“Queue jumpers” and the perils of crossing Sydney Harbour on a Manly ferry

Refugees Right of asylum Asylum seekers Boat people Public opinion Australian Labor Party Australia Darwin Sydney

Although Australian public opinion since Federation in 1901 has generally been overwhelmingly hostile towards “boat people,” this hasn’t invariably been the case. When small numbers of West Papuan asylum seekers arrived in Queensland in 1969 and 2006, for instance, they didn’t incite the kind of panic that has accompanied more recent arrivals. And when the first five Vietnamese landed in April 1976, they hardly registered outside Darwin. But that would change as arrivals from Vietnam increased, with an unexpected impact on the following year’s federal election.

It was in December 1976, after the arrival of the third boat, that the earliest signs of panic appeared in the major newspapers. Melbourne’s Sun-News Pictorial, for example, warned of a “tide of human flotsam” lapping the shores of northern Australia, and speculated about an invasion of Australia’s far north “by hundreds, thousands and even tens of thousands of Asian refugees.”

But even after another 167 “boat people” arrived in Australia during the first nine months of 1977, they were still only a major topic of conversation in Darwin. And even there, most people seemed unperturbed. In fact, if the local newspaper is any indication, the feat of steering small fishing boats from Southeast Asia to Australia sparked admiration rather than fear. “Eight Brave Sea to Achieve Dream,” read the headline of a front-page article in the Northern Territory News on 26 September. It’s possible that people in Darwin were kindly disposed towards these boat arrivals because earlier that month they had closely followed the exploits of the Can-Tiki, a boat made from beer cans, which a group of local residents sailed from Darwin to Singapore to promote tourism to Australia’s Top End.

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