History will judge us on asylum seekers too
Julia Gillard claimed recently that history would judge our parliamentarians when they vote on Labor's climate change legislation. She is right.
The next Australian history to be released will consider, somewhere towards the back in all probability, the rise of environmentalism and the climate change debate in modern Australia.
Historians are interested in changes over time. The environmental movement represents a significant new feature in the timeline of Australia's political, social and cultural history. It is deserving of a place in the story of our contemporary society. No-one can say, though, historians will judge Labor on climate change policy in the end.
Historians are also interested in continuity. We seek to describe how things evolve over time, but also how other things stay the same. One thing that has barely changed since European settlement is the attitude of our governments towards immigration.
For most of our past, we have carefully planned immigration to Australia, and have specially designed the composition and size of our population. Migrants have always been primarily a source of labour and a means to build our nation and its economy. When distance and money were still large barriers to movement, Australian governments were able to easily turn the immigration tap on and off, usually in concert with fluctuations in our economy. For a very long time, immigration was also a strategy of defence or a way of strengthening our hold on the land we inhabit - look no further than White Australia for an example of this. As a 'nation girt by sea', the peopling and development of Australia has always come back to migration. Territorial borders have always been the essential component in our sense of national sovereignty.
If you read any good Australian history, it should be clear that Australian immigration has been the combination of our cyclical need for migrants and the international conditions that have lead to large-scale movements of people. Nevertheless, as if to ignore the 'emigration' side of the equation, Australia has always considered migrants in terms of what they can offer us and not in terms of how migration might help them. For better or worse, the state's power over who comes here and who does not has long been effective in creating a nation peopled according to the tastes and requirements of Australia at the time.
Our attitudes have not changed much. The movement of people is a phenomenon as old as humanity, but larger numbers and an increased diversity of origins and destinations mark the new era of migration we live in. National governments are integrating their economies into the global market, but the opening up of trade has not coincided with the opening up of borders. The flow of money has become unrestricted, but states are frantically clutching to the idea of sovereignty as they erect bigger and stronger barricades to the flow of people in a quest for control. This is a trend in almost all Western democracies today, and Australia has had a lot of time to get used to it.
We are still struggling, however, with the new era of global migration. Australia is still not sure how to deal with alterations to our ethnic make-up. After World War II, we were scared of continental European migrants. When White Australia was fully dismantled in the 1970s, we were whipped into a fearful frenzy about Asian immigration. Today, migrants from Central Asia and the Middle East cop much of the flak. Most of us are lawful and tolerant citizens, and we treat all migrants as equals. Some of us are not so welcoming, and the increased ethnic diversity of our migrant intake has come as a rude awakening to the realities of migration in the modern world. While immigration law no longer discriminates, sections of our society are yet to catch up.
In another sense, we have adapted to some of the changes presented by modern society. With larger numbers of forced migrants and displaced persons in the world today, we recognise our responsibility as a developed nation to protect refugees and we have an active, though small, humanitarian migration program. In this way, the international community can see that we are playing team. Yet even then, we are on a bloody-minded quest for control. Prime minister John Howard summed up our official attitude to all migrants – not just asylum seekers and refugees – when he said that "We shall decide who comes to this country and the circumstances in which they come". This has been the dictum of Australian migration policy since day one – Howard just said it well.
Our culture of tight immigration management is acceptable to some, and abhorrent to others. Either way, it has stuck with us since the mass peopling of Australia began. Our government's attitudes are clashing violently with the reality of humanitarian migration. Our quest to regulate migration in every aspect is leading us down a dangerous path, one that has already seen us violate international human rights law and trample upon some of the core precepts of refugee protection. As our government desperately clings onto a notion of sovereignty that is incompatible with global humanitarianism, we are harming the people who need our protection the most. The offshore processing of asylum seekers, and the lack of compassion exhibited by most of our politicians concerning their plight, has the international community questioning our ability to right the wrongs of the past. This is yet another chapter in a particularly worrying history of migration and migrants in Australia.
Immigration regulation has been the backbone of Australian sovereignty since the beginning. It is a continuous plotline in our nation's historical narrative, and our quest for control is one that has taken us to some very dark places indeed. Historians usually seek to simply understand, but sometimes it is difficult not to pass judgment. If Julia Gillard thinks the historians will not judge her on this as well, the most constant element of our nation's story, she had better think again.
Ben Wilkie is a PhD candidate in immigration history at Monash University, where he teaches international studies and history.