‘Who is the government protecting from what?’: Borders and Backlashes in Australia’s Long Sixties

by Jon Piccini

5 March 2017

Global Panorama/ flickr

Australia’s border regime has been in the press an awful lot of late. Lauded by fringe Neo-Nazis in Germany, in 2015 our former Prime Minister Tony Abbott told a London audience that Europe must adopt a policy of boat turn backs or risk “a tide of humanity surging through Europe and quite possibly changing it forever.” Responding to Donald Trump’s ‘muslim ban’, Australia’s treasurer Scott Morrison commended America for finally “catching up” with Australia’s policies, which have seen hundreds of refugees indefinitely detained in offshore prisons.

Australian governments have long weaponised the border. Immigration restriction was first enforced in the colonies that would become Australia against Chinese miners flocking to the Victorian gold fields in the 1850s. Similar restrictions were amongst the first acts of the federated Commonwealth of Australia, with the Immigration Restriction Act passed in 1901, legislation best encapsulated by Prime Minister John Howard’s infamous 2001 pronouncement that “we will decide who comes to this country and the circumstances in which they come”.   

The words ‘White Australia’, while central to political debate around federation, did not work their way into the final document, owing to fears from Britain that such phrasing might rile Japan. Still, the ‘White Australia’ policy became shorthand, first for advocates and later detractors of the Immigration Restriction Act. The main function of the legislation was to keep out undesirable migrants through a range of mechanisms, perhaps most infamously the dictation test, where potential arrivals were forced to read a passage of text in any European language – not necessarily English.

Egon Kisch, a Czechoslovak anti-fascist invited to conduct a 1934-5 speaking tour for the Communist Party of Australia-affilated Movement against War and Fascism, remains perhaps the best-know victim of this test. Kisch was able to pass the test in seven different European languages, before finally being caught out with Gaelic, after which he promptly jumped from his moored vessel to the harbour below, breaking his leg in defiance of the power of what Marilyn Lake and Henry Reynolds call “White Men’s Countries” to enforce racial homogeneity.

Yet, Kisch’s case also demonstrates that this legislation was not purely racial, but political, if any meaningful distinction could be drawn in the first place. Commenting on the 1970 denial of a visa by the Australian government to Belgian Marxist Ernst Mandel, academic John Playford ruminated that this banning sat alongside immigration restriction and a crude censorship regime (second only to Catholic Ireland and running a close heat with Apartheid South Africa) in an attempt to protect “our unpolluted shores” from dangerous people and ideas.

My recent book, Transnational Protest, Australia and the 1960s: Global Radicals tracks how Australian radicals engaged with the border throughout the late 1960s and 1970s. This was a time of significant change in Australia. The Immigration Restriction Act was replaced in 1958 by the more innocuous Migration Act, which while casting aside the dictation test, left the basics of the system intact. The exclusion of ‘coloured races’ continued unabated, although discourse shifted from problems to colour to those of culture and political instability. Conservatives voiced frequent concerns that any further liberalisation of the migration system would be dangerous, with one parliamentarian commenting “we should not import into this country the problem that has beset other countries”, while another put it more bluntly: “we don’t want a Little Rock in Australia”.

Perhaps those most fearful of foreign intrusion into Australian life was the Australian Security Intelligence Organisation (ASIO) – the domestic spy agency. Their remit, established back in 1948, was to monitor foreign agents in Australia, an obligation they interpreted very widely. Thousands upon thousands of files were collected on Australians from all walks of life who happened at one point or another to come into contact with a known communist. ASIO also played a significant role in deciding who would be allowed entry to Australia, through its series of security checks.

Wendy Brown has pointed out how the late twentieth century’s economic and cultural globalisation has commingled with the increasing ease of travel to weaken the sovereignty of the state and its ability to police both its physical and ideological borders. Rather than culminating in the utopian cosmopolitan future imagined by political and economic elites, however, this process has rather seen the reinscription of the border and the “theatricalized and spectacularized performance of sovereign power” by state-based politicians, often at the behest of citizens increasingly concerned about the impact these flows might have on national political and cultural life. As Brown puts it:

“What we have come to call a globalized world harbors fundamental tensions between opening and barricading, fusion and partition, erasure and reinscription. These tensions materialize as increasingly liberalized borders, on the one hand, and the devotion of unprecedented funds, energies, and technologies to border fortification, on the other.”

