Monday, January 24, 2011

Sunday Essay - Immigration Nation fails the test

I really struggled with the last episode of SBS's Immigration Nation. I thought it was unbalanced; it really made me wonder what conclusions people would draw from it. I was sufficiently depressed by it that I actually didn't want to write about it. To my mind, there were sufficient code words built in to obscure it's final message.

Let me start with a parody.

The Liberal Country Party Government of Sir Robert Menzies started the Colombo Plan because of fear of communism, little realising that it would destroy the White Australia policy. Having met Asians, Australians decided they were quite nice.

In the face of agitation led by Charles Perkins and student radicals especially from Sydney University and in part energised by the Prasad case, Minister for immigration Hubert Opperman  was forced to change. This was aided by the departure of Menzies. There is then a long segment on the fight in the ALP to change it's approach, to abolish its support for the White Australia Policy. Sadly, PM Whitlam when faced by the challenge of Vietnamese boat people went to water, really maintaining a racist stance. Surprisingly, it was left to Malcolm Fraser as the leader of the incoming Liberal-CP Government to make the dramatic gesture to really end the policy by the wholesale admission of Vietnamese refugees. In all this, there are shots that continue to equate support for ten pound poms with racial discrimination.

This really is a parody. Let me start with a brief historical summary. Here in Migration Matters - A Personal Perspective: Times of Change I noted that the White Australia Policy

was not killed by a single major decision, but by a series of incremental changes:

  • During the war years Australia had admitted a number of non-European refugees, some of whom had married Australians. Moves to deport them created protests, and Harold Holt, the Immigration Minister in the newly elected Menzies Government, allowed 800 to stay while also allowing Australian soldiers to bring back Japanese war brides.
  • In 1957 non-Europeans with 15 years residence in Australia were allowed to become Australian citizens. This was followed in 1958 by a revised Migration Act introducing a simpler system of entry permits and abolishing the controversial dictation test. Some restrictions on non-European migration remained, but entry was eased while the revised Act avoided references to questions of race.
  • In March 1966 after a review of the non-European policy, Immigration Minister Hubert Opperman announced that applications for migration would be accepted from well-qualified people on the basis of their suitability as settlers, their ability to integrate readily and their possession of qualifications positively useful to Australia. This was a watershed decision, effectively ending the White Australia policy.
  • The last remnants of the old policy were removed in 1973 by the newly elected Whitlam Labor Government, putting a completely non-discriminatory policy in place.

If you look at this chronology, what a remarkable thing it was that a migration policy deeply entrenched in 1949 should have effectively collapsed by 1966, equally remarkable that thirteen years later Australia would be welcoming large numbers of Vietnamese boat people.

There is no doubt, as the SBS program suggested, that the Colombo Plan played a major role in changing Australian attitudes. Here I wrote in 2006:

The Colombo Plan played a major role in facilitating this change in migration policy.

Australia faced a dark and clouded international environment at the end of the war

. The old security provided by membership of the Commonwealth and Empire had been swept away, lost with the fall of Singapore to the Japanese. War with Germany and Japan had been replaced by the cold war between East and West, fear of the spread of communism and the threat of nuclear war. Decolonisation was underway, requiring Australia to develop new international relations.

In late 1949 Australia was invited to attend a meeting of British Commonwealth Foreign Ministers to be held in Colombo. Australian officials had been discussing policy options towards Asia including a possible aid program. The Australian Government believed that economic development would improve political stability and help stop the spread of communism.

In January 1950, an Australian delegation led by External Affairs Minister Percy Spender took the Australian aid plans to the Colombo meeting. Commonwealth foreign ministers agreed to establish a Commonwealth Plan for Co-operative Economic Development in South and South-East Asia, modelled in part on the Marshall Plan. The plan, although then sometimes referred to as the 'Spender Plan', came to be called the 'Colombo Plan'.

The Plan began with seven members of the British Commonwealth - Australia, Canada, Sri Lanka (then Ceylon), India, New Zealand, Pakistan and the United Kingdom. By 1954 these countries had been joined by Burma, Cambodia, Indonesia, Japan, Laos, the Philippines, the United States, Thailand and Malaya.

