a trade-off between family re-union and protection visa allocations, which increases the audience for misleading notions of rationing and “queues”, has no doubt influenced the 43 percent of us who are first and second generation immigrants and refugees. Some of the conservative rump come from this cohort. The 2015 Scanlon report says 24% of the ‘turn the boats back’ group are NESB (non-English speaking background) Australians.

Yet there remains an undeniable uneasiness and shame among large and influential sections of society about the oppression and implied metrics of suffering we endorse to control our borders, and the militarisation of previously bureaucratic functions. As the legitimacy of coercive authority diminishes, the culture of “not asking questions”, as ex-diplomat Tony Kevin put it ('Reluctant Rescuers', self-published, 2012) is under greater stress than ever. The notion that 30,000 refugees cannot be permanently accommodated in a country which annually takes 192,000 permanent migrants and twice that number of temporary workers and working holidaymakers is hardly credible, as being for other than exemplary punishment.

The popular opposition looks too angry and well-informed to go quietly, and can capture the public imagination, for example the recent 1,000 Royal Children’s Hospital staff refusing to discharge patients to Nauru. We can expect more grassroots action, since resources and knowledge are now devolved and distributed widely; the Refugee Council alone has 200 affiliates.

Royal Childrens Hospital Melbourne#auspol #Detention #asylumseekers #refugees #Nauru

Discontent now extends to many corners of our society, so can Turnbull and Shorten draw on this and respond with higher ideals and  policy rationalism, work constructively with neighbours, and advance better regional protection and resettlement? The Melbourne University report mentioned above says that there is not strong support for tough policies: current support is conditional on there being nothing better i.e. there is a policy vacuum waiting for leaders with the wit to respond.

P.S. There are a couple of mistaken identities in this book. Leftwing journalist Rupert Lockwood is confused with his brother Douglas, a longstanding columnist at the Melbourne daily The Sun, and Nettie (not Nellie) Palmer is clearly not the famous literary figure she once was.

Kevin Bain is an economic analyst and teacher who is active in housing and refugee advocacy. He is the Secretary of the Mornington Peninsular Human Rights Group. See FB pageA earlier version of this review was published in CONNECT 44 (December 2015), published by the Mornington Peninsula Human Rights Group

Editor's Note:

Tomorrow is Palm Sunday. There will be marches for refugees all around the nation. For further details see here.

Across the Seas: Australia's Response to Refugees – A History
Black Inc., $34.99. Buy now on Booktopia

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This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 3.0 Australia License

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