Emblematic of this is the wall Donald Trump wants to throw up between Mexico and the USA, which seeks to provide a physical separation where, in a globalised marketplace heavily reliant on porous boundaries, no such separation can really exist. And it is the movement of “nonstate transnational actors”, refugees, itinerant workers, or political activists that personify anxieties towards these increasingly globalising, decentred political forces in the popular imagination.

If the radical upsurge of the long sixties was, as Martin Klimke has it, “a global phenomena, representing social and cultural responses to emerging patterns of economic, technological and political globalisation”, then scholars of the period could find much of use in historicising Brown’s work on the walling mentality of the State. A surprisingly diverse array of individuals were proscribed from entry to Australia during the period of the ‘long sixties’ (roughly 1966-1972), including Marxist academic Ernest Mandel and African American civil rights and anti-war campaigner Richard ‘Dick’ Gregory.

These exclusions show how elite definitions of a “dangerous” radical shifted as new enemies came to the fore. A government and security apparatus, well coached in the politics of superpower conflict, struggled to deal with the emergence of new social movements equally critical of both sides of the Cold War. New Left and ‘Black Power’ movements equally concerned ASIO. The New Left, it was feared, posed “a real and growing threat to the liberal democratic Western World”, and letting radicals in to the country “would facilitate this process as well as contribut[e] towards the development of new alliances and forms of revolutionary activity which… would be more relevant in the Australian environment”, as one confidential report put it. Such paranoiac pronouncements should not be surprising, as one historian has put it, the organisation’s “fertile imagination” saw it swallow “overseas models of revolution just as slavishly as the left-wing groups”.

ASIO’s fears seemed to be vindicated when Ernest Mandel applied for a visa to deliver a keynote address to the May 1970 Socialist Scholars Conference in Sydney. Famous for his texts on Marxist economic theory, Mandel was also a key leader in the international Trotskyist movement, editor of Belgium’s largest Left-wing newspaper La Gauche, and had previously been banned from the USA, Switzerland, France, and his homeland of West Germany for spreading revolutionary ideas. His attendance at the academic conference was a point of additional concern. In March 1970, only months before recommending Mandel’s exclusion, ASIO produced a report warning that a group of “Marxist academics” from Sydney, Brisbane, and Melbourne whose views were “without exception…explicitly revolutionary, and to the left of the [Communist Party]” were operating on campus and seeking to use their power to further a ‘red university’ strategy of subterfuge. Mandel’s arrival must have appeared as a perfect storm in ASIO’s nervous mindset, a globally mobile European far Leftist addressing a proudly subversive academic conference. Such threats were, however, viewed differently by media and activists who jumped on yet another opportunity to lambast Australia’s restrictive border policies.

Academic and activist John Playford, one of the university-based nonaligned Marxists ASIO had its eyes on, asked in the short-lived radical newspaper Revolution “why the Australian Government banned Mandel from our unpolluted shores”. Was this merely an example of following America’s lead, of the Liberal Minister for Immigration Phillip Lynch hearing “his master’s voice”, as Playford condescendingly put it? This did not seem sufficient, however, as the decision to bar Mandel was made in the American context only after an acrimonious public falling out between the State and Justice Departments, making common cause less palatable. Nor did the Australian government provide such a politically loaded rationale for their decision, instead making “cloudy references…to the national interest”. Thus, it could only be inferred that this was “a clear- cut case of political repression and mindless parochialism”, showing that “the government is frightened of the free exchange of ideas that it does not agree with”.

