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No progress will be made on asylum policy until the major parties move to a positive bipartisanship. shutterstock

On asylum seekers, our history keeps repeating itself

Immediately after Papua New Guinea’s Supreme Court unexpectedly ruled in April that the Australian detention centre on Manus Island was in breach of human rights and ordered it closed, Bill Shorten met his leadership group.

Inside the room, the shadow immigration minister, Richard Marles, mused briefly about revisiting Labor’s policy on asylum seekers. He was forcefully shut down.

The question is why Shorten shies away from discussing asylum seekers like Dracula from a stake, while Malcolm Turnbull is only interested in using the issue as a stick with which to berate the opposition.

Historical context

People have been travelling down the Malay Peninsula, across the Indonesian archipelago and into Australia for at least 60,000 years, according to the best available evidence. Fortunately for the First Australians, there was no Border Force, no patrol boats and no surveillance aircraft to stop them, and no people smugglers to exploit them. Nor were there any other human inhabitants to fret about their presence.

Many of the boats they used for the final stages of their journey were probably every bit as leaky as those employed by modern-day asylum seekers. Many are likely to have overturned, with many people dying along the way.

Did they come here to seek a better life or because they were chased out by waves of newcomers making the long trek out of Africa? Probably a bit of both.

Since white settlement in 1788, Australian attitudes to potential new arrivals have waxed and waned. In the initial days of the gold rushes in the mid-1800s, there was little opposition to the thousands of Chinese coming to Australia. This was partly because they provided essential services – notably food – for everyone else, and picked over tailings left behind by miners of other ethnic backgrounds.

It became a very different story when the easy gold started to dry up and economic growth slowed, coinciding with the rise of organised labour. Colonial authorities made it harder and harder for Chinese to land in Australia.

“Australia for the White Man” was the proud proclamation beneath the masthead of The Bulletin magazine at the turn of the 20th century, at the time Australia’s most influential political and cultural media outlet.

One of the anti-Chinese images published in The Bulletin magazine at the turn of the 20th century. Migration Heritage Centre New South Wales

Behind the protectionist barriers of Empire, with the Harvester case having entrenched both the minimum wage and the power of the trade unions, the Australian settlement flourished, buttressed by laws making non-white immigration all but impossible.

The second world war had two consequences for this cosy arrangement.

First, the peril of invasion made politicians worry about ruling such a large continent with such a sparse population.

Second, by 1945 Europe was awash with tens of millions of displaced people, a problem exacerbated by the erection of the Iron Curtain, making it harder for many of them to return home even if they wished.

“Populate or perish” became the bipartisan catchcry, but even then Australian politicians worried about the reception non-English-speaking arrivals would receive. Fair-haired, blue-eyed northern Europeans initially received preferential treatment. It was only as labour shortages emerged in the 1950s that arrivals from southern Europe started to be encouraged.

Bipartisanship ensured that the White Australia Policy remained intact until after Harold Holt became prime minister in 1966. Coincidently, full employment gave Labor the confidence to strip from its platform the insistence on keeping out people from Asia.

The big change came after the end of the Vietnam war when Malcolm Fraser shamed Bob Hawke, then president of the ACTU, into overcoming union opposition to permit the influx of tens of thousands of boat people and other escapees from the oppression and persecution of the Communist regime that had taken over the country’s south.

Multiculturalism moves in

Bipartisanship stepped up to another level with the official adoption of the policy of multiculturalism by both the Coalition and the ALP. This level of political harmony started to break down as Australia struggled out of the 1983 recession with its double-digit unemployment and the consequences of economic restructuring as Bob Hawke and Paul Keating wrestled to put the country on a firmer footing.

One of the first signs of the breakdown of bipartisanship were the remarks of John Howard in 1988, during his first stint as Liberal leader, when he declared that in the interests of social cohesion Asian immigration should be “slowed down a little, so the capacity of the community to absorb it was greater”.

In his bid to defeat Keating in 1996, Howard recanted, admitting the remark had done him great damage. But then along came Pauline Hanson and her maiden speech to parliament, in which she warned that Australia was in danger of being “swamped by Asians”.

Pauline Hanson delivers her maiden speech to parliament.

The rise of Hanson’s One Nation came close to turning Howard into a one-term prime minister after he had gone to the 1998 election advocating the introduction of the GST. “A near-death experience”, he later called it.

It is often forgotten, though, that it was Keating who introduced mandatory detention for asylum seekers in the early 1990s in response to a surge in boat people trying to escape the war in Cambodia.

When increasing numbers of undocumented refugees started turning up in Australia in the late 1990s seeking to escape oppression in the Middle East, Howard introduced temporary protection visas as an added deterrent. And then a boat called the Tampa turned up off Christmas Island.

The Tampa changes everything

So searing was this episode for Labor that the only bipartisanship since then has been a contest between the major parties to prove who is more hardline.

Over much internal opposition and with an election imminent, then Labor leader Kim Beazley supported the excision of much of Australia’s offshore territory as places where migration law could apply. However, he opposed a Howard plan to prevent people on ships like the Tampa from gaining access to the Australian legal system, placing military personnel above and beyond the law.

Any semblance of bipartisanship was at an end.

“We will decide who comes here and the circumstances in which they come,” Howard declared to the loudest of cheers at the Coalition’s 2001 campaign launch. Labor was slaughtered at the election.

Interestingly, at the same time as Howard was railing against asylum seekers he was quietly overseeing a record influx of migrants. They helped boost growth already being fuelled by the China minerals boom, while also keeping inflation in check by subduing wages growth.

Kevin Rudd’s 2007 policy of a “tough, but fair” asylum seeker policy foundered – the victim of so-called “pull” and “push” factors, as well as political mismanagement and the increasing sophistication of the people smugglers.

Julia Gillard’s plan to resettle asylum seekers in Malaysia was not only condemned by the then opposition leader, Tony Abbott, but also scuttled by the High Court.

Now, the major parties have settled on equally brutal policies and the polls suggest that most voters prefer it that way. Out of sight, out of mind. Shorten seems to think he has no alternative, while for Turnbull it is a powerful political weapon.

The deaths at sea may have stopped, but the suicides and self-harm persist in the detention centres. Nothing will change until and unless positive bipartisanship returns. It was ever thus.

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