The Left Rewrites Its History on Refugees

Writing on refugees/asylum-seekers/illegal immigrants in the September issue of the Monthly, Robert Manne seems to have reached a new level in the rewriting of history. Mr Manne states:

The first boat people were South Vietnamese fleeing from the communist victory of 1975. Between 1976 and 1982, 2000 reached our shores. In order to stem the flow, the Fraser government accepted more than 50,000 Vietnamese from the archipelago of refugee camps in Thailand, the Philippines, Malaysia and Indonesia. Australians were easily panicked by the spontaneous arrival of a small number of boats. They were comfortable and relaxed about a far larger refugee program under government control. In the history of Australia and boat people, these were the halcyon years. The Fraser government treated all these refugees, including the spontaneous boat arrivals, with exemplary generosity. There was no talk of mandatory detention or temporary protection visas. Fraser could not have accomplished this alone, however. The success of the settlement relied on the existence of a bipartisan consensus within the Australian political elite. With the boat arrivals, the Labor Opposition under Whitlam, and then Hayden, resisted the temptation to exploit underlying racist or anti-refugee sentiment for party political gain. Even the Cold War ideological divide was blurred. The Right supported the refugees as escapees from communism; the Left as part of the project of burying White Australia.

Having read this, I walked out into my garden and consulted the positions of the stars to confirm which planet I was on. I certainly do not know which planet Mr Manne is writing from. The Fraser government, or to be precise Mr Michael MacKellar, behaved well towards the boat refugees. Its charitable reception of the refugees was, however, purely negative—if they got to Australia they could stay. But even at the worst stage of the refugee crisis Fraser did not send the Navy to help—the only help the Navy was allowed to give was more-or-less by accident when Navy ships came across refugee boats. No Australian naval ships were sent on dedicated rescue missions, though the aircraft-carrier HMAS Melbourne, for example, could have saved hundreds of lives. The plight of the refugees was reported in detail by Australian journalist Norman Aisbett and many others.

The Fraser government’s attitude, however reached pinnacles of nobility compared to the attitude of Labor and the Left. At the time of the arrival of the anticommunist refugees from Vietnam the Left, including many of the most important and influential members of the ALP, attacked the refugees in the most vicious terms, resurrecting virtually unchanged the stereotyping and epithets used in the heyday of the White Australia policy and at the foundation of the ALP at the beginning of the twentieth century.

In his book China, Communism and Coca-Cola Clyde Cameron, Whitlam’s Minister for Immigration, said that on April 21, 1975, around the time of the fall of Saigon:

[Foreign Affairs Minister] Don Willesee came to see me with a request that I accompany him to Whitlam’s office. He wanted to get a ruling on the admissibility of certain categories of refugees … Whitlam stuck out his jaw and, grinding his teeth, turned to Willesee and thundered, “I’m not having hundreds of fucking Vietnamese Balts coming into this country with their political and religious hatreds against us” … I could have hugged him for putting my own view so well … [Willesee] made a special plea for Vietnamese who had been employed by the Australian embassy, claiming that we had a moral obligation to take them into our arms. Whitlam rejected this plea out of hand.

The reference to “Balts” was possibly connected to protests which migrants from the Baltic states had made following the Whitlam government’s recognition of the incorporation of the Baltic states into the Soviet Union in accordance with the Molotov–Ribbentrop Pact. On May 15, 1975, Cameron wrote to Whitlam that:

I have heard a news item on this morning’s radio stating that my Department had made a recommendation to you urging a higher intake of Vietnamese refugees than the previous figure which you contemplated admitting to Australia. I wish to place on record that I disassociate myself from such a proposal …

The report of the bi-partisan Senate Standing Committee on Foreign Affairs and Defence, Australia and the Refugee Problem, published in 1976, found that regarding Australia’s failure to evacuate Vietnamese who had worked with Australian forces (and whose lives were therefore in danger) from Saigon, despite the Air Force having transport capacity available: “We are unable to come to any conclusion other than [that there was] deliberate delay in order to minimize the number of refugees.”

Following the defeat of the Labor government in December 1975, and the first arrivals of boat refugees about two years later, leading Labor figures continued the attack on Vietnamese refugees, often in the crudest and most vitriolic terms. Speaking in the Senate on March 22, 1977, the Labor spokesman on immigration, Senator Tony Mulvihill stated:

…the people with the wealth did not have the heart to fight … Now that there is to be a redistribution of wealth many people are attempting to leave as pseudo-refugees … If a person wants to get into this country quickly he should line up at an Embassy; he should be one of the artful dodgers …

On August 16, Senator Mulvihill stated:

Have a look at some of these Vietnamese who perhaps did not fight in the war in their country but who may have been in charge of houses of ill-fame or who may have made a lot of money on the black market. I think it is fair to ask some of these people to put something back rather than skedaddle again …

The same day Labor Senator Devitt asked a question bracketing refugees with illegal immigrants and stressing how much they would cost the community. Senator Devitt asked a further series of questions along these lines the following day.

