by Max TeichmannNews Weekly
Straws in the Wind: Boat opponents / The house that Don built
, September 21, 2002
Kenneth Gee's eloquent defence of our involvement in the Vietnam War (News Weekly
, September 7, 2002), reminded us of the sequel to that War, as did Hal Colebatch in an article in The Australian
(August 28, 2002) Both of our parties appear in a strange light when talking about Vietnamese war refugees, i.e., the Boat People.
Bob Hawke, ALP and ACTU President in 1977 was reported as saying, "Any sovereign country has the right to determine how it will exercise its compassion and how it will increase its population" (The Australian
, November 29, 1977) under the front page headline: "Hawke: Return Bogus Refugees".
Considering what union spokesmen were saying at that time, Hawke was positively circumspect.
Tony Mulvihill, Labor's immigration spokesmen, said boat refugees should be returned to Vietnam under armed guard, and Brian Burke demanded, "Stop this refugee flood". Clyde Cameron, apropos this "invasion", said, "Never mind the niceties of sending people back somewhere they do not like." I'll just say that these sentiments were predominant in both parties, continuing until the "threat" of the Boat People had receded.
Thus in March, 1982, Ian Macphee, when Immigration Minister under Fraser, called Vietnamese boat people "queue jumpers": and many refugees from communist countries were not genuine. Of the story of a Polish refugee family escaping from the Iron Curtain, he called it "some bleeding heart stuff".
Pressing on, Macphee ruled that "random resettlement by persons not going through immigration procedures overseas could cause enormous dislocations to our labor markets and to our internal stability and security". But post-Tampa, Macphee castigated Howard for "callous, ruthless indifference to boat people".
When ALP parliamentarian Richard Klugman - alone amongst his colleagues - protested at Macphee's stand of 1982, and called for a "little compassion", the Minister replied, "It is fine for us to have humanity but we also need to have a little bit of rationality."
I won't quote Whitlam, at the time of the fall of Saigon, because it is Cameron's account but it makes for nasty reading. But Gough now sees the Howard Government's approach as "brutal".
To confute Bugs Bunny: that's not
When the war was well and truly on - 1970? - I was a member of a panel addressing a meeting of students of the Joint Services Wing in Canberra. Students: army - rank of colonel and above; navy - captains and above; and air force - wing commanders and above. There were, from memory, Australian and New Zealand officers, Brits and quite a few from Asia - the Philippines, Singapore and so on. The panel: an officer of the Department of External Affairs; a conservative senior journalist; a navy captain in the chair; someone I can no longer remember - and myself.
Everyone supported Australia's involvement in the war - except me. Which was why I
was there: to trigger discussion. Our service people are much
more tolerant, courteous and civilised than the civvies - believe you me. And better informed. They were then; they are now.
Everyone seemed to think the West would win - because if the communists did win, there would be a bloodbath. I thought the West would lose, or draw. But I doubted if, even in defeat, a bloodbath would follow. But - if we and the US had to get out - we had a debt of honour
to admit any Vietnamese who wanted to get out. We had, in a sense, set them up to fight, then to fight on. We had a duty to help those wanting to escape ... to escape. We should be thinking about this.
When questions came - and the military audience had been politely cool to me (some Asian officers scowled a lot) - someone asked the panel, "Would Australia take in people from Vietnam, if the war is
lost?" The panel sat po-faced, the man from the Department replied, "No, we have no policy to do that - it's not something we are considering." This in a cold water manner.
A ripple of disillusionment went through the listeners. The Asians looked at me in a quite different way.
Afterwards, a Singapore colonel came up, and he thanked me - "most illuminating" he thought.
"Yes," I said. "Don't count on this hoohah about timeless friendships, but Singapore is of such importance to us, you're alright so long as the Brits and the US back you. But if trouble started, and they left, well ... you heard what the man said."
"Yes," my colonel said, "I did."
"You know, surrounded as you are by not very friendly Muslims, you need a big
reliable ally. China would be ideal, but she'd eat you up." I continued.
"I know," said the man from Singapore.
"We both have a future problem," I said. "But Australians have one important advantage which you lack."
He laughed, "Yes I know." (He didn't mean the US alliance).
He looked coolly at the other symposiasts, then we wished one another good luck.
And so it was to turn out; to my disgust.
The other disgusting thing was that both Australian political parties dropped our Vietnam soldiers like hot spuds when they returned. No one wanted to know about them or remember them. I expected this from the Left - who weren't
in fact scornful. But the Tories just turned the page.
But there were few clean hands at the end - though as Colebatch notes, News Weekly
under Peter Coleman stood up for the Boat People throughout, and Malcolm never ever spoke of them in ways that many Labor and some Liberal pollies did.
But, this was a unique situation. Hopefully, not to be repeated. There is no debt of honour when talking of the snakeheads' clients, over whom some of the hard men from the 70s and 80s are now attitudinising.
We can only operate the system we now have on refugees and migrants, in the light of what is possible and in our national interest.
Frank Knopfelmacher rang me at the end of the War. We hadn't met or talked during the conflict - except on tellie - and he said, "You were right about Vietnam for the wrong reasons. I was wrong for the right reasons."
I think I thanked him for ringing, and said "It seems that honour is satisfied. I'm only glad the damned thing is over."
But, of course, it wasn't. The laws of unforeseen consequence still run on and on - especially when we look at War.The House that Don built
Probably more than enough ink has been spilt on the Democrats by now, but the crucial role of Don Chipp in the history of the party is becoming clearer. A little like Pauline Hanson; without them, hardly a party at all.
Don seemed to know everyone, and like and be liked by most. He had a weekly dinner with Hawke and Peacock when the House was sitting. John Button used to come in and use his exercise bike, and so on. He understood the media.
The Democrats were poised to take ten Senate seats in 1984, but the virtual invention of the Nuclear Disarmament Party - favoured by enormous publicity from the Murdoch press - split the left/liberal vote as it was intended to do.
After this strategy, I think Don began to slow up. The Big Parties, Big Money, and
our American ally, I should stress, did not like the Democrats or their foreign/military or environmental policies.
So Midnight Oil became the flavour for the month - only one month - but a month was enough.
After Don gave up and then retired, the Democrats began slowly to lose their fight, and then their way. Either stay separate and isolated like a new country toilet - pure but rarely visited - or become part of "The System" which they'd been established to oppose.
They've tried both, but in neither case have they been able to part the waves.
The frustration we've been seeing is understandable - none of the actors are really culpable. Don created a party and movement which was one happy family - as far as parties can be - and the personal bile and unrestrained infighting that we've been watching now ... would not have been possible were he
still there. Laying on the charm and operating a system which he knew so well.