BORDER CONTROL: by Jeffry Babb News Weekly
Rudd's time bomb on a boat: asylum-seekers
, April 3, 2010
In 1975, Saigon fell and soon thousands of anti-communist Vietnamese launched themselves onto the sea in small boats, risking not only the natural hazards of the ocean but also pirates and the vitriol of "progressive" Australians.
Gough Whitlam, prime minister at the time, described them as "yellow Balts". Would they, in years to come, pose an electoral threat to the Labor Party? He certainly didn't want to find out.
A second outpouring of Vietnamese occurred in 1977, this time largely ethnic Chinese, victims of Vietnam's version of ethnic cleansing.
Bob Hawke, as president of the ACTU, expressed a view which resonates today. He argued: "Any sovereign country has the right to determine how it will exercise its compassion and how it will increase its population." (Quoted in Wayne Errington and Peter van Onselen, John Winston Howard: The Biography
, MUP, 2007, p.77). He didn't like the "boat people" either.
The time-bomb for Kevin Rudd's Government is that many Australian voters, particularly in marginal seats, agree with Hawke that they should choose who comes to Australia. They are losing patience.
This year alone, more than 30 boats carrying in excess of 1,200 people, mainly Afghans, Iraqis and Sri Lankans, have reached Australian territory. And more are coming.
Coalition polling in key marginal seats shows that 85 per cent of interviewees say that Kevin Rudd has not delivered on his promise of a tough policy on refugees. (Herald Sun
, Melbourne, March 16, 2010.)
The problem is almost entirely of Rudd's own making. Almost immediately after taking office, Rudd ditched John Howard's "Pacific solution", apparently believing that asylum-seeker numbers, balanced between "push" and "pull" factors, had stabilised.
Labor had underestimated the alacrity with which traffickers in human misery exploited this ready market. And the ALP also underestimated the depth of feeling in the Australian electorate. This is the electoral time-bomb that the ALP must dread, because it will take very little to set it off.
I must declare a personal interest at this stage. Shortly before Governor-General Sir John Kerr sacked Whitlam's Labor Government in November 1975, the Commonwealth Parliament passed a bill creating research officer positions for backbench federal members. Before the 1975 election was even held, I was employed by Senator Peter Sim (Liberal, Western Australia) as his personal research officer - one of the very first research officers ever appointed to a backbencher.
Senator Sim's main interest was foreign policy, and, following the overwhelming Coalition victory, he became the long-serving chairman of the Senate Standing Committee for Foreign Affairs and Defence.
Peter Sim was not afraid of taking a principled stand. He did not get on with Malcolm Fraser and refused to attend party meetings, although he did attend Senate party meetings. He was a bit of a maverick.
However, on one thing he did agree with Fraser. He felt that Australia had an obligation to our former South Vietnamese allies and that the "boat people", as they were then called, deserved our compassion and that we should accept them. Fraser had been defence minister during the Vietnam War, and Sim backed Australia's involvement in the war. Both felt we owed our allies something.
Supporting the "Vietnamese refugees" was not popular. To the credit of both men, they stood firm. Sim's committee produced a report on the boat people and documented Labor's duplicity in the Vietnamese refugee imbroglio.
The report, which both Liberal and Labor members signed off on, was extensively quoted by Western Australian author Dr Hal Colebatch, who wrote his doctoral thesis on the Vietnamese refugees. Colebatch, who knows more about Australia's policies towards the Vietnamese boat people than any other living person, received a doctorate of philosophy from the University of Western Australia for his efforts, and passed with distinction - a rare honour.
Australia has changed in the past 30 years, but Hawke's pithy comment sums up a popular feeling. It's not so much the people: it's the feeling we are being taken advantage of.
What is at stake is not so much a matter of compassion, but a matter of choice.
Rudd has left his government wide open to a community backlash. Shortly after the election of the federal Labor Government in December 2007, the Rudd administration declared that "unauthorised arrivals" in Australia, by air or sea, would be detained only for identity, health and security checks and would then be issued with bridging visas to allow them to live in the community while their refugee status was decided. Further, a decision should be made within three months on refugee status to any asylum-seeker held in immigration detention.
Labor is now hostage to fortune in a brewing electoral storm.