Whitlam was reported in the Weekend Australian of November 26–27, 1977, as saying, “it’s not credible that, two and a half years after the end of the Vietnam war, these people should suddenly be arriving in Australia”.

In The Cameron Diaries Clyde Cameron wrote that at the time of the 1977 election campaign: “the only effective means of dealing with illegal immigrants [that is, boat refugees] would be to have them arrested and deported as soon as they land”.

In response to a letter from my research assistant on October 11, 1990, Cameron claimed: “a large percentage of those who conveniently called themselves Vietnamese refugees were extreme right-wing racketeers who had grown fat as drug-peddlers, procurers and prostitutes”.

Some of these allegations were virtually identical to those which had been made against Chinese at the time of the setting up of the White Australia policy at the end of the nineteenth century.

The Cameron Diaries for the period covering the 1977 election campaign makes it plain that Cameron saw an anti-refugee stance as something to be used by the ALP to gain political mileage. Note that he used the terms “refugees” and “illegal immigrants” interchangeably:

Bob Hawke has now bought into the Vietnamese refugee question. He has issued a very sensible statement on the matter and he can count on the overwhelming support of the majority of the Australian public for his demand that the government put an end to the entry of illegal immigrants …

The Vietnamese refugee issue will, if it means anything at all, count more against the [Coalition] government than the opposition …

[Deputy Prime Minister Doug] Anthony conceded that the Vietnamese refugee situation is creating difficulties for the government, but sought to minimize its effects by dragging out the old Communist bogey, saying Australia had a duty to protect people from the ravages of Communism. The Government’s position won’t be improved by the Vietnamese Government’s demand for the return of all the 181 “pirates”, as they are being described by the Vietnamese Charge d’Affaires …

The Government is clearly worried about the Vietnamese refugees. Andrew Peacock and Michael MacKellar issued a joint statement in Adelaide yesterday saying that Australia’s acceptance of refugees must not be allowed to become an election issue …

Following Labor’s defeat at the 1977 election, Cameron recounted:

The phone hardly stopped ringing today. Tony Mulvihill … complained about Gough’s public statement that Vietnamese refugees landing illegally on Australian shores would not be deported. This, he declared, was contrary to his own public statement in which he had made it clear that a Labor Government would see that illegal immigrants were deported …

[emphasis as in original]

What this added up to looked like an unsuccessful campaign by the ALP leadership of the day for forced repatriation of refugees from communism with obvious parallels to the forced repatriation to the Soviet Union of the Vlasov Army and other refugees in Europe after 1945.

On November 29, 1977, an attack by Bob Hawke on Vietnamese refugees took up most of the front page of the Australian under the heavy black headline: HAWKE: RETURN BOGUS REFUGEES. Hawke was quoted as saying: “Of course we should have compassion, but people who are coming in this way are not the only people in the world who have rights to our compassion.” The previous day a spokesman for Whitlam was quoted as saying that there should be “Some sort of enquiry to determine where the refugees were coming from in such numbers and head them off at the source.” Whitlam was to claim that he disbelieved all stories of persecution in Vietnam. Mulvihill demanded that Vietnamese refugee boats should be turned back by the Navy. He said an ALP government would reverse the allegedly “open door” policy on refugees, and “make an example” of refugee boats by returning them under a Navy escort. He claimed in the Sydney Morning Herald of November 25, 1977, that other nationalities were “rightly indignant” at any dilution of processing for Vietnamese boat refugees.

These attacks on Vietnamese refugees came from the leaders of the ALP, including its most senior official figures and spokesmen. The remainder of the political Left joined in. Shortly after this, a relatively large fishing boat, the Song Be 12, which had escaped from Ho Chi Minh City after the crew had overpowered communist guards on it, arrived in Darwin. The secretary of the Northern Territory Trades and Labour Council, Terry Kincade, said of these refugees: “They’re pirates who have seized a boat from a friendly country. They should all be sent back.” Darwin Waterside Workers’ Federation leader “Curly” Nixon threatened a strike unless the Song Be 12 was returned, preferably loaded, as National Times writer David Leitch put it, with “reffos”.

