All in the name of human rights: an historical case study on Australian nationalism and multiculturalism 1980-1990. Dr Troy Whitford Charles Sturt University, Australia

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All in the name of human rights: an historical case study on Australian nationalism and multiculturalism 1980-1990.

Dr Troy Whitford

Charles Sturt University, Australia.

During the 1980s and 1990s a radical Australian nationalist group known as National Action emerged to challenge government-sponsored multiculturalism. Like those who advocated multiculturalism, National Action’s supporters insisted their struggle was in defence of human rights. They claimed that they were defending the human rights of Australian citizens as a collective, whereas the supporters of multiculturalism adopted a global or internationalist perspective in support of individual or sectional rights. The complex relationship between human rights and Australian nationalism has some distinct features when discussed in terms of multicultural immigration.

First, both groups invoke human rights as the basis for action. Second, each perceives their “struggle” as a defence of human rights but at the same time attempts to violate the other’s human rights. Human rights are therefore co-opted on both sides of this debate to further ideological purposes. But the conflict also has deeper implications. Multicultural activists seek to redefine Australian identity as a nation of diversity, without a dominant culture or shared nationalist. Such a view has implications for Australian nationalists who insist that Australia is primarily European with homogeneous values and attitudes.

Using National Action as an historical case study provides an insight into Australia’s changing interpretation of human rights. In this case study there appears a majority/nationalist interpretation of human rights as opposed to a minority/sectional interpretation. This case study has combined majority and nationalism to describe the view that human rights can be enjoyed by all Australians providing those rights do not challenge traditional Australian values and beliefs which have been developed and guarded by the majority. Majority/nationalist human rights are broadly utilitarian in that they are concerned to provide the greatest good for the greatest number of citizens and are protected through legislation and common law. The majority/nationalist interpretation consequently does not see a need for a bill of rights in Australia, nor does it believe it necessary to adopt an international interpretation of human rights. But, the minority/sectional interpretation takes the position that human rights need to protect minority interests or the interests of individuals from the majority interests. It tends to embrace international doctrines on human rights as a guiding principle for human rights in Australia. The central ideology at stake in the sectional/minority view is that Australia is not homogenous in values and attitudes, but is a multicultural society reflecting a number of values and attitudes perhaps similar to the international community.

This historical case study begins in a period of Australian history where its traditional values and beliefs were being challenged by emerging multiculturalists. It’s a period in Australia’s history when advocates of multiculturalism (including government) attacked nationalist ideas in order to further an agenda of globalisation and increased immigration. The adoption of human rights in the international context, as opposed to the continuation of the majority/nationalist approach, was part of Australia’s shift toward globalisation and multiculturalism that groups like National Action reacted against.
Therefore, during this period, human rights have two roles. First, Australia’s traditional interpretation of human rights in a domestic sense is challenged by multiculturalists. Second, human rights are invoked and violated by both sides as a means to further ideological positions.

Australia’s notion of citizenship and associated human rights has always been culturally defined. Prior to the 1970s the Australian citizen was predominantly white with a European heritage.

i There was little diversity; those migrants who arrived before 1970 were welcomed with the expectation that they would adopt the dominant white European culture. But the introduction of multiculturalism and globalisation after the 1970s challenged the way Australians viewed citizenship and subsequently human rights.

Traditionally, Australia had adopted a utilitarian approach to human rights. Australia’s national ethos was based on egalitarianism and a sense of a “fair go” for all its citizens. The idea of egalitarianism was easily applied in a society that was predominantly a white European race. Australia’s citizens had for the most part come from similar cultural and ethnic backgrounds. Subsequently, the greater good for the greater majority worked because there were few sectional interests or a need to address minorities. A bill of rights was unnecessary because common law and Parliament were reflecting the interests of the majority. Therefore, it was best able to protect individual rights because it was assumed Australians shared the same interests. The only areas that may have involved some sectional interests were religion and the place of individual states within the Australian Federation. As precautions the Australian Constitution enacted in 1901 had sections to ensure that no one was discriminated against on the basis of religious observanceii and no individual was discriminated against because of the state in which they reside.iii

Although Australia did not perceive a need to establish its own bill of rights it did became signatory to a number of United Nations agreements on human rights. In 1948, Australia signed the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, then in 1954 it accepted the UN Convention relating to the status of refugees as a binding international treaty. Later, in 1973, the Australian government accepted the UN protocol relating to the status of refugees. iv

Through its adoption of international human rights treaties, Australia unwittingly nurtured two interpretations of human rights: the quasi utilitarian or majority interpretation and a more individualist/sectional or minority interpretation influenced by the United Nations. Until the late 1960s this duality in the interpretation of human rights did not result in any significant tensions. Domestically, human rights continued to be protected through decisions made in the majority and national interests, while internationally Australia conformed to the individualist/minority approach. But an increase in migration, particularly Asian migration during the 1970s and 1980s, introduced a greater number of sectional interests. From this period the political culture changed and minority interests in Australia began to challenge the notion of greater majority/national interests. Essentially, various multicultural groups and their advocates who were emerging in Australia wanted a shift from the nationalist/ majority approach to a more sectional/ individual rights approach as interpreted in international human rights treaties.

