We cannot be reminded too often of our common origins as boat people. We seem to need regular hypodermics of new blood in the national arteries. Otherwise, each generation tends to lapse into smugly preferring sameness and fearfully demonising difference. In his admirable essay, Mungo MacCallum has demonstrated what happens when we have national leaders who are relaxed and comfortable in the afternoon light, idealising the 1950s as a golden age – which for many it was not – instead of challenging us to be interested in change and progress.
Mungo’s opening narrative, about the boatload of misguided French and Italians who, unable to found a settlement in the South Pacific, were welcomed by New South Wales Premier Henry Parkes in 1881, is of course intended as a contrast with the Afghans and others refused access to Australia by the present government and its predecessor.
But Mungo misses an important point. In 1888, the centenary year, three ships carrying Chinese – some new migrants, some returning residents – were refused entry to the port of Melbourne and re-routed to Sydney. There, the Chinese were not allowed to land and were expelled by none other than Henry Parkes. Mobs demonstrated outside Parliament House against the ship at the centre of the affair, coincidentally called the Afghan. Parkes and the other premiers were already at work on the restrictive legislation that, enacted in 1901, became the White Australia policy.
Rather than holding up Parkes’s hospitable gesture to the French and Italians in 1881 as an example of Australia’s “compassion and generosity” to asylum seekers, as Mungo does, we should actually compare it with the reverse treatment Australia meted out to Chinese, Japanese, Indians and others. Nothing had changed when Calwell welcomed post-war European migrants while expelling Asian war refugees, some of whom had Australian wives and children. The Menzies government urged Australians to “Bring out a Briton” in the 1950s and 1960s, as Mungo notes, while refusing Asians residency for “economic” reasons. Asian students in the more liberal 1970s and 1980s still had landlords slam doors in their faces, and all the dozens of Asian Australian writers I have surveyed have been called names like Ching Chong Chinaman. In the late 1980s, John Howard wanted less Asian migration. In the 1990s, racial insults were still common on Australian streets; and Pauline Hanson echoed her Queensland constituents in calling for signs in Asian languages to be banned. We have passed laws against racial vilification that Howard and his ministers appear to ignore when they say what they claim are Muslim cultural practices make asylum seekers unfit to become Australians. John Stone wants only “Judaeo-Christians” as migrants.
Governments in the 1990s and 2000s still clearly display the same double standards as Henry Parkes. Visa overstayers from Western countries are virtually ignored while “illegal immigrants” from the Middle East are imprisoned in remote detention centres. The Navy was mobilised to pick up lone French and British yachtspeople, but armed SAS troops were sent to board the Tampa, loaded with Muslims. Australia seeks to attract Asian students to our schools and universities but many in China, Indonesia and Vietnam are now finding it exceptionally hard to get visas. Australia selects prospective migrants in Asian countries according to employment categories, and then puts them through the qualifications run-around when they arrive. How many white farmers from Zimbabwe have fled to Australia, compared to Indians from Fiji? How many migrants have brought their prejudices with them?
Australia’s perennial hypocrisy about immigration doesn’t negate Mungo’s point that individual leaders don’t share it, and that it’s not characteristic of the entire community. It’s just that our “compassion and generosity” towards new arrivals was never evenly distributed to non-Europeans. He could have cited the Afghan episode to show how depressingly little has changed, in spite of appearances. Australian politicians may claim that their policies treat all migrants equally, but they know they treat some more equally than others.
Alison Broinowski is Visiting Fellow at the Faculty of Asian Studies, Australian National University and the author of Yellow Lady: Australian Impressions of Asia.
This correspondence featured in Quarterly Essay 6, Beyond Belief.
ALSO FROM QUARTERLY ESSAY