The Howard Government’s response to asylum seekers, refugees, Aborigines and welfare recipients.

Paper given at The Social Change in the 21st Century Conference, Brisbane
22nd November 2002

This paper will trace the continuity and discontinuities in policies affecting refugees, asylum seekers, Aborigines and welfare recipients from the invasion of this continent to the present day. It will draw heavily on research conducted by my students and myself over the last few years.

Some isolated historical features

  • Adam Smith published The Wealth of Nations in 1776.
  • Charles Darwin published The Origin of Species in 1859. However, views about the racial inferiority of non-white people, which later came to be called ‘social Darwinism’, predated this book by several centuries.
  • The British invasion of Australia started in 1778.
  • The first codified English Poor Law was in 1601.
  • One of the first pieces of legislation passed by the Commonwealth Parliament in 1901 was an Act to restrict non-white immigration.
  • Jane Kelsey published The New Zealand Experiment: A World Model for Structural Adjustment? in 1995.
  • The Howard Government came to power in 1996.
  • For much of the post Second World War period until 1974, unemployment remained below 1 percent. Since that time full employment has not been a prime policy of any government.

Ongoing Indigenous dispossession

Australia was, until 1788, a multicultural land. Various Indigenous nations, based on language groups owned this continent. Trading routes extended for thousands of miles. At various times some religious movements maintained influence over considerable areas of the continent – one such stretched from Broome into central Arnhemland. For over four hundred years Macassan seafarers made annual visits to the northern coast from the Gulf of Carpentaria to the North West of Western Australia. Contact was maintained across the Torres Strait. Extraordinary cultural diversity existed. Complex mechanisms existed for maintaining peace and resolving conflict. These helped mediate land, interclan and interpersonal difficulties. Religious, cultural and family arrangements combined to ensure that no one starved, whilst there was food to eat. Indigenous Australia maintained a finer welfare system than exists today.

From 1788 on, invasion, theft, rape and genocide was the British contribution to cultural diversity. There has been 214 years of continuing race war waged by the invaders since that time (Tomlinson 2001 Ch. 6). The Howard Government’s policies of ‘practical reconciliation’ and its 1998 revisions to the Native Title Act exemplify the repugnant Australian tradition that allows Indigenous Australians use of land and resources until such time as white Australians desire them. In the old days guns and poison were the tools of civilisation, nowadays progressive dispossession of Indigenous property rights can be just as effectively achieved by the grant of mining leases or by legislative amendment.

Fear of invasion

From the earliest days of colonialisation, the ‘new chums’ feared others coming to and taking over this continent: first the French or the Russians and later the ‘Asiatic hordes’ which became, by the time I was growing up, the ‘yellow peril’. The current bogeymen are Muslim refugees.

The white Australia policy was not dropped as official policy until just before the election of the Whitlam Labor Government. In the first decade of the 20th Century attempts were made to repatriate Kanak labourers and Asians, particularly the Chinese.

The end of the Second World War saw a huge influx of migrants brought from Europe driven by Australian Government’s desire to “populate or perish” in the face of the perceived threat from Asia.

Following the Vietnam War a considerable number of Vietnamese people settled here. Many of the early arrivals had arrived by boat. It was the Labor Minister for Immigration Gerry Hand who introduced the policy of mandatory detention for refugees and asylum seekers arriving on our shores without visas. Keating Labor also introduced a six-month social security waiting period for newly arrived migrants.

The construction of the Australian income support system

The first Federal social security payments were the Age and Invalid Pensions introduced in 1909. Asian Australians were not paid social security until the 1940s. Child Endowment in 1942 was paid, even in respect of Aboriginal children, not living on missions or settlements. By the late 1960s Aboriginal people living in the cities were paid social security and this was extended to include rural and remote Aborigines by the mid 1970s. Unemployment benefit is still not paid on many Aboriginal communities, instead a form of ‘work for the dole’, the Community Development Employment Program (CDEP), was installed in its place.

Throughout most of the 20th Century the system of welfare income provision became more widespread, generous and comprehensive. But with the exception of the 1947 consolidation of social security legislation, there was little effort made to conceive of it as a unified system of income support (Joint Committee of Public Accounts 1983).The first serious attempt to cut back on the comprehensive nature of income support began under Brian Howe’s reign as Minister for Social Security.

