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Speaking of boat people

Darwin harbour November 1977. An ocean-going trawler, the Song Be 12, sails in with 180 passengers aboard and asks permission to stay in Australia. The locals are in despair. This is but the latest of many such boats and they want the government to stop them coming.

It is a familiar story, one that was echoed nearly 25 years later when the government did refuse a boatload of people permission to land in Australia. There are differences, of course, but the most striking is the language used by government and journalists. In the newspaper coverage of 1977 one senses a struggle to find a vocabulary in which to express the same fears being played upon today. Now we have a whole new lexicon to describe the situation.

The Darwin arrivals were called “boat people” or “refugees” by everyone – journalists, government ministers and officials, refugee advocates. The same concerns that won an election in 2001 were aired, but not in the same language.

In January 1977, the Government gave notice that it might not accept the refugees who were arriving in Darwin. The following month, it announced that it would not guarantee entry to refugees who “sail unofficially” into Darwin. They were encouraged to use the “regular channels” established by the UNHCR and Australian Government in various refugee camps in South East Asia rather than risk the journey by sea to Australia and an uncertain welcome.

By November when the Song Be 12 arrived, the Northern Territory government was calling for boats to be turned back by the Navy. The Trades and Labor council denounced the passengers as “pirates” as they had hijacked the boat and held communist soldiers hostage. Both the Prime Minister, Mr Fraser, and the opposition leader, Mr Whitlam, agreed that it was important to establish whether the refugees arriving in this manner were “genuine”. Two weeks earlier, The Age, published an article which differentiated between the “classic definition of political refugees” and those who leave Vietnam because of economic hardship. The latter forms the majority of those who flee it stated, although it is simply a statement, not a judgement. Others were not so circumspect. The Age did not hold Labor frontbencher, Senator Mulvihill in high regard. “His smearing assertion yesterday that many of those seeking entry into Australia were neither genuine nor decent cases, and that they should be sent straight back to Thailand, was reactionary in the extreme,” its editorial claimed on 25 November.

The Sun was more willing to give space to such opinions. It reported the Minister for Immigration Mr McKellar saying that the refugee influx had implications for the preservation of Australia’s territorial integrity. We cannot afford to give the impression that anyone can come, he said. The opposition was reported as saying the defence system was inadequate for the necessary surveillance. McKellar and the Health minister, Mr Hunt, declared that “refugees raised considerations involving protection of Australia from diseases which could threaten livestock and agriculture.” And McKellar stated that he did not accept the definition of refugee adopted by the UN, because anyone

© Helen Cronin 2002

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