The Moveable Feast – Australia and race hate as experienced in the lifetime as an observer
Speech given by Thomas Keneally AO at the 5th Annual Kep Enderby Memorial Lecture
19 October 2019
I was born in 1935, in the midst of a ruinous depression and in a year when, with Japan preparing to invade China from Manchuria, and Mussolini preparing to invade Ethiopia from Eritrea, the presages of the coming world cataclysm were visible. I was born, without knowing it, into an unfashionable group, Irish Catholics, of whom it is difficult for the modern young person to believe, that they were, apart from the eternal prejudice against Aboriginals, a much mistrusted tribe attached to a mysterious and baroque religion. Even in the year I was born, the British novelist J.B. Priestley, an otherwise urbane Englishman, declared that if there was to be an Irish republic, what an opportunity it would be for Britain to see “a fine exit of (Irish) ignorance, disease, filth and drunkenness.” Opinions here in Australia coincided with Priestley’s, and jokes about dumb Irishmen are the residual stump of that old race and cultural hysteria. But Marlene Kairouz, Labor minister for Consumer Affairs in the Victoria, gave the old suspicion a boost recently when, with every confidence in her immunity she advised, that if anyone appeared at our door with an Irish accent, “automatically ask them to leave” In any case, I found that I belonged to “the gypsies in the wood” that many respectable people told their children they should never play with.
I had the honour to meet Kep Enderby, very much the civil libertarian in the Whitlam government, a government that let many of the tired horses of deathly tradition out of the stable at last and, of course, introduced ideas about vilification and discrimination as forms of injustice worthy of legislating against. It is an honour to speak in his name tonight.
In the years after the war, when I was in primary school and early high school in Homebush, there was the crisis in Europe, the millions of undocumented Displaced Persons in camps whom UNRRA asked the representative democracies to cooperate in absorbing. Chifley’s government took, in the end, some 200,000, along with other migrants whose mix made Australians nervous. A 1947 poll in the Age showed a preference for Northern European migrants, an aversion to the idea of Italians and Greeks, whom one contributor to the poll described as “the white Abos of Southern Europe.” We can laugh now, but it was no laughing matter when the Italians and Greeks arrived in numbers. As for central and eastern Europeans, they were considered the ultimate in affronting strangeness. And despite the Holocaust, we were still anti-Semitic enough to demand that Jewish immigrants, unlike perhaps former members of the SS, had to be sponsored by members of the Australian Jewish community. I knew two Schindler survivors amongst them. Leosia Korn came home from work in a Sydney factory after her arrival and said to her husband, Edmond, “Edek, it’s wonderful, they hate the Catholic Poles as much as they hate us!” Edek himself once remarked to me, “When you arrive and the Australians don’t know you or like you, they call you a Wog bastard. Then they get to know you and like you, and call you a Wog bastard.”
The trial for my family came during my first year in high school, when the Calabrians who had moved in next door offered us a basket of robust tomatoes. We knew from observation they had used their own night soil in growing them. And why would they not, coming from infertile Calabria? My mother thanked them, but the tomatoes of the Calabrians sat flashing their rich red at us for some days before we essayed them, and found their taste made up for the peculiarities of their growing conditions.
Again, the more hysterical people of the day said of the newcomers, “They’ll never be Australians like we’re Australians.” We were wrong then, but as White Australia died, we sang the same song about Asians and are now, many of us the children of people who were despised in our turn, singing that same odious cantata about people from Muslim nations, and Syrian and Iraqi Christians. Being wrong about one group only leads to try the same rhetoric on another.
For hysteria about minorities is a moveable feast, simply offering up a new people as its provender from generation to generation. Only the name of the target, the hated population changes. I am always amazed how those who seek to make a life’s work out of race hysteria repeat the same rhetoric again and again. First Pauline Hanson makes incorrect and garish statements about Asians and, proved wrong in that regard, moved on to a second political life with the same accusations about Muslims, as if the mantras of hate must apply to someone or other strange if she just keeps trying. The only consistent object of the Hanson bile are Aboriginals, for at least seventy thousand years ago, stewards of a land we took only a few hundred years to bugger up. My friend the genuinely splendid historian, Geoffrey Blainey, has reprised and explained the doubts he uttered about Asians in the mid-1980s, but it is a matter of record he has no admitted he was plain wrong.
