The long, ugly journey of racism in Australia can be traced back to a single government act: the Immigration Restriction Act of 1901. The so-called White Australia Policy openly racialised immigration to the country and set a bigoted undertone to the country’s subsequent history.
It was only in 1973 that the Act was finally dismantled. Within a few years the Liberal government under the leadership of Malcolm Fraser was accepting hundreds of thousands of Indo-Chinese “boat people” seeking asylum in Australia. This brief support for a humanitarian-based refugee policy has since eroded and recently, there has been a shift back to the past.
New arrivals of asylum seekers on boats has prompted the Gillard government to reassess its approach. The result has been a hastily cast independent inquiry, a rushed report with all 22 recommendations quickly accepted by the government and a radical policy somersault to embrace the controversial notion of “off-shore processing” of asylum seekers.
The policy requires that offshore detention centres be established on the Pacific island of Nauru and on Manus Island, part of Papua New Guinea. Facilities are currently being constructed and asylum seekers are expected to start coming through their doors within months.