The case also highlighted for activists how Australia was very much connected to the global 1960s, if only negatively. As Playford bemoaned, “Although we can still read Mandel, Australians now share with the peoples of the US, the USSR and Eastern Europe the signal honour of not being able to dialogue with him”. The mainstream media also used this opportunity to repose the question of whether Australia required “protection” from a dangerous world. Julie Rigg, writing in the Australian, asked “who is the Australian government protecting from what?”; questioning the veracity of a supposedly democratic government using “one of the most successful aspects of the totalitarian technique…censoring ideas or banning the men who carry them”. The supposed freedom of travel in a globalising world was marshalled by two Australian National University academics who, writing to the Sydney Morning Herald, stated how “in a country which claims to be democratic there is a strong prima facie assumption in favour of entry, especially for a short stay”—a right only to be rescinded in the face of “weighty reasons”. That no such reasons were provided revealed a government that was merely fearful of the spread of radical ideas, a notion dismissed by the letter writers who opined, “if a few speeches…could really endanger or subvert Australian society it would not be a society worth preserving”.

Few international border breachers were more central to the anxieties of government than itinerant Black Power radicals. Here, long-held concerns of racial disharmony and invasion commingled in the imagination of many with new fears around increasingly vocal calls for indigenous self-determination. Consequently a nervous conservative media and sections of the general citizenry vocally demanded the nation’s protection from such dangerous figures as academic-activist Angela Davis and Black Panther leader Huey Newton. The opposition, parliamentary and extra-parliamentary, was provided with an opportunity to challenge these fears with the politically motivated exclusion of African American comedian and civil rights activist Dick Gregory in 1970. This widely publicised incident, occurring only days before the second anti-Vietnam War Moratorium, painted the government and its security services as dangerously backward and chauvinistic philistines, but also racist, while revealing such attempts at border policing to be both superfluous and self-defeating.

For its part, ASIO saw the threat of civil rights and Black Power radicalism as yet another arm of international communism’s octopus-like network of subterfuge and division. The visit of African American communist singer Paul Robeson in 1960, though seemingly not opposed by ASIO, was closely monitored. ASIO compiled a report on Robeson’s previous activities, including “political activity…helping Communist Front ‘Peace’ activities and ‘anti-Colonial’ organisations”, while noting his meetings with Indigenous Australian activists and recording that he wished to return in the near future to “do some work for the benefit of Australian aborigines”. Such fears remained, if anything gaining force, over a decade later. One report, heavily redacted like so many others by ASIO prior to release, warned that the interest of international Black Power activists in indigenous affairs was part of a vast communist conspiracy to besmirch Australia’s international reputation. “Communist world organisations”, the report read, “have endeavoured to classify Australia amongst the imperialist countries by reproaching it with colonialism and racial discrimination”, attempts international Black Power adherents were believed to be part of.

While generally open to African American entertainers or tourists staying for short periods, as Robeson’s case shows, the proposed visits of Black Power militants was another matter entirely. A variety of figures were invited to venture down under by church and activist groups, sparking a flurry of letters from concerned Australians to the Department of Immigration. This not only illustrates how the basis of racial exclusion was shifting, now on the basis of disharmony and radicalism of a few rather than supposedly natural racial traits, but also the role concerned citizens sought to play in the constructing of borders. As Brown relates, “nation-state walling responds in part to [the] psychic fantasies, anxieties, and wishes” of citizens, although it is rarely effective in achieving its purported aims. In 1970, for instance, amid incorrect reports that the Left-wing preacher Ted Noffs of Sydney’s Wayside Chapel had invited Black Panther leader Huey Newton to visit Australia, A.W.  Buckley of Arncliffe, NSW, wrote to the Department expressing his hopes that “this type of black is not admitted here”. This was due to the fact that “their visit to this Country, at present free of th[e] coloured problem facing America, would not be in the interests of Australia”. These fears of outside contamination were mixed with concerns about the susceptibility of Indigenous Australians to “dangerous” ideas. Such concerns emerged around the invitation of what were termed “Black Power workers” by the Australian Council of Churches in 1971 for a short visit, the purpose of which was “not only…fact-fi nding, but also explaining how Black Power militancy works” to indigenous Queenslanders.

