Why do we believe what we do about boat people: @GrattonWilson reflects


By Gratton Wilson

I have been following the debate about asylum refugees attempting to come to Australia by boats organised by ‘people smugglers’ on Twitter and associated documents. I was particularly attracted to a comment about the embedded cultural attitude we appear to still have towards people who we judge to be different. This made me think about other factors that may have gone to forming my own attitude to this issue.

I was conscious of attitudes of Australians to Chinese people in the early 1930s because we lived opposite a Chinese market garden on the river flats opposite our home.

We bought vegetables there every week and so we kids were friendly with Ah Nim and his partners.

My father, a policeman, was to some extent their protector from the local hoodlums, mainly kids on their way home from school who would throw stones and chant a range of obscenities. Their behaviour may have reflected the attitude of their parents. Later in life I learnt this attitude probably had its origin in the riots against Chinese gold miners in the mid 1800s, and was kept alive by anti Chinese legislation in 1870 and 1880 followed by the White Australia policy in 1901.

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People talked about Greeks taking over our green grocers and resented the Slavs in our vineyards. Then there were those pesky black chaps (Aborigines) once a year trying to sell props to housewives. Props were long forked sticks to hold up laden clothes lines, long superseded by the Hills hoist.

Life at home was not affected by this background noise. Nor was life at primary school with the 100% little white Anglo-Saxon faces, some bare footed and puny but not a shadow of intolerance. Bullying yes, but that is another matter still with us today. Looking back racism and fear always lurking in the background.

It was at high school in a small rural coastal town that I first personally came face-to-face with racism. There were Aboriginal families in the town. At school there several Aboriginal boys who were good at sport and accepted as equal. A relative successfully ran the local illegal bookmaking business. The town certainly regarded them as different, and if life was bad for them it attracted “Well what can you expect of people like that”?

On the other hand there was an Italian family, who ran a sawmill. Their son was probably the best cricketer the school ever produced. There were two beautiful daughters. This family was highly respected.

This was during the war. Teachers were scarce and we ended up with a rotund German who tried to teach us Latin. He had been unfortunate to have been in Australia when war broke out so was interned for a while and eventually put to work. We called him Herr Grubner and played endless tricks on him. He was fat, myopic, couldn’t control the class and, as we had been taught to hate Germans, he was hated, the poor inoffensive man that he was. Italian POWs were everywhere in their maroon uniforms working on farms where the men had left for war.


The place was an American submarine base as well as port for ships and people fleeing from the Japanese push south. The Yanks brought nylon stockings and some prosperity to the town.

Other interlopers were construction crews from ‘Curtin’ s Coolie Corps’ who built a fuel depot. The Coolie Corps were itinerants who had been rejected for military service but capable of physical work. There was no resentment of either group.

After the War the DPs (displaced persons) and reffos (refugees) came in waves, Balts doing menial work in hospitals, Italians cutting cane, German, Yugoslav, Hungarian, Dutch and just about every nationality worked on the Snowy Mountain Scheme. A million £10 Poms deigned to honour us with their presence – many went back as soon as the 2 year bond was up.

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At university there was the first wave of Colombo Plan students. Over the years I shared residential accommodation with a number of these students. There were no resentments, rather a shared learning experience.

There were however a group of students who came from rural Western Australia who had an attitude to Aboriginal people I had not experienced before. They dined out with glee on stories of brutality. I had not then learned of the early stories slaughter and poisoning.

When I moved on to work in the CSIRO people trained in scientific research were in short supply in Australia and the organisation recruited staff from all over world. So it had a multicultural ethos and there was no racism.

Tony Abbott’s Assisted Migration Scheme Application Form 1960

After CSIRO (1956-1986) we moved to rural NSW to Numeralla. I became a hobby farmer, joined local government and became involved in the Reconciliation movement. My wife also became involved in Reconciliation.

The country was divided by debate about Land Rights. Remember that brown map John Howard was fond of displaying, showing white Australians’ backyards being taken over by indigenous people? In Cooma and nearby Numeralla there was similar division in he community. A small Reconciliation group had been formed and on occasion a stand was set up in the local park on market day. My wife was one of those who manned the stand with leaflets and a “Sorry Book”. She was warned by a person we had thought to be a friend that such activity was not welcomed. The warning was ignored and a few weeks later she was handed a note from the KKK telling her to stop. Instead she went to the police and the local paper. The problem stopped.