Prior to the Plan few Australians had had any day to day contact with people from Asia. The plan changed that in a quite dramatic way. Over the next 35 years some 40,000 Asian students studied in Australia under the Plan, bringing large numbers of Australians into contact with Asia and Asians for the first time.

At a purely personal level I added:

Personal contact with Asia and Asians widened. My geography honours class focused on Asia. I met more, especially among Dad's students. The first Asian students came to school as boarders, although they had a pretty hard time of it initially. The local deli was now carrying Asian ingredients, I ate my first Asian food including Indonesian cooked by some of those students, mum started incorporating some Asian elements into her cooking. And all this in a family that five years before had rarely used even garlic in cooking!

By the time I started University in 1963 I had become something of an Asiaphile. I do not think that I was unique. Rather, I simply belong to the first Australian generation that really discovered Asia.

University extended this process. There were only 1,200 or so full time undergraduates on campus, some 10 per cent of these from overseas. Including its affiliate members (only overseas students were eligible for full membership), the Overseas Students Association was the largest student society. Many overseas students occupied senior places on campus. Soo Khoo edited the student newspaper, Ahdi - an Indonesian student - was the paper's chief cartoonist.

Culture shocks continued. Which foods did people eat or not eat? What was acceptable behaviour in different cultures?

A small but not insignificant example. In Australia boys and girls hold hands. In many Asian societies boys or girls held hands, not boys and girls. Australia was then a homophobic society. I still remember my sense of shock when, standing on the Union steps, a Pakistani friend took my hand and held it while talking to me! I gulped inaudibly, and allowed him to do so.

The next photo shows overseas students at the University oOverseas Week 1960f New England attaching a banner for overseas week 1960. The impact of the Columbo Plan was not limited just to students. There was, in fact, a broader international movement that both affected and was influenced by the Colombo Plan.

Two examples to illustrate. One personal, none general.

At a purely personal level, the biography of Uncle Horace records:

During the Second World War Belshaw collaborated with colleagues in Auckland and with fellow members of the New Zealand Institute of International Affairs in promoting discussion of key issues of post-war organisation, development and security in New Zealand and internationally. In 1944 he was appointed research secretary to the Institute of Pacific Relations in New York. Two years later he became professor of agricultural economics at the Davis campus of the University of California and also economist at the Giannini Foundation of Agricultural Economics. His writing in this period reflects his growing interest in rural welfare and agrarian reform in developing countries. With others, he produced a survey of reconstruction problems and needs for the Economic Commission for Asia and the Far East in 1947. His background made him an ideal appointee to the post of director of the Agricultural Division of the Rural Welfare branch of the United Nations' Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO) in 1948. With typical energy and enthusiasm, he organised surveys, conferences and action-oriented programmes, and motivated constructive work by others.

Horace Belshaw was just one of a number of Australian and New Zealand academics actively involved in international agencies in the forties, fifties and sixties. These included my father and two cousins. So regardless of the White Australia Policy, there was a strong ANZ outreach.

The second example is the foundation of International House at Sydney University in 1967. This was driven in part by Rotary and its members who saw international houses as a way of facilitating international understanding.

It may be, as the SBS program suggested, that Australia's role in the Colombo Plan was intended in part to "sell' the White Australia Policy, although I would need a fair bit of convincing on evidence that this was significant as compared to political window-dressing. However, it was also a pragmatic response to change.

Let me give another example. In 1957, Country Party Leader and Deputy PM  John McEwen steered through a trade agreement with Japan. Coming just twelve years after the war, this was a pragmatic but highly risky political gesture, one that laid the basis for subsequent economic expansion.

My point here is that there were a whole series of engagements with Asia during the period over which the policy was abolished. The policy had to go because it now stood in the way of Australia's national interest.

Student activities at Sydney University and the Prasad case make good TV. They are indicative of changing attitudes. However, and this links to my earlier points, that agitation was part of a broader process.

