On 16 May 2019, the nation mourns the loss of a great Prime Minister the Hon Bob Hawk, AC. The Chinese Australian community also felt the sad loss of a great humanitarian benefactor who almost single handedly, made a decision to allow 42,000 Chinese students to remain in Australia, despite stiff opposition from his colleagues. Beneficiaries of his legacy and magnanimous gesture should bow their head in silence for a minute to pay respect to the great Australian statesman and Prime Minister, Bob Hawke.
The Chinese Australian community is saddened by the death of an eminent Prime Minister of Australia, the Hon Robert James Lee HAWKE (Bob Hawke) and immediately put out a media comment in the SMH to express our sentiment:”
Vale to Bob Hawke. It is a sad moment for our nation to lose a great Labor PM at this critical moment in history. Bob is known for his warm personality and always greets you with his hand on your shoulders and most importantly, he remembers your name. From ACTU to one of the best Prime Ministers, was a great achievement. The Chinese Community Council of Australia acknowledge his magnanimous gesture together with Nick Bolkus (Immigration Minister), in allowing thousands of Chinese students to remain in Australia in the 1990s. The 1.2 million Chinese Australian community will mourn the loss of a great friend and benefactor and will remember forever the deed of this kind-hearted statesman. Our condolence to the family and may he Rest in Peace.
Bob was a very down to earth person and he would give sound advice. In the late 1980s, when I showed him my business card, he responded ‘You should print your card using “Tony” instead of “Anthony” as most people know you as Tony‘. On reflection, he must have said that he uses “Bob” instead of Robert.
At the time of the Tiananmen Square incident, I was the Hon Secretary of the Australian Chinese Community Association (ACCA) and became the President for 3 years (1989-1992). I took a strong interest in the matter, particularly, the TV media interviews that followed.
It is notable that the tears shed by PM Bob Hawke at a memorial service at Parliament House would be the trigger to prepare a plan to allow the Chinese students to stay. At that time, Australia had been “wrestling with refugee issues since the end of the Vietnam War and its impact on immigration”.
It was Hawke’s tears that paved the way for a new sympathy for refugees on human rights principles.
The then Immigration Minister Robert Ray told Cabinet that the influx of the 16,500 refugees would “blow the allocation intake of 14,000 places to pieces”, and he also referred to the objections by the Kurds, Afghans and Lebanese. This problem was solved with the help of a resolution passed by the Federation of Ethnic Communities Council with a proposal from ECC NSW (under the Chair of Angela Chan), that FECCA had no objection to grant refugee status to Chinese nationals. The argument was that every community will have an opportunity to put their case, but the urgency of the Chinese students makes it the “first cab off the rank”.
Declassified cabinet papers revealed that in 1988-89, Bob Hawke acted alone in offering asylum to Chinese students. Then Australian PM did not consult cabinet before making a tearful promise to allow Chinese students to stay after the Tiananmen Square incident.
The Chinese Australian community will always remember the kind words of this great Prime Minister who said “I have deep love for the Chinese people. I had no consultation with anyone and when I walked off the dais [after the announcement], I was told: ‘You cannot do that, prime minister.’ I said to them, ‘I just did. It is done.’ ”
The 1988-89 cabinet documents, released by the National Archives, showed substantial resistance to the decision by several government departments, including Immigration, the Treasury and Finance. Departments warned of negative consequences for the budget, the migration program and the labour market.
There was also strong opposition coming from a heated debate about the rate of Asian immigration, fuelled by comments by the historian Geoffrey Blainey, the then opposition leader John Howard, and by the FitzGerald report on immigration.
Despite strong opposition, Hawke was courageous and stood strong. The Chinese Australian community will never forget his brave commitment.
Ross Garnaut, a former ambassador to China and former economic adviser to Hawke, told The Guardian Australia the Chinese students had turned out to be an asset to Australia. They are generally seen to have made a very positive contribution, a huge contribution to the arts, academic and business fields.
Garnaut’s observations were spot on as the 42,000 Chinese students have made significant contributions to the development of Australia since 1989.
As an advocate of the Chinese students, together with the Hon Dr Peter Wong, AM (former NSW MLC) and the Hon Henry Tsang OAM (former NSW NMLC), we know what Hawke has done for the Chinese Australian community and we will constantly remind the beneficiaries and their descendants in Australia that a great Prime Minister of Australia, Bob Hawke, whose commitment, dedication and humanity gave the opportunity to 42,000 Chinese students to stay in Australia.
We offer our sincere condolence to the family of the late Bob Hawke and we know he has now joined the ranks of another great Australian, the former Prime Minister, the Hon Gough Whitlam.
Rest in Peace.
Dr Anthony Pun OAM, CCCA National President, Chair (MCCNSW), and former President of ACCA (1989-92), ex Chair (ECC NSW 1997-98 & 2001-2003).