Immigration is one of the most important responsibilities of the federal government. If administered badly, it can cause irreversible and serious damage to a nation – just look at some European countries. But apart from John Howard’s affirmation that “We shall decide who comes into this country“, this crucial question is being ignored. We don’t really know whether Labor will once again misuse the power to create election fodder as it did when last in office. And we do know that from 1998 to 2001 Kevin Rudd opposed every measure to stop the mounting danger of the people smuggling.

From the foundation of the Commonwealth, Australian immigration policy has been marred by racism, incompetence, and corruption. Before the movement to Federation, this was the principal reason for the birth of our first republican movement. In strong opposition to British liberal policies, a republic was seen as the best way of keeping Australia white. The movement’s journal, The Bulletin, proclaimed on its front page ”Australia for the White Man,” a banner which lingered until the 60s.

Federation demonstrated a white republic was not necessary to achieve this. For many decades racism remained strongest in the ALP, which nevertheless ensured post-war immigration extended beyond the Anglo-Saxon world. The ALP later followed the Coalition in dismantling White Australia.

One particular example of incompetence was when the Fraser government lowered immigration standards, against all advice, to admit victims of the Lebanese civil war. The victims didn’t come, but others did.

But for corruption it would be hard to beat the last Labor government. Paul Sheehan has demonstrated, in exquisite detail, the use of immigration to “build up,” as Barry Jones delicately put it, “a long term political constituency”. Choosing immigrants not for their potential contributions, or assimilability, but as election fodder led to the moving of Chris Hurford from the immigration portfolio so that Sheik Taj Din Al Hilaly would not be deported. Paul Keating, eager to engage on most issues, refuses to explain this.

This corruption of the immigration system has been supplemented by the NSW Labor State government, which is even prepared to discriminate against old Australians in the application of the law.

The egregious example was when the NSW police were ordered, correctly, to control the Cronulla rioters with great vigour. The rioters were attacking apparent Muslims with their fists. But the situation was a direct result of police failure to control a long festering situation. As a reprisal to the riot, a vicious and criminal revenge force then assembled in the Premier’s own electorate, Lakemba, armed with baseball bats, knives and machetes. They did not hesitate to use these after their motorcade ignored such niceties as red lights to reach the Cronulla district. As they assembled, the NSW police were instructed to keep their distance. Consequently, criminal prosecutions seem to have been more about the riot than the far more serious crimes committed on the following evening.

When the people smugglers began to target Australia as their next major market, Labor, with the Greens and Democrats, blocked all attempts to deal with this. Yet Labor had opposed receiving the last genuine boat people who made the perilous journey by boat from Vietnam, and not by buying a flight to friendly Indonesia to jump the immigration queue. It was only when Wayne Swan realised in 2001 that even rusted on ALP members were going to vote for the Coalition that Labor somersaulted over Howard’s Border Protection Bill.

“Me-tooism” began in 2001, not 2007.

The fact is that Howard’s immigration policy, with its emphasis on Australia’s needs, is a model copied in the UK and praised at a recent US Center for Immigration Studies forum. This result has managed to quell domestic opposition to immigration, which is strong even in immigrant communities, at least when it comes to other communities.

There are those who think the Howard policy is too liberal, but we have no idea what the policy of a Rudd government would be. The ALP Platform is full of contradictory principles. But we do know that the administration of immigration under the last Labor government was appalling. It was directed to using immigration as electoral fodder, not to further the national interest. We know that between until 2001 Kevin Rudd voted against every measure the government proposed to control the people smugglers. It was only when it became obvious that even blue ribbon Labor seats would fall that he supported the government’s border protection measure.

So how will a Rudd government handle immigration?

Peter Fray

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Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey