Australian PrehistoryHistory - AustralianAustralian CultureAustralian IdentityCultural Comparisons Between Australia and other Countries


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Relations between Aborigines
and colonists

Myths in History
Fabrications for politics

Should they be defined as part of a war?

Black Woman and White Man
Rape or love?

Myall Creek Masscare
Causes and consequences of colonial violence

The Stolen Generations
It's not so black and white

Jimmy Govenor
Not a good fence builder

Mary Anne Bugg
Female Bushranger

Justice or resistance?

1967 referendum
The myths

Convicts and their legacy

Convict legacy
How the past shapes the present

Convict life
Regrets and floggings

Convict crimes
Power and morality

Convict punishments
What purpose?

Larrikin Convicts
Breaking rules

Thinking different

Convict women
Moral diversity


Can Convict Creations be relied upon?

The Different Policies Towards European and Vietnamese Refugees

Commencing in 1949, the federal government of Australia initiated a migration scheme that was unparalleled in the world in its ability to integrate diverse people with a history of conflict into a new culture with a shared vision for the future. Whereas countries like Lebanon descended into civil war after receiving refugees and Britain formed ghettos, the Australian experience saw cultural diffusion and integration in a way that led to the refugees being celebrated in their new home.

In the late 1970s, the federal government abandoned many of its tenants of the prevous program as it took Vietnamese refugees and largely dumped them in suburbia. Over the following decades, the Vietnamese struggled through hardships and political condemnation to become another successful migrant group; however, whereas the post-World War 2 program from Europe was largely a success due to the actions of the Australian government, the Vietnamese program was a success largely due to a resilience the Vietnamese brought with them.

In some respects, the Vietnamese should have had some advantages over previous European refugees. At the very least, they had not been Australia’s war enemies - like those from Germany and Italy. Furthermore, they didn’t have a history of conflict with their neighbours - as did almost all Europeans.

Unfortunately, politics got in the way of what should have been a relative smooth program.  Australia’s involvement in the Vietnamese war had become deeply unpopular. So much so, by 1970s, the Liberal government of John Gorton had largely withdrawn Australian fighting troops leaving only advisers. In 1975, the Labor government of Gough Whitlam withdrew those advisors and recognised the North as the rightful government of Vietnam while it was killing people from the South. As for the plight of Australia's former allies, Whitlam stated to cabinet that he was

"not having hundreds of f------ Vietnamese Balts coming into this country".

Perhaps not surprisingly, Whitlam’s stance helped validate would-be Australian Communists who viewed those from the South as criminals who needed to be excluded from Australia and executed in Vietnam if need be.  

When Vietnamese refugees started arriving by boat in 1977, Whitlam said Australia needed to do more to police its northern borders to prevent unauthorised immigration, the importation of drugs and the spread of infectious diseases. In other words, he inferred the boat people were diseased criminals. He also went on to state that the boat people were not true refugees as it was,

“not credible, 2½ years after the end of the Vietnam war, that these refugees should suddenly be coming to Australia.” 

Presumably, Whitlam meant that all Vietnamese non-Communists should have been killed by then.

In 1978, the Liberal government of Malcolm Fraser responded to the boat people and to the plight of Vietnam in refugee camps spread across South East Asia by bringing them to Australia by plane. Over the following decade, almost 90,000 Vietnamese refugees were processed on the way to making Australia their new home.

Ironically, the success of the post-World War 2 program perhaps instilled false confidence in a she'll be right attitude - rather than looking to aspects of the previous program that made it a success.

The first significant difference was the absence of a large infrastructure project like the Snowy Mountain Scheme to generate employment, have migrants and locals work side-by-side and help migrants feel like they were making a symbolic contribution to their new home. In the absence of such a project, Vietnamese could be accused of taking Australian jobs if they found work and criticised for bludging off welfare if they didn’t. It was a no-win situation.

 A second significant difference was the abandonment of the camps where migrants would receive basic English training while awaiting jobs. Previously, the European refugees had stayed in such camps for a number of weeks or up to a few years. Although the difficult conditions in the camps sometimes led to protests, they provided an opportunity for migrants to mingle with other migrants from diverse backgrounds on a level of equality. Through them, migrants could network to form new communities, practice English with other nationalities of comparable English ability, and have their children mingle with children who had a different national background but a similar story.

 One of the last of the camp style accommodations in an urban environment was Sydney's Cabramatta Migrant Hostel, which closed in 1978 just as the first Vietnamese were arriving. Without the network and socialisation that the camps provided, Vietnamese migrants made secondary migrations to Cabramatta from around Australia where they had been settled. Part of their motivation was to attach to the community that the hostel had briefly provided. A second reason was to find work in Vietnamese based industries where Vietnamese language could be used. Even with a fledging industry, Vietnamese unemployment in the Cabramatta’s region still reached 30 per cent in the mid-80s. Race-based gang crime also developed as parents struggled with esteem, purpose and free time in ways that often had them neglecting their children.

With high unemployment, youth crime, gang formation and ethnic congregation, Cabramatta started taking on the appearance of a Vietnamese ghetto.

A third significant difference was the label that the respective refugees were defined under for the broader community. Specifically, the European refugees came under the label of “new Australians” while the Vietnamese came under a label of “multicultural.” One label encouraged a feeling of similarity and shared vision while the other a feeling of dissimilarity and a divergent future. Most importantly, the multicultural label defined the Vietnamese as "others" rather than Australians. It was a definition that would inevitably make the refugees a target once more.

