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Category: Interviews »

Subject: Cultural Studies »

John Lack about the controversy - Asian immigration

John Lack and Mara Moustafine.

Historian John Lack reflects on the controversy generated by Prof Geoffrey Blainey, his colleague at Melbourne University, on the subject of Asian immigration



Date Added:

16 February 2009


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It's a hard topic for me to discuss because I was right at the centre of it. And the fact that I had Eurasian children at that time clearly influenced a number of my colleagues in their attitude to Geoff. And other colleagues with Asian colleagues who felt very nervous about the way the debate developed were also influenced by it. So it's hard. I look back on it with - I regret that it happened. But I don't really think anything - it could have happened any other way.


He said - he spoke at Warrnambool to a rotary and I think he later implied that it was - he hadn't anticipated that it would get such coverage. I didn't accept that then and I don't now. I admire Geoffrey Blainey as a person and as an historian but I don't accept that. Warrnambool paper was part of The Age stable. And The Age picked up the story. Now what, Professor Blainey said and he was then Dean of Arts, what he then said was, that he thought the Australian acceptance of Asian migrants was proceeding ahead of unwisely ahead of public acceptance and that we could expect a backlash.


Okay, well - okay he said that. But it didn't stop there, it developed into this - he reiterated the point and then I think Minister West from memory jumped in and made some statement about - foolish statement about Asianisation of Australia which wiser people would have ignored, but no, Geoffrey and others then used that term and the whole thing became magnified. Now I’m not sure if I've got the chronology right but at a point then his colleagues in the history department, decided to distance themselves from his view while respecting his right to express it.


An attempt had been made to talk it out at a staff meeting. A couple of members of staff attempted to placate him, Geoff was fairly intransigent, I think he was very hurt by what he saw as a full scale attack on him by this letter. And it didn't solve, the discussion really didn't solve anything, he felt he had a right, as he did to state his view. I wished he'd just stated his view and left it. Or I wish he had agreed to give some seminars in which this issue of race and nationality and identity could be worked out, that didn't happen. Because there were student bodies who then started to - groups of students started to protest and to boycott and threaten and all - it was very ugly. I, in fact was teaching the Migration and Society course at that stage, so I decided to - I went to Geoff and said - knocked on his door and, you know, I was in - not young in years but I was young as an academic - he was a professor and Dean and I went in some trepidation and asked him would he come and talk to my students?


And he said - he said to me, "Oh I believe your children have been having some problems." I said, "No, that's not true. If they were, they'd tell us and we'd deal with it and it's not true." So that was the sort of thing that was circulating. It wasn't true that we have ever known of our two boys. So yes, he came. He came and spoke. I spoke and said vigorously what - that I disagreed with him, why I disagreed with him and he spoke and then the students questioned him.


People were respectful and so on, but it wasn't a very pleasant experience because frankly, it became obvious from his writings and from Geoff's speech that he was really an unreconstructed old Australian nationalist. He obviously shared an unease about large scale Asian migration. Now, I'm very sorry but by 1984 White Australia was over. I'm not saying that Geoff wanted a white Australia but there was a sense that he was rather nostalgic about the old Australia. It was over.


The Second World War had been our opportunity to recruit massive European migration. The Vietnam War gave us an obligation. If we couldn't accept the victims of that war, on whose behalf we had notionally at least fought the war, then that would have been the most - utmost hypocrisy. And it was impossible to resist politically to resist finding an international solution to the refugee situation. Now these were the folk, the vulnerable folk who had less then a decade in Australia who were struggling to - they became the victims of this debate in 1984, 1985 and there was a lot of animosity expressed on the streets to these people, they didn't deserve it. It was outrageous. Now not for one moment would I imply that Geoffrey Blainey intended that. But he became obsessed with it and his critics became obsessed with it. And it just went on and on for months and months. It was all most unfortunate and he wrote a very foolish little book called, All For Australia, I think it was called. Which, you know, which will be regarded among his great caucus of works from wonderful local histories and national histories through to global histories, it will be regarded as a very odd book indeed.


No it was – it was regrettable the whole thing. But it was, what was said in opposition to him I think at the university had to be said. And he never defended his position in an academic context, except when he came to my students. And they didn’t –they didn’t let him get away with much. One mature age student said, “Professor Blainey, I don’t understand this fixation on migrants. Aren’t all Australians – except the indigenous people –migrants?” Well, I would not like to have been in that position. You know, it was respectful but it was sort of devastating and it was horrible to see – you know his defenders said he’d been pilloried it was even a cartoon showing –


Saint Sebastian, sorry, full of arrows and – but I mean once he’d said it and – and the real racists had come in to support him and so on, then it was on. It had to be fought through and policy had to be defended. What were the realities? The really disturbing thing to me, I was on leave – I think in 1984 and I drove into the – I took my leave at Monash University and I drove into the car park with the radio – morning radio on and Professor Blainey was being interviewed about family reunion and he was asked, “Well what should happen about family reunion of Indo-Chinese folk?” And he said, “Family reunions should take place at home.” I almost fell out of the car. This to me, was a very, very nasty development. This was repatriation. This was Enoch Powell stuff. To his credit, he didn’t pursue it in speech or writing to my knowledge.


But I thought: once you get on this slippery slope, you’re in trouble. Does this mean that these Vietnamese folk, like the wartime refugees, who don’t want to go back to a totalitarian society, where they will be punished and victimised, does this mean we’re going to force them out? I mean, it was the throw away – it was the throw away line perhaps from a man you would never have thought could have uttered something so insensitive.


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