Part 2 transcript

Marilyn Lake:

Thanks Dennis. Good afternoon. I’m a historian, as Dennis said and so I’m going to speak about the past. But I’m going to speak about the meaning of the past in the present. The legacies of the past weigh heavily on us I think. Our attitudes to asylum seekers, particularly those who appear on the horizon from over the seas, from the north, those who appear to be not white and uninvited, have deep roots in our history. Indeed, such attitudes were constitutive I think in a quite literal way, of our history as a nation state and of our Commonwealth Constitution. The White Australia Policy, written as it was with capitals, was not a policy directed at indigenous peoples as many popularly suppose, but rather it was rather outer-directed. It was a declaration directed at the world and it was a declaration of our national sovereignty. A declaration that has shaped the public memory of much of the world in turn, including China and India. Many other countries of course, as we know, have practised racial discrimination but only Australia perhaps made border control the very basis of our claims to national sovereignty. The White Australia Policy was indeed our de facto Declaration of Independence, made all the more insistent, all the more strident, precisely because of our actual continuing subjection by Britain. Our deference, our continuing deference to the Crown.

I’ll take you back a little bit. In 1888, in Victoria, the arrival in Melbourne of two ships, the Afghan, felicitously named, and the Burrumbeet, bringing Chinese passengers. They arrived here in the context of decades of anti-Chinese protest and their arrival caused immediate popular outrage and political panic in the democratically elected government then in power, of which the young Alfred Deakin was the radical liberal Chief Secretary. It’s really crucial I think that at this stage Australia was governed by manhood suffrage.

The arrival of the Afghan I think anticipated the Tampa by more than a hundred years. In refusing landing rights to the Chinese on the Burrumbeet and Afghan, most of whom were in fact permitted to land through various tonnage restrictions, paying a poll tax or in recognition of their nationalisation papers, but in refusing their right to land, the Victorian Government effectively participated in what the Australian-Chinese leader Cheok Hong Cheong called “a coup d’état”. The government was thus taken to the Supreme Court over this and the Supreme Court in Victoria declared its action unconstitutional but then ironically this decision was overturned on appeal to the Privy Council in London.

Now the Chinese continually pointed out at this time that the Australian colonists were in breach of international law and treaty rights, which had been negotiated between the British and Chinese in 1860, the British and Chinese Empires in the Peking Convention of 1860. But should young Australia, as it styled itself, be beholden to British authority? This was the question that exercised the minds of Australian radical democratic political leaders. In the midst of these tumultuous events, the young Alfred Deakin, who was also freelancing for The Age as a journalist, courtesy of his patronage by his friend, David Syme. In 1888 he editorialised in this way. He said “It should clearly be understood that treaty or no treaty, we are legally entitled to exclude any contribution to our population which we object to, and that we intend to exercise that right by excluding the Chinese.” And then he went on to say “The weak point in the Premier’s otherwise excellent memorandum is that he has yielded to the inveterate conservative habit of abasing colonial authority before the Imperial Government.” “By implication”, said Deakin, “the Premier gratuitously concedes the power of the Imperial Ministers to bind the Constitutional Colonies by treaty without their consent, a power” he said “which Imperial Statesmen in our day do not claim.” In our day – the colonies must not be bound, could not be bound, without their consent. This was the lesson of the American Revolution. And the memory of that colonial rebellion and the British loss of its colonies lingered long in public memory in the colonies as well as in the metropol.

Lew-ta-Jen, the Chinese Ambassador in London observed of the response to the Afghan: he said “However much the colonial governments may desire to escape the responsibilities imposed on them by the Anglo-Chinese treaties and the law of nations, they will scarcely venture to deny their obligation to respect the statutes which they themselves have enacted.” But for the Australian nationalists there were larger questions at stake. We are legally entitled to exclude and we intend to exercise that right. Sentiments echoed over a century later by Prime Minister John Howard, who also said “We will decide who comes here.”

But what about the right to asylum? In a short book written in 1879, three Chinese-Australian colonists wrote, it was called The Chinese Question in Australia, wrote about why Chinese were coming to Australia in the late nineteenth century. And they explained the background of religious conflict, civil war and starvation that had displaced millions in China in the 1860s and 1870s. “In our land millions of men, women and children, yes, millions, think of the horror and pity of it, have died of starvation.” And they pointed to the ancient British tradition of offering asylum. “The Mother Country” they said “had been for many centuries past the refuge and asylum of foreigners flying from religious persecution and political oppression.” The desirability of hospitality to strangers and what they called “cosmopolitan friendship and sympathy”, these were the Australian Chinese colonists’ regular themes.

But of course these strangers flying to Britain whom they referred to were Europeans, and they recognised that Europeans also received refuge in Australia. They said “You do not endeavour to exclude Germans or Frenchmen or Italians or Danes of Swedes.”

Now quickly two points we can take from this very brief little history. The first one is that whereas the United Kingdom and the United States had proud national traditions of providing asylum, of being places of asylum, of conceptualising their national identity in that way, and invoked this tradition at key points around this time, in Australia that was never, ever considered when they started thinking about immigration and refugees. Secondly, the Commonwealth of Australia defined its national existence indeed, exerted its sovereignty in 1901 in terms of its right to control borders. This is now recognised in international history as really significant in modernity. The passage of legislation to prevent not-whites coming to Australia and particularly the newly racialised category of Asiatics, but also, and this is just as crucial, the Australian Commonwealth was founded in an Act of racial deportation when the Kanakas or Pacific Islanders were deported also in an Act in 1901 from the Commonwealth. And the British Crown managed to turn a blind eye to this explicitly discriminatory legislation enacted in its name.

Now ironically, the Australian legislation also repudiated the key British distinction between British subjects and aliens and that’s really interesting in terms of Australian repudiating that British tradition, that British distinction. So that in effect, what happened was that British, would-be British migrants, working class migrants, paupers, people in ill health, it turns out, research shows, were actually more excluded under the 1901 Immigration Restriction Act than were Asiatics, who’d sort of stopped coming anyway. But this was enacted against British as well because the Australians completely repudiated that distinction between British subjects and aliens. And the Alien Act passed in Britain which was their first immigration restriction Act, what’s really interesting about that is that on the one hand they passed it because they were looking at what was happening in the colonies and what was happening in the United States and they passed a watered down version, but what they did which was really novel and a point of departure, was that they included for the first time probably in modern law, a category of asylum seekers in that Alien Law of 1905. So the Australian Immigration Act then was our assertion of independence from Britain, even though, as we know, we remained subject to Britain.

To finish up then, Australia awaits its independence day still. I mean, this is the irony given that 1901, the White Australian Policy was as I said, in effect, our declaration of sovereignty. We actually await our independence day still. And sadly, Julia Gillard, like Kevin Rudd before her, seems in no rush to remedy this. When that time comes, when we do, when we are able to declare our independence day, we have a rare opportunity I think, to renew ourselves as a nation and thereby redefine ourselves as a nation extending our established democratic commitments to promote racial equality and abolish caste distinctions, to extend these traditional commitments to present-day treatment of asylum seekers and refugees. That is, we might start to think afresh of conceiving of Australia, for the first time really, as a place of asylum, and of ruled by a spirit of cosmopolitan friendship and sympathy, as the Chinese-Australian colonists Lowe Kong Meng , Cheok Hong Cheong and Louis Ah Mouy, as they anticipated, they imagined, they envisaged in 1879. And so their imagining in 1879 of Australia as a place of asylum, as a place characterised by cosmopolitan friendship and sympathy, this might characterise this national project of renewal. Thank you.