Blainey's speech still proves to be the fuel of much fiery debate

Updated November 7 2012 - 11:29am, first published September 19 2008 - 9:53am
Blainey's speech still proves to be the fuel of much fiery debate

NATIONAL furore, the start of Australia's 'history wars', the reputation of Australia's pre-eminent historian in tatters, a shift in the way Australia views immigration and a change in foreign policy that continues to this day.And it all happened in Warrnambool.On a cold and wet winter afternoon in March 1984, Professor Geoffrey Blainey, of the University of Melbourne, addressed 1000 Rotarians assembled in the Capitol Theatre.What he said that day was to have ramifications on the outcome of the Federal election in December that year and the immigration policy of both major parties over the next quarter-century.By 1984 Blainey had become one of the most prolific and distinguished writers and historians in Australia. He was Faculty of Arts dean at the University of Melbourne, chairman of the Australia-China Council and the former head of the Australia Council - the body responsible for funding Australian arts.On that Sunday in Warrnambool, Blainey criticised the Hawke government for the pace of immigration in Australia stating that the influx of Asian migrants was perceived as too large for public opinion to handle."In the last few years - especially in the last year - we have given powerful preference to Asian migrants," Blainey then said."More than half (of) our immigrants are now from Asia," he said, "and many come from a peasant background, which is very different to the typical Asian immigrant of recent years."It is almost as if we have turned the White Australia policy inside out."Exactly one month after the story appeared in The Standard, The Age newspaper published a letter signed by 24 staff members of the Department of History at the University of Melbourne. The letter dissociated its authors from the views expressed by Blainey.Now in 2008, conservative columnist Keith Windshuttle has written an article for Quadrant magazine, to be released on October 1, detailing how Blainey's speech in Warrnambool was allegedly used by Blainey's successor as Ernest Scott Professor of History, Stuart MacIntyre, to push Blainey out of the professorial position and eventually out of the University of Melbourne.Mr Windshuttle writes that MacIntyre was the "greatest beneficiary" of Blainey's resignation. "(Blainey) supported multiculturalism . . . instead, he was criticising the volume of Asian immigration at a time when, thanks to the recession of 1981-3, unemployment was at record levels," Windshuttle wrote.Senior journalist with The Standard and later editor, Richard Goodwin was in the audience reporting at the Rotary conference during Blainey's speech. "I was working on some freelance work for Rotary writing about the conference for Rotarians contemporaneously," Mr Goodwin said."I had sat through a few speeches that day, taking notes and recording it on tape."I found Blainey's speech particularly interesting and during a break I talked with him outside the theatre next to Flaherty's shop which was where we took the photo that appeared on the front page," he said."It wasn't until I returned home a few hours later that it struck me that what he said was highly significant."The then editor of The Standard Jim Clarke remembers Goodwin returning to the newsroom with a certain eagerness to report on what he rightly anticipated to be a story that would gain national attention."As I recall, Blainey was speaking at a conference in Warrnambool and we thought that it could be just a general news story for the paper, certainly not the big story it was," Mr Clarke said."That was until we heard the content of the speech."Mr Goodwin won a Walkley Award in December '84, the highest prize in Australian journalism, for his story on the Blainey speech, for best provincial newspaper report and the presenter of the award was, ironically, prime minister Bob Hawke."It was ironic that Hawke presented the award to me after the trouble it caused him in the lead-up to the 1984 election," Mr Goodwin said."I remember Hawke's words as if they were yesterday, he said 'You certainly started something, didn't you',""No six truer words have been spoken," Mr Goodwin laughed.Mr Clarke said that after The Standard and The Age ran with the story, the speech was the subject of debate on the airwaves and in Parliament for weeks."Richard saw the relevance and importance of what Blainey said and we ran with it on the front page," he said, "We didn't quite realise the media frenzy it would cause". At the time of Blainey's speech, Bob Hawke had been prime minister for just over a year. The Hawke government continued the non-discriminatory immigration policy of the previous Fraser government which saw immigration numbers rise from 25,000 in 1975 to 120,000 in 1982 after a sustained program with Fraser at the helm.During a reflective discussion in 1983 with author and journalist Paul Kelly, former Prime Minister Malcolm Fraser nominated his support for a multicultural Australia as his government's finest legacy. When Mr Fraser spoke to The Standard this week, his view was the same."(During my time as prime minister) we had faith in immigration, it was and is key to Australia's social development," he said."At one point we had 20,000 refugees from Indo-China seeking asylum in our country. To turn them away would be an act of treachery after our involvement in the conflict there."Mr Fraser said Professor Blainey's comments that day in Warrnambool impart began the race debate in Australia that he believed culminated in the Tampa "children overboard" affair of 2001."Blainey's comments were unhelpful," he said."It's easy to scratch the redneck agenda and play the politics of fear for cheap votes."The Howard government did this after Tampa during an election year and this impart was 'justified' to use the term loosely by Blainey's comments."Immigration Minister in 1983-84 Stewart West remembers Blainey's comments well and said that hewas surprised and disappointed by the comments."To my great surprise, Blainey came into this ongoing debate and the media had a field day," Mr West said. Mr West agreed with Fraser's contention that the speech gave intellectual backing to some politicians to reignite a discriminatory immigration policy."(Andrew) Peacock and (John) Howard used the speech to their political advantage. If you want to run a discriminatory policy just come out and say so""I was irritated by Blainey's position. So-called intellectuals like himself didn't understand or didn't want to understand the disparity in their immigration agenda."From an editor's perspective, Jim Clarke said it showed rural journalism's ability to commentate on national issues. "It emphasised the regional centre as an important platform for national debate and that regional journalism can respond to serious social issues," Mr Clarke said.