It's actually very interesting from my perspective because of some other writing I am doing on social change in New England during the same period involving the same players. At the time, I saw the Prasad case as an example of the injustice of the White Australia policy. Today, and here I am influenced by the Howard period, I see is more as an example of the injustice associated with the application of rigid rules by officials bound in with current policy.

In 1972 I ran for Country Party pre-selection for the Federal seat of Eden-Monaro.

As a candidate, I had to take into account the attitudes of the Party, my own views and and those of the pre-selectors. At a personal level, I was strongly opposed to the policy. At a Government level, the policy had gone. Yet, at an electorate level, many still supported it.

Asked a question on White Australia, I carefully explained why the policy could not be maintained. After the meeting Ian Sinclair, who was representing the Federal Party, came up and congratulated me on my answer.

My point here is that the process of change was far more nuanced, more graduated, than Immigration Nation allowed. I wonder how many viewers would understand that the policy had gone by 1972, that the issue at an electoral level was how to sell the changes.

I want to finish this post with a few brief comments on Vietnamese boat people.

Living in Canberra in the late sixties and seventies, I was part of a strongly Asiaphile group, several of whom had Vietnamese girlfriends. We ate Vietnamese food, talked about Vietnam, looked at photo albums of life in Saigon over many generations.

As South Vietnam collapsed over 1975, as it became clear that the Whitlam Government would not help rescue people who had been involved with Australia, the group started to try to lobby for change. I had been strongly opposed to Australian participation in the Vietnam War and had registered as a conscientious objector, but I regarded Mr Whitlam's actions as betrayal and so tried to help. All I did was to write to Ian Sinclair seeking his support.

This episode, the Whitlam Government refusal to help refugees, was dealt with at some length in Immigration Nation and put in the context of White Australia. Maybe this is right, maybe Mr Whitlam was concerned about Party attitudes. I can only say that this thought never occurred to me at the time. Rather, I saw it as the application of rigid ideology that, coming out of the war conflicts, regarded helping those supporting the South Vietnamese Government as wrong. There were also some broader foreign policy issues, including relations with China.

I had something of the same reaction to the presentation of Mr Fraser's later role with Vietnamese boat people. By then, the White Australia policy had been well and truly buried and for some time, yet this was presented as its real end. Certainly I did not see it this way at the time. White Australia was an irrelevancy, something past. Yet maybe the program was partially right, in that this was a mass Asian entry into Australia.

I am not a strong supporter of Mr Fraser. However, as I learn more, I have to regard Mr Fraser's role here as a major contribution to Australia.

Well, finishing here, I think that my final judgement on immigration Nation is that it has failed in a most fundamental sense: it will not convince anybody not already convinced. I think that's a pity.


Neil said...

It strikes me that you disagree less with the program's presentation than you seem to: the broad outline is much the same.

I too knew Colombo Plan students at school and at university. What we all knew was that they weren't staying! Nonetheless I learned a lot from my Psych Tute partner Abdullah -- including the fact his father owned a rubber plantation in Malaysia.

But I only began seriously to interact with Asians after 1975.

Neil said...

On Vietnamese refugees and Fraser: In 1979 I have to confess I worried about Fraser welcoming so many Vietnamese. I wondered how they would, um, assimilate! (We all grow, don't we?)

And unusual as it is for ne to commend Quadrant, Hal Colebatch is quite right here.

...Labor Senator Lionel Bowen also invoked anti-Asian white Australia imagery on July 27, 1976, claiming Australia was in danger from the “teeming millions in the North ... And these people are on the move.”

The leftist Nation Review of June 1–7, 1978, carried an article referring to Vietnamese refugees as “bourgeois capitalist exploiters on the run” and ridiculing efforts to help them. In the issue of August 18–24 it referred to them as “political extremists and soft-life seekers”. The pro-Moscow Socialist Party of Australia organ, the Socialist, of May 31, 1978, carried a headline: VIETNAMESE REFUGEES VICTIMS AND TOOLS OF ANTI-COMMUNISM and referred to them as “right-wing Vietnamese who betrayed their country”. The CPA’s Tribune of June 7, 1978, claimed: BHP PREFERS VIETNAMESE and quoted South Coast Labour Council Secretary and CPA National Committee member Merv Nixon to the effect that the situation was disgraceful and that: “We can do without these right-wing elements.” Tribune elaborated on this in the following issue and warned of “right-wing people organizing private armies”. At the University of Western Australia, ALP Left Caucus member Graham Droppert published an article in the student newspaper Pelican, Number 4 of 1978, under the heading REFUGEES OR RATS?, claiming they included “the pimps, the wealthy merchants, the racketeers, the standover men and other exploiters”...

