A New White Australia Policy?


There are TV monitors at various points in the UN headquarters in New York, so delegates and staff can keep up to date with conference proceedings and the news. When walking into the delegates’ lobby one day in 2001, I stood behind a group watching a CNN report and was horrified to see it was about the brutality of Australia’s treatment of asylum seekers.

It was shocking to see my country shown to be paying a repressive American company to run isolated, cruel prisons for refugees. No one said anything at the time diplomats are restrained but various allusions to what was happening were made in later conversations.


I began work as Director of the Division of Social Policy and Development in the UN Secretariat in New York in January 1997. In 2001, I was astounded by the Howard Government’s response to the Tampa affair. It was incomprehensible how any person, let alone national leaders, could refuse to assist refugees attempting to reach Australia, and I was dumbfounded when my former colleagues on the ALP Caucus supported the Tampa package of legislation.

Colleagues in the UN Secretariat staff and diplomats working in various national missions remarked that Australia seemed to have revived the White Australia policy.

The proposed amendments to the Migration Act being debated in Federal Parliament this week would simply entrench this system further. The Bill would prevent asylum seekers arriving in Australia from accessing the visa application process and make them subject to removal to another country.

Reading the Bill makes one feel like Alice in Through the Looking Glass. It reads:

For the purposes of this section, a person is taken to have entered Australia by sea if the person has entered the migration zone by air.

Which is just like Humpty Dumpty saying, ‘When I use a word it means just what I choose it to mean neither more nor less.’

As Tony Burke, Labor’s Immigration Spokesman says, ‘The Government’s proposals are simply wrong in principle.’ Australia’s security would be served better by adopting policies consistent with international law. Indefinite detention without trial before a properly constituted and independent tribunal breaches several provisions of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.

Article 31 of the Convention on the Status of Refugees states that a refugee should not be penalised for an unlawful mode of arrival, yet that is what happens through the so-called ‘Pacific Solution,’ and will be common procedure if the proposed changes are passed. The UN High Commission for Refugees has said clearly that they are ‘concerned about the detention of refugees on Nauru and Manus Island. We consider such detention inconsistent with the provision of the Refugee Convention.’

Without rehashing the whole issue of Australia’s participation in the UN Treaty Committee system, it is worth remembering the widespread international criticism of the Australian Government’s rejection of the Committees’ critiques of Australia’s asylum seeker and Indigenous policies in 2000. The editors of The Financial Times , the authoritative international business paper based in London, wrote on 31 August 2000:

No country relishes criticism of its domestic affairs, above all in as sensitive an area as human rights. But it is a measure of a mature democratic society that they judge such finger-pointing on its merits and, where it is well-founded, take it to heart. Sadly, Australia’s increasingly intemperate attitude towards the United Nations falls well short of that standard As well as smacking of a thin-skinned insecurity unbefitting its status as a prosperous and cosmopolitan modern society, the tactic can only attract wider attention to the awkward facts the Government would rather hush up It risks undercutting the moral authority of nations with Western values and their efforts to apply pressure through the UN to such unregenerate human rights offenders as China and Burma.

In 2002, the UN Working Group on Mandatory Detention sent a delegation led by French judge Louis Joinet to inspect the Australian detention centres. After the inspections, Joinet said that he had never encountered a ‘more gross abuse of human rights.’ He concluded that

To the knowledge of the delegation, a system combining mandatory, automatic, indiscriminate and indefinite detention without access to court challenge is not practised by any [other]country in the world.

Of course, he was speaking only about asylum seekers and before the US had scandalised the world with its indefinite detention without charge or trial of many thousands in Afghanistan, Cuba and Iraq.

Thanks to Alan Moir.

The perception of a White Australia policy has re-formed in Asia and also in North America and Europe. A comment by Indonesian analyst Jusuf Wanandi in Singapore’s Straits Times (15 November 2001) about the Australian elections in 2001 illustrates justifiable Asian responses:

Following an ugly political campaign in which racism, xenophobia and bigotry became the main tactics to win the federal election, Australia’s status regionally and internationally has been reduced to a pariah.

While Australia continues to refuse to apply international human rights law to itself, it has little moral authority to advocate that Indonesia honour human rights in the provinces of Papua, and the many Indonesians concerned about human rights will not be mollified. While it is clear that much repression is occurring in West Papua, we must get our own house in order first.

All the detention centres should be closed. Not only would this end much terrible, continuing cruelty and save over $30million a year which is taken from the aid budget and which should be used for poverty reduction but it would also signal to the world that Australia is seeking to handle refugees humanely, justly and legally.

It is vital that Labor, the Greens, the Family First Party and humane members of the Coalition join together to defeat the proposed Migration Act amendments. Each of us will help them to do so by outspoken and organised opposition to these changes, which are additions to an immoral, cruel, unjust and illegal system.

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.