Labor's recycling strategy
Illustration: Jim Pavlidis.
As the September 14 election approaches, we will no doubt hear more from both major parties on the issue of border control. At least we have agreement on some aspects of this policy area. Both parties understand that there are many, many more refugees in the world than we can afford to accept. They agree that the government decides how many we can afford to take and they agree that those who come by boat, because they can afford to pay a people smuggler, should not have an advantage over poor refugees waiting in camps. Offshore processing is an essential and agreed part of achieving that aim.
If Labor really wants to stop the boats, it should toughen up and agree to reinstate temporary protection visas (by any new-fangled name they may choose to make it look a bit different) and to cut off family reunions. We will have to wait and see if that reality dawns. Labor has come kicking and screaming to adopt so much of the Howard policy agenda. This extra little bit shouldn't be too hard. It would certainly blunt the Coalition attack on the ALP in coming months.
As immigration minister in the Howard government, I am pleased that Labor has at least accepted some of our border protection policies. But I am also irritated. Why? Because Labor constantly sought to portray my party as a bunch of old racists.
The coward's way, which was frequently chosen, was to call John Howard a dog whistler. This sort of rubbish can easily be peddled through interest groups and those commentators keen to use the opportunity to define themselves as being opposed to racism. Now that Labor has similar policies to Howard's, I do not hear them whistling any dog tunes. Funny about that. Perhaps Labor sought to portray the Liberals as racists to assuage some guilt about the ALP's past, or at the very least to divert voters' attention from Labor's record.
If you know any servicemen who served in Timor during World War II, you might ask them about the extraordinary role played by the Timorese criados in helping our troops. While you're there, ask them about the anguish of knowing that we refused to open our hearts and evacuate these people who risked their lives to save Australian lives. We left them behind to face an unsafe and unhappy future.
Then there's former Labor leader Arthur Calwell. He should rightly be acknowledged as the father of our modern immigration system - although you will not hear a Labor person admitting that Robert Menzies, as the then opposition leader, played a critical role in getting it accepted and laid the first brick in Australia's bipartisan approach to immigration by urging the government to be adventurous rather than cautious.
But there was a darker side to the policy; there was a rule (which proved ineffective but demonstrated intent) that there should be 10 Britons for every non-white alien. And returned servicemen with Japanese war brides found Calwell not only unmoved by their desire to bring their wives home but bitterly opposed. He said that while ''Any relatives remain of Australian soldiers dead in the Pacific battlefields'', it would be ''the grossest act of indecency to permit any Japanese of either sex to pollute Australian shores''.
Calwell fought vigorously after the war to have Chinese, Malay and Indonesian wartime refugees deported. He had a special bill drafted to deal with one, Mrs Annie O'Keefe, an Ambonese woman with eight children who had fled to Australia with them. Her husband had died fighting the Japanese and she had remarried an Australian. Only the good offices of the departmental secretary saved her.
Then there's Calwell's infamous line about two wongs not making a white. Some argue it was taken out of context, but not that it wasn't said. Calwell was a zealous supporter of the White Australia Policy. In contrast, only a few years later, under the Liberals, Paul Hasluck, as administrator of the territories, was able to secure agreement that Chinese and mixed-race people in Papua New Guinea were able to settle in Australia and become Australian citizens.
Getting closer to the issue of border protection, one might find former Singapore leader Lee Kuan Yew's biography illuminating. He was particularly affronted by the Whitlam government's proposal that Singapore should allow some 8000 Vietnamese refugees to disembark there, whereupon Australia would choose less than 200 to accept here. Singapore could worry about the others.
Whitlam was not a racist. As former Labor minister Clyde Cameron tells the story, Whitlam's opposition was more political. Cameron and Whitlam's deputy, Lance Barnard, had organised a flight in April 1975 to bring Vietnamese orphans and babies to Australia. Cameron says Whitlam justified cancelling the flight by saying he wasn't having ''Vietnamese Balts coming to Australia''.
If you believe Labor, you might believe it was only because of Whitlam that the White Australia policy was undone. You might be surprised to know that the father of Australian multiculturalism, Professor Jerzy Zubrzycki, concluded that the policy ''had its demise at the hands of mainly Liberal ministers and finally of the Whitlam Labor government''.
The Australia prime minister Lee Kuan Yew most admired was Menzies. The postwar Menzies government was a strong supporter of the Colombo Plan, a key element in our early relations with Asia. People with long memories understand the forward and outward-looking policies Menzies implemented. Lee said Menzies understood ''that sentiments and ties of kinship could not displace the realities of geopolitics and geoeconomics in the post-imperial world''. That understanding from an Australian can be phrased another way: The Asian Century is around the corner. And yet Julia Gillard seems to think she discovered it!
Amanda Vanstone was minister for immigration in the Howard government.