I have worked for UNESCO in many countries and was a firm believer in all peoples living together in harmony. Australia’s multicultural approach is terrific. We all benefit.

What makes some of us behave antagonistically towards people from other countries at this time?

The early gold riots were understandable. People felt their living was being stolen by foreigners.

That attitude lived on, encouraged by legislation and the White Australia Policy. I recall furniture stamped “Made by European Labour”. The thought was drummed into the population.

Except for War Propaganda the attitudes seem to have been quiescent during the war years and for a time thereafter. There were no protests resulting from the post-war migration of refugees or displaced persons, and even the whingeing Poms were accepted. Many were regarded as cheap labour – migrants had to work in selected industries, particularly the cane fields. Many worked on the Snowy Mountain scheme. Cooma initially resented the inflow of foreigners but has now mellowed to becoming a proud multicultural town.

After the Vietnam war we took in large numbers of Vietnamese, initially resented but eventually becoming accepted as valuable members of the community. PM Fraser handled the intake diplomatically. Some but not all were very wealthy.

The big reawakening of racism resulted from of John Howard’s rejection of Australia’s ‘Black Armband’ history and the Tampa affair. He saw the Tampa asylum seeker ‘invasion’ as an election winner and embellished it with children being thrown overboard to demonstrate the evilness of foreigners. The hatred fostered by Pauline Hanson and John Howard continues to be nourished by the LNP.

Every time unemployment rises above a certain level it acts as trigger for ill feeling against foreign workers even though more than ever a proportion of those who complain are not Australian born. In recent years more people have come from a number of diverse countries. But the old fears remain ready to be reignited by dog whistles.

It will take a very persistent government to change this aspect of our psyche. The movement of people throughout the world is increasing because of wars caused by disputes over resources, religion, population growth and corruption. Climate change is disrupting food resources and also causing people movement all over the world. There will be more refugees as sea levels rise and arable land decreases.

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A few years back I inherited some books handed down through the family, and amongst then is book of poems called Jarrahland Jingles by ‘Drytblower’ published in 1908 by the Sunday Times Publishing Company. The book includes a poem probably written a on the Western Australian Goldfields. It contains the attitudes passed on to us by our forebears.



They come not as an open foe

To loot the land with steel and fire,

No barricades to dust they blow,

Or make each home a lurid pyre,

They bear no bannerette of war:

No trumpet forth a challenge yells

From grim-built battleship to shore;

They rain no hell-invented shells,

But still they war and still they win:

They claim, and get, the victor’s share,

Swarthy of heart as well as skin,

The Alien comes-

Beware ! Beware !

Along the street no shrapnel shrieks,

No rifle spits its venomed lead,

No hast-dug entrenchment reeks

With piles of disembowelled dead,

They bear no bayonet, lance or sword,

They blare no brass, they roll no drum,

When comes this irresistless horde

From out its Mediterranean slum,

From where the stench of Lisbon’s dock

Pollutes the olive-scented air,

From plague-infested Antioch

The Alien comes –

Beware ! Beware !

Along the Adriatic shore

Where swarming beggars whine and weep,

The tramp-ship shudders as they pour

Into her vitals dark and deep;

From old Cadiz to Thessaly,

From Montenegro down to Said,

They swarm across the Indian Sea

To swell the beetle-browed brigade,

To cheat the Briton of his crust :

To take what he and his should share :

to drag Australia to his dust,

The Alien comes –

Beware ! Beware !

The man the mines while workers born

Beneath the scintillating Cross,

Are ordered off in sneering scorn,

By Cohen”s High, Panjandrum Joss :

They smudge our land’s initial page,

For paltry pence they snarl and stab;

They undercut the worker’s wage,

For each at heart’s a loathsome scab ;

To rob the babe which, famished, drains

Its mother’s bosom gaunt and bare ;

To hoard his blood-begotten gains,

The Alien comes –

Beware ! Beware !

From black Bombay to brown Japan,

The dusky Pagan swells the flood

That, spite the interdicting ban,

Contaminates Australia’s blood

Across a land once virgin good

A trail of greed and lust he leaves,

And o’er its virile nationhood

Degeneration’s spell he weaves

To tempt our maidens and our wives

With many a tawdry, tinselled snare,

To undersap their loyal lives,

The Alien comes –

Beware ! Beware !

