Previously in Refuge #47 Asylum Seeker Dental Care: A Syrian asylum seeker cannot use his skills in dentistry. Meanwhile, teeth that can be saved are extracted because it is the cheaper option. If only we could find better ways to cooperate, find better ways to live.
My message to Julia Gillard goes unanswered. My letter to Tony Abbott goes unanswered. Kevin Rudd sends his kind wishes but has no comment to make.
Over breakfast with a friend from my student days, Merrilyn Teague, I turn over a book that her brother has just published. On the back cover of Baymeryl I read that Dr Baden Teague was Liberal Senator for South Australia from 1978 to his retirement in 1996 and that he had a particular interest in immigration. I write to him requesting an interview. He invites me to tea, writing that his wife, Kathy, will join us. He signs off as Baden.
‘Do you always carry around pots of beautiful things?’ asks Kathy as I give her the hyacinths. Baden shakes my hand warmly. They lead me through the corridor of their bluestone cottage as if we’ve been friends for years.
Baden points to a watercolour painting. It’s a picture of their farm where he presses olive oil and produces his own wine. He shows me a photo of his children and grandchildren. Over tea, Baden, Kathy and I talk about family and the merits of various schools around Adelaide. Actually, Baden ranks them for me.
‘And when did you get your permanent residency in Australia?’ asks Baden.
‘I first came here as an international student in 1989 and returned to Malaysia after graduating. I came back to Australia ten years ago for my husband’s work and we stayed on.’
Baden and I adjourn to his study for the interview. I want to reconcile the bi-partisan support for mandatory detention of asylum seekers within a mere ten years of the Fraser government, which ‘didn’t need to lock people up’. So I ask Baden about the Migration Amendment Legislation of 1989. This Act gave immigration officers the option to detain asylum seekers for administrative purposes.
For the briefest of moments, Baden collects his thoughts. The main purpose of the 1989 Act, he says, was to allow department officials to carry out their job without appealing to the discretionary powers of the Immigration Minister. It was a move to a more transparent and efficient immigration system built on good principles.
I had only considered the legislation with regard to its implication for asylum seekers. I realize I know too little of the law to engage in meaningful discussion. Perhaps Baden senses this too because he doesn’t wait for my next question. Instead he launches into a lively retelling of how immigration policy developed.
Hawke, when in Opposition, made some speeches against multiculturalism and against Vietnamese immigration in order to differentiate himself from Fraser. But after he came into office, Hawke looked out for the welfare of ethnic communities.
‘Government was basically good during Fraser, Hawke, Keating and Howard. The teams with them made them good. They had the capacity for leadership. With good government, the public can be guided to a reasonably balanced immigration policy. At least the beginning of Howard was good. Howard could have been worse.’
‘It’s worse now,’ I murmur.
‘Worse now,’ he booms. ‘Your words are correct!’ and he points at me. ‘It is worse now because Abbott overreacted to the failures of the government in the Rudd/Gillard period. Boats, people died at sea, Australians alarmed at the government, xenophobia, queue jumping, ‘evil people’, unlawful, demonizing in public language and even in the language of parliament.’ He punches his left palm with his right fist.
‘Fraser called it a race to the bottom,’ I say.
‘Yes, he did. But Fraser became reactive and provocative in his later years. For example, while I’m not a fan of America, my friend, Malcolm Fraser, went way too far by rejecting any American alliance on Australia’s part. That phrase, race to the bottom, that’s exaggerating it. Howard did only half the demonizing of today and there was no demonizing in Fraser’s day. The whole country has become polarized now. Well, in that context perhaps it is quite useful to call it a race to the bottom.’
‘People like me and Fraser, true multiculturalists, became isolated,’ he continues. Fraser was a mix of liberal, pragmatic and conservative, but his liberal side came to the fore in later years. Ten small ‘l’ liberals were pushed aside from 1990 to 1996, including Immigration Minister under Fraser, Ian Macphee. But they didn’t get me. I voluntarily retired after 18 years. I was expected to continue certainly to 2002, if not to 2008, but I had other things to do.’
Almost as an afterthought, Baden says, ‘Perhaps I should tell you one more story.’
After the Liberal Party lost the 1987 election to Hawke, John Howard continued as leader of the opposition. Howard became even more conservative in order to distinguish himself from Hawke. On 30 of July 1988, just after visiting Margaret Thatcher, Howard promoted the idea of One Australia, a common Australian culture, moving away from multiculturalism and from Aboriginal rights towards assimilation. In radio interviews two days later, Howard responded to questions about One Australia and said he would significantly reduce the rate of Asian immigration to Australia.
As the chairman of the Coalition Immigration Policy Committee, Baden contacted him straightaway and said, ‘John, this is a leader talking off the top of his head. You cannot change our policy on the run. Who are you going to pick on next? This is counterproductive to the interest of our party and the good of Australia. I ask you to retract this.’
When no retraction came from his leader, Baden spoke to all the press saying that he was totally opposed to Howard’s stance. The Liberal Party thus became divided over Howard’s ‘One Australia’ policy.
‘One third of the Liberal Party was with me, one third was watching on the fence and one third was with Howard,’ says Baden.
Two weeks later, Howard asked Baden to meet him in Sydney on Thursday, 18 of August, to discuss the redraft of the Liberal and National Policy on Immigration and Ethnic Affairs. Baden flew in on Wednesday and spent the night in the home of his good friend, Phillip Ruddock MP.
During a good day’s discussion on Thursday, Howard conceded about twenty minor points to Teague. This included wording in the document that the principle of non-discrimination should be unqualified. In return, Howard asked for a new pre-amble, which gave the government the right to alter the composition of the immigration intake in response to changing requirements, be they social, economic, political or humanitarian. The elected Government would decide the composition.
‘It’s very hard to argue against this. So I conceded this to him,’ explains Baden. ‘We shook hands. We had talked from 10am to 4:30pm. He had taken me to lunch. It was a happy day.’
However, back in Adelaide on Saturday, Baden opened newspaper after newspaper and read that Howard on the Friday had given meanings to the policy that were not in their discussion. “The Australian” ran headlines ‘Lee warns Asian debate damaging’, quoting Singaporean Prime Minister Lee Kuan Yew. A few pages in, under the title ‘No rebuff on immigration, says Howard’ were the words, ‘It is understood Mr Howard is claiming that the revised draft policy would still allow him as prime minister to control the intake from any region in the interest of ‘social cohesion’. “The Sydney Morning Herald” ran the story, ‘I won’t budge on race: Howard’ and “The Age”, ‘Howard is defiant on migrants.’
From the newspaper reports, it became apparent that Howard had, on the Friday, given a one and a half hour interview in Sydney to senior Canberra journalists where he had defended his intention to reduce Asian immigration as part of the Liberal and National policy he wanted to pass in the party room on Monday.
‘I was shattered,’ says Baden.
Baden drafted a letter on Saturday night to the effect: ‘Dear John, My agreement cannot continue given the meanings you have now associated with our Thursday words. …’
To be continued next Friday, 7 February 2020, in Refuge #49 Mistrust of The Other. This is part of the serial online release of the book Refuge, a collection of true stories of refugee resettlement in Australia.
 M. Grattan. ‘Howard defiant on Migrants’ and ‘Long on explanation, but still well short on detail’ The Age 20 Aug 1988, M. Steketee ‘I won’t budge on race: Howard’, Sydney Morning Herald, 20 Aug 1988.