Snapshot: Australia & Boat People in the Seventies - Part One

A timeline of quotes, noteworthy events with references included.

The Vietnam War was a long, costly and divisive conflict that pitted the communist government of North Vietnam against South Vietnam and its principal ally, the United States. (1)

More than two decades of violent conflict inflicted a devastating toll on Vietnam’s population, warfare had demolished the country’s infrastructure and economy, and 12 million became refugees. (1)

The Vietnamese refugee crisis began with the Fall of Saigon in1975 and the harsh reality of communist rule culminated in the mass exodus of “boat people. The UNHCR helped to negotiate a unique “orderly departure program”with the Vietnamese government and organised a number of international conferences in order to manage the crisis. The United States, Australia, and Canada developed new resettlement schemes in response to what was unfolding in the South China Sea. Over 1.6 million refugees were resettled between 1975 and 1997. (2)

Many abandoned their homes and sought asylum and refugee status in the United States and other Western nations. (3)

Two waves of Vietnamese refugees fled to the USA in the seventies by way of government sponsored evacuation. The first wave, beginning in 1975, consisted mainly of military personnel and urban, educated professionals whose association with the U.S. military or the South Vietnamese government made them targets of the communist forces. The second wave, towards the end of the decade, became known as the “boat people” refugee crisis. This group came from mainly rural areas and was often less educated than earlier arrivals; many were ethnic Chinese immigrants fleeing persecution in Vietnam. (4)

The term ‘boat people’ also entered the Australian vernacular in the 1970s. The first boat arrived in Darwin in April 1976. Over the next five years there were 2059 Vietnamese boat arrivals with the last arriving in August 1981. (5)

In the late1940s, it became obvious that British migration was not providing the desired numbers, and strict adherence to the White Australia policy was an impediment to population growth. (6)

Despite an initial reluctance the Whitlam government, stirred on by a Gallup poll, eliminated the White Australia Policy with the introduction of policies like the Racial Discrimination Act 1975. (7)

Alongside the Gallup poll, Singapore’s Prime Minister, Lee Kwan Yew, invited Australia to break with the tradition of the White Australia policy. (8)

In the same month it was announced that Australia would accept refugees for permanent settlement from Hong Kong and Singapore. By the end of June 1975 a total of 524 had been brought from these sources and from Malaysia. (8)

Nancy Viviani, private secretary to Senator Don Willesee, in an account generally highly sympathetic to Labor’s refugee policies, admitted in effect the Whitlam government’s vicious inhumanity:

By August 1975, the Labor government’s refugee effort was virtually over, and in that year a total of 1093 Vietnamese had entered Australia. No refugees with Laotian or Cambodian citizenship were taken in, despite their large numbers and the deplorable conditions … on the evidence it is clear that Australia’s refugee policy in 1975 was made by Whitlam … Not only were numbers restricted. But those with ties to the Saigon regime were avoided by not allowing students’ parents to join them. (8)

As an aside, the following quotes, from an article by Hal G.P. Colebatch, are also indicative of the Whitlam's lack of compassion towards refugees:

In his book China, Communism and Coca-Cola Clyde Cameron, Whitlam’s Minister for Immigration, said that on April 21, 1975, around the time of the fall of Saigon:

[Foreign Affairs Minister] Don Willesee came to see me with a request that I accompany him to Whitlam’s office. He wanted to get a ruling on the admissibility of certain categories of refugees … Whitlam stuck out his jaw and, grinding his teeth, turned to Willesee and thundered, “I’m not having hundreds of fucking Vietnamese Balts coming into this country with their political and religious hatreds against us” … I could have hugged him for putting my own view so well … [Willesee] made a special plea for Vietnamese who had been employed by the Australian embassy, claiming that we had a moral obligation to take them into our arms. Whitlam rejected this plea out of hand.

