The accolades for Malcolm Fraser are misplaced, even when it comes to his refugee policies.

He seemed at times like a beacon of anti-racism compared with John Howard and even the Gillard and Rudd Labor governments. Academic Robert Manne once described the Fraser years as “the halcyon era of Australian refugee policy”. It’s not true. Fraser did not welcome asylum seekers; he introduced all the terminology of today, even if it has been reworked over the decades.

The “regional solution” that Fraser’s Liberal government of 1975 to 1983 came up with is often held up by refugee advocates as an example of the “solution” to asylum seekers trying to get here. But actually, just like Abbott, the central focus was “stopping the boats”, not providing asylum for refugees.

As historian Nancy Viviani has said of the Fraser government, it would “choose refugees who best fitted migration ra­­ther than humanitarian entry criteria”.

Much has been made, by people like Julian Burnside, of the fact that Malcolm Fraser resettled 25,000 “boat people” a year. The intake of refugees did reach 22,500 in one year – almost double the paltry 13,750 of today. But that’s not the whole picture.

The Fraser government introduced the false divide between “unauthorised” arrivals of asylum seekers by boat and “legitimate” refugees in overseas camps. Almost all of those 22,500 were selected from camps. Asylum seekers who arrived in Australia by boat were still the target of hysteria and discrimination.

A total of 53 refugee boats had arrived in Australia by 1981. They carried a total of only 2,100 people. They weren’t put in detention, but that’s about the only positive thing you can say about Fraser’s legacy.

Most of the Vietnamese refugees remained in camps in Malaysia and Thailand. Prior to 1978, the government refused to accept more than a few thousand people a year from the camps, controlling exactly who would be accepted and keeping the numbers to a minimum.

They postured about honouring international treaties, but in fact they were increasingly criticised internationally for not taking Australia’s share.

The number of refugees arriving on boats increased to about 1,400 between July 1977 and June 1978. In that time, five large freighters, each carrying around 1,500 asylum seekers from Vietnam, arrived in south-east Asia. Fraser’s immigration minister, Michael MacKellar, flatly refused to recognise the passengers as refugees, worrying that such boats were capable of bringing large numbers of “unauthorised” refugees to Australia.

A direct appeal from the UNHCR and the US to take more of the people fleeing the devastation in Vietnam and surrounding countries – which Australia had contributed to – was ignored. In January 1979, the Fraser government announced that it “would deny entry to any passengers on such ships” and that it would “legislate to introduce severe penalties for those who profiteered by bringing people into Australia without prior authority”.

Sounds familiar, doesn’t it? Even some of the rhetoric at the time was very similar to today’s hysteria against people smugglers. They were denounced as “entrepreneurs of evil”; any attempts at bringing large numbers of refugees were “organised by unscrupulous traders in human suffering and misery”.

Actually, many of them were organised by the Vietnamese government, anxious to be rid of anyone it thought would be hostile to it.

Fraser, the supposed champion of anti-racist, humane policy, set out to create “regional boat holding arrangements”. Malaysia and Indonesia would prevent boats from carrying people to Australia, which in return would take larger numbers of refugees from the camps.

So they were able to pick and choose who they thought would be good exploitable labour in Australia. Even then, the numbers Fraser’s government was willing to resettle were criminally tiny – 9,000 a year while an estimated 373,000 languished in camps across south-east Asia. How different is that from today in essentials?

In a clear precedent for what was to follow, Fraser’s determination to “stop the boats” was so great that immigration officials were sent to sabotage boats bringing asylum seekers. In the documentary Admission Impossible, Greg Humphries, an Immigration Department official, recounts how he was sent to Malaysia for this purpose and gives an account of the methods:

“We bored holes in the bottom of the ships, of the boats, and they sank overnight, so they had to be landed. And we were very successful in stopping many of the boats, by one way or another.”

‘Queue jumpers’

Fraser painted a picture of an Australia with a front and a back door. Refugees who waited in camps were coming in the front door, while the boat arrivals were coming through the back.

The “solution” to people coming in the back door was to open the “front door” wider. In other words, those arriving by boat were illegitimate, unacceptable, suspect refugees, a problem that had to be dealt with.

Fraser’s government would sink to lows very similar to later governments, both Labor and Liberal, in its depictions of and attitudes towards asylum seekers arriving by boat. Discriminating between “good” and “bad” refugees led straight to the creation of the slur that boat arrivals were “queue jumpers”.

“Queue jumpers” entered the Australian lexicon via official government broadcasts. In response to an increase in boat arrivals in April-May 1978, Fraser’s administration used Radio Australia to broadcast warnings against “queue jumping” to south-east Asia.

Then in 1980 it passed the Immigration (Unauthorised Arrivals) Bill. It introduced penalties for people smuggling. Boat organisers and crew were liable to 10 years’ imprisonment and/or a fine of $100,000. The laws were used to carry out the deportation of 140 people who arrived on board the boat VT838, which arrived via Malaysia in late 1981.

This is the hallmark of the Fraser era – legislation to keep boat people out.

Fraser’s opposition to the anti-refugee policies of later years does not eradicate this history. In government he, like those who followed, was determined that refugee policy should suit the needs of Australian capitalism. No such orientation can challenge the racism that has permeated policy in this country since the introduction of White Australia at federation.

What else would we expect from someone born into the ruling class, a beneficiary of that class position and an anti-working class warrior? We should not paint him as some anti-racist humanitarian just because he flinched at the extremes. The policies he introduced led to the outright barbarity that exists today.

[Editor’s note: This article borrows significantly from “Malcolm Fraser’s refugee policy: no model for today” by Hal Hewson without attribution. Red Flag acknowledges the error.]