The quieter revolutionaries


What a difference three years can make. In the wake of the terrorist attacks on New York and Washington in September 2001, the Howard government was able to capitalise on Australia’s policy of detaining unlawful arrivals claiming asylum in an atmosphere of heightened paranoia about Middle Eastern terrorists.

Some 400 refugees, picked up in August 2001 by the Tampa as their boat sank, were refused entrance to Australia and eventually offloaded on Nauru. This hastily constructed policy of offshore detention, a ‘Pacific solution’, became a vote-winning priority for the Howard government in September and October 2001.

But, how different this election in 2004.

Detention and eventual deportation of the many who have come to Australia seeking asylum ‘unlawfully’ is no longer such a vote winner. In July, aware of a sea change in Australians’ attitude to temporary protection visa holders (TPVs), the Immigration Minister Senator Amanda Vanstone announced that some 9500 TPVs would be allowed to apply for permanent visas without having to go offshore. Although saying not all would necessarily be successful, the Minister did add that the criteria for acceptance would be generous.

A poll in South Australia, conducted by The Advertiser shortly after the government announced its move on TPVs, showed that 60 per cent agreed with the government’s decision. This marked a dramatic shift in opinion. A similar poll conducted in December 2003 had just 10 per cent believing illegal arrivals should be given refugee status.

Meanwhile, with the boats of unlawfuls no longer arriving, Port Hedland and Woomera detention centres are now closed and the newly constructed Baxter Detention Centre is holding well under capacity. More and more detained asylum seekers are being released rather than deported – most through ministerial intervention. Many of the asylum seekers sent to Nauru, whom Prime Minister Howard declared would never set foot on Australian soil, have quietly been allowed to settle in Australia.

Clearly, while maintaining a tough stance on people smugglers, the Howard government is back pedalling on the policy, originally brought in by the Keating government, of indefinitely detaining unlawful asylum seekers. And all this has come at a time when Australians continue to be apprehensive about terrorism.

But the sea change is not hard to understand. Australians have always warmed to newcomers they get to know. It happened with the many different waves of immigrant groups, from Italians to Vietnamese to Turks to Lebanese.
The faceless boat people of the 1990s were once a shadowy invasion. Locked away in detention centres, such people had no contact with average Australians and the xenophobia was left to grow among many who felt their lives threatened not only by high levels of unemployment but also by international terror.

As more and more average Australians have come into contact with those who were once detained – through release and temporary protection visas – they have come to distinguish the difference between the unfortunate displaced person, forced to climb aboard a leaky boat to find safety, and the sophisticated international terrorist. Moreover, increasing numbers of TPVs have settled in country regions and do the jobs Australians refuse – at abattoirs, in fruit picking and so on – thereby helping to sustain many rural communities. Here, TPVs have become part of the Australian community as tens of thousands of other immigrants did in previous decades.

The years of Pauline Hanson and the One Nation Party, coming after the Australians Against Further Immigration movement, have for a time allowed headlines to obscure the tolerant side of Australian society. More often than not, in spite of outbreaks of wartime intolerance and the era of sectarianism before the Second World War, Australians have easily absorbed ethnic and religious difference. Intermarriage of second and third generation Australians with immigrant groups is high in Australia.

In all this, Prime Minister John Howard would be advised to take note of the growing Sanctuary movement in Australia. Sanctuary groups in New South Wales – such as those of the Northern Rivers, Northern Beaches (Sydney) and the newly formed Lower North Shore (Sydney) – have assisted in the resettlement of hundreds of refugees whose visas, given by the Australian government, would have run out because they lacked the money for their fares to travel to Australia.

Many of these families come from the most troubled parts of West and Central Africa and are often reunited with relatives in Australia. They settle quickly into Australian life, assisted by members of the Sanctuary movement and their own community groups.
The Sanctuary movement is growing. It’s another sign of the sea change in the electorate in regard to refugees. Oh, what a difference one term of government can make.

Launched in 2004, New Matilda is one of Australia's oldest online independent publications. It's focus is on investigative journalism and analysis, with occasional smart arsery thrown in for reasons of sanity. New Matilda is owned and edited by Walkley Award and Human Rights Award winning journalist Chris Graham.