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Book review: Klaus Neumann, Refuge Australia: Australia's Humanitarian Record, UNSW Press, 0 86840 711 9, 127pp

Frank Brennan SJ
September 2004

Neumann's book is the latest in the 'Briefings' series from the Institute for Social Research at the Swinburne University of Technology, 'exploring social, political and cultural issues in contemporary Australia". This book complements the earlier one in the series, Mr Ruddock Goes to Geneva by Spencer Zifcak.

With access to the National Archives and an acute curiosity to inspect files marked "not yet examined", Neumann sets out to debunk assumptions about Australia's response to refugees and asylum seekers in the past. He confines himself to case studies pre-dating the formal abandonment of the White Australia policy which long limited and focussed Australia's response to refugees and asylum seekers.

In seven chapters entitled Reffos, Balts, Ineligibles, Asylum Seekers, Border Crossers, Convention refugees, and Deportees, he describes individual cases and government policy responses to particular humanitarian disasters from the 1930s to the 1970s. His purpose is to debunk four assumptions:

  • Australia has accepted more than its fair share of refugees in the past.
  • Onshore asylum seekers arrived only after the Vietnam War.
  • Australia has always led the field in supporting UNHCR and developing international legal instruments to protect refugees.
  • The Howard government was the first Australian government to grant only temporary protection and to repatriate persons forcibly.

Neumann highlights the role of five key policy developers. They are the politicians Alexander Downer (the father of the present Foreign Minister), Garfield Barwick (who went on to become Chief Justice) and Arthur Calwell (the father of the post-war migration program), and the bureaucrats Tasman Heyes (the only Australian to have received the UNHCR Nansen Refugee Award) and Peter Heydon (the father of Australia's newest High Court justice).

Neumann has built on his previously published research in Australian Historical Studies to present sufficient material to highlight the complexity of the mix between migration policy and the international obligation to contribute to the protection of refugees and asylum seekers.

Though he takes issue with commentators on all sides 'who make rhetorical use of the past in order to condemn or justify current policies' (p. 14), he does not altogether avoid sweeping and condemnatory comments about the present policy and its instigators. He wants the reader to know that he 'could find no instance in that earlier period in which the government encouraged public opinion against refugees'. ( p. 111) It may be an oversimplification to assert that 'in comparison to the early twenty-first century, successive governments from the 1930s to the 1970s were far more prepared to pursue policies regardless of the public's anticipated or initial reaction.' (111) But Neumann's research does bear out Malcolm Fraser's claim about the reception of the Vietnamese boatpeople. In 2002, Fraser on receipt of an honourary doctorate said, 'If any of the political parties had tried to make politics over the resettlement of the Indo-Chinese in the seventies and eighties, Australians would have found it difficult to support the policy. The political parties were united in the policy and Australians accepted the policy as right for the nation.' If John Howard had been prime minister immediately after the Vietnam war it is unlikely that we would have received the Vietnamese in such numbers and with such equanimity.

Neumann's analysis of the policy responses to border crossings from Indonesian Irian Jaya into the Australian territory of PNG confirms the thesis that much of the public rhetoric and policy implementation about border protection can be espoused only by an island nation continent spared the inconvenience of land borders.

Fragile negotiations with Indonesia have always been the backdrop to Australia's formal position on the reception of asylum seekers. Neumann is too simplistic in espousing, 'A refugee policy that is divorced from immigration policy is potentially guided by humanitarian commitment and responsibility more so than by other factors.' (p. 112) Though he does succeed in demonstrating that there has never been a golden age in Australia's treatment of refugees, he leaves this reader agnostic about his claim that 'The establishment of a separate government agency responsible for the administration of Australia's refugee policy is long overdue.' (p. 110) Australia's refugee policy never has been and never will be divorced from immigration policy. The major problem with the present policy is that the government has decided to connect things which are unconnected, deducting the number of successful onshore asylum applications from the annual quota of offshore refugee and humanitarian places. This contrived nexus is made so that government can argue that onshore asylum seekers are queue jumpers taking the places of more needy persons offshore. Even if Australia were not a net migration country, we would still have an obligation to extend protection to onshore asylum seekers. Being a net migration country, we ought to maintain a significant quota of humanitarian places even if they do not provide immediate cash returns as do the business migration slots.

Tasman Heyes, the doyen of Australian migration bureaucrats, oversaw Australia's policy from 1946 to 1961. It was he, not John Howard or Pauline Hanson, who first observed (quoted at p 82):

There are thousands of non-European refugees, and acceptance by Australia of a convention which provided that such a class of persons should not be discriminated against and should not be subject to any penalty for illegal entry, would be a direct negation of the immigration policy followed by all Australian governments since federation.

Repetition of this mantra today is no more defensible than a return to the 1938 self-satisfied, isolationist declaration of the Minister for Trade speaking at the international conference to consider the plight of German refugees (quoted at p. 17):

Australia cannot do more, for it will be appreciated that in a young country man power from the source from which most of the citizens have sprung is preferred…It will no doubt be appreciated also that, as we have no real racial problem, we are not desirous of importing one by encouraging any scheme of large-scale foreign migration.

Neumann helps us to open our present border protection policies to the scrutiny both of the past and of an international perspective.

Fr Frank Brennan SJ AO is an Adjunct Fellow of the Research School of Asian and Pacific Studies at the ANU. His latest book is Tampering with Asylum (UQP 2003)

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