Veneer of tolerance cracks as nation built by immigrants says keep out

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The Goodwill Games, a celebration of sporting harmony between nations, opened in Brisbane last Tuesday with a rendition of the Australian national anthem, "Advance Australia Fair": "For those who've come across the seas, we've boundless plains to share."

That was the day before the Australian government dispatched 50 heavily armed SAS soldiers to prevent the Norwegian freighter MS Tampa from docking at Christmas Island, a remote Australian possession in the Indian Ocean. It was the day that a Melbourne tabloid newspaper, the Herald Sun, ran a front-page headline that simply stated: "Keep Out".

The ironies were lost on the Australian public, which overwhelmingly backed the government's refusal to allow 433 asylum-seekers rescued by the Tampa from a sinking Indonesian ferry to set foot on Australian soil.

The Prime Minister, John Howard, yesterday persuaded New Zealand and the tiny South Pacific island of Nauru to screen the mainly Afghan asylum-seekers, who will then be resettled by several nations including Australia providing that they are deemed genuine refugees.

As the Tampa's weary passengers prepared for another long sea voyage, some still clinging to their dream of a new life in Australia, a middle-aged man eating a hamburger outside a shopping centre in Sydney offered an alternative solution. "Know what I'd do?" he asked. "Build a plank and give 'em all a blindfold." His girlfriend was only marginally more restrained. "Shove them over the horizon," she said. "Out of sight and out of mind."

The strength of public antipathy towards the Tampa's vulnerable cargo has shocked the outside world, which regarded Australia – a country built by immigrants – as a tolerant and easy-going society with a tradition of welcoming refugees. That image, reinforced by the Sydney Olympics almost exactly one year ago, was exposed as a thin veneer last week, with Hamburger Man's sentiments echoed in pubs and parks, in shops and taxis, on talkback radio and in the letters pages of newspapers.

One talk radio host, Mike Carlton, called the Tampa the most divisive issue since the Vietnam War, remarking: "The nation is rent apart by bitterness." Other observers were less surprised, recalling Australia's long history of hostility to non-white immigrants. That instinct found its ultimate expression in the White Australia policy, enshrined in the first piece of legislation enacted by the newly independent nation a century ago and abandoned only in 1973.

Repressive laws governed Chinese migrants who flocked here in the 1850s to join a Gold Rush; paranoia then shifted to the Japanese, "the yellow peril", with the War confirming Australians' worst fears.

In the 1950s, Greeks and Italians were grudgingly admitted to meet a demand for post-war labour. But it was not until the 1970s that a policy of multiculturalism was adopted, leading to the arrival of large numbers of people from Asia.

Nowadays Australia is hailed as one of the world's most successful immigrant societies, a model of diversity and tolerance, with one-quarter of the population born overseas. But the White Australia mindset still prevails at grassroots level, which explains the success in recent years of Pauline Hanson's anti-immigration One Nation party.

Mrs Hanson warmly applauded Mr Howard last week, which caused further cringing among the minority who advocated a more compassionate stance and are mortified by the damage to the country's international standing.

Geographical insecurity explains the Fortress Australia mentality, according to Kay Saunders, a history lecturer at the University of Queensland. "The anxiety is that Australia, a small outpost of European civilisation in a hostile Asia-Pacific region, will be overwhelmed by alien Asians who will swamp us and destroy our culture," she said.

The latest wave of xenophobia is directed primarily at Muslims, which is one reason for the ferocious reaction to the Afghan asylum-seekers. Anti-immigrant sentiment has reached a peak since boat people began arriving from the Middle East in 1999.

According to surveys, many Australians live in fear of being invaded by Indonesia, their northern neighbour, a country with 200 million Muslims. Last month, the tabloid press whipped up hysteria about an epidemic of gang rapes of white women by young Lebanese Muslims in Sydney – although the stories were based on erroneous statistics and a racial motive was dismissed by the judge in the one case that has come to court.

Robert Manne, professor of history at La Trobe University in Melbourne, said that the mood was very different in the late 1970s, when Australians opened their hearts to Vietnamese boat people. "Both political parties behaved decently then and wouldn't countenance a populist backlash."

But Mr Howard, unlike his predecessors, is ambivalent about multiculturalism and his Immigration Minister, Philip Ruddock, has persistently demonised unauthorised asylum-seekers as queue- jumpers and economic migrants. His dire warnings of a massive tide of boat people washing up on Australia's shores have no basis in reality. Just 5,000 people arrived here illegally last year, compared with 95,000 in Britain.

But talking tough against foreigners goes down well with Middle Australia, and Mr Howard, who was trailing in the polls before the Tampa crisis, must call an election before the end of this year. In the Australian newspaper yesterday a commentator accused him of using the Afghans as political pawns. "Howard has once again played to the darkest fears in this country's psyche," he wrote. "What a way to try to win an election."