... The report of the bi-partisan Senate Standing Committee on Foreign Affairs and Defence, Australia and the Refugee Problem, published in 1976, found that regarding Australia’s failure to evacuate Vietnamese who had worked with Australian forces (and whose lives were therefore in danger) from Saigon, despite the Air Force having transport capacity available: “We are unable to come to any conclusion other than [that there was] deliberate delay in order to minimize the number of refugees.(11)

After 1976 the number of refugees leaving Vietnam in boats increased sharply. According to United Nations figures, there were 5248 in 1976, 15,657 in 1977, and 85,544 in 1978. On top of these figures thousands were escaping overland to Thailand and other neighbouring countries.

A number of factors placed Australia in a position regarding Vietnamese refugees which distinguished it from most of the Asian countries to its north.

  • Australia was the only affluent, first-world country in the region, much wealthier and much less densely populated than its neighbours

  • Australia had made a commitment to the military defence of the Saigon regime, and many of the escaping Vietnamese were recent comrades-in-arms. They had proved strong anti-communist credentials.

  • For the “boat people” Australia was the end of the line and the last hope. If the countries further north refused to accept the boats they might still have some hopes. For Australia to reject them would have been to condemn them to certain death. (8)

The political and policy response to boat arrivals has typically been twofold: emphasising the importance of ensuring that those arriving unauthorised by boat meet the Convention definition of a refugee and returning those who do not; and attempting to stop further flows of people from reaching Australia in this way. (5)

Successive governments have focused on engaging other countries and international organisations in an attempt to stop the flow of refugees at the source, or on arranging for refugee processing to occur elsewhere. (5)

ALP Senator Tony Mulvihill, the shadow minister for immigration. Mulvihill had a long record of anti-anti-communist union activity, accusing an opponent (in this case, apparently, a communist or ex-communist) of indecent exposure and of spreading venereal disease among his secretaries, claiming, “I believe in settling scores.” (8)

Despite a disclaimer to the effect that he was not putting it on “any sort of class basis”, Senator Mulvihill, Shadow Minister for Immigration, argued along the lines that the Vietnamese were class enemies:

any rationalisation or distribution of wealth in Asia will result in the merchant class suffering. Without opening old sores, it is my honest opinion that the people in the south did not have the heart to fight.

The peasant, who had nothing to lose but his slavery, was the backbone of the Viet Cong Army. Now that there is to be a re-distribution of wealth, many people are attempting to leave as pseudo-refugees.

.... He continued by claiming that genuine refugees from communist countries should “line up at the embassy”, a statement betraying either grotesque ignorance of communist methods or deliberate mendacity. Anything else, he argued, was a dishonest trick fit only for “artful dodgers”. This stance ignored the fact that the internationally accepted definition of a refugee was a person who had a well-founded fear of persecution. (8)

Then Minister for Immigration and Ethnic Affairs, Michael MacKellar, addressed many public forums and explained, in defense of refugees, why Australia had an obligation to take its fair share of refugees. In one speech, he told how he had visited 10 Indochinese refugee camps in Thailand, Malaysia – camps that housed a total of more than 65,000 people. ‘My impression of the refugees,’ he told the audience in Sydney, ‘was one of courage and determination’. In another speech — this time delivered in Adelaide in July 1979 — Mr McKellar said:

[Refugees] can be expected at any early stage after arrival to contribute to the social and cultural life of their new community. They have to do well here because once here, there is nowhere else to go… They are honest, hard-working people who respond well to challenge. They are willing to undertake jobs not readily acceptable to others in the community. Most Indochinese children are reported to be adjusting well in school … Australia offers a great deal to refugees, but refugees also offer a great deal to Australia. (9)

In the Senate in August Senator Mulvihill elaborated on what he held to be the unpleasantness and worthlessness of Vietnamese refugees. In this speech he raised the accusation, which was to be made repeatedly by various spokesmen on the Left despite lack of supporting evidence, that they were brothel-keepers and black-marketeers:

