SMH OBITS. 270176. The ALP re elected Mr Gough Whitlam as their Leader at Parliament house in Canberra today. Pic shows L-R, Gough Whitlam and his deputy Tom Uren.

Tom Uren. Photo: Fairfax

THE present controversy over offshore processing of illegal migrants had its antecedents on July 24, 1985, when cabinet considered a recommendation by the Human Rights Commission that illegal immigrants and deportees should be held in immigration detention centres rather than jails.

In a joint submission, immigration and ethnic affairs minister Chris Hurford and administrative services minister Tom Uren urged cabinet to act.

''Without a balanced level of enforcement activity, illegal immigration could quickly accelerate. The provision of adequate custodial facilities is an essential part of the enforcement program,'' they said.

There were at least 50,000 long-term illegal immigrants in Australia at the time and small detention centres in Sydney, Melbourne and Perth had a combined holding capacity for only 170 detainees.

In November, Mr Hurford recommended changes to the Migration Act because the current immigration system was outmoded and increasingly unworkable.

Applications were running at 10,000 annually and there was more than a year's backlog in dealing with appeals.

In his submission, Mr Hurford warned that appeal ''safeguards have been so abused so that administration has now become a nightmare''. In some cases it had taken years of court action before illegal immigrants were deported.

And in another decision that still rings down the years, cabinet also reviewed the future of Christmas Island.

The island's laws were based on 1958 legislation for colonial Singapore and residents could not gain access to Australian welfare benefits.

Mr Uren argued that Christmas Island should be brought into the Australian mainstream ''to demonstrate to our neighbours that the island is regarded as an integral part of Australia, not just a phosphate source''.

On April 2, 1984, cabinet agreed to a staged integration package that included Australian wages and conditions, local government, welfare, voting rights and income and company tax.