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Category: Interviews »

Subject: Politics »

Robert Manne on the Blainey debate and his role as editor of Quadrant

Robert Manne and Mara Moustafine.



Date Added:

07 April 2009


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mov (Quicktime);

File size:

13.4 MB






In my memory, in my historical construction, what happens next really is that there’s obviously some local feeling of unease in the Australian society and at a certain point, Geoffrey Blainey, a professor of history from Melbourne, gave a talk at Warrnambool, a very famous talk to the Rotary Club or whatever at Warrnambool, basically saying, you know; the rate of Asian migration is too high, it’s going too fast, it’s threatening tolerance, which is one of our virtues and we should slow it down. We shouldn’t take for granted that this can go on at this rate without their being great social problems.


I think that’s roughly what he said. Then all hell broke loose. There was clearly – there was clearly sort of tension in the society that had never been expressed by a politician or by an intellectual or by a historian and there was then the thing we called, “The Blainey Debate,” which went for at least a couple of years and in which quite a lot of people came out expressing sort of unease about Asian migration. On – even to some extent the Liberal Party under Andrew Peacock, played along with that to some extent.


This is say, ’84, ’85. But even then I think the Hawke Government held its nerve more or less and those who had expressed hostility to the Asian migration, I think they tended to lose the argument and at a certain moment when John Howard was leader of the opposition, the year was maybe ’88, ’89 – can’t remember. It’s the late ‘80s. John Howard coming back from a meeting with Margaret Thatcher, entered the debate and said a sort of Blainey comment that: Asian migration is going too fast. And I think it has to be said that he lost the argument. He – it – many people said that, that wounded his leadership of the Opposition and that he was replaced by Andrew Peacock again after that, largely because he was discredited because almost everyone, even in his own party, didn’t go along with what he was saying.


The fact that both political parties and the media were not expressing what was being expressed in parts of society had led to a tension and that the tension was I think probably inadvertently broken by the Blainey speech and it was reported in a big way I think in the Melbourne Herald. And I think- and that broke – there was a tension underlying because of – what I call an “elite consensus” and that – and that was inherently unstable and so when Blainey spoke all sorts of things emerged.


And by that time I was associated with the conservative anti-communist magazine, Quadrant, which is – was different then and became different under my editorship and is different again now. But at that time, I was asked to write on the Blainey issue and I wrote for Quadrant. And my argument was essentially that: I understand that Blainey is loyal to a certain idea of Australia and that’s not a despicable loyalty but it’s so ironical that he should pick on the group, Vietnamese and Cambodian, Lao refugees, who themselves would value exactly those things that he likes about Australia; it’s the idea of the rule of law and the idea of democracy. And so, you know, the basic argument was that this group of refugees will find that exactly what Blainey values in the Australian tradition, is why they will find a life here that suits them.


And that was the line I took. So, I was neither – I certainly wasn’t on the left and I certainly – and I didn’t attack Blainey in the way that he was being attacked, say at Melbourne University and by many intellectuals. But I didn’t agree with him either and that – and that was the position I held. And so at that time, I remember and I wrote other things of a similar kind and Blainey at that time, thanked me for the civility of my response, because he was feeling very under pressure and very –and he felt very bitter about the way his colleagues at Melbourne University treated him and he was very bitter about a book that Andrew Markus and a friend of mine, his name has escaped me but a book that was edited – an edited book which attacked his – not only his attitude to Asian migration but his attitude to many other things and his historical work. So my attitude was a slightly more complicated one.


End transcript