Previously: Mr Fraser answered Question Seven out of seventeen questions and qualified the assertion that Australia maintains the right to select who comes here – ‘within that there has to be room for humanitarian asylum seekers who want safe refuge.’

The Impossible Queue

He looks down to the print-out. A big black question mark has been drawn in. He is confused by the parts I picked out of his Political Memoirs, ‘…the solution chosen for the problem of ‘queue jumpers’ was to attempt to make sure there was indeed a queue, and that it was working properly and fairly.’

That sentence is a bit muddled he says. The other sentence I had picked out was probably more accurate: ‘The solution to people coming through the backdoor was to open the front door wider’.

He suggests that Julia Gillard could have reduced the incentive for people getting into boats by allocating a significant portion of the increased refugee quota in 2012 to Indonesia. 

‘This is one of the lessons we learnt out of Indochina. Because a lot of people were trying to escape in not much more than river boats, we feared that many drowned. The whole purpose of trying to get Malaysia to establish these holding centres was to stop people taking the longer trip through Indonesian waters where you would also have to watch for pirates. We had a selection process in Malaysia and then people were cleared as refugees and flown to Australia, America or Canada.’

I can’t quite get my head around his vision so I protest that nowadays refugees are not in refugee camps as they were in the 1970s. They probably fly in on tourist visas and they’re all over. Yes, he says, but waves these objections away as if they are but pesky flies: you could have a processing service in Indonesia, the UNHCR could help run it, or the Indonesians could. It’s their decision not ours.

‘But you know the government didn’t want to take that path. And the opposition didn’t want to take that path. They chose to stop people drowning at sea by quite a different means.’

Perhaps because what he is saying is so different to the current reality, I am lost. I look down at my questions and start reading Question Eight, thinking this is where we left off, ‘And with regard to queue jumpers, do you think it is really possible to have a queue in the confusion and the chaos that surrounds -‘

He cuts me off. He has already disowned that statement.

‘An absolute order of merit and a nice, orderly, clean queue for all the refugees around the world is an absolute impossibility. Introducing the term queue jumpers is designed, in my view, to justify an inhumane policy. It is part of the rubric that they use to justify not letting anyone come in.’

On refusing refugees and sabotaging boats

Question Nine: ‘Why did Australia not take any of the 2,500 refugees from the Hai Hong that was stopped in Malaysia?’

Fraser replies, ‘I’m not conscious that there was any pressure or any desire for that boat to come to Australia.’

I am immediately sceptical.

‘We were already taking a lot of refugees. I spoke to Ian Macphee and he couldn’t remember any details. Maybe Australia felt it was doing enough with the numbers we were taking out of the camps. I think we’ve all got to accept that there could be more people than you can easily, totally accommodate.’

In answering the next few questions, Fraser reiterates his position: We should welcome refugees because we presume to be a decent people and a humane country. We should encourage as many countries as possible to accept refugees so that no one country gets pushed too far, which is only going to arouse anti-refugee sentiment.

On whether Australian officials sabotaged boats to prevent them from leaving Malaysia when he was Prime Minister, he says he doesn’t know. In any case it is irrelevant because we were accepting them from refugee camps and didn’t want them to make the dangerous boat journey.

Compassion vs border security?

I can see his wristwatch clearly from where I sit. The hour is almost up.

Question Fifteen: ‘Mr Rudd tried to make the policy more humane by winding some measures back but an academic said it was cruel rather than kind because then a whole surge of refugees came. What do you think of the actions that Mr Rudd’s government took?’

‘The Labor Party has not been prepared to fight for what it knows to be right. When the Tampa thing occurred, I can remember speaking to a senior political figure, saying, “For God’s sake, why don’t you oppose this strongly?” And he just looked at me and he said, “Malcolm you don’t understand. Howard has ripped so many Rednecks out of the Labor party, I’m not going to let him rip any more.” So, you know, no courage, no sense of what was right, no willingness in his gut to fight for what was right and so he joins the chorus in trying to be inhumane to refugees and asylum seekers. That began the Labor Party’s fall from grace on this subject. It has been a competition between the two parties ever since.’ 

I am shocked. Rednecks? Isn’t that derogatory? I am not so much shocked at the use of the word as I am by Fraser relaying to me this private conversation. He must know that this will badly damage my view of the person he has named, and also, more generally, the reputation of the politicians who shape Australia’s nationhood. Perhaps he is so incensed by the inhumane treatment of refugees and asylum seekers that he is prepared to disregard customary privacy etiquette. But a few weeks later, his assistant will call me and request that I change the name to ‘a senior political figure’.

I already know his answer to Question Sixteen but I ask it anyway, ‘Do you think it is possible to act humanely to those who seek asylum while maintaining the integrity of our borders? Is it a trade-off?

‘Look! The number of refugees are not a threat to our borders.’ He quotes figures to show that the number of refugees is very small compared to the number of migrants.

‘It is not going to alter the character or nature of Australia. The idea that refugees, boat people, are a major threat to Australia’s integrity as a nation has been adopted by a lot of people because of government rhetoric – playing politics with the lives of some of the most vulnerable people. That is a despicable position to be in.’

At five minutes to three, I ask Question Seventeen: Are there any other stories you want to share? Any direct contact with refugees who arrived during his time as Prime Minister?

He tells me about a time when he was walking on Collins Street one day, when someone called out, ‘Hey, Mal.’ It wasn’t anyone he knew, but the young man, wearing an Australian Air Force uniform, asked if they could talk. The airman’s parents were from Vietnam and he had arrived in Australia in their arms. The family decided that he would try to enter the Air Force to repay some of the debt they owed to Australia.

‘You’re never going to get more loyal citizens out of a family that feels like that.’

Religious wars and Western interference

Prompted by the shooting of the teenager by police that morning, I mention the great fear of Islamization. Of course, he says, but think of the Catholic Inquisition and the religious wars in England when thousands of people were killed on either side, and the war between the Protestants and the Catholics in Ireland.

He moves on to Iran. Not many people realize, he says, that in the 1950s, Iran had a democratically elected leader, Prime Minister Mosaddegh. Mosaddegh wanted British Petroleum (BP) to pay a fair price for oil but BP baulked and orchestrated the American and British removal of Mosaddegh, installing a Shah in his place. The Shah turned out to be a brutal right wing fascist dictator. What would have happened if the West hadn’t interfered, if Mosaddegh had been allowed to do his job? Would the whole history of the Middle East be different?

Because I am so far out of my depth, I do not, as I should, engage further with him; instead I ask him to sign a copy of his book, Dangerous Allies, which I had brought along. Later, I will kick myself realising that I, not he, ended the interview. I leave his office on the dot at three p.m.

At the door, he smiles and says, ‘You’ll send me a copy won’t you?’

‘Yes, I will do that,’ I promise.

New instalment next Friday, 22 March. At a conference in Adelaide, a stranger gives me a great suggestion of whom to interview next.

Click here to read the book from the beginning or here to read the first half of the interview in which Mr Fraser gave what seemed to me to be a very good answer to the complex question of race relations.

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