I have never been caught up in the undue sentimentality about South Vietnam...He continued in terms that hinted at a Vietnamese right-wing secret army in Australia... His hatred and contempt for the South Vietnamese was obvious. (8)

These terms had some ambiguity, points 2 and 4 having the look of escape clauses. However, they plainly gave humanitarian and moral commitments a high priority, as distinct from the earlier (especially pre-1939) priority to only accept “useful” refugees. (8)

I.K. Lindenmayer, First Assistant Secretary of the Department of Immigration and Ethnic Affairs, made this point specifically when speaking on the policy at the Conference on Indo-Chinese Refugees held at the Australian National University in July 1979, after the number of “boat people” arrivals had grown into thousands. Lindenmayer said:

Australia recognises that [the refugees’] plight justifies abandoning the normal migrant selection requirements if there is a demonstrated capacity to settle successfully. Having granted that concession, Australia goes on to acknowledge that refugees who are accepted despite physical, emotional or other disabilities will inevitably require assistance beyond that normally provided to immigrants. (8)

This was a long step beyond John McEwen’s ruthless pre-war policy when even highly qualified Jewish refugees from Nazism were excluded because they had failed to meet certain criteria. (8)

It is worth noting the following: In October 2010, Hal G.P. Colebatch accused historian Robert Manne of rewriting history. One month prior Manne had reportedly written:

The first boat people were South Vietnamese fleeing from the communist victory of 1975. Between 1976 and 1982, 2000 reached our shores. In order to stem the flow, the Fraser government accepted more than 50,000 Vietnamese from the archipelago of refugee camps in Thailand, the Philippines, Malaysia and Indonesia. Australians were easily panicked by the spontaneous arrival of a small number of boats. They were comfortable and relaxed about a far larger refugee program under government control. In the history of Australia and boat people, these were the halcyon years. The Fraser government treated all these refugees, including the spontaneous boat arrivals, with exemplary generosity. There was no talk of mandatory detention or temporary protection visas.Fraser could not have accomplished this alone, however. The success of the settlement relied on the existence of a bipartisan consensus within the Australian political elite. With the boat arrivals, the Labor Opposition under Whitlam, and then Hayden, resisted the temptation to exploit underlying racist or anti-refugee sentiment for party political gain. Even the Cold War ideological divide was blurred. The Right supported the refugees as escapees from communism; the Left as part of the project of burying White Australia. (11)

Colebatch took exception to this account, responding with the following:

Having read this, I walked out into my garden and consulted the positions of the stars to confirm which planet I was on. I certainly do not know which planet Mr Manne is writing from. The Fraser government, or to be precise Mr Michael MacKellar, behaved well towards the boat refugees. Its charitable reception of the refugees was, however, purely negative—if they got to Australia they could stay. But even at the worst stage of the refugee crisis Fraser did not send the Navy to help—the only help the Navy was allowed to give was more-or-less by accident when Navy ships came across refugee boats. No Australian naval ships were sent on dedicated rescue missions, though the aircraft-carrier HMAS Melbourne,for example, could have saved hundreds of lives. The plight of the refugees was reported in detail by Australian journalist Norman Aisbett and many others.

The Fraser government’s attitude, however reached pinnacles of nobility compared to the attitude of Labor and the Left. At the time of the arrival of the anticommunist refugees from Vietnam the Left, including many of the most important and influential members of the ALP, attacked the refugees in the most vicious terms, resurrecting virtually unchanged the stereotyping and epithets used in the heyday of the White Australia policy and at the foundation of the ALP at the beginning of the twentieth century. (11)

Senator Devitt’s question did not address the fact that in many circumstances refugee arrivals would inevitably be “illegal”, since refugees were by definition people with a well-founded fear of persecution, who will frequently be unable to obtain passports or visas or otherwise comply with regulations. In liberated Vietnam the very act of applying for exit papers would draw the government’s attention to applicants and expose them to harsh penalties. Further, the right to leave one’s country was enshrined in the UN Universal Declaration of Human Rights. (8)

Clyde Robert Cameron (born 11 February 1914), Australian politician, was a member of the Australian House of Representatives for 31 years from 1949 to 1980, a Cabinet minister in the Whitlam government and a leading figure in the Australian labour movement for forty years.