The light on the hill: The period from the very late 1960s until the early 1980s

After Menzies relinquished the Prime Ministership, Australia began to adopt more socially progressive attitudes towards people of colour, Indigenous people, migrants and women. The equal pay cases in respect to both women and Aborigines in 1967 resulted in at least formal equality with white men. However, because of the gender segregated nature of Australian industry, income equality between men and women has yet to occur. The Aboriginal equal pay judgement was hedged around with slow worker provisions and a three-year phase-in period. It also resulted in many Aboriginal people being driven off their traditional country by infuriated white pastoralists who could no longer avoid paying Indigenous workers in their employ.

In 1967 the Liberals agreed to hold a referendum to change the constitution so that the Commonwealth could pass laws in respect to Aborigines and so it could count them in the Census.

The Whitlam Government came to power with ideas of building a multicultural society, getting out of the Vietnam war, promoting gender equality, improving the welfare system, introducing a national health insurance, improving the lot of Indigenous Australians and promoting the idea that ordinary people (including those receiving welfare payments) had rights which could and should be enforced.

The Whitlam Government drafted, and the Fraser Government passed (a slightly less progressive version) of the Northern Territory Land Rights Bill.

Between 1973 and 1978 sole parents who had custody of children were included under the social security umbrella. In the last years of the Fraser and the early years of the Hawke Governments, a system of financial support was introduced for low- income families who worked. This was the last major improvement in income security provision, although during the early Hawke Government, Don Grimes introduced substantial improvements in disability service delivery.

This period, from the late 1960s until the early 1980s, was the closest Australia has come to being able to glimpse Ben Chifley’s ‘light on the hill’. Yet throughout this period there was a contest between a welfare system based on noblesse oblige and a fully articulated system of rights. There seemed to be a feeling that even when people spoke about rights that they were driven by sense of “There but for the grace of God go I”. That is, in the minds of many politicians and bureaucrats, the rights were not securely anchored to international covenants and conventions or to a clear ideological commitment to ideologies predicated upon support for equality, mutuality and freedom or justice.

The market rules

The situation, which culminated in the Howard ascendency, has a long lineage in Australia. Some writers point to the Hayden 1975 Budget as the first step on the slippery slope. Certainly there were economic fundamentalist tendencies observable during Malcolm Fraser’s rule. By the time Hawke came to power, the views of Milton Friedman, Hayek, Thatcher, Regan, and a multitude of right wing think-tanks (George 1997) were influencing Australian Government thinking (Pusey 1992). These ideas were soon to be imposed in New Zealand under Labour’s Rodger Douglas, only to be massively expanded by the New Zealand Nationals when they came to office, with economically disastrous consequences (Kelsey 1995). Howard, prior to being elected, promised to replicate the New Zealand experience here. A much more organised and centralised trade union movement has so far impeded much of his anti-union industrial agenda.

The Howard agenda

Howard has boasted that he is the most conservative Prime Minister in Australia’s history. He most clearly articulated the Government’s domestic policy orientations in his 1999 Roundtable paper and his 2000 “Quest for a decent society” article in which he set out the argument for his type of social coalition. This coalition is between government, business, the church, the family and individuals. He sees the cement for such a coalition being what he terms ‘mutual obligation’ – whereby those who receive something from the Government are expected to give something back. He defines his political orientation as an amalgam between social conservatism and neo-liberal economics.

Howard provided a clear warning to informed Australia that he wished to replicate the New Zealand economic fundamentalist experiment. Unfortunately, too few Australian voters had read Jane Kelsey’s 1995 analysis:

By 1995, after a decade of radical structural change, New Zealand had become a highly unstable and polarised society. It’s under-skilled, under-employed, low wage, low inflation, high exchange rate, export-driven economy was totally exposed to international economic forces (p.350).

In addition middle Australia, like their Aotearoan counterparts, had imbibed too much of the economic fundamentalist think-tanks’ mystification. The Hawke/Keating Labor Party had also internalised the nostrums of the Chicago School of Economics and their associated right wing think-tanks (Pusey 1992, Vintila, Phillomore and Newman 1992, Rees, Rodley and Stilwell 1993, Stilwell 2002, George 1997).

