Cover of book: Across the Seas

Klaus Neumann
Across the Seas

The passage of the Immigration Restriction Act of 1901 was one of the Australian federal parliament’s first legislative achievements and would form the basis of the White Australia Policy for the next 70 years. Klaus Neumann’s Across the Seas surveys Australia’s response to refugees – official, political and public – between 1901 and 1977. 

Starting in 1901 makes sense as, in most cases, the White Australia Policy would operate as the primary filter for refugees. But 1977? That end date at first seems arbitrary, an academic conceit, but the book’s powerful final chapter argues that “by the end of that year, the public [if not the political] response to refugees that we are now accustomed to had been fully formed”. Moreover, concluding with events 40 years past reflects Neumann’s approach to history: “deploying narratives of the past to unsettle ideas about the present”. By presenting attitudes and actions considered “normal” in 1947 or 1977, he succeeds in de-normalising today’s status quo, opening the reader’s mind to alternatives.

Neumann chronologically charts responses both to refugee arrivals and to successive crises of displacement that challenged the White Australia Policy, our international obligations, and Australia’s image of itself. Precursors to John Howard’s 2001 declaration that “We will decide who comes to this country and the circumstances in which they come” echo down the decades. But there are also numerous, and surprising, instances of official pragmatism, flexibility and compassion.

Internationally, Australia played the game of competitive humanitarianism, keeping a particular eye on its chief B-division rivals, Canada and New Zealand, while resisting any binding measure that might undermine its ban on “non-white” immigration. In 1951, Australia was one of many countries to insist that the UN Refugee Convention would apply only to those displaced by “events occurring in Europe”. Three years later, Australia became the convention’s crucial sixth signatory – necessary for ratification – and the first outside Western Europe. Neumann concludes that, up until the 1960s, “Australia’s immigration policy was not guided by humanitarian sentiment”. Refugees were treated not unlike other immigrants: racial considerations aside, the main criterion for admission was their availability, the aim being to boost the country’s population and labour base.

White Australia was declared dead in 1972 with the election of the Whitlam government (“Give me a shovel and I will bury it,” said immigration minister Al Grassby the following year). At the same time, Labor shifted immigration’s focus from expansion to containment. Despite mass displacement in Lebanon, Cyprus and Vietnam, intakes of migrants – including refugees – shrank under Whitlam and during the Fraser government’s first term.

Late in 1977, with a federal election campaign under way, there came a sharp increase in arrivals of Vietnamese “boat people”. Alarmist press reports raised the spectre of an “armada” and questioned whether the arrivals were “genuine” refugees. (One man’s “pressed trousers” were cited as cause for doubt.) Trade union officials and politicians joined the fray. Whitlam, in warning against refugees being put “ahead in the queue”, coined his most enduring contribution to the political lexicon: an imaginary queue, that is with us still.

Two weeks out from the election, on a day that 181 “boat people” landed in Darwin, foreign minister Andrew Peacock and immigration minister Michael MacKellar took a stand, appealing to their fellow politicians:

not to subordinate the issues to electoral considerations, not to exaggerate the dimensions of the problem, not to attempt to exploit the assumed fears of sections of the Australian public, and not to forget the human tragedy represented by these few small boats…

To “ ‘make examples’ of boat refugees by indiscriminately turning some of them back”, they said, “would be an utterly inhuman course of action”. 

Neumann credits Fraser with recognising that “the genie of xenophobia, once out of its bottle, could not be put back in”. That the Coalition won the ’77 election seems miraculous now, at a time when political orthodoxy equates a principled approach to the issue of refugees and asylum seekers with electoral suicide. Neumann challenges one of the major parties to test this orthodoxy. 

Across the Seas’ strongest point is a lack of dudgeon. Rather than condemn or mock historical players with thunderous prose and stylistic eye-rolling, Neumann plays it cool. That he supports a more humane response to refugees and asylum seekers is made apparent from the outset by the inclusion of a foreword by writer and activist Arnold Zable. But Neumann’s own direct advocacy is kept for the book’s conclusion. 

With something close to dispassion, Across the Seas examines successive Australian governments’ responses to refugees, which the author ultimately characterises not as inflexible or progressive or regressive, but merely “mixed”. History does not describe – let alone impose – a trajectory, he says; rather, it suggests a continuity. In the case of this history, Neumann identifies the two chief features of that continuity as parochialism and (quoting the historian Frank Crowley) “the perennial attitude of White Australians to aliens”.

Neumann gives us a mature and measured consideration of an issue that will never cease to be complex. In fact, the sole “lesson” that he draws from a history of the national response to forced migration is that, rather than seek easy solutions, “we ought to try to learn to live with a complex and often uncomfortable problem”. (Not that we must try, you’ll note; only that we ought to. Even Neumann’s realism is tempered by realism.) 

In closing, he expresses the hope that his book leads us to reflect on not just Australia’s capacity to help and its responsibilities and obligations in its region and the world, but, “most importantly, the precarious circumstances of the men, women and children who are seeking Australia’s protection”, and thereby “to imagine alternative futures”. Here, Neumann’s choice of infinitive – to imagine – carries the stirring force of an imperative.  FL

Black Inc, 352pp, $34.99

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on June 20, 2015 as "Klaus Neumann, Across the Seas".

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Reviewer: FL

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