Previously: I ask Mr Fraser, ‘How did you know that it was good and right for people of different races to come to Australia in the 1970s when Australia was predominantly Caucasian?’
Fraser replies, ‘I think the first substantive action which had implications for the White Australia Policy was the signing on of the Refugee Convention in 1954. That indicated an acceptance of a changing situation.’
He believes that the government of the day probably didn’t understand the full implications this had for the White Australia Policy, which Gough Whitlam finally abolished in 1972.
‘We’d led the South Vietnamese to believe that with our help, with American help, they could prevail, though that was not to be. We probably had an ethical obligation to the people we’d been fighting alongside and to many people who worked with Australians. Many of these people would have been at risk, if only because of their association with Australians.
‘But I like to think that Australia would have accepted large numbers even if that had not been the case. My government would have, certainly – you either believe people have an equal status regardless of race, colour, geography, religion, or you don’t.’
I had started with Saigon, but Fraser has gone further back in time, and further out in space – speaking of his opposition to Apartheid as evidence to his last statement on equality. Customs, he says, may differ from place to place, but the basic values of how you treat other people and how you hope that other people will treat you are pretty much the same in Melbourne, or Adelaide, or a small African village.
The comfortable pause that follows suggests to me that this a good answer to the complex question of race – treat others as you hope they would treat you. It is as if Mr Fraser and I have finally walked onto common ground where we understand each other, and I am at ease.
Question Two: ‘In the lead-up to the 1977 elections, was it necessary for you to assure the public that you were not soft on border protection?’
‘I never felt it, no. I don’t think that term was used then,’ says Mr Fraser.
‘Probably not,’ I say, keen to be agreeable.
‘I am not conscious of it and I’m not conscious of the refugees we took from Indochina creating a difficult situation. It was easier because Gough Whitlam did not oppose it although he had made an earlier decision not to take people in.’
Because Fraser explains his motivation to accept refugees in terms of moral rightness, I skip Questions Three and Four that suggests external factors pressured him to extend the welcome.
Question Five: ‘With the Immigration Unauthorised Arrivals Bill in 1980, was that when the criminalisation of people smuggling began and did the Bill achieve its objectives?’
‘Criminalisation of people smugglers might have begun then but people smugglers have been demonised in the years since in a major way,’ he says.
Take for example, he says, this Afghani family. The parents had employed a female university professor to teach their two daughters at home. Lessons were conducted in secrecy because the professor was not allowed to work in Taliban-controlled Afghanistan. As the daughters approached the marriageable age according to Islamic law, the whole set up was getting too dangerous. The family escaped by boat to Australia where they were detained in Port Hedland, Western Australia. A refugee advocate eventually secured their release.
After four years of schooling in Sydney, the girls spoke good English. They were bright, intelligent people with a great future, but they would absolutely have been stuck if someone had not been willing to make a profit. The people smuggling boat was providing a service, which they needed. Australia ended up getting a wonderful family, who are going to make good Afghan Australians.
I ask an unscripted question, one that must logically follow, ‘In that case, are bills like these necessary since people smuggling will be around and they help people?’
‘Well, I think some people go into it blatantly, purely for profit and deceive people. They need laws against it because um… I don’t remember the details of this bill. It was so…long ago. The minister was handling it. Ian Macphee was handling it.’
I sense his irritation. I say. ‘I just crammed all this, that’s why I remember.’
We both laugh.
And because I am no hard-nosed journalist, I skip the Question Six, reasoning that if he doesn’t remember details of the bill, he won’t remember the only time his government applied it to deport all one hundred and forty passenger and six crew members of the boat VT 838, on the grounds that it was a people smuggling racket.
Question Seven: ‘Most of the people who were accepted into Australia were chosen from refugee camps in South East Asia. Do you agree with the assertion that Australia has always maintained the right to select whom we accept and we do so more readily if they are not already on our shores?’
‘I’m not sure about that,’ he says. ‘I know there’s the Immigration Department, and then there’s Australia. The Immigration Department has, in my view, for a very, very long while, a strong racist element in it.’
His words shock me but he continues as if he hasn’t said anything unusual, ‘In my time we did not have fixed detention centres. We didn’t need them.’ He describes how refugees used to be billeted in the community, how they were able to go out and buy coffee, and get a job, which they are not allowed to do now.
With a wry smile, he says, ‘They could even pay taxes. People who want to become citizens are not going to abscond. Detention is only justifiable if they are found not to be genuine refugees. The proposition that we decide who comes here is broadly correct. Within that, there has to be room for humanitarian asylum seekers who want safe refuge.’
The next instalment of ‘Australia: Island of Refuge #3‘ and the rest of the interview will be posted next Friday, 15 March 2019.