“Boat People” and the 1977 Election

viet refosAfter the “liberation” of Saigon in 1975, the Whitlam government did little to take in or help Vietnamese refugees. A Gallup poll taken in early May 1975 indicated that 54 per cent of Australians believed Vietnamese refugees should be allowed to enter Australia: 61 per cent of Coalition voters and 51 per cent of Labor voters were in favour.

Singapore’s Prime Minister, Lee Kwan Yew, interviewed on the question of Vietnamese refugees on American television, issued a challenge to Australia to break with the tradition of the White Australia policy:

There’s the great wealthy continent of Australia, and they have a very sympathetic Prime Minister who believes the White Australia policy is most deplorable and damnable, and here is his chance.

In the same month it was announced that Australia would accept refugees for permanent settlement from Hong Kong and Singapore. By the end of June 1975 a total of 524 had been brought from these sources and from Malaysia.

Nancy Viviani, private secretary to Senator Don Willesee, in an account generally highly sympathetic to Labor’s refugee policies, admitted in effect the Whitlam government’s vicious inhumanity:

By August 1975, the Labor government’s refugee effort was virtually over, and in that year a total of 1093 Vietnamese had entered Australia. No refugees with Laotian or Cambodian citizenship were taken in, despite their large numbers and the deplorable conditions … on the evidence it is clear that Australia’s refugee policy in 1975 was made by Whitlam … Not only were numbers restricted. But those with ties to the Saigon regime were avoided by not allowing students’ parents to join them. It seems fair to conclude that Whitlam’s chief motives were a straightforward concern to avoid a new influx of emotional anti-communists into Australian politics, together with a care for the attitudes of Hanoi.

When the Fraser government took power at the end of 1975, it seemed the Vietnamese refugee issue had run its course and Australian political debate was dominated by domestic considerations.

The matter was not a significant election issue. However, on January 21, the new Liberal Minister for Immigration and Ethnic Affairs, Michael MacKellar, announced that up to 800 refugees would be taken from camps in Thailand and they would be chosen on the basis of family or other links with Australia. An undertaking which had been demanded by the Whitlam government, that Vietnamese refugees could not engage in political activity if admitted to Australia—thus creating an underclass deprived of an essential component of human rights—was cancelled.

Early in 1976, after a long period of planning, Mr Lam Binh, a twenty-three-year-old ice-works manager in what had been South Vietnam, with his brother and three young friends, obtained a leaking and decrepit twenty-three-metre fishing boat, the Kein Giang and put to sea. After a month at sea, navigating with a page torn from a school atlas, they reached Timor. Despite their boat’s perilous condition and their food and fuel being almost exhausted, they pressed on towards Darwin, the boat’s pumps working constantly. They reached Darwin on the night of April 15 and found somewhere to land the next day. As immigration officials stepped on board the Kein Giang its skipper greeted them with the words:

Welcome on my boat. My name in Lam Binh and these are my friends from South Vietnam and we would like permission to stay in Australia.

They were the first “boat people” to survive to reach Australia.

A few days later Fox Butterfield wrote in the New York Times of the New Order now being enforced in Liberated Vietnam. He suggested that many Vietnamese would have strong incentives to flee the country, and neighbouring states might expect political and mortal challenges on questions of offering them help and sanctuary:

People of an entire social class of perhaps a million … have been dispossessed. They have been stripped of their jobs, their state housing, their savings and, if they were disabled or retired, their pensions.

During the next few months other boats arrived on the north coast of Australia, but these arrivals were at first treated as curiosities by the media and aroused little public debate. However, after 1976 the number of refugees leaving Vietnam in boats increased sharply. According to United Nations figures, there were 5248 in 1976, 15,657 in 1977, and 85,544 in 1978. On top of these figures thousands were escaping overland to Thailand and other neighbouring countries.

A number of factors placed Australia in a position regarding Vietnamese refugees which distinguished it from most of the Asian countries to its north.

• Australia was the only affluent, first-world country in the region, much wealthier and much less densely populated than its neighbours, and with by far the most developed infrastructure and social services, thus making refugee assimilation easier and the initial intake of refugees more affordable.

