Asylum seekers: six things Kevin Rudd should learn from Malcolm Fraser


 (It should also be remembered that the Franklin Dam was a factor in  Fraser’s election loss in the 1970’s. )

Wednesday 3 July 2013 01.03 BST

Asylum seekers: six things Kevin Rudd should learn from Malcolm Fraser

When it comes to refugees, former Liberal prime minister Malcolm Fraser looks leftwing compared to Labor’s current positioning. It doesn’t have to be this way

Unidentified Australian sailors help to rescue children in the sea near Australia in 2001.
Unidentified Australian sailors help to rescue children in the sea near Australia in 2001. Photograph: AP

My first experience of political activism was at the age of three. It was the late 1970s. My parents were Gough Whitlam loyalists who believed the Liberal party prime minister Malcolm Fraser was the architect of the dismissal, an usurper with contempt for democracy. Mother, father and I were living in Canberra. Whenever we passed the Houses of parliament in the car, I remember that dad would silently park and mum would encourage me to take a wee beside the parliament lawn. Such was the loathing the man inspired in progressive Australia.

Yet three decades later there is, astonishingly, much for the Labor party to learn from Fraser – especially on progressive policy. An emboldened Kevin Rudd is now aiming to harden his government’s stance on refugee boat arrivals. And in this context, Fraser – the Coalition opportunist who once blocked supply for nine months to bring down Whitlam – unexpectedly emerges as a human rights hero.

It says much about what’s taken place in the Australian political discourse over the past 30 years that Labor foreign minister Bob Carr is today making headlines demonising “economic refugees”, and calling for a toughening of asylum approval processes. On the other hand, Fraser’s ongoing statements avowing the necessity of “a humanitarian commitment to admit refugees for resettlement” in this era of detention centres, offshore processing and “stop the boats” proselytising merely reaffirm the refugee policy that he enacted in government in the 1970s.

In 1976, a year after Fraser became prime minister, the first “unauthorised and unexpected” boat boarded by Vietnamese refugees arrived on Australian shores; 54 more were to come. Immigration officials lobbied to have crew and passengers of all such vessels jailed and punished, but Fraser’s immigration minister refused, believing such “was a piece of racist barbarism“. Fraser himself noted that “desperate people will not be deterred”, but was left faced with political problem of his own: by February 1979, a Morgan Gallup poll found 61% of Australians wanted to limit refugee intake, while a further 28% wanted it to end completely.

While early solutions taken by the Fraser government were to turn back large vessels from Australian waters and to (bizarrely) manually dissemble en-route boats that docked in Indonesia and Malaysia, Fraser’s deference to morality and the rule of law ultimately overrode poll unpopularity for his actions. What he went on to achieve in what Robert Manne has called the “halcyon years of Australian refugee policy” offers lessons that Labor would be sensible to heed. If Rudd or Tony Abbott should wish to restore Australia’a international human rights reputation as well as preserve the dignity of human life, either party leader would do well to study his experience – good and bad. To start with, they could do worse than:

1. Control the language used to tackle the issue

A mistake made by Fraser’s government was to allow the nefarious term “queue-jumper” to enter the political lexicon with an off-hand comment made by one of his ministers. The term – presumptive in meaning and unfactual, given Australia’s UN human rights commitments to refugee intake – was seized upon to legitimise xenophobia as an act of (false) justice. It is vital that policy-makers refuse to countenance any inflammatory and misleading language racist opponents seek to validate.

2. Work with foreign governments to expand refugee intake at place of origin

Fraser’s means of “stopping the boats” was to negotiate with the refugees’ origin or neighbouring nations, as well as Australian allies and the UN, to facilitate orderly migration processes. In the case of Vietnam, the Vietnamese government minimised its own exposure to human rights criticism by facilitating the non-violent immigration to Australia of dissidents and ethnic Chinese Vietnamese. Under Fraser, more than 200,000 refugee migrants were therefore able to arrive in Australia peacefully and by plane, their immigration pre-processed, rather than risk the hazards of the journey by boat and the subsequent deprivation of detention. Arrivals in boats still occurred, but were of far fewer numbers.

3. Recognise that deterrent policies are completely ineffectual

Fraser himself made the point nearly a year ago to the ABC: “deterrent policies” pursued by both Liberal and Labor governments do not work. As the man pointed out: “a democratic government such as Australia’s … could not be nasty enough to match the terror, the persecution that is meted out by the Taliban or meted out by possibly both sides in Sri Lanka and a lot of other places … We can’t cut off the heads of young Afghani girls and send them back to Afghanistan and say you better not come to Australia we’re as bad as the Taliban – therefore nothing we can do will be a deterrent.”

4. Build cultural infrastructure and acknowledge the entrepreneurialism of migrant culture

The financial arguments against enfranchising a refugee community within Australia are minimal. The “migrant work ethic” has been the economic engine of Australian prosperity since Aboriginal settlement. Fraser’s government worked with established migrant communities, provided funds for English language teaching and improved translator services to enable migrants to create their own economic opportunities in their new home. Adam Bandt’s fight for the Migrant Community Employment Fund, which has just been funded, is some progress in this area; unemployment rates for qualified job-seekers in newly-arrived migrant communities have been up to 85% due to lack of infrastructure.

5. Expand the humanitarian migration intake

Australia is one of the most prosperous nations on earth, with a stable democracy and an economy that has grown by 14% in three years. Yet we are ranked 49th in the world for refugee intake. Calls for increasing our disbursement of refugee visas from the 13,000 of last year were heeded by the Gillard government and increased to 20,000 with plans to raise them further to 27,000 over five years. These are enormously positive steps, yet it’s worth noting that Australia’s capacity for intake is far greater than these numbers: we did, after all, resettle vast numbers of post second world war migrants when our population and infrastructure was far smaller. Making acknowledgment of persecution or cultural distress a priority criteria for migration does not compromise our capacity for an orderly intake, and proactively minimises the need for boat arrival.

6. Stop the political pointscoring and negotiate bipartisan solutions around international co-operation and moral principles

As prime minister, Whitlam opposed expanding Australia’s humanitarian refugee intake due to a fear of importing divisive communities that would “balkanise” Australia. Facing the refugee influx from Indochina under his own prime ministership, Fraser negotiated with foreign governments, refugee agencies and the UN to expand facilitated refugee intake on the ground, and then presented a moral argument to Whitlam to support the humanity of his structural proposals. Whitlam did, and bipartisan support validated the moral authority of what had been an unpopular policy to the electorate. More than 200,000 new Australian citizens arrived and our nation is all the richer for the result.

Analysing the sentiments on Fraser’s leadership on humanitarian policy strikes at the current Australian political conscience like an “elegant weapon from a more civilised age“. These days, of course, we do leadership in Australian politics with handmade shivs and all the conscience of a poll-driven prison brawl.

We cannot, as a nation, allow refugee policy to be dictated by xenophobes through our political leaders. We as Australian individuals are indivisible from a collective moral consciousness of which our nationhood renders us a part. As Fraser himself wrote in March this year: “every Australian carries some part of the guilt for asylum-seeker policies that are inhumane and brutal.”

Hear, hear, Mr Fraser. And I’m genuinely sorry that I pissed on your lawn.

Leave a Comment

You must be logged in to post a comment.

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.