Beazley's tempted to appeal to the fickle mob

AMANDA Vanstone's feigned outrage at Kim Beazley last week has revealed the Government's vulnerability on its vastly expanded foreign worker scheme. The Government's failure to provide training for the large pool of unemployed Australians, while at the same time throwing open the door to temporary foreign workers, has the potential to cost it dearly at the next election. But it also has dangers for Labor and the future of Australia.

For Beazley, the coming poll will be his third and last throw of the dice as Labor leader. With victory becoming more than a faint possibility, it would be tempting for Beazley to let rip on an issue that has resonated with Australian workers since the 1840s, when hard-pressed squatters wanted to bring in gangs of cheap Indian labourers to work on their sheep runs. Just a few years later, tens of thousands of Chinese gold miners provided a more potent challenge.

The presence of the Chinese, together with the later recruitment of Melanesian labourers for the sugar industry, made racial exclusion a maxim of the Australian Federation in 1901. The so-called White Australia policy, which imposed a dictation test designed to exclude non-European immigrants, was supported by all political parties, although it was Labor that clung most fiercely to it.

While some conservatives could see the easy profits in using non-European labourers to develop the tropical north, the labour movement saw such indentured labourers as a threat to their hard-won wage rates and living standards. There were also widespread fears about Australians being swamped by an Asiatic tide.

Racism was the glue that held the White Australia policy together. And Labor leaders were not averse to using this racism to help them win elections. Even John Curtin, a man who usually eschewed such base appeals, included racial arguments when leading the fight against conscription during the First World War.

Pointing to the rising power of Japan, and the recent recruitment of indentured labourers from Malta, Curtin told public meetings that the conscription of Australian men would threaten the policy by sending white Australian men to the other side of the world while their jobs were taken by indentured labourers and the country became more reliant on the Japanese navy for its protection.

A decade later, another future Labor leader, Ben Chifley, was facing the fight of his life. Rejected by the voters in his Bathurst electorate at the 1925 election, Chifley was making what would have been almost certainly his final attempt in 1928 at being elected to Federal Parliament. At public meetings throughout his largely rural electorate, the very sober, "facts and figures" politician found himself being wildly applauded when he promised to prevent the entry of non-British workers, mainly southern and central Europeans. Like Beazley today, Chifley objected because they were "being used to break down the wages and conditions of Australian workmen". So far, so good.

However, reacting to the adulation that he received, Chifley gradually ramped up the rhetoric as the election approached. The dog whistle was put away in his pocket and the foghorn of racism was given several loud blasts as Chifley attacked the government for giving "preference to dagos", rather than to unemployed ex-servicemen, and for having "allowed so many dagos and aliens into Australia that today they were all over the country taking work which rightly belonged to Australians". He accused the conservative government of fostering "an invasion of 30,000 aliens" that was changing Australia from "a white man's country" to one that was fast becoming "hybrid".

It was a discreditable lapse from an aspiring politician who would later, as prime minister, be responsible for welcoming hundreds of thousands of these self-same European "aliens" under his government's massive postwar immigration scheme. Over the subsequent 50 years, it was tolerance rather than intolerance that provided the glue that held an increasingly diverse Australia together. Now, as Anglo-Celtic Australians face the inevitable prospect, after 60 years of mass immigration, of becoming a minority in a country they once regarded as theirs forever, the voices of intolerance are again coming to the fore.

In such circumstances, a desperate politician might seek the passing plaudits of the fickle mob rather than remaining true to his principles and earning enduring respect by celebrating and defending Australia's historic transformation into a humane and outward-looking society.

In this respect, Beazley's recent talk about prescribing a set of Australian values, along with the Government's mooted test for immigrants, raise serious concerns. Labor's promise to provide a better and fairer society for all Australians will be put at risk if Beazley again tries to out-Tampa John Howard and turn his concern about the ruthless exploitation of vulnerable workers into a divisive campaign designed to appeal to our largely latent racism.

The Age, 19 September 2006