Conferment of the Degree of Doctor of Laws
University of Technology, Sydney - 29 April 2002
I thank the University of Technology, Sydney, its Chancellor, Sir Gerard Brennan, for the honour done me by bestowing on me the honorary degree of Doctor of Laws. I thank the University for the generosity of its citation.
In particular I am honoured by being offered the doctorate at the same time as Sir William Deane, who as you now know has taken over from me as Chairman of CARE Australia. I am delighted that he has done so because no person could better fit that role. In particular I wanted to say that I believe Sir William filled the role of Governor-General with a very particular, even unique distinction. At a time when Australia and the world seemed driven by harsh market-driven economics, he in very particular ways reminded Australia of her conscience, of her compassion and of her concern for those in misfortune. The way he accomplished this was unique. I am honoured indeed to have been asked to share in a ceremony which also involves bestowing an Honorary Doctorate on him.
I want to speak for a few moments in ways that I hope will remind us of some of the things we have achieved as a nation and how in some respects, in recent years, we seem to have changed, even strayed, from a path that had been set for the best part of half a century.
Seven years after the end of the world Depression and while the Second World War had hardly concluded, Arthur Calwell, in a significant act of statesmanship, persuaded the union movement that it was in Australia's interests to embark, for the first time, on a major and deliberate migration programme, intended to build and transform Australia. This programme was supported by the opposition political parties of the time.
In one major respect the original programme did not meet its expectation. To allay concerns of a socially conservative population and one whose concerns could so easily have been aroused, both the Government and the Opposition of the time said that it was their hope and intention that a majority of migrants would come from the United Kingdom. Despite best intentions, as a consequence of the turmoil of that War and of the great movements of peoples from within Europe, that particular expectation was never realised.
I suggest that that circumstance has in the event been to Australia's great advantage. The decision to conduct the major migration campaign was in effect a decision to establish a multicultural and diverse Australia, which is now recognised as one of our great strengths.
At the time there was a general expectation that the White Australia policy would be continued. By today's standards, that is a severe criticism but at that time it would have been too much to announce both the beginning of a major nation-building programme and the end of that particular policy. It would have led to opposition that could have destroyed the programme itself. Instead, there seemed to be consensus, not only on the basis of the migration programme but on the fact that the White Australia policy should be slowly and steadily modified until its effects were abolished by Hubert Opperman as Minister for Immigration in 1966. The final legalities in relation to the White Australia policy were abolished by the Whitlam Government.
The original decision of 1946 has clearly brought great change to Australia. We have been taught to learn the policies of tolerance and, through the refugee programmes, of the need for compassion and concern.
People came here from many places. Australia became a land of many ethnic groups and nationalities. A dream of freedom and opportunity.
A further major step was undertaken after the end of the Vietnam War. The Government believed that there was an ethical obligation to provide a safe haven for many of those whom we had supported in what had become a most misguided conflict. The United States, Canada and France as the most interested of the European powers, also played a major role in providing safe haven and a secure home for hundreds of thousands of Vietnamese and other Indo-Chinese. In some years over 20,000 a year came to Australia. Over all, over a million and a quarter Vietnamese and Indo-Chinese resettled in the United States, approaching 250,000 in Canada, well over 200,000 in Australia and a very significant number also in France.
A large number of these people went from South Vietnam by boats to what became transit points in Malaysia and Indonesia. As is often the case with refugees and asylum seekers a significant number were also without papers. Both countries cooperated in the programme because they knew of the broad intentions of Australia and the other countries involved.
I was speaking to one of these immigrants not so long ago. He had been eight months in Malaysia, where he had arrived by boat. He had then travelled with his family to Adelaide. He was put in an open hostel. He and his family could move freely. People from Adelaide brought clothes for the entire family and toys for the children. He thought this was perhaps the most concerned and compassionate country in the world and considers himself extraordinarily fortunate now to be Australian, but he now asks what has changed and why.