The Department received dozens of letters after these plans were publicised, with many writers expressing concern as to the impact such arrivals would have on what were termed “our aborigines”. Mrs R.F. Kunde, a member of the Queensland Liberal Party and moderate Aboriginal rights group One People of Australia League (OPAL), questioned whether the government wanted “to see the aboriginal cause set back 50 years” by Black Power influence, or for Australia to “experience the resultant riots and bloodshed” militant Aboriginal self-determination would bring. Finally, the invitation of academic and activist Angela Davis by organisers of the Black Moratorium sparked another flurry of citizen concern. Charles Huxtable of Killara, NSW, warned the minister that his government was losing the hard-won respect of most Australians through its “apparent appeasement” of the radical movement and the allowing of “international trouble-maker[s]” onto Australian soil. Describing Davis somewhat incongruously as both a “leader in communist warfare” and a “rebel anarchist”, Huxtable’s concerns clearly wedded the threat of international communism with that of race. That Davis’s mass of international post-trial speaking engagements made a tour of the antipodes an impossibility did not seem to curb the over-active Australian imagination of outside threats or desires for borders in an increasingly disordered world.

When government acted on these anxieties, however, spirited debate seemed more common than gratitude. This was the case when in September 1970, just days before the September anti-Vietnam War Moratorium, the exclusion of Richard “Dick” Gregory from Australia became front-page news. Noffs’s Wayside Chapel had initially invited Gregory, a well-known African American comedian, civil rights activist, and unsuccessful 1968 presidential candidate, but difficulties in organisation had driven them to approach the National Union of Australian University Students (NUAUS) for assistance. The comic was being billed to do shows around the country, including TV spots, and the anti-Vietnam War Moratorium committee was approached to provide funds in exchange for Gregory speaking at their September rally in Sydney. This was where ASIO apparently became involved. Monitoring the phones of Moratorium organisers, it caught a drift of their intentions and passed on the information to a government mounting a law and order campaign around the upcoming protests. That Gregory had applied on the basis of “sightseeing” rather than his political agenda was used to deny him a visa.

Government sought to employ a terminology of otherness to conflate Gregory and those organising the Moratorium as foreign and violent forces dangerous to the national interest. This was a repressive toolkit at least partially borrowed from Richard Nixon. Jeremy Varon explains how the American Moratoriums of October–November 1969 had been “immensely successful in showing the breadth of anti-war sentiment”, and were soon replicated in Australia to similar levels of success. And local conservatives were relying on an equally Americanised vocabulary to discredit the protests. Nixon, noting the first Moratorium’s success in presenting increasingly vocal anti-war oppositions, sought to frame.the second, set to be held on 15 November, “as far more threatening than the October Moratorium”. Nixon argued that this second event, organised by a younger and more radical constituency, “would attract violence prone elements with an anti-American agenda”.

Conservative Australians borrowed Nixon’s rhetoric to discredit Australia’s second Moratorium, mixing fears of violence, of “political bikies pack raping democracy” as Minister for Labour and National Service Billy Snedden put it, with ever-present concerns around foreign contamination. While pronouncing that “the Government’s policy is to allow the maximum freedom of travel to Australia”, Prime Minister John Gorton then proceeded to rhetorically ask “why the Government should allow aliens to come to Australia for the purpose of interfering with political matters”. The Immigration Minister Phillip Lynch took this further, insisting that allowing Gregory to involve himself in a “one sided distorted anti-war campaign inimical to the objectives for which Australian troops are fighting in Vietnam…would represent a betrayal of [those] servicemen”. These points were difficult to defend, however, and received swift condemnation from a variety of sources. The charge of “aliens” interfering in Australia was easily countered, with NUAUS’s National U commenting:

The Prime Minister’s “aliens” approach looks a little hollow when you look at his Government’s record at having Australia’s politics interfered with by aliens from the White House, or from Vesteys, or from CRA, or the oil companies. On the other hand, charges of Gregory’s violent intent were diffi cult to substantiate. Even the High Commissioner in Washington, James Plimsoll, sent a concerned cable to his superiors pointing out that “there is no evidence” Gregory, an avowed pacifi st, “would himself advocate or incite violence”.