• Australia had made a commitment to the military defence of the Saigon regime, and many of the escaping Vietnamese were recent comrades-in-arms. They had proved strong anti-communist credentials.

• Some of those Australians who had oppose Australia’s commitment to help the South might regard the escaping South Vietnamese as enemies, particularly if they became assimilated into Australian society and were able to influence policy-making.

• For the “boat people” Australia was the end of the line and the last hope. If the countries further north refused to accept the boats they might still have some hopes. For Australia to reject them would have been to condemn them to certain death.

• Australia was the only society in the area with a tradition of accepting large numbers of refugees, though until now these refugees had been from Europe. However, part of the reason for this practice had been to forestall large numbers of Asian immigrants.

• Australia was the most politically open and democratic of the South-East Asian nations and the one in which public opinion was most influential.

• Australia was the only society involved which possessed “Anglomorph” institutions, and the various legacies of the only recently abandoned White Australia policy.

• Australia faced no external or internal threat to its essential stability and institutions.

• Australia alone had a powerful trade union, high-wage culture, to which large numbers of Asian immigrants had historically been seen, and could be portrayed as, a threat.

As 1976 went on, the “boat people” reaching Australia, even when their numbers were still small, turned from a curiosity to a major factor in domestic politics.

It is important to note that the refugees arriving by boat from Vietnam in the 1970s were, for a number of reasons, quite unlike the boat arrivals in recent years. The latter were generally not political refugees, their place of origin was uncertain, and many had cast doubts on their own bona fides by deliberately destroying their identity papers. They were not fleeing an enemy conquest as the Vietnamese boat people were, they were not Australia’s recent military allies, and had travelled through a number of different countries before reaching Australia. It was they, rather than the Vietnamese, who deserved to be called “illegal immigrants”.

The distinction, if not the honour, of making the first attack on Vietnamese boat refugees in an Australian parliament was earned in the Senate on March 22, 1977, by ALP Senator Tony Mulvihill, the shadow minister for immigration. Mulvihill had a long record of anti-anti-communist union activity, accusing an opponent (in this case, apparently, a communist or ex-communist) of indecent exposure and of spreading venereal disease among his secretaries, claiming, “I believe in settling scores.” Senator Mulvihill made accusations against the Vietnamese which were repeated by various Labor and Left figures over the next few years. The gravamen of these accusations was that the refugees from Vietnam could not be “genuine”. If they had been genuine, they would not have wanted to leave Liberated Vietnam. They must be criminals, fascists, or part of a plot to import cheap labour.

The allegation was to be frequently made that they were pimps and prostitutes, with or without exotic diseases, including leprosy. It would also be suggested that they were an actual threat to Australia (similar allegations had been made by sections of the labour movement regarding Chinese about the turn of the century, leading to the White Australia policy). Mulvihill later referred to the alleged case of one Vietnamese woman with diamonds concealed in her uterus, an allegation which, though made with no evidence, attracted headlines in sections of the populist press.

Despite a disclaimer to the effect that he was not putting it on “any sort of class basis”, Senator Mulvihill was arguing along the lines that the Vietnamese were in fact class enemies:

any rationalisation or distribution of wealth in Asia will result in the merchant class suffering. Without opening old sores, it is my honest opinion that the people in the south did not have the heart to fight.

The peasant, who had nothing to lose but his slavery, was the backbone of the Viet Cong Army. Now that there is to be a re-distribution of wealth, many people are attempting to leave as pseudo-refugees.

He continued by claiming that genuine refugees from communist countries should “line up at the embassy”, a statement betraying either grotesque ignorance of communist methods or deliberate mendacity. Anything else, he argued, was a dishonest trick fit only for “artful dodgers”. This stance ignored the fact that the internationally accepted definition of a refugee was a person who had a well-founded fear of persecution. He referred disapprovingly to the case of a defecting Hungarian army officer in Vietnam who had apparently been allowed into Australia, and compared this with hypothetical Spanish refugees (it was hard to see the sense of this, since Spain at this time was a multi-party democracy which respected human rights). He stated sarcastically that:

If a person wants to get into this country quickly he should not line up at an embassy, he should be one of the artful dodgers. If he is an Army officer he might go into another diplomatic post that we have established … I have been trying for five years to find out how a certain Hungarian Army officer who was a member of the United Nations groups in Vietnam, absconded. He went to our Embassy in Vietnam. He was here a fortnight. A Spanish refugee or a refugee seaman from one of the other countries I could mention would find it very difficult to get into this country, even if he cited the Refugee Seamen’s Convention.

