Refugees and elections

Polish stowaway released, August 1941.
Argus Newspaper Collection of Photographs,
State Library of Victoria.

The refugee policies of the Coalition and Labor differed little in the 2001 election campaign. In this campaign, to many they appear almost indistinguishable, not least because no-one’s talking about refugees.

To make sense of where we are today, in terms of policy and practice, we need to understand the past. Australia’s major political parties have a long history of bipartisanship on refugee issues. In this extract from a recent public lecture, Klaus Neumann, author of Refuge Australia: Australia’s Humanitarian Record (UNSW Press, 2004), analyses Australia’s response to refugees from Uganda during and after the 1972 election campaign.


On 4 August 1972, Uganda’s president, Idi Amin, gave a speech in which he announced that all non-citizens of South Asian ancestry would be required to leave the country. Shortly afterwards, he set a 90-day deadline. Between August and November 1972, some 50,000 Asians, including many of those who had taken out Ugandan citizenship after 1962, fled Uganda.

On 17 August, the Minister for Immigration, Jim Forbes, said in the Australian parliament: ‘Applications by Asians in Uganda will continue to be considered on their individual merits in accordance with our non-European immigration policies. These policies reflect the firm and unshakeable determination of the government to maintain a homogeneous society in Australia’. Australia approved a total of only 190 applications covering 491 persons from Asians living in Uganda. By early November 1972, after the expiry of Amin’s deadline, only 46 of the 491 had arrived in Australia.

The British high commissioner had no doubts about what lay behind the Australian government’s reluctance to extend a helping hand: ‘Ministers are unwilling to forfeit votes in the forthcoming elections’. Who would those unhappy about Australia’s acceptance of a large number of Ugandan Asians have voted for? Some earlier incarnation of Pauline Hanson’s One Nation perhaps? No, the McMahon government feared that disaffected xenophobes would vote for the Labor Party.


The ALP was deeply divided over the issue of non-European immigration. While reformers such as Don Dunstan wanted a multiracial and multicultural Australia, others, such as Fred Daly and Arthur Calwell, defended the White Australia policy. Calwell was categorically opposed to accepting any Asians from Uganda, and made it clear that he believed he had the majority of Australians behind him.

But at the end of 1972, Calwell retired. In December 1972, the ALP won the federal elections. Al Grassby, whose views on immigration resembled those of Dunstan rather than those of Daly and Calwell, became Minister for Immigration.

On 2 February 1973, Whitlam and Grassby decided that Australia would offer resettlement places for 50 families of stateless Ugandans in transit camps. These families would not even have made up for the shortfall between the number of Asians from Uganda approved for migration to Australia in 1972, and the number of expellees who had already arrived or were likely to do so. But it was an important step, the more so since Grassby instructed his department to relax its selection criteria.

Yet by 25 June 1973, of 4416 persons initially accommodated in the five transit centres, Australia had resettled only nine. By then, the United States had resettled 1308 expellees from the transit camps, Canada, which had already taken thousands the previous year, 438, and Denmark, Norway, Sweden, Belgium and the Netherlands another 896 between them.

Asked during a visit to London in April 1973 whether the abolition of the White Australia policy meant that Australia would accommodate more Asians from Uganda, Whitlam replied: ‘If they have got qualifications such as entitle people to come to Australia then certainly they can come.’ His statement was duly added to all the relevant policy files.

Whitlam’s position hardly departed from that advocated by his predecessor. Six months earlier, an ABC journalist had asked William McMahon about Asians from Uganda: ‘Is compassion grounds for migration?’

‘I think our own interests must come first’, McMahon replied, ‘and consequently we should be able to choose those migrants that are going to make the greatest contribution to the development of this country.’


Anybody expecting the Labor Party today to pursue a small target strategy (with regard to refugee issues) during the election campaign and then, if elected, close the detention centres, give permanent residence to all TPV holders, declare an amnesty for illegals, triple Australia’s refugee intake, and substantially increase its contribution to the UNHCR ought to have a good look at the policies of previous Labor governments.

New Matilda is independent journalism at its finest. The site has been publishing intelligent coverage of Australian and international politics, media and culture since 2004.