Gerard Henderson

As the maxim goes, on occasions no cause is seemingly lost until a certain individual or organisation publicly joins it. Like, say, the leftist commentator Mungo MacCallum.

Right now, the shelves of Australian bookshops contain two new tomes by Mungo MacCallum. Namely his memoir Mungo: The Man Who Laughs (Duffy &Snellgrove, 2001) and Girt by Sea: Australia, the Refugees and the Politics of Fear (Quarterly Essay No. 5, Black Inc., 2002). In the former, the author declares that he is “one who has remained committed to the ideals of the left”. In the latter, he opines that, “if it is by their Acts that you shall know them, [John] Howard deserves the name of racist.”

As he makes clear in his memoirs, Mungo MacCallum remains a political activist – albeit with constrained aspirations. Once he believed that the left could change the world; now he contents himself with the hope that “Byron Shire just might be … ready for the left”. This might surprise visitors to the enclave in north-east New South Wales where discussions of property prices seem as obsessive as in Sydney, Melbourne or Brisbane.

Two issues emerge from the Ocean-Shores-based activist’s attack on the Prime Minister. Is the put-down politically smart? And, is it true? But first, some history.

Speaking in the House of Representatives on 8 October 1996, John Howard claimed that “early in 1992” he had been “bucketed … as racist” by Paul Keating. However, there is no evidence in the Hansard that the former Labor prime minister had ever called John Howard a “racist”. Nor is there any newspaper report or transcript to support the allegation. Nor has the Prime Minister’s Office been able to back the claim with documentary evidence. It is true that, during an interview with John Laws on Sydney Radio 2UE on 21 January 1992, Paul Keating criticised the Coalition’s policy on Asian immigration of some years previously (when John Howard was Opposition leader). But he did not mention Howard by name and he did not use the “r” word.

Now, few would dispute that John Howard is a very clever politician. Moreover, like the rest of us, he would not enjoy being termed a racist. So, why did the Prime Minister claim that the insult had been used against him in public by Paul Keating when, in fact, this was not the case? Who knows? But it is possible that the politically astute John Howard may believe that there is some benefit in being labelled a racist by your political opponents. It’s all about unintended consequences. The perpetrator of invective may believe that an unflattering label will always do damage. Sometimes, no doubt, this will be the case. On other occasions, the allegation may prove counter-productive. There is evidence that Australians do not like being called racist. If this is the case, then it may be that the use of the “r” word as a term of abuse actually reinforces established beliefs about immigration, multiculturalism, asylum seekers and so on. It is much the same with the debate over Aboriginal reconciliation. References to past genocide, however well intentioned, are invariably a turn-off.

In Girt by Sea, Mungo MacCallum makes a number of sensible points about Australia’s history as an immigrant nation. Namely that “the Sydney of the 1940s was already a multicultural society” – the same could be said of Melbourne. What’s more, there is considerable evidence to support his claim that, “given face-to-face contact, Australians remain tolerant and easy-going about race – if their politicians give them half a chance”. And he is correct in comparing John Howard’s occasional stridency with that of Bill Hughes – rather than Liberal Party founder Robert Menzies. None of these points is new – all are well made.

Yet, every now and then, Girt by Sea goes over the top. For example, there are references to detention centres as “isolated and degrading gulags” and to Alexander Downer’s “gulag archipelago”. Clearly legitimate criticisms can be made of mandatory detention in Australia – which, as Mungo MacCallum acknowledges, was introduced by Labor – and of the Coalition’s so-called “Pacific solution” for asylum seekers.

Yet, whatever may be said about Australian detention centres, they cannot properly be compared with the forced labour camp system invented by Josef Stalin to maintain the Soviet Union’s repressive state. The terms “gulags” and “gulag archipelago” were popularised by the Russian writer Alexander Solzhenitsyn to describe the reality of labour camps in the totalitarian communist system. They have no valid application to contemporary Australia. Not if words are to have real meaning. In serious debate, hyperbole is not helpful. It’s too easy to dismiss.

There is considerable evidence that the administration of mandatory detention in Australia is in dire need of reform. The policy was administered harshly by former Labor ministers Gerry Hand and Nick Bolkus (both of the left faction, no less) and even more harshly by Immigration Minister Philip Ruddock. But mandatory detention in Australia, however reprehensible, should not be equated with the worst excesses of Stalinism.

When discussing the issue of “whether Howard himself is a racist or not”, Mungo MacCallum reverts to a cliché: “If it waddles like a duck and it quacks like a duck then it probably is a duck; it’s certainly safest to treat it as a canard.” The evidence for so serious an assertion is based on John Howard’s August 1988 comments – where he called for a reduction in the Asian component of the immigration intake. And on his statement during the 2001 Federal election campaign – namely that “we will decide who comes into this country and the circumstances in which they come here.”