Labor had ruled out introducing ‘work for the dole’ as had been done in New Zealand by the Nationals – yet Keating maintained the CDEP for Indigenous communities and had, in 1994 in his Working Nation document, moved to impose a less oppressive form of ‘mutual obligation’ which he termed ‘reciprocal obligation’. Under Labor there was a greater commitment to train, find work and ultimately, after 18 months of continuous unemployment, to supply a job for 6 months.

Despite Howard’s (1999, 2000) fine words, about the mutuality in ‘mutual obligation’ the Government sees itself has having fully met its obligation to unemployed people by simply paying below poverty line income –the obligation is then on the unemployed person to meet ‘their obligation’ to Government. Any extra assistance comes in the form of mandatory ‘dole diaries’, compulsory literacy and numeracy training, having to apply for 10 jobs a fortnight, participation income and other breaching mechanisms. Last year 380,000 breaches were imposed on the poorest Australians often for a minor infringement such as being late for a Centrelink appointment (ACOSS 2002). Many researchers have described the philosophical underpinnings of participation income as unethical (Kinnear 2000, Goodin 2001, Hammer 2002, Tomlinson 2002[a], [b]). The practical outcomes for those who are breached are socially disastrous (Senate Community Affairs References Committee 2002, ACOSS 2002, 2001, Schooneveldt 2002, Tomlinson 2001 [a], [b]).

The various Howard Cabinets have contained a fine bunch of bullyboys (and girls) determined to berate the unemployed for their failure to find non-existent work. Perhaps the most blatant example of this comes from ex-Minister Jocelyn Newman’s 1999 paper The Challenge of Welfare Dependency in the 21st Century with her suggestion that “good economic policy is good welfare policy (p.2)”. This paper provided the tracks on which the McClure Report (2000) ran and on time. The concept of ‘participation income’ is a euphemism for compulsory labour. There has been a constant chorus of denigration of people who are forced to rely on social security because of the failure of the Government and industry to create sufficient jobs. Whether it is Howard’s 2000 “social coalition”, Abbott’s “job snobs”, Brough’s “losers and cruisers” or his claims that “Compliance is a strong motivator and it also flushes out dole cheats” (Brough 2001 p.2), the message is the same depressing monotone. The hysterical denunciation of ‘welfare dependency’ and particularly intergenerational ‘welfare dependency’ is based on a myth. There have been no intergenerational studies of long-term social security receipt in Australia. Recent overseas long-term panel studies do not support such assertions (Goodin, Headey, Muffels and Dirven 1999 pp.260-261).

The McClure Report (2000) obsequiously recommended that not only were unemployed people be compelled ‘to participate’ but that single parents and people receiving Disability Support Pensions should also be compelled ‘to participate’. The 2002/3 Budget foreshadowed transferring 180,000 Disability Support Pensioners, who worked 15 or more hours a week, to an unemployment benefit paid at $52 a fortnight less than the pension. This is allegedly being done as a way of helping them back into employment. Such a claim flies in the face of the fact that there have been no net full- time jobs created in Australia in recent years (ABC 2002, Gregory 2000) and that anyone, who has a significant impairment, makes a substantial contribution to society and the economy by managing to work the equivalent of 2 full days each week. The Budget proposal blithely ignores the fact that income received by pensioners is more generously means tested than income received by unemployment beneficiaries. Introducing such a change would decrease the financial incentives for people currently receiving Disability Support Pensions to maximise their hours of work. The extra “mutual obligations”, reporting responsibilities and breaching regime imposed on unemployment beneficiaries would invariably lead, many of these 180,000 Disability Support Pensioners, to experience increased income insecurity.

Indigenous Australians

The last officially organised punitive raid was carried out, in 1942, in the North of South Australia (Rowley 1972 p. 204). [Though police and settlers continued to kill and maim small groups of Aborigines in remote Australia until at least the early 1980s (NT News 21/7/80 p.1). In cities, with the notable exception of incidents like the slaughter of David Gundy, the police content themselves with severe bashings of Indigenous Australians (ABC TV 1996)].

There have been few honourable moments in white Australia’s treatment of Indigenous Australians:

  • The 1967 Referendum.
  • The 1976 Northern Territory Land Rights Act.
  • The High Courts Mabo Judgements No. 1 & 2.
  • Paul Keating’s 1992 Redfern Speech.
  • The Native Title Act 1994.
  • The Corroboree 2000 Bridge Marches.

