Monday 23 July 2012

Asylum Seekers: The sad, short, history of Labor’s deviation from a ‘White Australia” mentality.

First published in Recorder, the newsletter of the Melbourne Branch of the Australian Society for the Study of Labour History

Tony Harris

The recent attacks on the Greens by notable Labor Party figures over the refusal of the Greens to compromise over offshore processing of asylum seekers represents a new low for the Labor Party. The attacks by assorted Labor right-wingers are predictable, But most disappointing was Labor Left Senator Doug Cameron’s criticism, outrageously accusing the Greens of being responsible for asylum seekers dying because of their “purist approach”. This ignores the fact that Greens policy is similar to that of refugee organisations – such as the highly-regarded,  Melbourne-based, Asylum Seeker Resource Centre. On ABC News 24, its CEO, Kon Karapangiotidis described the Labor and Coalition approach to the debate as “evil”. The sad truth is that when it comes to “purity” you couldn’t get anything more pure than Labor’s adherence for most of its long history, to a White Australia mentality.

Labor departed from this mentality for a relatively brief period from around the mid 1960s to the beginning of the 1990s. Its reversion to a white Australia mentality is a kind of White Australia Plus, embedded in an “acceptable” form of multiculturalism with strict borders. In terms of immigration and refugees, Labor has embraced John Howard’s 2001 barrier: “We will decide who comes to this country and the circumstances in which they come”.

The ALP freed itself of its White Australia mentality in the context of the emerging social movements from the mid 1960s. This mentality was of course never just about a discriminatory immigration policy but also embraced paternalism towards, and marginalisation of, Aboriginal Australians. It was also a mentality reinforced by our military alliance with the United States, which effectively originated in the 1908 visit of the Great White Fleet. It has been an alliance historically built around racial fear. The Vietnam antiwar movement challenged this.

Labor formally abandoned its discriminatory immigration policy on the eve of the election of the Whitlam Government. That government followed through with the abolition of discrimination in assessing immigrant applications and then underpinned it with the 1975 Racial Discrimination Act. This is arguably the most important piece of legislation to ever pass the federal parliament, also ending legal discrimination against Aboriginal people, laying the foundation for the later High Court Mabo decision, overturning the White Australia foundations of the Australian Commonwealth, and establishing human rights norms in accordance with international conventions. The Whitlam government backed this up with proposed NT Aboriginal Land Rights legislation, enacted by the Fraser Liberal Government. And while Whitlam remained a supporter of the alliance with the US it was an alliance in flux, with a critical Labor Left on the case.

The road back to White Australia in immigration began at the start of the 1990s with a new focus on asylum seekers. With a large influx of Cambodian and Vietnamese refugees, Labor introduced mandatory detention amendments to the Migration Act, laying the foundation of a system that would underpin both Liberal and Labor asylum seeker policy. While Labor, on its re-election in 2007, removed some of the more egregious elements of the Howard system, such as Temporary Protection Visas, the system of “punishing’ asylum seeker boat arrivals by extensive detention, and by “holding back” on intervening to intercept boats until absolutely necessary, essentially continues.

Labor’s march back to a White Australia mentality was also reflected in Aboriginal affairs. In 1986, the Hawke Labor Government buckled under pressure from West Australian Labor Premier, Brian Burke, and backed off national land rights legislation. The Mabo High Court decision was an important forward step for Aboriginal people but it, and the subsequent Native Title legislation, was as much, if not more, about confirming white dispossession, and calming white fears. However Labor under Keating and Rudd made important symbolic statements of reconciliation.

It was also the Hawke Government, which restored the alliance with the US to prominence, signing on to the 1990/91 Gulf War and the shift in the racial fears underpinning it to the Middle East. Since 9/11 these fears have widened to include south Asia though there has been a recently re-embraced a fear of China. The historical existential anxieties of these two colonial settler societies, both established by acts of ethnic cleansing, remain at the core of the alliance and reinforce the White Australia mentality.

And so the final week of the recent parliamentary session was a sorry affair, not because of the Greens principled stand in favour of ready solution to the problem – by embracing and facilitating our international responsibilities, with the rapid and safe relocation of asylum seekers to the Australian mainland - but because of Labor’s refusal to abandon a mentality which sees it as important to resist and punish asylum seekers seeking to come to this country by boat. And of course this was the same week that the Government, with coalition support, extended the colonial and paternalistic Northern Territory Intervention through its Stronger Futures legislation, in the face of widespread opposition from Aboriginal groups and communities.

Throughout its history, the ALP had a fractious relationship to its dominant White Australia mentality, challenged at different points by Labor, and labour movement, socialists and internationalists, and ultimately influenced by the evolution of post-WWII migration. Labor can claim some achievements in the area of multiculturalism and indigenous affairs. And in NSW, Labor for Refugees, an organisation which played a major role in campaigning against the Howard Government on asylum seekers, has written to NSW ALP General Secretary, Sam Dastyari, expressing its disgust at the attacks on the Greens and pointing out that the Greens approach is consistent with ALP policy. We can only hope other voices will be raised inside the ALP and the labour movement and that hopefully Labor will return to the progressive path it set out on in the 1970s.

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