The far left-wing religious journal Retrieval claimed: “REFUGEES: SOME BRING GOLD, OTHERS ARE THEIR SERVANTS”, and, incidentally, that “The widely-reported photographs of Khmer Rouge atrocities are fakes.” Meanwhile the ALP’s spokesman on immigration and ethnic affairs, Ted Innes, said the national’s “migrant community” was “aggravated” by the government’s refugee policy.

The various communist parties of Australia then in existence—the CPA, the CPA (Marxist-Leninist), and the Socialist Party of Australia—all attacked Vietnamese refugees on the grounds that they were capitalists and enemies of liberation and also that they were cheap labour, the last-named ground having also been a major plank of the White Australia policy.

The CPA national newspaper Tribune announced in a headline in its issue of December 7, 1977, that WHARFIES STOP WORK OVER FAKE REFUGEES. The refugees were, it said, “in fact, from the privileged classes … If they didn’t have money they wouldn’t be here”. Of course, given that Vietnam had a revolutionary communist government, if in fact the refugees were from the wealthy classes, this would actually make it more, not less, likely that they were “genuine”. On December 6, 1977, the Courier Mail quoted the President of the Queensland Trades and Labour Council, Mr Hausenschild, to the effect that the sudden influx of refugees was a capitalist plot to smuggle in cheap labour for mining uranium. Tribune attacked Vietnamese refugees again on May 3, 1978, under the heading THE VIETNAMESE USTASHA. The story described Vietnamese refugees as “fascists … criminals and queue-jumpers” escaping with their “booty”. Some, it said, were killers. Some were organising paramilitary secret societies. Tribune claimed further that there was a plot by ultra-right Liberals to use a Vietnamese paramilitary force in Australia “as they have used the minority of fascist refugees from some other countries”. Vietnamese refugees were also linked to fascism and right-wing terrorism by ALP front-bencher Tom Uren.

In the British New Statesman of January 20, 1978, ALP Senator Ted Robertson was quoted as saying, when asked if Australia should really turn away refugee boats which managed to reach its shores: “Why not? That is happening to them all the time down here. We have a serious unemployment problem … you could say we have 10,000 too many people anyway.”

Brian Burke, West Australian ALP politician and future premier, was reported in the Perth Daily News of May 29, 1978, under a headline HALT THIS REFUGEE FLOOD as saying that it was becoming increasingly clear that “many of these Vietnamese coming here in boats” were not genuine refugees, and that:

The number of reports of their possessing money—in some cases even gold in significant quantities—indicated that they are not genuine refugees.    It is very strange that these so-called refugees are able, in some cases, to commandeer boats, and that they should all be suddenly leaving three years after the end of the Vietnam war.

The boat people were attacked by Mr Des Dans, the leader of the ALP in the WA Legislative Council. A series of other questions were also asked in the WA Parliament by leading members of the ALP during 1978, tending to bracket Vietnamese refugees with illegal immigrants, and also asking whether they were carrying venereal disease and leprosy (leprosy was another anti-Asian shibboleth at the time of the arguments for White Australia). A number of these questions were not on state government matters at all.

The Darwin Waterside Workers’ Federation Secretary, Kevin Manski, was reported in the West Australian of May 10, 1978, as saying of refugees: “The war has been over three years. Most are profiteers and prostitutes who have been living on the Australians in Vietnam.”

Clyde Cameron returned to the attack in the House of Representatives on May 30 with a question following the new line:

Are any of the Vietnamese refugees now being permitted to enter Australia former prostitutes and drug peddlers, some of whom are suffering from a venereal disease which is resistant to all known anti-biotics? Is it true that there has been an outbreak of a certain strain of non-specific … urethritis attributed to Vietnamese refugees, for which there is no known permanent cure?

In fact, there was no evidence of such a strain of venereal disease, and its existence was specifically denied by several doctors, including Cameron’s own colleague Dr Everingham. Herpes II had been present in Australia long before the Vietnam War. On the same day that he asked this question, Cameron made a speech in which he accused the Vietnamese refugees of “invading” Australia and put, not as a question but a statement, the alleged fact that the “vast majority” had been “racketeers, drug-peddlers and, in some cases, prostitutes”. He also called for their compulsory repatriation and “never mind the niceties of sending people back to somewhere they do not like” (or, apparently, the niceties of the United Nations Convention on Refugees). He also claimed in this speech, not as a question but a statement of fact, that some were “riddled with a form of venereal disease that cannot be cured”. The entire speech is to be found in Hansard for that date, pages 2784–85.

Labor Senator Lionel Bowen also invoked anti-Asian white Australia imagery on July 27, 1976, claiming Australia was in danger from the “teeming millions in the North … And these people are on the move.”

