Previously in Refuge #48 Behind the Picket Fence: Retired South Australian Senator, Baden Teague, tells me about a disagreement he had with John Howard in 1988. It was over Howard’s proposed One Australia policy, a policy that moved towards assimilation and moved away from Aboriginal rights and multiculturalism.

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. I’m not going to support the policy. Thanks for Thursday but no thanks for Friday. You have broken our agreement by what you have told the journalists.’ He delivered the letter on Sunday to Howard in Canberra.

Parliament House, Canberra.

On Monday, in the first party meeting in the new Parliament House (opened by the Queen in mid 1988), all hell broke loose. Howard was the first speaker, followed by Baden, who alerted the party room to the meanings given on Friday and said he rejected Howard’s public statements.

‘There was a war. I think the majority was with me but Howard ended the discussion by declaring: I have the endorsement of the party.’

 I don’t understand how this can be.

‘There is no show of hands. The leader just calls it,’ explains Baden.

‘That’s very imprecise,’ I say.

On Monday, 22 of August 1988, the redrafted document was adopted as official policy for the Liberal Party.

Taking advantage of the Liberal chaos, Hawke had proposed a Parliamentary resolution that ‘we support a fair, equal, multicultural immigration policy.’ Howard ruled that the Liberals would oppose Hawke’s proposal.

In the House of Representatives, four Liberal members crossed the floor and voted with Hawke, including Phillip Ruddock and Ian MacPhee. Mr MacPhee would later write that this move effectively ended his political career.[1] Baden gave a speech in the Senate to say that he supported every word of this resolution by Hawke, but on principle, will vote with his party to oppose the resolution, which was passed in any case.

The outcome of this, says Baden, was that Howard lost the leadership of the Liberal Party back to Peacock in 1989. ‘He then spent five years in the wilderness. He was still in the parliament but he had no power. He didn’t talk to me for five years.’

By 1994, the Liberal party was again in disarray. Howard went to see Baden in his office and said, ‘I’m sorry. My fight with you was the biggest political mistake of my life. I will not be playing any racist card any longer.’ Believing Howard to have had a change in his soul, Teague supported him when he challenged Downer for leadership of the Liberal Party. Howard won.

‘It was important that Howard truly had changed. If he had not, then Keating would have cut him up. Keating had’ –Baden hesitates –‘truth on his side. If you are a liar, you’re done. If you are playing the racist card, you don’t deserve to be in parliament. Keating would have made mince meat of him.’ Baden reaches across the desk and pats my hand to emphasize the last four words. Fourteen months after regaining leadership of the Liberal Party, Howard led the Coalition to victory in the Federal elections.

‘Whilst I regard Howard as a good economic manager, I am highly critical of his failures in social policy. Children overboard was a lie. Tampa was a disaster. Demonizing immigrants is totally wrong. There was a failure of leadership in this area. It would have been so easy instead to have had a mature discussion about this. For example, just about everybody is totally opposed to kids in detention.’

‘Ironically, Phillip Ruddock was the main implementer of the conservative Howard policies on Immigration. He had switched in 1995 from being concerned about human rights to being concerned about order. I was very disappointed and was antagonistic to Ruddock for ten years, from 1996 to 2006.’

‘So you don’t think putting people in detention is necessary to stop the boats?’ I ask. He puts a hand up, as if to stop that question in its tracks.

‘I’m opposed to inhumane policy. So are many Liberals. For example, Senator Amanda Vanstone, a South Australian and a small ‘l’ Liberal, tried to get the women and children out of detention. Even Scott Morrison and Peter Dutton know that the public don’t like kids in detention. However, these recent Ministers had become locked into the immaturity that had descended on the public because of Rudd’s and Gillard’s failures.’

Baden points to a diagram on stiff cardboard leaning against the fireplace. It’s his diagram to explain which Liberals were influential in the 1977 – 83 rise of multiculturalism. On the diagram, a vertical timeline stretches from 1970 to 2010. Beside the time line are coloured bars for Fraser, MacKellar, Teague and MacPhee. We both kneel by the fireplace, studying the diagram.

‘I am not racist. I don’t think I am,’ he says, his hands on his chest as if searching the depths of his being.

I look into my own heart and see the abyss from which my own fears rise, fears I have had to quiet in order to cross the room and speak with someone different, whether the difference is a matter of race, religion, status, background, age or any of the myriad of labels that set one person apart from another and I give voice to my own failings. It is as if by criticizing myself I have acknowledged the human tendency everywhere to distrust the other. My words seem to puncture an unseen barrier. Something shifts in the air; there is a sense of openness that encourages me to speak my mind freely.

‘Perhaps Howard had a mistrust of the other,’ I say. But Baden doesn’t quite hear me. I repeat, ‘A mistrust.’

‘Yes, yes, a mistrust,’ he says. ‘Howard would like everyone in Australia to play cricket and have white picket fences. When I had dinner in1988 with some close Chinese friends, we embraced each other, of course. But you could still have cut with a knife the general sense of tension in the air,’ he said.

‘Was this after August 1988?’

‘Yes. It was near Christmas,’ he says. ‘They were considering whether they had a future here, given the hurtfulness of the public debate about Asian immigration in Australia. They were considering going back to Hong Kong but I tried to reassure them.’

His friends are still here. They chose to stay.

‘Much later, in 2007, the Liberals lost the election and Howard lost his seat. His electorate had a high proportion of Chinese. An editor of a Chinese newspaper there said that they still remembered Howard’s 1988 speech and they rejected Howard’s speech still.’

‘We need leadership,’ Baden says, both hands put forward as if holding this thing called leadership, ‘to bring us through this’–he moves his hands up and over an invisible barrier –‘to a mature, compassionate response.’

We both stand up. I get ready to leave. I have been here for at least two hours.

‘You met my Mum and Dad?’ he asks. I tell him that I had met his parents, Colin and Kath Teague, in the summer of 93 or 94 when Merrilyn took me to dinner at their Beaumont home. I remember so many things about that night. I remember that Colin, a builder, had built a birdbath so that when Kath looked out of her window she could see the birds, that they had roses in their garden, that you could see the city lights from their lounge window and that Kath cooked apricot chicken for me. But she was apologetic: ‘The chicken is dry,’ she kept saying. No Mum, said Merrilyn, it’s fine. To me, it was absolutely delicious. I think it was the love I remember.

Baden and Kathy see me off, waving from their picket fence as I walk down the street. For the first time I realize that if there hadn’t been Australians who believed that people of different races should be welcomed, I might not be here. This is not just a story about refugees. This is my story too.


Thanks for reading. That’s the conclusion of my book, Refuge, which I wrote from 2014 to 2017. When I completed the manuscript, I also wrote an Epilogue, a look-in on how all the people I had written about were doing. So, even though I said this would be the last episode, I’ll post a final piece – Refuge #50 True Home – next week.

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