Shocking and disgusting as this statement was, and despite its potential to damage the community’s perception of refugees in a life-or-death situation, it passed with virtually no comment from the media, religious groups, or spokesmen for ALP policy. Nor did the government, at this time, seek to make any answer from what might be called the humanitarian high ground.

In May Michael MacKellar issued a statement setting out the principles underlying refugee policy, in the light of what appeared to be a mass exodus from Vietnam. These were:

1. Australia fully recognised its humanitarian commitment and responsibility to admit refugees for re-settlement;

2. The decision to accept refugees must always remain with the government of Australia;

3. Special assistance will often need to be provided for the involvement of refugees on designated applications or for their re-settlement in Australia;

4. It may not be in the interests of some refugees to settle in Australia. Their interests may be better served by re-settlement elsewhere.

These terms had some ambiguity, points 2 and 4 having the look of escape clauses. However, they plainly gave humanitarian and moral commitments a high priority, as distinct from the earlier (especially pre-1939) priority for “useful” refugees. Point 3, indeed, seemed to specifically abandon the “useful” refugee concept, in favour of humanitarian criteria. I.K. Lindenmayer, First Assistant Secretary of the Department of Immigration and Ethnic Affairs, made this point specifically when speaking on the policy at the Conference on Indo-Chinese Refugees held at the Australian National University in July 1979, after the number of “boat people” arrivals had grown into thousands. Lindenmayer said:

Australia recognises that [the refugees’] plight justifies abandoning the normal migrant selection requirements if there is a demonstrated capacity to settle successfully. Having granted that concession, Australia goes on to acknowledge that refugees who are accepted despite physical, emotional or other disabilities will inevitably require assistance beyond that normally provided to immigrants.

This was a long step beyond John McEwen’s ruthless pre-war policy when even highly qualified Jewish refugees from Nazism were excluded because they had failed to meet certain criteria.

In the Senate in August Senator Mulvihill elaborated on what he held to be the unpleasantness and worthlessness of Vietnamese refugees. In this speech he raised the accusation, which was to be made repeatedly by various spokesmen on the Left despite lack of supporting evidence, that they were brothel-keepers and black-marketeers:

I have never been caught up in the undue sentimentality about South Vietnam. I refer to the Pacific Defence Reporter and an article by Denis Warner, who frankly could have been called a supporter of the former South Vietnamese government. On page 21 of the article he talks about the elite, high government officials who sent their sons and nephews to colleges and universities in Europe and the United States instead of expecting them to serve in the ARVN. In other words they shirked their military obligations when Australian and United States troops were serving in Vietnam. It is not my business to open up old sores about whether Australians should have been there or should not have been there.

He continued in terms that hinted at a Vietnamese right-wing secret army in Australia, similar to the Slav or Croatian Ustasha, a possibility which was later to be raised by the Communist Party of Australia’s newspaper Tribune and in the leftist Nation Review, as well as by left-wing MP Tom Uren of the pro-Hanoi Australia-Vietnam Society, and in the society’s publication Vietnam Today. The refugees, Mulvihill continued contemptuously, had shirked the war and were “skedaddling” again from the task of rebuilding their liberated country. His hatred and contempt for the South Vietnamese was obvious. It was “fair” that they be asked to put something back into Vietnam.

By this he presumably meant forcibly repatriated, as the Cossacks, Vlasovites and others who did not succeed in committing suicide had been forcibly repatriated to Stalin’s tender mercies in 1945. It was in fact the beginning of a campaign for forcible repatriation:

I did receive one news release stating that two more officers had been sent to Thailand to look at the possibility of taking more South Vietnamese. I say respectfully that if it is good enough to have a look at some Eastern European people to see whether they are identified with extremist political groups—I will not mention them specifically because I could include a lot of people—it is good enough to 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 these people to put something back rather than skedaddle again.

