Old Parliament House: an integral part of Australia’s immigration and refugee story
Refugees are in the news with the crisis in Syria resulting in a mass exodus of people to Europe, and the Australian government decision to take in 12,000 Syrian people in additional to the normal annual refugee intake of 13,750. In the lead up to that decision there was much discussion in the media about how Australia might respond. As one would expect in a democratic society, there were protests in the streets urging an increased intake, and there were also voices dissenting from that view.
Migrants and refugees are an important component of who Australia is as a nation and society. Since the end of the Second World War more than 700,000 refugees have been admitted into Australia and more than six million people have come here as migrants.
Of the 700,000, Australia took in 170,000 Displaced Persons from European camps between 1947 and 1952. Australia’s population is 23 million.
Most of Australia’s migrant and refugee intake has been a product of decisions announced and debated in the Old Parliament House, when it was home to the federal parliament from 1927 to 1988. The building is inseparable from Australia’s immigration story.
Milestone decisions announced and debated in the building include the following:
In 1938, with war clouds darkening over Europe, the announcement by the government of Joseph Lyons of a planned intake of 15,000 Jewish refugees from Europe. Australia had taken part in the Evian conference in France, a ‘world summit’ to discuss the refugee problem attended by 32 countries. However, only 7,000 made it to Australia before the outbreak of war and there was some opposition to this proposal by those in government and elsewhere who saw Jews as a ‘racial problem’.
In 1945, the announcement by Arthur Calwell, Minister for Immigration in the Chifley Government, of a bold and unprecedentedly large-scale immigration program that resulted in more than two million people coming here over the following 20 years. Australia’s population was 7.5 million in 1945.
The ratification by the Menzies Government in 1951 of the United Nations Convention on the Status of Refugees.
In 1956 and 1957 the beginnings of the dismantling of the ‘White Australia policy’, with permanent residence (1956) and citizenship (1957) made possible by the Menzies Government for ‘non-whites’ for the first time since Federation.
In 1966, during the government of Harold Holt, a review of migration policy making citizenship for ‘non-whites’ much easier, reducing the residential requirement from 15 to five years.
In 1973, the Whitlam Government removes race as a criterion in immigration policy and in 1975 passes the Racial Discrimination Act, making such discrimination unlawful. The Whitlam Government also ratifies the UN Convention on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination.
In 1977, the Minister for Immigration and Ethnic Affairs in the Fraser Government, Michael Mackellar, makes a landmark statement outlining the development and implementation of a comprehensive refugee policy. It is the first occasion on which a coherent and specific on-going refugee policy has been enunciated in the Parliament. A significant aspect of the new policy relates to the humanitarian acceptance of people ‘in refugee-type situations who do not fall strictly within the UN High Commissioner for Refugees mandate or within Convention definitions’. Australian staff were stationed in Thailand to organise a regular intake of Indo-Chinese refugees, especially Vietnamese fleeing the aftermath of war.