Dr June Factor writes:

In the few weeks of the election campaign, how many times will we hear about troublesome asylum seekers and wicked people smugglers?

These labels are very familiar to the Jewish community. The sad truth of centuries of oppression and discrimination in Europe, culminating in the horrors of Nazi persecution and mass murder in World War II, mean that most Jewish families in Australia have relatives whose lives were saved by desperate flight from imminent danger. Then as now, people escaping for their lives did not have the luxury of acquiring official exit documents. It was and is often safer to disguise identity when officialdom is your enemy.

Some Jews were helped by loyal friends. Others paid guides to smuggle them to safety. Whether altruistic or avaricious, these ‘people smugglers’ saved lives. Without their knowledge of hiding places, terrain, police and guards who could be bribed, far fewer fugitives would have found asylum.

After 1933 there were thousands of applications from desperate people seeking refuge in Australia. It was a very different Australia then. The population in 1939 was 7 million, the vast majority of Anglo-Celtic origin. Few people had travelled overseas, and when they did, they mostly visited ‘Home’ – the British Isles or Ireland. Information about the world was available chiefly from local newspapers and radio stations. This was a relatively isolated community, not highly educated, generally unaccustomed to foreigners with their unfamiliar languages and traditions. It is not surprising that the government believed an influx of ‘aliens’ would cause anxiety.

Yet despite its unease and reluctance to accept many non-British subjects, the government in the 1930s and early 1940s permitted entry as refugees to some thousands of Jews, non-Jewish anti-fascists, and Chinese and Indonesians escaping the Japanese. And after the war this country welcomed more than 170,000 ‘Displaced Persons’ of many nationalities from the refugee camps in Europe – part of the Curtin and Chifley Labor Government’s great post-war immigration program which led to the consolidation of Australia as an advanced multicultural society.

The Prime Minister, Julia Gillard, is right when she calls Australia a sanctuary. That is what it has been for asylum seekers, including those who’ve sought a safe haven here from a variety of post-war disasters in the Middle East, Asia and Africa. The older generations of refugees have enriched and enhanced Australian life in every field of endeavour; as they find their feet and their place in the new society, the same pattern of achievement can be expected of the more recent arrivals.

It was therefore a disturbing reversal of long-standing Australian policy when the Howard government introduced its increasingly punitive treatment of those seeking refuge here. It was a considerable rejection of that disgraceful policy that helped defeat the Howard government in 2007. The Rudd government initiated some welcome reforms, particularly abolition of the humiliating and destructive Temporary Protection Visas and the notorious so-called Pacific Solution.

But whereas earlier reforming governments set out to explain, over and over again, the reasons for their actions, the Rudd government chose a kind of do-good-by-stealth policy when it came to asylum seekers. It is admirable when individuals undertake good deeds without publicity; governments, however, are required to clarify and justify their reforms to the people they serve.

It is the Labor government’s grave failure to validate and defend its more humane policy towards people arriving in leaking boats seeking refuge that has enabled the Opposition to retrofit its disreputable ‘turn the boats back’ mantra to serve its own political ends.

Desperate for an ingenious ‘tough’ alternative, the new Prime Minister offers a new version of the Pacific Solution, a solution she called, when in Opposition, ‘a costly and unsustainable farce’. A ‘regional processing centre’, whether in East Timor or some other country in our region, will certainly be very expensive, and its chance of existence doubtful. Why should poorer, less developed countries shoulder Australia’s responsibility for asylum seekers who apply for our protection? Julia Gillard says this anywhere-but-Australia scheme will put the people-smugglers out of business. That sounds like the triumph of hope over experience.

Meanwhile, against our international obligations, recent Afghani refugees remain in detention, their claims for asylum untested for another 3 months. Word leaks out that those longer-detained Afghans who have been assessed are being sent back in large numbers because they’ll be ‘safe’ in Afghanistan, a decision so contrary to the evidence that the usually discreet UN refugee agency expresses public concern.

All in all, this is a government policy cobbled together in political panic – neither humane nor practical. The new Prime Minister and her fellow MPs would be wise to seek counsel from the shades of John Curtin and Ben Chifley, or from the living experience of Bob Hawke and Malcolm Fraser.

*June Factor is a writer and an Honorary Senior Fellow at the Australian Centre, University of Melbourne.