Well, on these criteria, the label racist could also be thrown at quite a few of Australia’s Labor leaders. Girt by Sea makes no mention of Ben Chifley. Yet, as David Day points out in his biography Chifley (HarperCollins, 2001), in November 1928 the ALP hero lamented that “Australia was supposed to be a white man’s country but Mr Bruce and his Government were fast making it hybrid.” Ben Chifley’s chief complaint about Stanley Melbourne Bruce and his colleagues was that (allegedly) they had given “preference to Dagoes – not heroes”. At the time, Chifley wanted to defend White Australia from even southern Europeans, including Italians and Greeks. The tactic appears to have worked. The Coalition lost seats to Labor in the November 1928 Federal election.

Later, as prime minister in the late 1940s, Chifley supported Immigration Minister Arthur Calwell’s decision to deport refugees from Asia who had settled in Australia. Some had served with Australian forces during World War II. As David Day comments, in the late 1940s, “the Labor Party seized upon a handful of Asian refugees who had been allowed refuge in Australia during the war and who had married Australians and who were now resisting repatriation.” The Wartime Refugees Removal Act was introduced by the Chifley government to facilitate this end.

Girt by Sea is critical of former Labor leader Arthur Calwell. But not of his successor, Gough Whitlam. MacCallum records that in 1975 Whitlam “famously declared” that he was “not having hundreds of fucking Vietnamese Balts coming to this country”. The source (which is not provided in Quarterly Essay No. 5) is Clyde Cameron’s China, Communism and Coca-Cola (Hill of Content, 1980). The quote has not been denied.

Cameron also recorded that Whitlam had rejected the plea of Foreign Minister Don Willesee that “Vietnamese who had been employed by the Australian Embassy” should be granted entry as refugees. Willesee was also defeated in his attempt to allow “re-entry to students who had returned to Vietnam after completing their studies in Australia”. Clyde Cameron, who was Minister for Labor and Immigration during the first half of 1975, supported the Whitlam position. According to Mungo MacCallum this “was one of the few occasions when the Left, including its charismatic leader Jim Cairns, gave Whitlam unswerving support”. That’s all he says.

Mungo MacCallum rationalises Gough Whitlam’s 1975 position by describing his mention of “Vietnamese Balts” as “a reference to previous escapees from communism who invariably voted for the conservatives”. In other words, Whitlam did not like the fact that anti-communist refugees/displaced persons, who had settled in Australia from Eastern Europe after 1945, tended to vote for Robert Menzies and the Coalition. He was determined to deny anti-communist Vietnamese admission to Australia because, according to his view, they would also support the Coalition.

To MacCallum, this is reason enough. But is it? The fact is that it was the anti-communist Vietnamese who were the refugees/asylum seekers in 1975. They were the ones who lived in genuine fear of persecution following the fall of Saigon to Hanoi’s Soviet-supplied forces in 1975. The Whitlam government wanted to keep genuine Vietnamese refugees out of Australia in 1975 – because the Prime Minister of the day and some senior Cabinet members did not like their politics. This stance was totally at odds with Australia’s international obligations.

Just imagine what Mungo MacCallum would have written in Girt by Sea if John Howard had made a similar comment about, say, Muslims. Just imagine that a reliable Cabinet source had revealed that the Prime Minister had declared circa 2001: “I’m not having hundreds of fucking Muslims coming to this country with their religious and political hatreds against us.” Just imagine. In his memoirs MacCallum refers to warnings he once received from Richard Walsh that he was heavily into idolatry of Gough the Great. On the available evidence, the condition still exists.

It’s much the same with Bob Hawke. In November 1977, just before the Federal election of that year, the HMAS Ardent intercepted a boat containing some 180 Vietnamese refugees, heading for Darwin. Bob Hawke was ALP Federal president at the time. In words that sound remarkably similar to John Howard’s over two decades later, the (then) ALP president opposed the arrival on Australian shores of queue-jumping boat people. Bob Hawke told a media conference in Hobart on 28 November 1977:

Obviously there are people all around the world who have a strong case for entry into this country and successive governments have said we have an obligation, but we also have an obligation to people who are already here … 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. Any sovereign country has the right to determine how it will exercise its compassion and how it will increase its population.

Bob Hawke was reported as calling on the Coalition government to make it clear that the asylum seekers had no right to land in Australia. Fortunately Prime Minister Malcolm Fraser rejected his advice. He said that Australia needed to make sure that the Vietnamese boat people were refugees but felt that the situation was under control. You can read all about it in the broadsheet press of 29 November 1977 and after. But, alas, not in Girt by Sea.

It is true that Bob Hawke was not alone in calling for a tough line on asylum seekers a quarter of a century ago. According to a contemporaneous report in the National Times (12 December 1977), Hawke’s position was shared by senior Fraser government minister Peter Nixon. The Coalition Transport Minister was reported to have told a media conference that refugees arriving illegally by boat in Australia would be turned around and sent back. Peter Nixon was quickly hauled into line and the Immigration Minister (Michael Mackellar) issued a statement declaring that, “Australia will continue to accept Indo-Chinese refugees.” The Fraser Government went to the December 1977 Federal election with this policy.