His statements were made in the wake of Vietnamese boat arrivals, and the politicians of that era deserve some considerable credit for backing away from the abyss of race frenzy that could have been released by the arrivals.
In the aftermath of the fall of Saigon and before his dismissal, Whitlam had been concerned that the introduction of Vietnamese refugees from Indochina would create problems for Australia’s future relations with the reunified Vietnam. He had allowed the Australian Ambassador G.J. Price, secretly to smuggle Vietnamese citizens who had helped the Australians, from the Embassy to the airport for RAAF Hercules flights to Australia.
After the dismissal and subsequent election, the Fraser government found in late 1976, when the third small boat with Vietnamese refugees had reached Darwin, that the Melbourne Sun warned of a “tide of human flotsam”, and evoked the congenital Australian fear of thousands of an invasion of Asian refugees .
By October 1977 Immigration Minister Michael MacKellar said there was growing disquiet about the boat arrivals – “there is the possibility that massive numbers may be involved.” MacKellar’s remarks were careful, and he did not risk stirring any mass phobia. But with a federal election to be held in December 1977, the issue of Vietnamese refugees exploded in the press and became a controversy. Senator Tony Mulvihill, Labor, declared that many refugees from Latin America were under greater political duress than people leaving Indochina. The normal stories were circulated that the boat people did not look like refugees. In the twenty-first century, such accusations were levelled at Iranian asylum seeker, on the untenable grounds that somehow only the poor could be genuine refugees and in peril from the regime they have escaped. A Health Department official was reported in 1979 to have declared that he had seen “people in much worse condition after a Sydney-to-Hobart boat race that he did on a refugee ship.” This sort of observation was rationally irrelevant to the status of the newcomers, but the irrational would always play well in questions of immigration and race. The Waterside Workers Federation in Darwin took the same line, and wanted its workers to strike against the supposed “preferential treatment” given to refugees. These people had, in the eyes of the waterside workers, ended the Vietnam war with hoarded gold bars and were not worthy of compassion. Curly Nixon, Darwin head of the WWF, asked, “Who makes money out of a civil war? Black marketeers, dope runners and brothel-keepers. You’ve got the lot here” The Sydney Morning Herald warned against a rumoured policy of turning back these boats, and asked would not some of them be likely to sink on the return journey?
Whitlam still doubted the legitimacy of refugee claims made by the Vietnamese. Then, as later, the impact of uninvited arrivals on the chances of family reunion of immigrants already in Australia meant that many immigrants chosen in the orthodox way were hostile to the idea of the newcomer by boat. Australia then and now did not have separate and consistent quotas for unexpected humanitarian crisis intakes.
On the weekend of the 26 and 27 November, with the Federal election looming on December 10 1977, MacKellar, because of the unsubstantiated tales of refugees turning up with gold ingots and other portable goods in their luggage, stressed that the possessions of the last 220 Vietnamese boat arrivals were worth only $10,000 in total. MacKellar now asked Australians “not to exaggerate the dimensions of the problem, not to attempt to exploit the issue and fears of sections of the Australian public, and not to forget the human tragedy represented by these few small boats.”
In the end, on 10 December the Fraser government won a comfortable majority. The Department of Immigration wrote in an official document. “It is sobering to consider how easily today’s well-established and confident citizen can, by the overnight imposition of unacceptable political and economic regimen, become tomorrow’s refugee. All available evidence suggests that the Indo-Chinese refugees exhibit the range of skills, attitudes and backgrounds which might be found in a similar number of Australians in like distressed circumstances.”
Even so, according to the UN, up to 400,000 Vietnamese boat people died in transit to the US, Canada and Australia, so that the issue of people smugglers arose, so an emphasis cam to be placed on processing people in a more orderly manner. But the leading politicians of the day, despite clamour in their parties, knew they must back away from inciting racial hysteria, for that way lay national dishonour, and misery for arriving people, and the end of consensus.
John Howard is a likeable man, a man nearly as old as me, a creature like me of Menzies Australia, a far more genial presence in public than is that aggrieved and reclusive prophet Paul Keating. But John Howard was also the man who surrendered, as his predecessors did not, to the temptation of generating hysteria as an immigration policy. Against the advice of his defence chiefs in October 2001 he took the fatal step into depicting the asylum seekers as people who threw their children into the sea. A cowed Labor Party played along with a sort of Hysteria Lite, embarking on its perpetually failing campaign to out-Coalition the Coalition. The punitive proposition we are all familiar with was put into play, and any suggestion of compassion for the boat arrival was headed off with, “So you’re in favour of people drowning, are you?”