The leftist Nation Review of June 1–7, 1978, carried an article referring to Vietnamese refugees as “bourgeois capitalist exploiters on the run” and ridiculing efforts to help them. In the issue of August 18–24 it referred to them as “political extremists and soft-life seekers”. The pro-Moscow Socialist Party of Australia organ, the Socialist, of May 31, 1978, carried a headline: VIETNAMESE REFUGEES VICTIMS AND TOOLS OF ANTI-COMMUNISM and referred to them as “right-wing Vietnamese who betrayed their country”. The CPA’s Tribune of June 7, 1978, claimed: BHP PREFERS VIETNAMESE and quoted South Coast Labour Council Secretary and CPA National Committee member Merv Nixon to the effect that the situation was disgraceful and that: “We can do without these right-wing elements.” Tribune elaborated on this in the following issue and warned of “right-wing people organizing private armies”. At the University of Western Australia, ALP Left Caucus member Graham Droppert published an article in the student newspaper Pelican, Number 4 of 1978, under the heading REFUGEES OR RATS?, claiming they included “the pimps, the wealthy merchants, the racketeers, the standover men and other exploiters”.

On June 20, 1978, the Sydney Morning Herald reported Clyde Cameron as saying:

Vietnamese who are not genuine refugees should be sent back or put in detention camps …They were wealthy people who had made a lot of money on the black market and did not like the present regime or perhaps did not like having to work hard for the first time in their lives … by far the majority of Vietnamese refugees were right-wing.

Cameron continued this anti-refugee crusade at length in Parliament and the press, and only a few extracts are quoted here.

A Shell tanker, the Entalina, rescued about 150 refugees, including nineteen children under five years old, from a sinking refugee boat. By the time the Entalina stopped, the boat was so close to sinking several men had jumped overboard and were swimming to try to lighten it. Seven of the passengers had previously been killed by pirates or died of starvation or exposure. All the survivors were in very bad condition and several had serious medical problems. The Entalina had no doctor on board and put into Darwin where forty-one of the survivors were immediately taken to hospital.

Darwin Waterside Workers went on strike in protest, saying that the Entalina would not be allowed to leave Darwin if the refugees were allowed to remain in Australia. Action was also threatened against all Shell ships. This was plainly a threat against any ships that dared to rescue Vietnamese boat refugees, no matter how desperate their situation—any ship’s captain that did so could be seen as putting his career in danger.

This failure to rescue was plainly already happening, as many boat refugees told of their distress signals being ignored by passing ships. One of the survivors on the Entalina, Mrs Cam Ha, said: “If the British ship had not stopped we would be dead. Twenty-two ships passed us by and we waved and put up white flags but they did not stop.”  

Other accounts of large numbers of ships failing to help refugee boats in distress include the books The Boat People: An “Age” Investigation and Peter Townsend, The Girl in the White Ship. Interviewed on ABC radio the captain of the Entalina, Norman Sloane, said:

How can we turn away from people in distress? It is impossible. As we approached we saw that there were obviously many people on board the ship. I saw one woman lift a child in her arms, and we knew that we had to take the greatest care to get her aboard … I could only try my best. The first persons I saw were the children … I would rather not say the feeling I felt when I saw those children. Well, I said to this little girl, “Were you afraid?” and she said, “No, I have done nothing wrong in my life and I knew God would save me.” And then I felt, well then, my God, if that lass can go through the valley of the shadow of death and think that, then I can do everything I can to save them.

Of Captain Sloane’s statement, B.A. Santamaria commented: “It could perhaps have been expressed more learnedly, even more grammatically, but never more nobly.”

Resistance, the newspaper of the Socialist Youth Alliance, a quasi-Trotskyite group, also published an article under the heading WHO ARE THE BOAT PEOPLE? and a photograph of an overloaded refugee boat about to capsize in heavy surf. This stated the boat refugees were a tiny class of “racketeers and profit-gougers” who were leaving because they chose to.

I could continue these quotes at considerable length (my PhD thesis on this subject occupies 489 pages exclusive of bibliography and appendices), but this is probably enough to make the point.

Far from being the beneficiaries of a bipartisan approach, Vietnamese refugees were attacked by virtually every group on the Left. I find it baffling that someone occupying Mr Manne’s position is either unaware of the well-documented history of the ALP and the Left regarding Vietnamese refugees or, if he is aware of it, that he should apparently seek to radically rewrite these facts.

Hal G.P. Colebatch received a special award from the Perth Vietnamese community in 1989 for his work for Vietnamese refugees.


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