The ban was also painted in the media as yet another censorial blunder with the intention not only on silencing dissent, but ensuring the populace had little access to outside ideas. The Australian editorialised:

“Banning books is bad enough [but] banning people is preposterous… Surely Australia’s national interest is not threatened by a comedian who advocates full civil rights for black people and a cessation of the Vietnam war. The country doesn’t need to be protected from men like that, but from the whims of people who try to keep our minds closed.”

While the government denied a racial motivation for Gregory’s exclusion, the flimsy basis of its public pronouncements led many to ask questions. Although he was invited to address an anti-war rally, it was through Gregory’s widely reported civil rights activism that Gough Whitlam’s Labor Opposition read the exclusion. Whitlam declared in a very poorly titled press statement, Gregory Lynched, that:

“Australians expect the Gorton Government to make a fool of itself but the world’s most powerful Negro community is likely to conclude that the exclusion of one of its leading civil rights fighters springs from simpler, more serious and therefore more sinister motives than Mr. Lynch’s effusion.”

Whitlam’s imputation that government had acted in a racist manner, in keeping with the worst aspects of the White Australia Policy (an objective that Whitlam’s Labor Party had only removed from its program in 1966), was certainly the dominant response. Gregory himself lambasted the government for racism, and threatened to publicise his exclusion around the world, and particularly at a summit of non-aligned nations in Zambia that he was soon to attend. Striking a similar chord, a student activist wrote in National U that while “Satire is one of the most effective political mediums and Gregory is one of the world’s leading exponents of the art”, which may well have been a reason for his ban, “maybe they just kept Gregory out because he is BLACK”

Such ridicule did significant public damage to Gorton’s law and order drive. Indeed, attempts to detract support from the September Moratorium by linking it to an outside contagion or ‘alien’ whose presence risked violence, disorder, and betrayal seemed to have the opposite effect. The level of publicity Gregory’s case received instead fired the Moratorium organiser’s flagging public relations campaign. An ASIO background briefing bemoaned that the Gregory controversy had served to “promote more support than was expected” for the rallies which, while smaller than those of May and marred by violence instigated by overzealous police, were still viewed as successful.

Wendy Brown argues that the state’s increasing inability to control its borders in a post-modern, post-national world has seen calls for the imposition of new barriers, exclusions, and controls. It is clear that throughout the 1960s, anxious conservatives used evolving methods of exclusion to ensure that individuals seen as representative of possibly subversive overseas ideas and practices were kept out. The imposition of these exclusions—much as has been the case throughout Australian history—rarely achieved their protective aims. Instead, as Denis Freney alluded to in his comments that potential radical visitors were “proven newsmakers”, the exclusion of radicals saw their ideas and causes gain just as much, if perhaps more, publicity than their eventual tours would have.

Another point needs to be made in concluding, however. While activists lapped up the publicity for their causes that an ill-conceived visa ban could bring about, campaigning against the White Australia policy itself was largely left to one side. White Australian activists campaigned vigorously against the Vietnam War, yet they largely ignored the small number of Asian students in their midst – Colombo Plan or private scholars fearful that their marks would slip and be deported – until later in the 1970s. By then, various liberal and social democratic governments had already wound back the policy in the face of international criticism and bureaucratic opposition. By treating the border as a theatrical stage for their politics, activists ignored and sidelined its real victims. And this is perhaps a vital lesson for today, as leftists – particularly in Australia – are keen to deploy the powers of government to keep out people of undesirable political persuasions, from rapper Chris Brown to Men’s Rights assholes like Julian Blanc. In so doing, not only might we be giving such individuals more airtime than their views deserve, but are also implicitly participating in a system whose victims, unlike those of international celebrities we dislike – are nameless and faceless: “out of sight and out of mind”, as a popular activist critique of the ‘Pacific Solution’ put it. Organising against the border regime, as activists in Australia and Europe show, must have it its core an understanding that we are all implicated in its manifold operations.

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