Malcolm Turnbull

“Good to see that it looks like the government is now taking its cues from One Nation. Just like last time.” — Pauline Hanson, 2016

Write that on Malcolm Turnbull’s political gravestone, not because it will be what kills his prime ministership but because it’s the epitaph he deserves.

While it is now impossible to distinguish between the actions of this Prime Minister and his predecessor, there remains a key difference. Tony Abbott’s constant playing of the politics of fear was a function of his values; that’s who he is. Turnbull’s swing in the same direction is pure skin-saving expedience: craven, amoral, pathetic. That, it turns out, is who he is.

Still, he has a point. When the polling on this comes out, we’ll find a strong majority of Australians support the new plan to ban boat people from Australia, forever. Consigning them to rot on distant islands is not enough; it’s important that they never make it to Sea World, even as a tourist in 40 years’ time. They will never set foot on our pristine, white sand. Yep, that’ll play plenty well.

It’s often noted that Australia once stood tall in the field of human rights. Our representative, Doc Evatt, was in the president’s chair at the UN in 1948, when the Universal Declaration of Human Rights was created to elevate the world to a higher plane of humanity than that which had just so nearly destroyed it.  The declaration included Article 14: “Everyone has the right to seek and enjoy in other countries asylum from persecution.”

Australia was one of the first nations to sign up to the Universal Declaration and one of the 26 original signatories to the 1951 Refugees Convention. In the convention, we agreed that unity of family was an essential right of refugees, and we joined in the demand that all governments “continue to receive refugees in their territories”.

We signed up to the principle of non-refoulement, meaning we promised not to return any refugee to a territory where their life or freedom would be threatened. And we committed not to punish refugees on account of their attempt to enter our territory, or to restrict their movements any more than necessary and then only until they have been resettled.

We’ve breached all of those promises. We have utterly abrogated our obligation to receive those who seek asylum in Australia, claiming their rights under the Refugee Convention as people fleeing their country based on a well-founded fear of persecution. We turn back their boats, pay people smugglers to take them, or consign them to Manus or Nauru, where we pretend that they’re no longer our problem while spending billions footing the bill. We have refouled genuine refugees. We are punishing them for having the temerity to come our way. Now we will extend that punishment to a lifetime ban.

The sheer awfulness of Australia’s attitude to refugees today offers a compelling contrast to the high-minded sentiments of 1948 and 1951. What a paragon of international virtue we were back then. So, the question is begged, what went wrong? World War II produced the largest flow of refugees in history, not paralleled until the recent Syrian exodus (which has not touched Australia). How were we so welcoming then, and so determined to be closed today?

The answer is not that Australians have become more racist or xenophobic. Nor, tempting as it is to assert this, is it that our leaders today are more ignoble than the political lions of times gone past. The depressing truth is that nothing much is new under the Australian sun.

In 1948, the Labor government of Ben Chifley ratified the Universal Declaration that “all human beings are born free and equal in dignity and rights”. In the same year, the minister for immigration, Arthur Calwell, issued a pamphlet titled “I Stand by White Australia”, in which he rejected calls to relax Australia’s longstanding policy preventing “Asiatics” and other non-whites from migrating here.

Referring to the wartime decision to temporarily allow numbers of Asians fleeing the Japanese invasion into Australia, Calwell noted: “Eventually, to get rid of these people, it was necessary to bring down special legislation … Some newspapers have played up, in spectacular fashion, the stories of deportees.  Almost invariably they have seized on cases deserving least sympathy to support their charge against the Government of harsh and intolerant administration of the law.”

Calwell followed up with the Aliens Deportation Bill, then in 1949 the War-time Refugees Removal Bill in case anyone still hadn’t got the hint.

In 1948, people of the Baha’i faith, escaping persecution in Iran, were denied entry to Australia because they were formally classified as “Asiatic”. Meanwhile, the doors were opened to large numbers of white European refugees.

The intake included some Jews, which was very controversial at the time; a 1947 opinion poll found 58% opposed to Australia taking them in at all. In response, Calwell placed a strict quota limit on the number of Jews, and then ended the humanitarian program for Holocaust survivors altogether.

At home, it was in 1948 that under Western Australian law Aboriginal people were for the first time allowed to physically enter central Perth. Throughout Australia, Aboriginal children were by law being actively removed from their families without consent. In NSW in 1950, it was decided that Aboriginal children could be assimilated into local schools, provided the white parents all agreed.

That was Australia, then. Apart from the realisation that Peter Dutton has been plagiarising his speeches from Arthur Calwell, what does it tell us?

It tells us that when Tony Abbott said last year that “Australians are sick of being lectured to” by the United Nations, he was being more ironic than he thought. We actually have every reason for a degree of irritation, because it was to a significant degree the force of our very own hypocrisy that helped drive the declaration of international human rights standards after World War II, standards that we at the time flagrantly breached and with which we had no real intention of complying.

Now those same standards are used (by soft left hand-wringers like me) to make us feel bad about our border protection strategies, with demands that we live up to the lofty ideals of the documents we led the world in signing. No wonder we’re annoyed.

You see, it isn’t that our leaders have lost their humanity. They reflect the lack of empathy that has always driven Australia’s approaches to immigration and indigenous affairs. It’s galling that we thought Turnbull felt something different, but on reflection no big surprise that he doesn’t. He stands in the long tradition of non-humanitarian pragmatism that has always defined this country’s self-management. We are truly an island.

Peter Fray

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Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey