Throughout Australia the Vietnamese community in Australia has been holding meetings to commemorate the arrival of the first Vietnamese refugees forty years ago. Sadly but appropriately these functions are also commemorating the wonderful leadership of Malcolm Fraser in welcoming the Vietnamese and consolidating the end of the White Australia policy. In this he was supported by the Labor Party and this bi-partisan policy continued until 1993 when mandatory detention was established by the Keating government. This worsened under the Howard government from 1996 onwards and the bi-partisan policy since has been inhumane.
Underlying the deep bond that Malcolm and I shared was our abhorrence of racism. It was a privilege to be his Immigration minister from 1979-82 and to welcome refugees from Vietnam, Cambodia and Laos. My close dealings with those refugees broadened and deepened my understanding of people. I listened to people in refugee camps in Malaysia and in settlement centres in Australia and understood challenges they faced in adjusting to the vastly different Australian culture. Not only did they integrate easily but also they have helped ease the ignorance of other Australians about other cultures.
Many Australians of Vietnamese origin have made varied public contributions, especially as governor, mayors, councillors, Constitutional Convention delegates and State Parliamentarians. Like other migrants they have moved to regional areas and spread understanding and tolerance as they assisted in the blending of cultures. The national identity which people must accept on arrival here is shared values of equality and compassion. Cultural interaction at work may identify new ways of doing things and improve productivity. And sports, art and other leisure activities can broaden open minds and enrich our culture in the process. At the 25th anniversary of the first arrival of Vietnamese in Sydney I felt an overwhelming joy as I gained an appreciation of the huge intellectual, cultural and economic contribution of a small wave of boat people.
We are socially cohesive because of our mutual striving for civilising goals. Bigotry mostly stems from ignorance. When we encounter bigotry we should confront it with reason. That challenge faces all in leadership positions, whether in politics, professions, media, religious institutions, educational institutions, sporting organisations or the workplace. Tragically, since 1993 our politicians have gradually abandoned humane principles and international law. Sensational tabloids and shock-jocks on radio and television engage in racist provocation.
The challenge for young people of all ethnic origins is to use social media to oblige our major political parties to return to humane values. If the major parties will not listen, young people must take necessary actions, form a new party to return to our shared values and devise a range of policies that reflect those values. That is important for Australia and its reputation in the world. We have lost respect and influence in our region and elsewhere since the rejection of bi-partisan humane policies. I beg young people to commence public debate on asylum seeker policy and its relevance to foreign policy.
Relevant to this is the Vietnamese Council of Australia. It was formed in December 1977 and has made a marvellous contribution with government agencies and NGOs to assist refugees gain jobs, health and education. The Council’s widespread activities also helped broaden Australians’ understanding of all people from Southeast Asia, especially Indonesia and Malaysia. The integration of Vietnamese has also helped Australians of Chinese origin to be treated more equally than many had experienced over many generations. But a new phase of the work of the Vietnamese Council lies ahead. It must combine with other caring groups to place grass roots pressure on our major political parties or help other parties win more support and influence.
The Rohingya crisis on the border of Myanmar and Bangladesh is appalling and the response of our major parties is disgraceful and undermines Australian values of “a fair go” as well as damaging our reputation elsewhere. While we are on the UN Security Council we should ensure that the UNHCR is properly funded and administered. At present it spends $3.3 billion on trying to help over 50 million displaced persons while we spend the same amount pushing boats away and imprisoning a few thousand. We should be working with our neighbours and the UNHCR to try to resolve the Rohingya crisis. That is the type of challenge that young Australians face.
I thank all Australians of Vietnamese origin for enriching my life and those of all Australians they encounter. In doing so I share your distress for the loss of your Father and Saviour and my dear friend Malcolm Fraser.
Ian Macphee was Minister for Immigration and Ethnic Affairs in the Fraser Government.