The next day Tasmanian Labor Senator Devitt asked a question of the Minister for Social Security. The thrust of the question was to bracket refugees with “illegal” arrivals and to stress how much they would cost the community.

Senator Devitt’s question did not address the fact that in many circumstances refugee arrivals would inevitably be “illegal”, since refugees were by definition people with a well-founded fear of persecution, who will frequently be unable to obtain passports or visas or otherwise comply with regulations. In liberated Vietnam the very act of applying for exit papers would draw the government’s attention to applicants and expose them to harsh penalties. Further, the right to leave one’s country was enshrined in the UN Universal Declaration of Human Rights.

The UN Convention on the Status of Refugees also considers this problem more specifically. Article 31, “Refugees Unlawfully in Country of Refuge”, states (note that this excludes the illegal immigrants who have attempted to enter Australia in recent years):

The Contracting States shall not impose penalties, on account of their illegal entry or presence, on refugees who, coming directly from a territory where their life or freedom was threatened in the sense of Article 1, enter or are present in their territory without authorization, provided they present themselves without delay to the authorities and show good cause for their illegal entry or presence.

A whole apparatus of emergency provisions, such as temporary entry permits, has been set up to overcome problems of temporary illegality.

Senator Devitt said:

The question probably has some implications for [Senator Guilfoyle’s] own Department of Social Security. What is the present status of Vietnamese refugees who arrived recently, I understand illegally, in Australia? What is the Government’s attitude and policy with regard to these people? Have they been or will they be given Australian citizenship? If they are to remain in Australia where will they be accommodated and what action will be taken to fit them into the Australian community? What sources of income do these people have to sustain them at the present time? What is the government’s attitude towards the offers made by some State Governments, as I understand it, and certainly by community organisations, to provide accommodation and sustenance for these refugees? Is there the likelihood of a continued substantial influx from Vietnam? Finally, what would be the position if entry under similar circumstances by people from another country were to occur?

The last part of this question does not indicate what other country Senator Devitt had in mind, or the state of human rights and freedom in it. These points, it might be thought, would assist in a meaningful answer.

Senator Guilfoyle asked that these questions be put on notice and referred to the federal and state governments co-operating to make the settlement of these refugees “as comfortable and secure as possible”. It is possible to surmise from reading Senator Guilfoyle’s reply that she had taken Senator Devitt’s question as indicating that he believed the government was not doing enough to help the refugees. If this was so, and she was not in fact being disingenuous, she would have been disabused by the obviously refugee-hostile implications of the series of questions Senator Devitt asked the following day:

1. What is the present status of refugees who recently arrived illegally in Australia?

2. What is the Government’s attitude to these people?

3. Have they been, or will they be, given Australian citizenship?

4. If they are to remain in Australia, where will they be accommodated and what action will be taken to assimilate them into the Australian community?

5. What are the sources of income of these people?

6. What is the Government’s attitude towards the offers made by State Governments and community organisations to provide accommodation and sustenance for these refugees?

7. What is the Government’s attitude to people from other countries who enter Australia in similar circumstances?

The question, “What are the sources of income of these people?” could be seen as carrying several hostile implications, including that they were penniless mendicants who the community would have to support. Similar questions were asked in the West Australian parliament by Labor members including sometime leader Ron Davies and the Rev. Mr Keith Wilson. This was in the context of Labor attacks on Vietnamese refugees and on their acceptance by Australia, made by future Labor Premier Brian Burke and future Labor Minister Des Dans to the effect that they were not genuine refugees because they possessed money “and in some cases gold in significant quantities”, as well as other attacks from various ALP federal parliamentarians and left-wing unions.

This essay was first published in Quadrant’s March, 2015, edition, now on sale. To subscribe, click here

Senator Guilfoyle replied to Senator Devitt’s questions on October 6, 1977. The reply included the observations that:

1. The group of 47 Vietnamese refugees who arrived on 12 July, 1977, have been issued with temporary entry permits.

2. The Government’s attitude, having established that the people concerned are genuine refugees, is expressed through Australia’s international obligations as a party to the 1951 Geneva Convention on the Status of Refugees.