CARE, which began in Australia in 1987, worked in some of the most difficult places in the world. In Somalia, in Rwanda, in the Balkans, in Iraq, in Iran, but these by no means complete the list.
One might have thought that terrible, man-made disasters would not again occur in Europe. That was not to be. After the end of the Cold War, the imperatives that held Yugoslavia together started to fragment. The European Union called a meeting for the Union to determine policy in relation to the problems in Yugoslavia. How could fragmentation be avoided? How could the acceptance of neighbourliness enforced and established by Tito for forty years, continue? Was it possible that it could continue?
Before this meeting took place, Germany unilaterally decided her own policy and announced that if Croatia and Slovenia wished to secede they would immediately be recognised as independent states. This guaranteed the break-up of Yugoslavia and much of the misfortune and hardship that subsequently occurred.
The most powerful military alliance the world has ever seen decided that Serbia and its policies were the major problem. That alliance ignored the fact that Croatia had ethnically cleansed the best part of half a million Serbs from its own territory. There has never been a serious attempt to apply the principles and policies of the West equally and impartially in the Balkans.
The problems of the Balkans have not been solved by NATO's intervention but, for our purposes, that is not the point.
People had come to Australia from all parts of the former Yugoslavia. They had become good Australians but some of them, during the conflicts, went back to help their ethnic group. I can remember meeting a young man in the Croatian air force uniform. He was as Australian as any of us here with a thoroughly Australian accent but he was helping his former country. It is of enormous credit to the leaders of the Balkan communities in Australia that they kept their fighting in the Balkans and have not imported it to this country.
This indeed has been typical of the different racial and ethnic groups who now make up the new Australia. They emphasize the importance of priority for Australia as a nation, the imperative of not importing ancient quarrels to their new home and the need to build unity and strength out of Australia's diversity.
The Balkan conflict may have put the severest test on those principles but the members of the communities came through with great integrity and respect for Australia and made sure that the war stayed in the Balkans.
The Australia I am describing developed values over the best part of 50 years. The policies that made it possible were supported by all the major political parties, these included the official enunciation of multiculturalism. Multiculturalism underlined the strength we gained from our diversity. It also emphasised the primacy of Australian values. Multiculturalism did not require new Australian citizens to give up all concern, affection or even love for their country of origin. The statement on multiculturalism articulated the ethics and the philosophy behind the practical policies.
Our current policies and attitudes to refugees stand in stark contrast to the approach Australia adopted, beginning with Arthur Calwell and continuing for nearly fifty years. Through this period, any of the political parties could have played politics with immigration policies. If Australians had been asked to vote on a major immigration programme only seven years after the world Depression when tens upon tens of thousands of ex servicemen were waiting to be demobilised, they would have voted against the programme and Australia would have been the poorer.
If one had asked the people of Melbourne whether they wanted Melbourne to become the largest Greek city outside of Greece, they would have said No with a resounding majority. Now that it has happened, Melbourne is proud of the fact and Australia is much better off as a consequence of that migration. If any of the political parties had tried to make politics over the resettlement of the Indo-Chinese in the seventies and eighties, Australians would have found it difficult to support the policy. But the political parties were united in the policy and Australians accepted the policy as right for the nation.
How is it that both political parties were able to remove themselves from these attitudes and remove themselves from leadership of the nation and how is it that they both became united in the policies of rejection? Is it that the polls were read before the event? Did they say that this was too tough, they would accept the polls and forget the task of leadership? Could anyone really believe that a few thousand Afghans, including large numbers of women and children, could be a threat to the integrity, to the sovereignty of this nation? Did we not know and understand that anyone who is ultimately allowed to stay here, stays as a result of decisions made by Australians from within Australian institutions? Thus all people who become Australians have done so with the express approval of our sovereign authorities.
I want to leave you with just one question: How did we change? Why did we change? Why did both major political parties abandon leadership and reverse the policies which Australia had implemented so successfully for so many decades?