In hovels never cleansed nor aired,

On which the Law indulgent looks,

He serves you dainty meals prepared

From filthy food by filthier cooks

He laundries whatsoe’er you need

What he demands you promptly pay,

While women of your British breed

Must sell their honor day by day.

He sells you fruits of Mother Earth

That ripened in his loathsome lair,

To blast the land that gave you birth ;

The Alien comes –

Beware ! Beware !

They come not as an open foe

To loot the land with steel and fire,

No barricades to dust they blow,

Or make each home a lurid pyre.

They bear no bannerette of war ;

No trumpet forth a challenge yells

From grim-built battleship to shore ;

Jarrahland Jingles by ‘Drytblower’ published in 1908 by the “Sunday Times” Publishing Company Limited)



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  1. Well, well, well! What an excellent reminiscence! Brought back a lot of memories to a person who had coloured people as servants in New Guinea during 1950’s and 1960’s. And now I have an Australian Aboriginal nephew who I love dearly, I’ve had Vietnamese asylum seeker next-door neighbours in Perth in the 1980’s and now I have Muslim people living just down the street and they are very nice indeed. In fact, it’s some of the Aussies who give me offence! I’m ashamed of them.

  2. Buddy Rojek, CPA says

    My grandparents came to Australia by Boat in 1948 from Italy after being released from a German displaced persons camp with the necessary paperwork to come to Australia (Their Parents murdered by communists after protesting against their house being taken from them and during the war, they witnessed Jews rounded up in Ukraine herded into houses and set alight with petrol) They were forced to work as slave labour under the Nazis, but the Russian Communists considered them traitors (Do you work making German bombs or get shot?)

    They then worked for 2 years on the Snowy scheme to pay back their passage to the Australian Government and prove their good character.

    My 90 year old Grandmother has no sympathy for the boat people coming here, as she says if they have enough money to pay smugglers they must have stolen it from their people. She said they must respect international and Australian law and come through the proper channels as she did over 50 years ago.

    I have been in contact with the Indonesian Government on behalf of Palmer United Party and I am waiting on them to respond to our solution to the Asylum seeker problem.

    Palmer United Party policy on immigration is here


  3. The first bigotry I learnt about was that towards Catholics in 1960, the first racism towards a family of Italians who opened a fish and chip shop in my tiny all white town. Of course it was all white because my own great grand father was one of the first land thieves in the area and he led the charge to drive off the aboriginal tribes.

    My grand parents were interned in their own homes during the second war even though the first family members arrived here in 1844, their crime was being German.
    I have loathed racists since my childhood, I rejected the bigots and played with the Catholic kids because they were friends and I loved the gorgeous Italians with their black hair and flashing dark eyes, not to mention the best fish and chips in history.

    They were driven out of town in 2 years by the racists and bigots though, suddenly the blond catholics previously depised were better than the swarthy catholics.

    There was an old German man who had been a veteran in WW1 who lived in a humpy and was abused and tormented by everyone because he was German, the man who painted our house in 1962 was an outcast because he was Polish, he was one of the nicest men on earth but he kept a violent German Shepherd so he could be safe in his own home.

    We did not know until 1867 when I was 14 that there had been people here before us and that the squatters were not romantic heroes, they were by and large willing killers.

    I am currently watching a long, long history of Canada that I found on YouTube, it is almost a total parallel to Australia’s colonisation even down to the language of racist abuse.

  4. Buddy Rojek, CPA says

    BTW credit to the author. This was a fascinating historical read, and goes to show that racism starts in the family, and has propagandist roots.

  5. Astute, comprehensive piece – well done.

  6. J.Fraser says

    The first “bigotry” I Learnt was from my Mother who thought that because my friends name was Ronnie Litherland he must be (a) Slav and (b) Ronnie was a name that conjured up tattoos and sailors.

    Suffice to say that he remained my friend and a lifelong lesson was learnt.

    I would prefer to read Henry Lawson.

  7. Tony Grant says

    Before we allow a government…always coalition to get us into another war…let us think of all the repercussions?

  8. I have news for you. Tha’ts NOT the Oronsay in the top Photo. Don’t you do any research. Its the Orcades. There are 3 major indicators showing. The ‘goal posts’ Oronsays were the first set not the second. The funnel housing is completely different. Oronsay had a flat top housing with a rounded rear. Not a sloping one. The collection of ‘bum boats’ are gathered around the aft ships gangway that has an open deck. Oronsay’s aft gangway was enclosed.