The political question of acceptance of boat-refugees or its only alternatives—pushing the refugees back to sea to perish or forcibly repatriating them to face dire punishments, possibly including execution, in Liberated Vietnam, or somehow conniving with the Vietnamese authorities to prevent their escape—rapidly became a major item of debate in the lead-up to the 1977 federal election campaign. ALP leader Gough Whitlam and other leading ALP figures, including future Prime Minister Bob Hawke, made public stands attacking the acceptance of Vietnamese refugees.

Anti-refugee feelings were also being widely and emphatically expressed in letters to the press and representations to politicians. At the time I was a research and electorate assistant to a federal minister, and logged more than twenty anti-refugee calls in a single day and more than seventy in a week in one period a fortnight before the federal election, a number not remotely approached at any other time. It would be impossible to say how much they indicated genuine community feeling and how much they were the work of a highly-motivated and possibly organised minority, or how much they affected voting behaviour. Opinion polls gave varying results. Certainly, however, the coalition government was placed under considerable pressure.

Anti-refugee feeling presented the ALP, still battered by the anti-Labor landslide of the 1975 election, with an apparent opportunity which it moved at once to exploit. Hostility to refugees from Vietnam could also be expected from those who had made a political and ideological investment in Hanoi’s victory. Further, as Clyde Cameron’s memoirs indicated, fears may have been abroad that Vietnamese allowed to gain Australian citizenship would not tend to be ALP voters. Most significantly, all the old fears of cheap Asian labour competition which had led to the creation of the White Australia policy and perhaps the ALP itself, with the concomitant and intermingled (if seldom openly expressed) fears of a threat to white racial superiority, were dusted off. Brisbane watersiders would later chant to Vietnamese refugees: “You’re not human!”

On November 21, 1977, Michael MacKellar announced that the federal government was setting up a committee to investigate the claims of refugees. Senator Mulvihill said there might be a justification for “setting rigid quotas”, adding that “Australian … hospitality is at times abused”. He betrayed no interest in the fate of any refugees who, through no fault of their own, might not meet these rigid quotas.

An article in the Weekend Australian of November 26-27, 1977, showed clearly the lines the anti-refugee campaign was taking, with Whitlam quoted as clearly implying that the refugees were “not genuine” and that they were being used as a weapon against Australia:

Fraser Government policies were the reasons behind the influx of Vietnamese refugees to Australia, the Leader of the Opposition, Mr Whitlam, claimed in Perth.

Officials in Malaysia, Thailand and Indonesia were disenchanted with the actions of the Fraser Government “so they decided to twist our tails” by moving the migrants on, Mr Whitlam said on an ABC talk-back radio session.

He did not specify the policies which he believed to have alienated the ASEAN Governments.

Seven boats carrying 279 men, women and children from Asia had arrived this week, with reports from overseas indicating another 20 boats carrying nearly 2,000 people were nearing Darwin.

“We don’t know enough about this sudden influx of South-East Asians,” Mr Whitlam said. “It’s not credible, two and a half years after the end of the Vietnam war, that these refugees should suddenly be coming to Australia.”

Apart from anything else, Whitlam’s comments were irrational. There was no evidence the governments of South-East Asia were sending refugees on to punish Australia rather than for their own internal and cultural reasons and because they could not afford to keep them. Further, it was quite understandable that the South Vietnamese were leaving Vietnam two and a half years after the end of the war. Exhausted and war-weary, they had probably hoped at first that Hanoi’s rule would prove endurable; experience had convinced them that it was not, and that the risk of death at sea was preferable.

Although the Whitlam government had cut the number of the Royal Australian Navy’s patrol boats from fifteen to twelve (HMAS Arrow was wrecked in the Darwin cyclone and not replaced, and two others were given to Indonesia), Mr Whitlam suddenly demanded a new patrol-boat program for the Navy. Patrol boats were needed more than a new frigate and if a Labor government was elected the third frigate then on order would be cancelled and replaced by more patrol boats. (The Whitlam government had scrapped the aircraft-carrier HMAS Sydney which was not suitable for modern combat aircraft but which could still have operated helicopters or piston-engined patrol aircraft. Because Sydney had been laid up for a long time in reserve it was probably in better condition than the heavier but much-worn and repaired HMAS Melbourne.)

