Malcolm Fraser opened the door to Vietnamese refugees in the late 1970s and championed a larger Australia through immigration. Here, in an extract from the new Fraser biography, he remembers the birth of multiculturalism.

Fraser had since his first days in politics advocated immigration as a means of boosting Australia’s population. In his earliest speeches and radio addresses he said that he hoped to see Australia reach a population of 25 million in his lifetime — an ambition he is likely to fulfil. As a minister in the Gorton government he had become the first federal politician to use the word “multiculturalism”.

In this he was breaking with the Anglocentric and assimilationist traditions of his party. He was closer to Whitlam than to many on his own side of politics. The Whitlam government had developed the concept of multiculturalism, with the Minister for Immigration Al Grassby its passionate advocate; yet, at the same time, Whitlam cut immigration and all but dismantled the Department of Immigration.

It was therefore the Fraser government that gave multiculturalism form and definition. A report by the Australian Ethnic Affairs Council, which had been set up by the Fraser government, defined multiculturalism as “cultural pluralism”. Australia, the council said, should work towards “not a oneness, but a unity, not a similarity, but a composite, not a melting pot, but a voluntary bond of dissimilar people sharing a common political and institutional structure”.

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It was this definition and aspiration that guided government policies from both sides of politics for the next 20 years — until repudiated by the Howard government. During Fraser’s time, most advocates of multiculturalism were Labor supporters dismayed by the events of 1975. They were often reluctant to recognise what was achieved in the Fraser years. It is only through the prism of the Howard years, and because of Fraser’s vocal opposition to Australia’s more recent treatment of refugees, that some have been prepared to reassess.

Fraser says today that he was well aware that the decision to take in large numbers of Asian refugees and their families was a fundamental one, changing the face of Australia and with the potential for vicious electoral backlash.

“Every word I said on the issue in public was to try to say that we could do it, that we were strong enough, that we should be proud of our record as a migrant nation, and that we would be made stronger by diversity.”

He believed that sectarianism was an ever-present threat. He remembered the way his own father had believed the things that Prime Minister Billy Hughes had said about Catholics during World War I. Politicians, he believes, have a superior duty to speak with “discretion and respect” on issues of race and religion.

This is an edited extract from Malcolm Fraser: The Political Memoirs by Malcolm Fraser and Margaret Simons, published in March by The Miegunyah Press, an imprint of MUP.