Es­sen­tial ad­di­tion to asy­lum-seeker de­bate

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Books - Miriam Cosic

Across the Seas: Australia’s Re­sponse to Refugees: A His­tory By Klaus Neu­mann Black Inc, 358pp, $34.99 In the first nine months of 1977, a trickle of small boats ar­rived in north­ern Australia, car­ry­ing a to­tal of 167 peo­ple flee­ing com­mu­nist Viet­nam. By Novem­ber, the num­bers were ris­ing. On the 20th and 21st alone, six boats ar­rived with a to­tal of 218 peo­ple on board. One of them, the Tu Do, now in the Mar­itime Mu­seum in Syd­ney, was owned by a Viet­namese busi­ness­man who had pur­pose-built it for his metic­u­lously planned es­cape. It ar­rived tow­ing an­other boat it had found stranded en route.

Mean­while the Song Be 12, a re­frig­er­ated Viet­namese trawler car­ry­ing 181 peo­ple, had been seized by its crew, who over­pow­ered armed sol­diers de­ployed to pre­vent them jump­ing ship. Aus­tralian au­thor­i­ties mon­i­tored its progress though the In­done­sian ar­chi­pel­ago. It an­chored for five days in Surabaya and fi­nally

June 6-7, 2015 ar­rived in Dar­win Har­bour on Novem­ber 30, es­corted by HMAS Ar­dent.

Out­rage was quickly whipped up. North­ern Ter­ri­tory La­bor se­na­tor Ted Robert­son warned the gov­ern­ment not to “open the flood­gates”. The mayor of Dar­win, Ella Stack, called some of them “pseudo-refugees”. News­pa­pers quoted health of­fi­cials and water­side work­ers say­ing they looked too clean and healthy, “as though they’d been on an ex­cur­sion cruise”. Water­side Work­ers Fed­er­a­tion pres­i­dent Curly Nixon said they couldn’t be refugees be­cause they wore “pressed trousers”. He asked: “Who makes money out of civil war?” And an­swered him­self: “Black mar­ke­teer, dope run­ners and brothel keep­ers.”

Gough Whit­lam, who had been un­sym­pa­thetic as prime min­is­ter, claimed it was “not cred­i­ble 2½ years af­ter the end of the Viet­nam War that th­ese refugees should sud­denly be com­ing to Australia”. He coined the us­age “queue jumpers”. Bob Hawke, then still ACTU pres­i­dent, said only refugees se­lected off­shore should be al­lowed. Fore­shad­ow­ing slo­gans later used by the other side of pol­i­tics, Hawke in­sisted that, as a sovereign state, Australia had “the right to de­ter­mine how it will ex­er­cise its com­pas­sion and how it will in­crease its pop­u­la­tion”.

Af­ter shilly-shal­ly­ing for a few days, the Fraser gov­ern­ment re­sponded. At a joint press con­fer­ence, for­eign min­is­ter An­drew Pea­cock and im­mi­gra­tion min­is­ter Michael MacKel­lar ap­pealed to politi­cians “not to sub­or­di­nate the is­sues ... to elec­toral considerations, not to ex­ag­ger­ate the di­men­sions of the prob­lem, not to at­tempt to ex­ploit the as­sumed fears of sec­tions of the Aus­tralian public, and not to for­get the hu­man tragedy rep­re­sented by th­ese few small boats”.

In Across the Seas, his­to­rian Klaus Neu­mann nar­rates this story of the par­a­digm-break­ing mass in­take of Viet­namese refugees into Australia as the cul­mi­na­tion of a de­tailed ex­am­i­na­tion of our re­sponse to refugees from the time of Fed­er­a­tion.

Many of the tropes of Aus­tralian his­tory, such as the White Australia pol­icy and an­tiSemitism, hover through­out. Con­stant un­think­ing ex­pres­sions of racism and eth­no­cen­trism pep­per the notes of se­lec­tion of­fi­cials eye­ing prospec­tive im­mi­grants, even the ur­gent hu­man­i­tar­ian cri­sis of post-World War II dis­place­ment: “too dark”, “fuzzy hair”, “poor spec­i­mens”. But the book also throws light on some as­pects of the his­tory that lie hid­den un­der our broad­brush mem­o­ries, plac­ing those Viet­namese ar­rivals in con­text.

Seven months af­ter Fed­er­a­tion in May 1901, the new fed­eral gov­ern­ment passed two bills: the Im­mi­gra­tion Re­stric­tion Bill, which es­tab­lished the cor­ner­stone of the White Australia pol­icy; and the Pa­cific Is­land Labour­ers Bill, which even­tu­ally sped up de­por­ta­tion of 7500 in­den­tured Me­lane­sian labour­ers brought to work in the Queens­land cane fields.

The pop­u­la­tion of Australia was 3.8 mil­lion at the time. De­spite the 3 per cent that was in­dige­nous, and the 2 per cent of Pa­cific Is­lan­ders, the pop­u­la­tion was, Neu­mann points out, “more ho­moge­nous than that of the moth­er­land, Bri­tain”. Dur­ing the next four decades, the Chi­nese-born mi­nor­ity shrank from 29,900 to 6400.

Refugees started com­ing to the young colonies early, how­ever. Among them were Ger­man Luther­ans, French Com­mu­nards and ex­iled Chilean pres­i­dent Ra­mon Freire. A few of the 2.5 mil­lion Jews who fled eastern Europe in the

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