In the context the message was that more patrol boats were needed to stop the menace of refugee boats. The small patrol boats would have little other use apart from policing illegal fishing, and possibly rescue operations.

But when an ALP government was elected in 1983, after the boat refugees had ceased to be an issue, the new government actually cut the number of patrol boats, giving a number to Papua New Guinea. Others were later given to Indonesia.

The same issue of the Australian which reported Mr Whitlam’s patrol-boat speech reported a statement by Senator Mulvihill that a future ALP government would reverse the “open door” policy on refugees and “make an example” of them by turning them back under naval escort. He did not elaborate on what methods he expected the Navy to employ should the refugees resist forcible repatriation.

It was reported that Mr Mick Young, the Labor spokesman on Industry and Commerce, said in Darwin—a port with a record of extreme leftist union activity—that refugees had more access to the port than citizens, and that members of the Darwin Waterside Workers’ Union were “upset” that the refugees were allowed to enter Australia after arriving illegally, while Australians were refused permission to bring in relatives.

On the other hand, the Sydney Morning Herald published a leader on November 23, 1977:

People who detest their communist conquerors should not have to prove persecution to gain our help if they choose to risk death to get away to freedom. Here is a test of our democratic idealism. Let us meet it.

Apparently unmoved by this sentiment, Bob Hawke, president of the ALP and of the Australian Council of Trade Unions, demanded, speaking from Hobart on November 28, 1977, as the refugee boat Song Be 12 approached Darwin, that refugees arriving without government approval should be sent back. It should be made clear, he said, that “this country has laws relating to refugees and they cannot break those laws with impunity”. Hawke’s demand that refugees arriving without government approval should be sent back was absurd given that the refugees had had to escape the communist regime clandestinely: how could such “approvals” be arranged with the Australian government beforehand? He demanded that the government make a clear statement that illegal immigrants had no right to land.

These comments were reported as the front-page lead of the Australian on November 29 under the heavy black headline which took up much of the page: “HAWKE: RETURN BOGUS REFUGEES”. Hawke denied he was lacking in compassion:

Of course we should have compassion, but people who are coming in this way are not the only people who have rights to our compassion. Any sovereign country has the right to determine how it will exercise its compassion and how it will increase its population.

The reference to population can be seen as linking directly to nineteenth- and early twentieth-century fears of Australia being swamped by Asiatic hordes, of the “Yellow Peril” and the White Australia policy. In fact the boatloads of refugees who reached Australia were demographically insignificant.

Statements like Hawke’s could only arouse hostility to refugees when they were in extreme need of humanitarian help. Mr “Curly” Nixon, the President of the Darwin Waterside Workers’ Union (whose record of ideologically-inspired strikes during the Second World War was notorious), claimed the refugees had “pressed trousers” as well as gold, and, in one case, three servants. Whitlam commented:

Any genuine refugee should be accepted, but the Government has a responsibility to ensure they are genuine refugees. It should also see that they don’t get ahead in the queue over people who have been sponsored and are already coming here.

Again, this ran together quite different questions of refugee intake and migrant intake. Further, it took no account of the political conditions, the human rights situation in Indo-China and the recent war in Vietnam. Vietnamese in Liberated Vietnam would demonstrate their loyalty to the new regime until they had a chance to escape. This could be quite literally a matter of life or death and there could be no question of them seeking “sponsorship”. 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”.

Where they were coming from in such numbers was Vietnam. Was Whitlam (“These Vietnamese sob-stories do not wring my withers”) pretending not to know this? Or was he trying to raise a doubt in his audience’s mind that it was somehow not Vietnam they were coming from? Whitlam later claimed that he disbelieved all stories of persecution in Vietnam by the communist regime in whose victory he and many of his party had made a psychological and policy investment. The boat people were, apart from anything else, testimony that those who had supported the defence of South Vietnam had been right and those who had opposed it had been wrong.