Clyde Cameron, no longer a Shadow Minister, turned his energies to influencing the outcome of the leadership battle to oust Gough Whitlam and to completing his daily political diary which he had kept for 31 years. The Cameron Diaries cover every aspect of Australian political life, reaching back to 1949.

On October 11, 1990, Cameron claimed: “a large percentage of those who conveniently called themselves Vietnamese refugees were extreme right-wing racketeers who had grown fat as drug-peddlers, procurers and prostitutes”.

Some of these allegations were virtually identical to those which had been made against Chinese at the time of the setting up of the White Australia policy at the end of the nineteenth century. (11)

The Cameron Diaries for the period covering the 1977 election campaign makes it plain that Cameron saw an anti-refugee stance as something to be used by the ALP to gain political mileage.

Following Labor’s defeat at the 1977 election, Cameron recounted:

The phone hardly stopped ringing today. Tony Mulvihill … complained about Gough’s public statement that Vietnamese refugees landing illegally on Australian shores would not be deported. This, he declared, was contrary to his own public statement in which he had made it clear that a Labor Government would see that illegal immigrants were deported …

[emphasis as in original]

What this added up to looked like an unsuccessful campaign by the ALP leadership of the day for forced repatriation of refugees from communism with obvious parallels to the forced repatriation to the Soviet Union of the Vlasov Army and other refugees in Europe after 1945. (11)

The previous day a spokesman for Whitlam was quoted as saying that there should be “Some sort of enquiry to determine where the refugees were coming from in such numbers and head them off at the source.” Whitlam was to claim that he disbelieved all stories of persecution in Vietnam. Mulvihill demanded that Vietnamese refugee boats should be turned back by the Navy. He said an ALP government would reverse the allegedly “open door” policy on refugees, and “make an example” of refugee boats by returning them under a Navy escort. (11)

These attacks on Vietnamese refugees came from the leaders of the ALP, including its most senior official figures and spokesmen. (11)

The remainder of the political Left joined in. Shortly after this, a relatively large fishing boat, the Song Be 12,which had escaped from Ho Chi Minh City after the crew had overpowered communist guards on it, arrived in Darwin. The secretary of the Northern Territory Trades and Labour Council, Terry Kincade, said of these refugees: “They’re pirates who have seized a boat from a friendly country. They should all be sent back.” Darwin Waterside Workers’ Federation leader “Curly” Nixon threatened a strike unless the Song Be 12 was returned, preferably loaded, as National Times writer David Leitch put it, with “reffos”. (11)

The far left-wing religious journal Retrieval claimed: “REFUGEES: SOME BRING GOLD, OTHERS ARE THEIR SERVANTS”, and, incidentally, that “The widely-reported photographs of Khmer Rouge atrocities are fakes.” Meanwhile the ALP’s spokesman on immigration and ethnic affairs, Ted Innes, said the national’s “migrant community” was “aggravated” by the government’s refugee policy. (11)

On December 6, 1977, the Courier Mail quoted the President of the Queensland Trades and Labour Council, Mr Hausenschild, to the effect that the sudden influx of refugees was a capitalist plot to smuggle in cheap labour for mining uranium.(11)

Clyde Cameron returned to the attack in the House of Representatives on May 30 with a question following the new line:

Are any of the Vietnamese refugees now being permitted to enter Australia former prostitutes and drug peddlers, some of whom are suffering from a venereal disease which is resistant to all known anti-biotics? Is it true that there has been an outbreak of a certain strain of non-specific … urethritis attributed to Vietnamese refugees, for which there is no known permanent cure?

