Hawke Government Cabinet Papers Grapple With Same Issues As Modern Australia

01/01/2016 7:05 AM AEDT | Updated January 1, 2016 07:05
Fairfax Media

The release of cabinet papers from the 1990-91 Bob Hawke government show that, the more things change, the more they stay the same.

Hawke's administration devoted time to addressing asylum seekers, terrorist threats to Australia, aboriginal reconciliation and recognition, climate change -- issues contemporary politicians, even 25 years on, are still grappling with.

Cabinet papers from past Australian governments are marked confidential and only made privy to those senior government officials, but changes to the Archives Act in 2010 "saw the open access period commence after 20 years instead of the previous 30-year period, phased in over 10 years.

This has resulted in two years of records reaching the open access period each year until 2020, according to the National Archives of Australia.

The National Archives on Friday released selected key cabinet records for 1990 and 1991, the turbulent period which saw Hawke elected to an unlikely and record fourth term as PM, then quickly dumped from the top job as Paul Keating's second leadership spill saw him seize power in December '91.

The documents outline the issues the cabinet considered during that period, including key microeconomic reforms, the sale of Australian Airlines and Qantas, changes to social welfare assistance and environmental policy.

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But many of the problems of a quarter of a century ago are still present today, with clear parallels able to be drawn between the issues facing Hawke's cabinet and those now facing that of current prime minister Malcolm Turnbull.

Asylum seekers

Then:

As today, Hawke's Australia examined how the country would deal with asylum seekers. While not nearly the hot-button political issue it is today, the issue of asylum seekers was firmly on the radar as the documents reveal possibly the first steps toward what we now call temporary protection visas -- that is, granting an asylum seeker temporary refuge in Australia without extending specific citizenship rights.

"The Cabinet ... agreed to end the assumption in law and practice that the grant of protection to those determined to be

refugees or to have humanitarian claims automatically leads to grant of resident status under the Act," the documents state.

Notes from then-Immigration Minister Gerry Hand detail investigations into tightening of scrutiny on issuance of visas, access to and cost of Medicare and social security programs for "temporary entry permits," and proposals to simplify schemes to allow overseas students to study in Australia. Hand also set out plans to reduce "the inflow of potential refugee claimants" as the country struggled with its "current all-time high level of asylum claims." Hand calls for Australia to "[sever] the link between recognition of asylum claims and resident status," in an attempt to "to diminish the incentive of those whose primary motive

in applying for asylum is permanent residence rather than protection."

He then goes on to call for a streamlining of the Determination of Refugee Status and increased resources to the relevant departments to speed up the process.

Now:

Refugees are still one of the most controversial topics on the political landscape. In 2015, we are still grappling with how to deal with asylum seekers arriving on Australian shores, with various policies looking to disincentivise those considering making the perilous journey across the seas.

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A barge carrying rescued suspected asylum seekers nears Christmas Island in June 2012

Our hardline policy of mandatory detention for illegal arrivals, as well as considering options to resettle legitimate refugees in far-off countries, aim to dissuade refugees from looking to Australia for assistance. Australia recently committed to accepting an additional 12,000 refugees from the conflict in Syria, with considerations of what access those arrivals would have to Australian social services, healthcare and education.

Universities also benefit greatly from foreign students easily applying to study in Australia, raking in fortunes each year from fee-paying students travelling Down Under.

Terrorist threats to Australia

Then:

Documents from the Australian Security Intelligence Organisation (ASIO), stamped 'secret,' outline what were considered the main threats to Australia in the early 90s. Of most note for Australian authorities were Middle Eastern threats in Palestine and Iran, but ASIO remarked "There have been fewer international terrorist attacks relevant to

Australia in recent years."

The documents state "Australia has been relatively untouched by international terrorism," with one of the main reasons being that "Australia does not have the background of political and economic involvement in the Middle East" that other countries do. It is important to note the ASIO document was stamped July 1990, a month before Australia entered the Gulf War in Iraq.

While focusing on the Middle East, the documents also make note of the increasing threat from Asia.

The ASIO document concludes with the ominous warning "The future terrorist threat to Australia is unpredictable. It could come from several sources; it is likely to be driven by changes and developments overseas, and could be directed against any number of the wide range of potential targets here."

Now:

Australia has tragically been scarred by terrorism since the 1990 ASIO paper, most notably in the 2002 Bali bombings which targeted premises popular with Australians. Other Australian terrorism incidents have included the ongoing arrests of domestic terror suspects on charges of planning terrorist attacks here, as well as crimes connected to terrorism or terror supporters such as the Sydney siege, the shooting of NSW Police employee Curtis Cheng, and the stabbing of a Melbourne police officer.

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The wreckage of the Bali bombings in 2002

Involvement in, and support of, military operations in the Middle East brought Australia into the targets of extremists. Police and law enforcement around Australia are daily working to foil terror threats, as politicians work to tighten laws or enact new ones to keep pace. The ASIO document was correct in its assertion that terror threats against Australia were likely to be driven by overseas developments, and that they could come against a number of targets -- the rise of ISIS has seen Australians pledging their support to the organisation, with terror supporters allegedly planning attacks against police, naval operations and the public.

Aboriginal reconciliation and recognition

Then:

Hawke, a strong advocate for advancing the status of aboriginal people, oversaw a cabinet that agreed to establish a Council for Aboriginal Reconciliation, investigated a treaty and explored other avenues to advance reconciliation. Documents from Robert Tickner, Minister for Aboriginal Affairs, outlined "the need for a reconciliation process, eventually leading to some form of instrument" -- Hawke's cabinet famously investigated how a treaty could be established and how it might aid the reconciliation process.

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Hawke receives the Barunga statement in Arnhem Land in 1988

Opposition leader John Hewson, however, vehemently opposed a treaty. In a letter to Hawke included in the documents, he wrote he feared that "a treaty may also cover an obligation for compensation." Hewson also doubted whether a treaty would make any lasting difference to aboriginal affairs, writing "the Coalition remains to be convinced that an "Instrument of Reconciliation" would provide any lasting tangible benefit to Aboriginal people."

Now:

Aboriginal people still lag far behind the general population in health standards, life expectancy, education and many other basic social indicators. We are still "closing the gap," but the gap is far from closed. Discussions are still being had around a treaty with Australia's aboriginal people, but the calls for such an instrument are not as strong as 1990. Instead, louder discussions are occurring around constitutional recognition for aboriginal people.

Advocates are pushing for a referendum on including references to aboriginal people in Australia's constitution. Education and awareness-raising campaigns are in place across the country, urging the government to put the proposal up for public vote.

Climate change

Then:

"Progress in the negotiations has been slow," state notes from the Department of the Environment on international agreements on climate change. Where have we seen that recently? Current climate pacts often use 1990 as a benchmark year, calling on nations to reduce their emissions by a certain percentage compared to emissions from that year. Cabinet documents express Australia's seeming annoyance at a lack of concrete progress on addressing climate change, citing a number of issues from the scope of the agreement to its unprecedented nature for the long, drawn-out process of negotiations.

The documents outline the gradual understanding of how such a global climate deal could affect the nations of the world in myriad of ways, from avenues of enforcement to economic costs and how such a pact could change the nature of production and international trade. Also revealed was Australia's uncertainty of how the international negotiations would play out, and the fear that the major greenhouse gas producers -- the U.S., the USSR, Brazil, China and India, as outlined in the documents -- would not come aboard any agreement.

Now:

Almost exactly the same issues are present today. International delegations have recently returned from the COP21 climate summit in Paris, coming away with firmer agreements on the need to drastically limit emissions; however, the same arguments around economic impacts, trade and sharing of costs are still major sticking points. Australia is not immune to these concerns, with opposition raised over how such agreements would impact Australians, domestic industry and business.

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