Malcolm Fraser, the Liberal politician who played a key role in the dismissal of the Whitlam government, is today often credited as a humanitarian by many on the left. They specifically point to the way he handled the influx of Vietnamese refugees in the late 1970s. Many of these refugees arrived by boat, and it was the time when the term “boat people” was first popularised.
Fraser became prime minister after the sacking of Whitlam by the Governor-General and subsequently won three elections during a period when there was a conservative backlash against the social upheavals of the late ’60s and early ’70s. But in comparison to the way the Hawke-Keating, Howard and current governments have dealt with refugees, the approach Fraser took was far more humanitarian.
In that period the same questions were posed about how to to deal with refugees. Many punitive approaches were put on the table for discussion as to how to deter “boat people” from arriving. The Fraser cabinet considered some options that are hauntingly familiar: turning the boats back, offshore processing, a detention centre in Australia and temporary visas. Andrew Peacock as foreign minister warned of “a regional crisis of major dimensions”, not to mention the danger of “very serious strains on the unity and character of Australian society” – dredging up the “yellow peril”.
Fraser could have played the race card, but he had more foresight and chose a different tack. However, the reasons he chose none of the options that are now being used reflect more on the times and political situation than they do on Fraser.
Fraser was rabidly anti-communist. Although in later years he has professed to be philosophically liberal, he developed an early reputation as a right-winger within the Liberal Party and eventually led the right of the party. He was certainly pro-big business, his whole time in office marked by clashes with trade unions. He had close connections with shadowy right-wing groups like the Association, which saw Fraser as an ally to help protect Australia’s “Britishness”; its main aim was to prepare people for “emergencies” caused by a communist uprising. Another unsavoury connection Fraser cultivated was B.A. Santamaria, the anti-communist Catholic activist who founded the Industrial Groupers, who used violence, intimidation and thuggery to oust socialists, militants and communists from positions in the union movement.
In his early years he was anything but progressive. As a 23-year-old candidate for federal parliament, Fraser delivered weekly lectures on local radio stations in Hamilton and Warrnambool, something he continued to do right through to 1983. In his very first talk, in 1954, Fraser warned that Australia was faced with a great peril from “teeming millions” in Asia “living on a pannikin of rice a day” who were eyeing “a land vast in size and empty of people”.
Above all else he was a calculating man, driven by ambition rather than conviction. He was appointed minister for the army by Harold Holt in 1966, in which position he presided over the Vietnam War conscription. The resistance to this conscription was more radical than had occurred to any other conscription drive in Australia’s history. Active non-compliers began to call themselves “draft resisters”, and the movement became a nightmare for the pro-US conservatives. Eventually Australian troops were withdrawn after the election of Gough Whitlam in late 1972.
Fraser’s time in office is a testament to how conservative he really was. It is not without reason that he is often considered one of the world’s first neo-conservatives and was later to advise Margaret Thatcher on electoral and policy strategy. Fraser became prime minister during a period of extreme economic difficulties with recession, inflation and unemployment. As prime minister he blamed the previous Labor government’s spending on social programs for inflation. One of his key targets was workers employed in the public sector, whom he labelled “parasitic” and the source of the Australian economic malaise.
Despite promises to the contrary, Fraser dismantled the national health program of the Labor government and dramatically cut back spending on education and welfare. Pensions, unemployment benefits and legal aid were all reduced.
In foreign policy Fraser was equally anti-communist and conservative. He supported Indonesia’s invasion of East Timor, recognising its incorporation into Indonesia in 1978. He also opposed the liberation of Cambodia from the Pol Pot regime by Vietnamese intervention. He sought greater military cooperation with the US throughout his time in office.
The acceptance of these refugees was by and large a pragmatic decision with economic and geopolitical motives. While the social movements that arose during the movement against the war in Vietnam were ebbing, there were still significant movements against uranium mining and nuclear power. Fraser was perhaps a more astute politician than many who followed him. One of the main dynamics of the movement against the US invasion of Vietnam was its internationalism and its identification with the struggle of the Vietnamese for national liberation. There was a strong sentiment that Australia should accept the victims of a war in which its soldiers had fought.
The arrival of refugees from Vietnam provided the Fraser government with a unique opportunity. There was an objective need for the capitalist class to dismantle some of the remains of the white Australia policy. With an ageing population, business needed an increase in immigration. Moreover, the “boat people” were a potential political bonus. Many of those fleeing were opponents of the Vietnamese revolution.
Even when this was not the case, they were usually fleeing extreme hardship. Vietnam had been completely devastated by war; its infrastructure lay in ruins; much of the countryside had been poisoned by Agent Orange. Vietnam was isolated by economic blockade and received very little international solidarity, leading to food shortages and dire poverty. China carried out several military incursions, intensifying all the existing problems. Refugees from these conditions, nearly all caused by imperialism, could be portrayed as “victims of communism”.
Western governments used the plight of refugees as a propaganda tool against the struggle to establish socialism in Vietnam. The Roman Catholic Church, having played its part in propping up the dictatorship in the South that was overthrown by the revolution, helped in the relocation of many refugees. The program itself was quite racist, “half- American” children being given first preference.
Australia took in 137,000 refugees from Vietnam. Because a program was in place to process and receive refugees only a little over 2000 arrived by boat from 1976 to 1981. They were not treated as refugees are now. The refugees were never demonised; the “people smugglers” were never called “the lowest form of life”. There were never any arguments that they hadn’t arrived through the “proper channels”.
There was very little controversy at all raised by the program despite some opposition from the ALP and sections of the trade union bureaucracy. (Gough Whitlam told colleagues following the liberation of Saigon in 1975: “I’m not having hundreds of f . . king Vietnamese Balts coming into this country with their political and religious hatreds”.)
The scale of the relocation program was impressive and shows that it is well within the capacity of rich nations to accept the masses of refugees who are fleeing war and persecution around the globe. For treating these refugees humanely, history will remember Fraser more kindly than it would otherwise have done, even though his motives were anything but pure.