In fact, there was no evidence of such a strain of venereal disease, and its existence was specifically denied by several doctors, including Cameron’s own colleague Dr Everingham. (11)

On June 20, 1978, the Sydney Morning Herald reported Clyde Cameron as saying:

Vietnamese who are not genuine refugees should be sent back or put in detention camps …They were wealthy people who had made a lot of money on the black market and did not like the present regime or perhaps did not like having to work hard for the first time in their lives … by far the majority of Vietnamese refugees were right-wing.

Cameron continued this anti-refugee crusade at length in Parliament and the press (11)

NOTE: See article link for more examples of the dehumanising lies used against Vietnamese refugees. (11)

On November 21, 1977, Michael MacKellar announced that the federal government was setting up a committee to investigate the claims of refugees. Senator Mulvihill said there might be a justification for “setting rigid quotas”, adding that “Australian … hospitality is at times abused”. He betrayed no interest in the fate of any refugees who, through no fault of their own, might not meet these rigid quotas. (8)

An article in the Weekend Australian of November 26-27, 1977, showed clearly the lines the anti-refugee campaign was taking, with Whitlam quoted as clearly implying that the refugees were “not genuine” and that they were being used as a weapon against Australia:

Fraser Government policies were the reasons behind the influx of Vietnamese refugees to Australia, the Leader of the Opposition, Mr Whitlam, claimed in Perth. (8)

Two religious organisations, the Catholic Commission for Justice and Peace and the Australian Council of Churches, joined the debate with an open letter.

In Mr MacKellar’s speech to the Parliament on refugee policy (May 24, 1977) the words “humanity” and “humanitarian” occur a number of times, on that occasion the Minister also stated that “in such situations [that is, refugee situations] human beings have human needs which are intensified by conditions of danger and distress”.

We feel we must point out the contrast between such sentiments and the statements which the Minister is reported to have made in response to the arrival of refugee boats on Australia’s north coast (The Australian, 23/11) lest words like “humanity” and “compassion” become devalued through mis-application.

The Minister painted a picture of a beleaguered Australia forced to accept greater numbers of refugees by foreign countries, and he noted with regret that Australia had to be realistic in accepting them.

At best, the Minister’s response is a wholly inadequate one, lacking any real empathy with the human dimension of the situation. At worst, it could be interpreted as an attempt to create a climate of public opinion in which it would be possible for the Australian Government to maintain, or perhaps even reduce, its current “low-profile” to the plight of Indo-Chinese refugees.

The right to take refuge is a fundamental human right. The pictures of refugee boats being turned back [An inexplicable comment, as Australia had turned no boats back] is a scandal and a sore on the world’s conscience. Australia has the capacity for a more generous response in the area of refugee assistance and re-settlement. We believe Australians wish to see that capacity turned into effective action.

Maurio Di Nicola

(National Secretary, Catholic Commission for Justice and Peace)

Jean Skuse (General Secretary, Australian Council of Churches). (8)

This remarkable document contained not one word of rebuke to the ALP and the left-wing unions for their venomous, sustained and shameless attack on Vietnamese refugees.

Part 2 coming soon



Vietnam War -


The Vietnamese Refugee Crisis of the 1970s and 1980s: A Retrospective View from NGO -


Resettling Vietnamese Refugees in the United States


Vietnamese Immigrants in the United States -


Boat arrivals in Australia since 1976 -


DEFINING MOMENTS: White Australia policy


Defining moments of White Australia policy -


“Boat People” and the 1977 Election - March 2015 - Hal G.P. Colebatch


The Globalising World: Changing policies and Australian identity Anti-racism resources — History - Year 10 How did the Minister refute anti-Vietnamese claims?


Senate Condolences, 2015 - Michael MacKellar


The Left Rewrites Its History on Refugees - October 2010. Hal G.P. Colebatch