Each of these events stand in sharp contrast to the Howard government’s 10 point plan in the wake of the Wik judgement (which he implemented in his 1998 amendments to the Native Title Act). Howard and his Government acted to remove the property rights which the High Court found Indigenous Australians to have retained after 200 odd years of colonial invasion. They did this in order that they might give those same rights to pastoralists and miners who (the High Court had found) did not own them. In the political double speak of the day; the Prime Minister declared he was acting to provide “certainty” for pastoralists. This political and moral obscenity was captured in the following song.

The ten point scam

The racist scum are on the bum
they need our help again
to protect the interests
of our rich and famous men.

Working folk are on their arse
treated as if second class
it’s not for the likes of you
or me that he’s predicting certainty.

It’s the movers and the shakers
not the Salvos nor the Quakers
looking after rich and famous men
who would steal our common wealth
with their lawyers and their stealth.
It worked before, let’s try it on again,
looking after rich and famous men.

The racist scum are on the bum
they have a ten point scam.
That coward Howard asks, what is the moral question?
Who do you think I am?

As Minister for State,
spreading lies and fear and hate,
he slams the station gate –
for certainty.
I wouldn’t mention Minchin
if you are penny pinchin:
he can’t hear the hungry cry
nor see old people die,
though you might like to try
he’s got bigger fish to fry.
He’s looking after rich and famous men.

The racist scum are on the bum
they need our help again
to protect the interests
of our rich and famous men.

It’s the Sultans of Brunei
not the likes of you or I
for whom they stride.
It’s that wacker Kerry Packer
MacLachlans and McBride,
each of them has wealth on their side.
They need certainty
for all eternity –
secure land title is all that they desire
and no drought, or flood, or fire;
and perhaps, should it transpire
that the markets have a down-turn
governments should do a u-turn
and provide a subsidy:
just a bit more certainty.
It is what you would expect when
You’re looking after rich and famous men.

The racist scum are on the bum
they have a ten point scam.
That coward Howard asks, what is the moral question?
Who do you think I am?
The racist scum are on the bum
they need our help again
to protect the interests of our rich and famous men.

(Tomlinson and Hancock 1999)

Whether it is:

  • the response to the UN Committee on the Elimination of Racism Report condemning Australia’s 1998 amendments to the Native Title Act,
  • Ruddock’s on-going attempts to remove the Aboriginal Tent Embassy from outside of the old Parliament House,
  • the failure to do something about the 20 year differential between white and Indigenous average age of death,
  • the inordinately high imprisonment rate of Indigenous Australians (Cunneen 2001),
  • the appalling decision not to apologise to the stolen generations (HREOC 1997),
  • the $3 billion Indigenous housing backlog (ATSIC News 2001, p. 3),
  • the promotion of a welfarised ‘practical reconciliation’ over self determination,
  • the refusal to countenance the signing a treaty with Indigenous Australians, or
  • the finding of new ways to remove property rights from IndigenousAustralians this Howard Government is depressingly consistent.

Perhaps the best measure of the intensity of racist hatred of Indigenous people which inspires this Howard Government was revealed by the Commonwealth Government’s counsel who, during the Hindmarsh Bridge Case in the High Court, whilst being examined by Mr. Justice Michael Kirby, suggested that the 1967 Referendum would allow the Commonwealth to introduce Nazi style racially discriminatory legislation.

Responses to asylum seekers and migrants

Fear of other races has not been far beneath the surface of white Australian consciousness since 1788.

Just when you think the Howard Government can’t sink any lower into the racist quagmire which it calls its migration policy along comes the Tampa, ‘the children overboard’ distortions and ‘the Pacific Solution’. The international opprobrium which followed our flouting of the International Conventions of the Sea in relation to the Tampa may not influence the Howard Government but it will cost the Australian people dearly (Lock, Quenault and Tomlinson 2002).

Howard came to power with the promise of smaller government (Jamrozik 2001) – yet as Stilwell (2002) points out:

Whether it all adds up to ‘slimming the state’, as its proponents commonly claim, is a debatable point. The implementation of economic rationalist policies usually involves a change in the functions of the state – a shift from service provision to regulation of private providers, for example (p.205).

