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Q&A: Ex-Australian PM attacks refugee policy

Malcolm Fraser, a former prime minister, says tough asylum-seeker policies have damaged Australia's reputation.

Last Modified: 06 Sep 2013 11:03
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Australia welcomed boatloads of Vietnamese refugees under Fraser's government in the 1970s [Getty Images]

Melbourne, Australia - Australians head to the polling booths on Saturday to elect a new government, and the issue of asylum-seekers arriving by boat has played a major part in the election campaigns of both major parties.

Malcom Fraser served as a Liberal prime minister between 1975 and 1983, a period in which the country saw refugees arriving following the end of the Vietnam War. 

Now an outspoken critic of the Australian government's treatment of asylum-seekers, Fraser sat down with Al Jazeera to discuss the political and social ramifications of the issue.

Al Jazeera: Is the policy debate regarding asylum seekers damaging Australia's international reputation?

Malcolm Fraser: The policy debates over the last 10 years have gone a long way towards destroying a reputation we had as a humane and decent society.

Contrary to Malcolm Fraser's views, immigration minister Tony Burke defends the new policies, in this in-depth interview with Al Jazeera

So much of what the political parties claim about asylum seekers is wrong. For example, the claim that people who come by boat are "illegals".

The people who come on boats have, over the years, been found to be the most deserving.

When the Gillard government stopped processing, in August, 12 months ago, at that point a little over 90 percent of people who arrived on boats were found to be genuine refugees.

AJ: How do you explain the fact that the two issues of most concern to the Australian public at this election are the economy and asylum-seekers? 

MF: I think a lot of people are worried that the political parties are focusing not on the fundamentals but on things that they think are going to be popular in the short term.

The asylum-seeker issue I can understand being a cause for concern, but there's also a view out in the community that both parties are pursuing a very harsh and inhumane policy - and therefore I'm not sure if there's much political advantage between parties.

If one party feels there's a perception one is tougher than the other, then the one feeling it's falling behind seems to find some new way to be harsh to some of the most vulnerable people in the world.

AJ:  How do you assess the Rudd government's deal with Papua New Guinea (PNG) to process and resettle refugees?

MF: I hope the outcome of it is that it's unconstitutional.

Papua New Guinea is a very poor country and would not have the capacity to accept and assimilate a large number of asylum seekers proven to be refugees. It would lead to more problems with Australia because you can cross between PNG and northern Queensland in a canoe.

Most of all, Australia is relatively a wealthy country. We should not put the responsibility that should rest on our shoulders on to a struggling country like PNG.

AJ:  Do you see the major parties' competing policies on asylum seekers as constituting a 'race to the bottom'?

MF: I labelled it that a long while ago, but in the last month or two I would say that both political parties have made a hole in the bottom of the barrel and have gone well below it.

When the Gillard Government held the Houston Enquiry [into boat arrivals], evidence was put before that committee making it perfectly plain you could stop the boats and people drowning at sea; emphasising that for the programme to work you would have to take all the recommendations, not just one or two - but the government cherry picked.

I fear the debates over the last 10 years have created a Christian-Muslim divide in Australia.

Malcolm Fraser, former prime minister of Australia

Why it chose to ignore several key recommendations, which resulted in more people getting on boats, I don't understand.

John Howard [the former Liberal prime minister] claimed he stopped the boats. It's true he introduced harsh policies and the boats stopped, but the harsh policies had nothing to do with the boats stopping.

Changed circumstances in the countries from which people flee led to the numbers dropping - not the deterrent policies. That situation has never been explained to the Australian public.

The political parties forget that and the Liberal Party gets away with the claim that they stopped the boats in the past. 

Who do you vote for at this election? The standard has to be: Who will do least harm? What a wretched standard to have to apply to your political process. I never thought it would be like this.

AJ:  Where do you see the debate and policy arrangements heading, given the likelihood that boatloads of people claiming asylum will continue to make their way to Australia?

MF: Whoever wins, the policy will be bad. It will be inhumane and it will be brutal.

I fear in Australia a return to the sectarianism that divided society between Protestant and Catholic following the conscription debates during the First World War, which put a divide in the Australian community which didn't start to die until the late 1950s.

Follow Al Jazeera's in-depth coverage of the election

I fear the debates over the last 10 years have created a Christian-Muslim divide in Australia.

There's obviously no concern about these issues amongst our politicians - they don't care if they fan that kind of hatred. I just hate to think that this has taken hold in Australia but I fear that it has.

AJ:  Please explain your government's response to boat arrivals and the political climate of the time.

MF: Both political parties have resolutely refused to accept or recognise that there is a model that Australia did apply - not only a regional but an international approach to the problem - and it worked.

After the Vietnam War, tens of thousands of people were fleeing Indo-China - a lot of them in no more than river boats incapable of surviving at sea.

Very large numbers were trying to make landfall in Malaysia, which was pushing boats back out to sea fearing they would be left with a problem they couldn't handle. Quite a number of boats got through to Australia.

We believed that somehow we had to try to get people out of boats. We knew a lot had drowned, we knew some had been picked up by passing freighters.

With the UNHCR, we persuaded Malaysia to establish a processing centre which wasn't a burden on Malaysia, and we received a commitment from the United States and from Canada - along with ourselves - that we would all take very large numbers from that centre. 

We took over 20,000 a year for three years in a row out of that centre. Canada took a few more than we did and America took a lot more than either Canada or Australia.

They were assessed in that centre and then were flown to their destination, and all of that happened with speed, no punitive penalty waiting time.

People were received with extraordinary generosity and that was the real Australia - the Australia that both parties have betrayed over the last ten years, and especially over the last 12 months.

AJ:  Would this solution be workable today?

MF: You can only do the same sort of thing - a broader international solution. Find other countries to take refugees and really make it an international solution, because a very large part of these refugee movements are caused by American foreign policy.

AJ: Do you see the politicisation of the asylum-seeker issue, since 2001 and the Tampa incident, as being inevitable or by the design of John Howard,  then-prime minister?

MF: It was a conscious decision to appeal to narrow-minded Australians to win votes. Without it, Howard would have lost that election [in 2001].

I remember speaking with very senior people within the Labor Party at the time and I said: "There are lot of Liberals who hate these policies, who hate what's happening and a lot of people in your own party who hate these policies - why don’t you appeal to the middle ground?"

The person I was speaking to just looked at me and said: "Malcom, you just don't understand how this ripped so many rednecks out of the Labor Party - I'm not going to let them rip any more."

It was competition for the rednecks and a major error of judgement by the Labor Party. I think John Howard knew exactly what he was doing.

Follow Nigel O'Connor on Twitter: @nigel_oconnor

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Al Jazeera
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