I was in Wollongong at the time and recall Merv Nixon very well.

No, the White Australia attitude was not dead and buried, and Fraser's courage in this is highly significant in the story.

Neil said...

I posted a further comment on the Vietnamese boat people and Fraser story. It seems to have disappeared. My memory is that White Australia views were invoked in 1979 on this matter, ironically by the Left. Even I worried about whether all these Vietnamese could "assimilate"!

See Hal Colebatch in support of my memory. He pretty much gets it right.

The White Australia attitude (as distinct perhaps from Policy) was alive and well in 79.

Jim Belshaw said...

Neil, sorry both for the delay in responding and for the fact that your comments got caught in spam. A proper response follows in a moment.

Jim Belshaw said...

Now responding properly. This is part one.

Our views are all conditioned by our own experiences. I grew up in a university city and then lived in Canberra/Queanbeyan. These are not typical Australian experiences.

I guess that I was what, twelve or thirteen, when I met my first Asian students. Some of Dad's staff were Asian. As a twenty year old I visited Asia staying in Singapore with an Indian family and then in Malaysia with one of Dad's former staff members.

At university, and like others, I absorbed ideas from the US civil rights movement. This was very influential and especially at Sydney. But its influence spread beyond students.

In Canberra from 1967 I mixed with the Foreign Affairs cadets and with Embassy people. Then, campaigning in Queanbeyan, I mixed with multiple, mainly European. migrant groups, trying to work my way through the political complexities of migrant politics.

The group of friends I belonged to were all Asiaphiles. So by 1975 I had had the best part of half my life dealing with mixed communities.

Campaigning in country Australia I came across plenty of support for White Australia. I found this deeply uncomfortable.

To be continued.

Jim Belshaw said...


As I alluded to in regard to Mr Whitlam, there were deeply held ideological positions on the left that got in the way of a sensible discussion on the boat people. South Vietnam = evil, Vietcong and North = good.

The left views had annoyed me for some time. In 1964 I got pissed off with the left views that equated Australia=colonialism=racism while the USSR or China = anticolonialist = non-racism = good. So my fellow editor and I ran parallel stories on racism in South Africa, China and the USSR.

All this surfaced again in the period that you talked about. In some cases, it did get wrapped up in what we would now think of as racist rhetoric.

Popular attitudes changed more slowly than policy, hence the 1972 Eden-Monaro case I talked about. The attitudes are still there, although the form has changed.

One of the reasons that I find White Australia so interesting, and this issue really wasn't addressed adequately in IN, was just how the change actually happened. If you look at the Fraser case and the arguments mounted against it, there really wasn't the type of popular outcry that you might have expected then or, indeed, today.

You may be right about me really disagreeing less than might actually be the case. Really, many of the elements in the framework are the same. It's the cladding and paint that I objected too.

I want to check some dates before going on any more. IM is mission TV. But on the history, and to the degree that IM claims to be a history program, it is bound by the same canons of evidence as I am when writing as an historian.

Neil said...

You saw my expanded comment? I hope to fool your spam catcher by putting the link under my name.

Jim Belshaw said...

I did indeed, Neil, and responded in my last comment. Bloody spam catcher. It often gets KVD and now you. Still, it also catches spam from time to time!

Anonymous said...

Your spammer thing makes no distinction between Neil's common sense and my lack of; it's all about the length of comment - and never mind breadth or depth.

Volubility is the key Jim.


Jim Belshaw said...

Thanks, KVD. That's helpful. I will have to monitor more closely, for I do like longer comments! I get notification of comments by email, so I don't always realise that they haven't gone up.

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