Yet in relation to the Migration Act the Howard Government can justly claim it has not only made the Government smaller it has made Australia smaller by its exclusion of off shore islands and at the same decreased the moral regard the rest of the world has for Australian citizens. The Howard Government exemplifies the old saying that small governments appeal to those with small minds and to the lazy.

The connection between Australian troops travelling around the world meeting lots of nice people and then killing them and subsequent refugee outpourings from those countries has long been acknowledged (Uso 1991). Interestingly enough this has not led the Howard Government to be wary of entering new theatres of war or to taking a sympathetic approach towards asylum seekers from countries it has invaded or blockaded. The Government is refusing to assist many refugees from Afghanstan and Iraq. It is currently moving to send home 1600 Timorese with temporary visas even though they have been here for 10 years. At the same time Howard has joined with the British Prime Minister in the role of cheer leader for George W. Bush’s new war on Iraq.

To update an old Donovan song

“Iraq now your latest game
you’re playing with your blackest queen.
Seagull I don’t want your wings
I don’t want your freedom in a lie.”


The Howard Government has dedicated itself to installing what Kemsall (2002) terms a ‘market welfare state’ where the only fully functioning citizens are self-providers and the rest are marginalised or stigmatised. It totally rejects the idea of creating what Sztompka (1999) calls a ‘moral community’, based on trust, preferring to individualise risk and creating a ‘do it yourself welfare state’ (Klein & Millar cited in Page 1998 p.307). It has totally forsaken Beveridge’s desire to abolish the five giants of ‘squalor, want, ignorance, disease and idleness’ (Timmins,1995) which inspired the 1947 consolidation of social security legislative provisions in Australia. The Howard Government has replaced the ideology of noblesse oblige with a compelled conservative compact: one which is becoming increasingly more prescriptive and proscriptive. Its breaching regime is reminiscent of the deserving and undeserving divide enshrined in the 1601 and 1834 Poor Laws (Tomlinson 2002 [a]).

It has imposed this strict regime on Australia’s poorest claiming to be inspired by the highest motives of facing The Challenge of Welfare Dependency in the 21st Century (Newman 1999) and imposing “tough love”. It is interesting to note that Henriques (1979), writing about the Elizabethan poor law administration discusses ‘secular Puritanism’ and notes:

The association of words which implied that the destitute, especially those who could be called ‘able bodied’, were destitute by their own fault quietened the conscience of those who suffered from or feared the growing cost of poor relief…the whole moral justification of the deterrent workhouse was that it would drive those able to work into finding employment (p. 23).

Of course, at its base the entire moral justification of economic fundamentalism and neo-liberalism rests on a similar mystification; sometime expressed in terms of the unseen hand guiding the market, sometimes as market equilibrium, sometimes as efficiency, sometimes as survival of the fittest, sometimes as the just reward of high intellect or hard work but always expressed most shrilly when denouncing the feckless, the sloughful and the licentious who ‘after all are only getting their just deserts’.

The Howard Government is determined to maintain Indigenous Australians in their time honoured role of ‘native’ and to refuse to recognise their claims to sovereignty. It will continue to welfarise Indigenous struggle through its declared policy of ‘practical reconciliation’. The alternatives of self-determination, a treaty, an apology, economic self-sufficiency, land rights, secure native title and decolonisation are totally verboten.

It will, whenever able, reinforce downward envy. Nowhere more so than in the way it responds to asylum seekers and refugees. Recent questioning by Senator Falkner (2002) clearly suggests that it knowingly or unknowingly was a party to the sabotage of the Siev-X in which 353 asylum seekers drowned. There may have been at least four other ships sunk as the result of sabotage by agents (operating in Indonesia) who were employed by the Australian Government.

Howard would prefer to hide behind the lie that the ‘little Aussie Battler’ is a racist who must be appeased than to accept that low-income workers are struggling to comprehend an increasingly globalised and insecure world. In such a situation a more progressive leadership might attempt to increase income security for those on low incomes and work to defuse racism, sexism, ageism, disableism, classism and urbanism. It could do that by introducing a universal Basic Income and by adopting a full employment policy, expanding humanitarian refugee policies and coming to an accommodation with Indigenous Australians (Tomlinson 2001[b], 2002[a],[b]).


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