No one is in favour of it. But is cruelty and documented mental torment our only other option? Perhaps a third option does exist, and I ask the question in good faith.
The price of our desire to keep one asylum seeker offshore is claimed to be (Kaldor) $573,000 per year. The price onshore and within Australia is $346,000 per year. We delay processing and so blow out the cost. We have paid undisclosed billions to multinationals to satisfy our frenzy and to oppress thousands of people. Could it not be cheaper to put immigration officials in Indonesia, with that government’s cooperation, to process people there more promptly and thus do away with the rationale of people smuggling? And certainly it would be cheaper to keep the individual asylum seeker in Australia in the community after a short trial period in detention? These questions are fobbed off by the drowning proposition, so convenient to government. Yet over their concern hangs our ambiguous responsibility for the SIEV X catastrophe. .
Now, it’s fairly well known I was a student for the priesthood when I was young. I, like the PM, had theological certainties. Thus, I respect the theological certainties of our elected Prime Minister. I would be ready to campaign for his right to them. Recently my esteemed niece-in-law Kristina Keneally, herself a committed Catholic, asked the PM to look into his heart over the plans to deport a Tamil family and see what the Christian response should be. Labor’s Joel Fitzgibbon made a similar suggestion. Both of them were criticised, but I believe they were entitled to address the PM in those terms, given that Prime Minister Morrison gave space to the matter of his Pentecostal beliefs during the campaign.
At the same time, as a citizen, I choose to believe in his sincerity, and to honour it, and thus would choose to address him as a fellow pilgrim and brother in the Commonwealth of Australia. If I had the honour of sharing a coffee with him I would I would simply ask him, with proper respect for the fact he is elected leader, whether he is sure about our immigration policy, given the way he has been warned by leading psychiatric bodies about its cruelty and the way it grinds the soul. I would admit to a fascination with Christ of whom scholarship says that he resembled a present-day Iraqi Jew, brown skinned, brown-eyed, thickset, swarthy, closer to a Middle Eastern appearance, more akin some of the asylum seekers and a long way from the quarter-back Nordic Jesus of American fundamentalism. I would ask, not for the sake of wrong-footing the PM at all, but for the sake of the normal consistency we seek in fellow citizens, whether he thinks this redemptive and phenomenal Christ is honoured by our immigration policy? For surely it is not just a matter of the PM and Christ. It is a matter of the PM and Christ and us his brothers and sisters. And then, it is not a matter of Him and Jesus and us, but it a matter of him, Jesus, us, and THEM. The challenging them. Of whom every reputable psychiatric body says they are suffering hellishly. And the question is -- in Christ’s name, need they?
In any case, the reality is that on top of other problems created by our decision to punish asylum seekers arriving by boat, there are now nearly nine thousand people in Australia awaiting a decision on their status. Even those who have hope of an ultimate acceptance have been in the process for years. Some 3,300 of them are in NSW. The delays in processing, which are part of this punitive regimen, have created an unnecessary blow-out in numbers. It is a matter of fact that all their souls, like the soul of Jesus in Gethsamane, are in turmoil. Must the peace and order of the Commonwealth of Australia really require hem to be? I would ask Sco Mo that, as a citizen asks, and with respect.
May I also say now and in closing that I have the honour to be an Ambassador for the NSW Asylum Seeker Centre. At that Centre, the generosity of my fellow Australians is evident in the Food Bank that never runs out of food, in the pro bono advice to asylum seekers from lawyers, in the treatment given to asylum seekers on the same basis by doctors, ophthalmologists, and dentists; in the houses provided by generous Australians to accommodate the refugee families, and in the jobs offered by its employment agency. The Asylum Seeker Centre is a triumph of volunteerism and of the generosity of many of my fellow Australians. I am honoured and awed beyond words to be the centre’s Ambassador, and I invite your impulses of generosity to flow its way if they have not already done so.
And so, I hope the regimen will alter, and better solutions are found, including the better solution of letting reputable medical opinion rule in the case of sick refugees. I hope that the shame of what the Commonwealth is doing ends.
And may all your tomatoes bloom rich and red!
*This speech should be checked against delivery. You can watch Mr Keneally's speech here.