The multicultural label as well as public images of ghettos in turn led to public commentary about the Vietnamese that was very different from the previous Europeans. In 1984, historian Geoffrey Blainey published his book “All for Australia” in which he predicted an unravelling of Australia as a result of Asian migration. Specifically, he stated that migrants eroded a sense of community belonging. He also stated that multiculturalism prioritised the rights of ethnic migrants over the majority.

In 1988, Blainey’s ideas left academia for the realm of politics when Liberal opposition John Howard stated that Australia was being Asianised to the detriment of social cohesion. In his own words,

“I do believe that if in the eyes of some in the community it - Asian immigration - is too great, it would be in our immediate term interest and supportive of social cohesion if it were slowed down a little, so that the capacity of the community to absorb was greater.”

Admittedly, experience the world over did in fact support Blainey’s and Howard’s argument that migration can erode social cohesion in ways that can have destructive consequences. Nevertheless, their words were ignorant of the Australian experience - which was unlike the rest of the world. Specifically, Australia had never been a cohesive nation nor one with a defined identity that was under threat by Asians. Specifically, for most of the 20th century, fringe icons like Ned Kelly and the Eureka Flag had little emotional resonance under a broader British flag resented by Australians of Irish and Aboriginal descent. The already splintered identity was further diversified in the post-World War 2 years as European refugees brought their own stories and myths that were unlike those already in Australia. In short, while millions of Australians had national identities, their identities were neither publicly defined nor prescribed.

In a very superficial way, Howard and Blainey’s words could be attributed to the connotations of the multicultural label. In practice, a migrant’s way of life, be it eating different food or praying to a different named god, makes little difference to the practical operation of a local. However, if the local is told they must change to accommodate the new arrival, their identity is undermined even if the practical aspects of their life are not. In this way, the label of multiculturalism undermined the identity of Australians in a way that the label of new Australian did not. Australians like Howard and Blainey lashed out against Vietnamese for the "threat" they posed even though the Vietnamese were not asking them to change - and were in fact changing themselves. Admittedly, the label of New Australian in reference to an Asian could also have been psychologically problematic as it could have challenged the European Australians vision of a white Australia. Nevertheless, precedent indicated that locals were open to expanding their definition of what an Australian was provided they could still retain a sense of being part of an Australian family.

Also in the late 80s, Labor state MP John Newman commenced a law-and-order campaign against the Vietnamese crime gangs operating in Cabramatta. Newman was born Johann Grauenig in Austia and came to Australia as a child refugee where his family settled in Cabramatta. His mother later married a Peter Naumenko and changed John’s name accordingly. Either to find his own identity or display an affinity to Australia, Newman anglicised his name. His law-and-order campaign in Cabramatta included making statements about deporting Vietnamese criminals back to “the jungles of Vietnam”.  In 1994, he was assassinated by Phuong Ngo, a Vietnamese refugee with gang connections and an aspirant for Newman’s seat in the Labor Party. Ngo may have been motivated by a perception that Newman was racist. Alternatively he may have been motivated by personal career progression. Either way, given the charged environment, racial interpretations derived from wider social commentary were impossible to separate from both Newman’s and Ngo’s individual actions.

In 1996, newly elected independent MP for Oxley in far north Queensland, Pauline Hanson (formerly Pauline Zagorski) gave her maiden speech for federal parliament where she looked at the situation in Cabramatta (thousands of kilometres for her Queensland home) and stated that Australia was in danger of being “swamped by Asians.” She went on to say that Asians,

 ‘have their own culture and religion, form ghettos and do not assimilate.”

At the time, about a third of the Vietnamese were Buddhist, a third Catholic and a third Atheist so it was ignorant to argue that Vietnamese had a religious homogeneity that was in stark contrast to religious demographics in Australia which were comparable.

Hanson’s words perhaps reflected the way that the Asian stereotype had become defined by gangs of Cabramatta. If the federal government had created a flagship infrastructure project like the Snowy Mountain Scheme, as the European refugees had previously benefited from, then a more positive stereotype may have prevailed. In addition to reflecting the influence of gangs in a national stereotype, Hanson's words perhaps also reflected the impact of the multicultural label and the way it defined the Vietnamese as others.

Despite the botched policy, the passage of time has resulted in the Vietnamese becoming another successful migrant group. From 1990s onwards, Vietnamese have been moving away from Cabramatta to suburbs with higher social-economic profiles, thus indicating upwards mobility within the region. Many Vietnamese have also transcended cultural boundaries to become leaders of Australian cultural life. One such individual is Anh Do who has become somewhat of a cultural coleuses after finding success as an author, actor, comedian, and painter. Another is Natalie Tran, who was Australia’s subscribed YouTuber in Australia in the late 2000s and early 2010s. Given everything that has been against them, the success can largely be attributed to what they brought to the table, rather than what was laid before them.  




John Caesare
The first

Our Ned Kelly
A story heard and considered

Eureka Massacre
Dying for liberty

Post Convicts

Why is it not celebrated?

White Australia Policy
From Convicts to Chinese

Baptism of Fire or Well of Tears

Simpson and his Donkey
A larrikin and a hero

Nancy Wake
A larrikin and a hero

The Depression
Australia's Greek Moment

World War 2
The eastern chapters

Cold War
The expression of transnational identities

Prime Ministers
Values and policies of Australian leaders


The Europeans
Building a new Australia

The Vietnamese
No longer "New Australian", now "Multicultural"




"Let no-one say the past is dead, the past is all about us and within"(Oodgeroo)