The more rational view was that the Vietnamese government had engaged in well-documented violations of human rights on a massive scale. Even into the twenty-first century, long after the fall of Soviet communism, it remained a police state without political or religious liberty. The situation moved even Joan Baez to protest, in a full-page advertisement published in four major US newspapers on May 30, 1979, in which she accused the communists of having created a nightmare.

Senator Mulvihill warned that there would be a “hostile ethnic community response” and claimed, again conflating migrants and refugees, that ethnic community leaders were “rightly indignant” at any dilution of processing. One major newspaper story on the approaching boats was headed, “It’s the Yellow Peril Again”.

On November 27, 1977, two senior Liberal spokesmen, Immigration Minister MacKellar and Health Minister Ralph Hunt, spoke in defence of the refugee intake policy. There would, they said, be no moves to stem the flow of refugees, and rumours of rich businessmen posing as refugees were without foundation. Humane as this statement was, it showed how the anti-refugee Left had been allowed to dictate the terms of debate: given that Vietnam had a revolutionary communist government, rich businessmen would quite likely and legitimately be refugees. Mr MacKellar urged people to keep the boat arrivals in perspective.

A few days later, an ocean-going Vietnamese prawning trawler, the Song Be 12, which had escaped from Ho Chi Minh City when some of its crew overpowered their guards, reached Darwin on November 30, in the midst of the federal election campaign. Though not a large vessel, it was bigger than the tiny boats that had made the voyage previously. Pictures were published in the Australian press cropped to make it look almost the size of an ocean liner. The Secretary of the Northern Territory Trades and Labor Council, Terry Kincade, said: “They’re pirates who have seized a boat from a friendly country. They should all be sent back.” “Pirates” was also the term applied to the Song Be’s crew by the Hanoi government, implying that if they were sent back their fate would not be pleasant. Mr Kincade threatened black bans on any employer who employed Vietnamese refugees.

At this point two religious organisations, the Catholic Commission for Justice and Peace and the Australian Council of Churches, joined the debate with an open letter. Up to this time any observer might have noticed that the attacks on the Vietnamese refugees came overwhelmingly from a certain political party and its ideological associates. Predictably for anyone who had examined their form, the party the Catholic Commission for Justice and Peace and the Australian Council of Churches attacked in bitter and sneering terms for hostility to refugees was the Liberal Party and government:

In Mr MacKellar’s speech to the Parliament on refugee policy (May 24, 1977) the words “humanity” and “humanitarian” occur a number of times, on that occasion the Minister also stated that “in such situations [that is, refugee situations] human beings have human needs which are intensified by conditions of danger and distress”.

We feel we must point out the contrast between such sentiments and the statements which the Minister is reported to have made in response to the arrival of refugee boats on Australia’s north coast (The Australian, 23/11) lest words like “humanity” and “compassion” become devalued through mis-application.

The Minister painted a picture of a beleaguered Australia forced to accept greater numbers of refugees by foreign countries, and he noted with regret that Australia had to be realistic in accepting them.

At best, the Minister’s response is a wholly inadequate one, lacking any real empathy with the human dimension of the situation. At worst, it could be interpreted as an attempt to create a climate of public opinion in which it would be possible for the Australian Government to maintain, or perhaps even reduce, its current “low-profile” to the plight of Indo-Chinese refugees.

The right to take refuge is a fundamental human right. The pictures of refugee boats being turned back [An inexplicable comment, as Australia had turned no boats back] is a scandal and a sore on the world’s conscience. Australia has the capacity for a more generous response in the area of refugee assistance and re-settlement. We believe Australians wish to see that capacity turned into effective action.

Maurio Di Nicola

(National Secretary, Catholic Commission for Justice and Peace)

Jean Skuse
(General Secretary, Australian Council of Churches)

This remarkable document contained not one word of rebuke to the ALP and the left-wing unions for their venomous, sustained and shameless attack on Vietnamese refugees.

Hal Colebatch’s two notable recent books are Australia’s Secret War: How Unionists Sabotaged Our Troops in World War II (Quadrant Books), which shared the Prime Minister’s Prize for Australian History last year, and Fragile Flame: The Uniqueness and Vulnerability of Scientific and Technological Civilization (Acashic). The second and final part of this article will appear shortly.


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