The (then) Labor leader’s position was ambiguous, to say the least. Gough Whitlam never repudiated Bob Hawke’s statement. Moreover, while acknowledging that “any genuine refugees should be accepted”, he maintained that “the Government has a responsibility to ensure they are genuine refugees” and that “it should also see that they don’t get ahead in the queue over people who have been sponsored and who are already coming here” (Age, 29 November 1977). Sounds familiar, eh? The National Times reported that, speaking in Darwin, Whitlam had blamed Lee Kuan Yew for the boat people reaching Australia’s shores. He was quoted as alleging that Singapore supplied the Indo-Chinese boat people with the “plans and petrol and the maps to get here” (National Times, 12 December 1977). Shades of November 2001 when some Coalition political operatives hinted that Indonesia was directing boat people to Australia.

Soon after joining John Howard’s personal staff in January 1984, I spent time in the Parliamentary Library digging up the evidence concerning the stances taken by Bob Hawke and Gough Whitlam when the boat people arrived in Australia after the end of the Vietnam War. I gave this material to John Howard and he used some of it in his speech in the House of Representatives on 23 August 1984. On that occasion Howard took a strong stance for immigration and opposed any attempts to use boat people/asylum seekers to win political points during election campaigns – as Labor had done in 1977.

Subsequently John Howard changed his position on immigration and, eventually, asylum seekers. In separate radio interviews on 1 August 1988 with John Laws (Radio 2UE) and Paul Murphy (ABC Radio PM), Howard maintained that “the pace” of Asian immigration “has probably been a little too great” and advocated that Asian immigration to Australia should be “slowed down a little” in the interests of what he called “social cohesion”. In a written statement, issued on 11 August 1988, John Howard specifically quoted Bob Hawke’s 1977 comments in support of his position, viz.: “Any sovereign country has the right to determine how it will exercise its compassion and how it will increase its population.”

I did not agree with John Howard in August 1988 or November 2001. Or with Bob Hawke in November 1977. Or with Gough Whitlam in mid-1975. But I do not believe that the actions of any one of these men warrant the accusation of “racist”. In Girt by Sea Mungo MacCallum maintains that, due to his various acts, “Howard deserves the name of racist”. But he ignores Hawke’s acts of 1977. And he simply refers to Whitlam’s acts of 1975 as “famous”. Instead there is reference to the fact that Gough Whitlam wrote to Labor leader Kim Beazley on 4 September 2001 rebuking him for failing to carry out Labor’s policy concerning Australia’s international obligations with respect to asylum seekers/refugees. Whitlam’s letter (which was quoted in the Sydney Morning Herald on 12 November 2001) also criticised previous governments – including the Hawke and Keating administrations – for not doing enough to bring about the implementation of various human rights conventions in this area. Yet the fact remains that when Gough Whitlam had a chance to be magnanimous about refugees/asylum seekers in the mid-1970s he conspicuously failed to grasp the opportunity.

From time to time various governments, Coalition and Labor alike, have acted without empathy concerning refugees. At other times they have demonstrated considerable compassion – especially the administrations headed by Malcolm Fraser (November 1975 to March 1983) and Bob Hawke (March 1983 to December 1991). Mungo MacCallum, correctly, acknowledges the successes in this area of the Fraser and Hawke years. And MacCallum is quite realistic about the fact that Kim Beazley and his advisers had little option in 2001 but to support the Howard government’s pre-election legislation. He maintains that the belief that the alternative would have amounted to “electoral suicide” is “probably right”.

Girt by Sea also makes the valid point that John Howard used the issue of asylum seekers – following the Tampa affair and the genuine concern about terrorism after the events of 11 September – as the core of the Coalition’s election campaign. Clearly the Prime Minister and Liberal Party Federal Director Lynton Crosby exhibit some self-doubt about the legitimacy of this tactic. Which explains why, after the event, both have attempted to establish the myth that the election was not fought on border protection. It may be that, after Tampa and 11 September, the Coalition could have defeated Labor without running on the asylum seeker issue. Maybe. But that is not what happened – and Mungo MacCallum is correct in drawing attention to this.

It’s just that, at times, Girt by Sea goes over the top. The term “racist” does not adequately fit any Australian prime minister – past or present. What’s more, as John Howard recognises, branding those who exhibit little empathy for asylum seekers as “racist” does not do real harm to the non-empathetic brigade. Such an insult is sometimes readily worn as a badge of honour. Similarly demonstrations outside detention centres, which sometimes turn violent, do not help the asylum seekers’ cause. Symbolic politics may be enjoyable for those involved but rarely produces constructive outcomes.

As the German sociologist Max Weber understood, successful democratic politics is about slow boring through hard boards. In so far as the case against Pauline Hanson’s One Nation has succeeded, this was brought about by moderate argument supported by empirical evidence. Not by (verbal) fire of the this-I-believe genre in Green Left Weekly or even the Byron Shire Echo.

As the modern Labor Party understands, the left’s critique has little to offer those who want to bring about social change in democratic societies. Even in the Byron Shire.


Gerard Henderson is Executive Director of the Sydney Institute.

This is a revised and expanded version of an article that first appeared in the Sydney Morning Herald and the Age on 26 March 2002.


This correspondence discusses Quarterly Essay 5, Girt By Sea. To read the full essay, subscribe or buy the book.

This correspondence featured in Quarterly Essay 6, Beyond Belief.


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