Note: Where available, the PDF/Word icon below is provided to view the complete and fully formatted document
The Fraser legacy - refugees, asylum seekers and multiculturalism

Download PDFDownload PDF



Janet Phillips

Condolences on the recent death of former Prime Minister, Malcolm Fraser, have emphasised the key role he and his Government played in assisting many thousands of Indochinese refugees to resettle in Australia. Member for Fowler, Chris Hayes, noted in his condolence motion that:

Malcolm Fraser is rightly credited for Australia opening its doors to thousands of Vietnamese who became refugees in the 1970s as a consequence of the Vietnam War. Following the fall of Saigon, which was 40 years ago this coming April, the first wave of Vietnamese fled their homeland driven by hopes of achieving freedom, liberty and a better life for themselves and their families. Now they are referred to as our first boat people. But it was Malcolm Fraser that allowed more than 50,000 Vietnamese to start their new lives here in Australia. This was a brave and courageous decision at the time, a decision that was based in compassion, but one which showed great foresight because the many Vietnamese refugees who have made Australia their home are today making a remarkable contribution to this nation.


The Vietnam War (1965-1974) and its aftermath displaced over half of the Vietnamese population and forced millions of people to flee the region . While most fled by land to neighbouring countries, thousands also escaped by boat to Thailand, Hong Kong, Singapore, the Philippines and other South East Asian countries. Only a relatively small number (2059 people) embarked on the voyage by boat to Australia.

In response to the crisis, the Fraser Government developed Australia’s first refugee policy in 1977. As the repercussions of the conflict continued to deepen Fraser commented:

A Humanitarian Program within the immigration portfolio was subsequently introduced to administer the new policy and respond to the crisis (and any future crises) in an orderly manner—it continues to administer the entry of all of Australia’s refugee and humanitarian entrants to this day.

Malcolm Fraser also proved to be a strong supporter of the concept of multiculturalism which began to emerge as the basis for migrant settlement, welfare and social-cultural policy in Australia during the Whitlam Government in the early 1970s. In the 1981 inaugural lecture of the Australian Institute of Multicultural Affairs, ‘Multiculturalism: Australia’s unique achievement’, Fraser firmly stated his commitment to ‘work together to bring the promise of multiculturalism to fruition’:

The problem of refugees from Indo-China is a human problem of vast proportions which affects all of us. It is a problem which needs to be tackled at the international level.

Vietnamese refugees arriving in Darwin, 1977. NAA: A6180, 8/12/78/24 Source: National Archives of Australia

In multiculturalism, we have forged a radically innovative basis upon which we can respond as a nation to Australia’s diversity, to its challenges and opportunities. It is a basis which offers at once both an understanding of the present and a vision of the future built upon that understanding... Australian multiculturalism is a unique achievement. Australia may have stumbled into the multicultural epoch. We were a nation comparatively small in size and insular in outlook. But within a period of time that is short in historical perspective, Australia has been enlarged in capacities, talents and outlook by millions of men and women from every corner of the globe. Today, while other societies still perceive ethnic cultural diversity as a problem to be contended with, Australia, without pain, without conflict, has broken through and this breakthrough is a significant achievement indeed…

Fraser’s funeral, Uniting Church of Australia. Attribution: Tim Lam


The Fraser Government also commissioned the Review of Post-Arrival Programs and Services to Migrants (Galbally Report) that led to a significant overhaul and expansion of settlement services provided to new migrants and refugees. The report was tabled in Parliament by Fraser in May 1978:

In later years Fraser continued to champion the cause of multiculturalism. In his 2011 Australian Refugee Association oration, ‘From White Australia to today’, Fraser acknowledged the complexities facing governments, but asked all of us to strive towards the ‘bipartisanship that will be needed to make meaningful contributions to such complex global challenges’:

A strong multicultural Australia that draws strength from its diversity, that debates real issues of importance to ourselves and to common humanity, has contributed so much in the past. It must do so again. The pettiness and meanness of the current debates about asylum seekers and indeed on other issues that are dealt with in a totally partisan basis must be put aside…We should also ask ourselves what we as Australians need to do so that politicians will learn to appeal to the best of our natures and cease playing politics with the lives of vulnerable people. I believe there is a special obligation of Australians who have come or whose parents have come here in the post war years, to work for and maintain that Australia because that is the Australia they came to, that is the Australia that has received them so warmly and that is the Australia to which they have already contributed so much in so many different ways.

That is what I ask you all to work for.

Migrants and their children now make up about one-third of the total population of Australia. They have come from many different ethnic origins. Few Australians in their lifetime have to face the same psychological and social stresses—the homesickness, loneliness, anxieties and frustrations. Few Australians face the difficulties many migrants are confronted with particularly in the early years after their arrival … The Government agrees with the general conclusions of the Review. It agrees Australia is at a critical stage in developing a cohesive, united, multicultural nation. It agrees there is a need to change the direction of its services to migrants and that further steps to encourage multiculturalism are needed…