But the multicultural groups alone could not have influenced and challenged Australia’s traditional views about human rights without support from government and the business sector. During the 1980’s political leaders on both sides of the spectrum were arguing that increased immigration, particularly of Asian migrants, would better integrate Australia into the global community. In 1983, the then Foreign Minister Bill Hayden said:

Australia is changing. We're an anomaly as a European country in this part of the world. There's already a large and growing Asian population in Australia and it is inevitable in my view that Australia will become a Eurasian country... I happen to think that's desirable. That means we are becoming part of the mainstream of this region. v

Corporate Australia also advocated Asian immigration through the Committee for the Economic Development of Australia. This pro-globalisation, neo-liberal think tank was established in 1960. During the 1980s it produced reports calling for greater immigration which influenced a number of senior political figures and policy
The link between business and government support for migration along with the development of the more individual/sectional ideas about human rights are “cause and effect”. Government and business supported greater immigration which in turn further sectionalised Australia. Further sectionalisation meant the traditional majority approach to human rights had less relevance in a multicultural society because of the large number of sectional interests. For human rights to function in Australia they now needed to serve a range of individual or sectional needs. So, in terms of human rights there is no longer a consensus about majority rule, just competing interests.
During the 1980s an unarticulated alliance was formed between government, business and multicultural groups to promote immigration programmes and install multiculturalism as the new model for Australian society. To manage the change in society a more sectional approach to human rights was supported by government as multicultural groups called for clear laws to protect them from discrimination on the basis of race. This is evident during the 1980s with establishment of the Human Rights and Equal Opportunity Commission. The Commission was asked to particularly focus on dealing with allegations of race and sex discrimination and also on education and promotion of human rights and antidiscrimination policies. vii This process of education and promotion of human rights was done in the context of favouring multiculturalism as the model for Australian society.
The opposing position to multiculturalism and the development of individual/sectional human rights was the majority/nationalist approach to human rights which argued Australia was and should remain predominantly a white European nation with homogenous values and beliefs. Those who were against multiculturalism believed that immigration broke down national cohesion and loyalties.viii They argued that multiculturalism was a breeding ground for micro-nationalisms and led to a weakening of unity. ix
Australia had always held firm beliefs regarding its racial composition. In 1901 when Australia became a Federation its first substantial policy was the “White Australia policy”. This policy was designed to restrict immigration to those of European decent. Much of Australia’s national psyche was concerned with a fear that it would be invaded by Asia, either forcibly or through immigration. Australia’s anxiety about an “Asian invasion” is well documented in Australian literature. As early as the 1880s novels of Asian invasion taking over a defenceless white Australia were published with many containing “supplementary declarations that neither the Australian government nor its people realise[d] the peril at hand”. These works of fiction were designed to “shock Australian readers out of [their] complacency”.x The invasion - themed novels continued to appear regularly throughout the 20th century.
There has been a number of anti-immigration groups emerge during Australia’s history. National Action has been chosen as a historical case study to highlight the tension between human rights, nationalism and multiculturalism because it reflects the traditional view of Australian nationalism and majority based human rights. During the 1980’s National Action was also the most outspoken on multiculturalism and Asian immigration policy drawing large opposition from pro-multicultural groups.
National Action was formed in 1984. Its ideological platform favoured a protectionist approach to trade and immigration. It was reacting against globalisation and multiculturalism. National Action had identified Australia as primarily European in values and reacted against any moves to integrate Australia into Asia. It sought a truly independent Australia built on European values and traditions. National Action was opposed to what it saw as a new Australia — a nation that embodied cosmopolitan ideas which served minority interests, propagated neo-liberal economics, pursued free trade at the expense of domestic industries, used large bureaucracies and encouraged cultural relativism and the destruction of national identity.

National Action adopted a nationalist/majority approach to human rights which emphasised the good of the nation above that of the individual. For example, National Action argued that further immigration would put a strain on employment and living standards of current Australians. Essentially, National Action was arguing that an increase in Asian migration was not protecting the national interest but rather exposing Australians to the possibility of lower wages and poor working conditions. In one pamphlet the organisation declared:

Australian political parties are intent on increasing immigration. Immigration means employing people who will work in substandard conditions. Suggestion made by National Action is that the human right of fair working conditions were under threat.xi

National Action did acknowledge individual rights but with the proviso that those rights did not interfere with the national good.

In its 1980 political programme National Action acknowledged human rights but also sought to abolish class and sectional interests within Australia. National Action’s position on human rights was:

  1. All Australians have the right to live in freedom, enjoy freedom of speech, communication, worship, assembly and association in the interests of the Nation.

  1. All Australians have the right to enjoy equality before the law, enjoy privacy, enjoy equal opportunity of education, material and social fulfilment and to live in a congenial environment.

National Action also recognised the idea of religious freedom but again with a nationalist/majority proviso. It argued in favour of the “Recognition of individual’s rights to believe or not believe in matters of religious faith – as long as such expressions of opinion are not a threat to public order or morality”.xii What would constitute a threat to public order or morality would be dependent on what the majority would accept as moral. Although National Action was not insensitive to human rights it tended to view them in a majority/nationalist context: human rights were acceptable providing they did not tear at the fabric of traditional Australia and its values.

Much of National Action’s effort went into the distribution of literature questioning the motives of government multicultural policy. The group would publish pamphlets, print stickers and other material which would be distributed around urban centres. They would also graffiti walls with slogans such as “Stop the Asian invasion” or “Asians out”. In distributing literature and organising rallies, National Action argued that it was its human right to exercise freedom of speech and political association.
National Action’s campaign and the general anti Asian immigration sentiment were countered in two ways: through action by governments on the one hand and, on the other, through action by other organised interest groups.

Both Commonwealth and State governments introduced anti-discrimination legislation.  This legislation targeted:

  • racist graffiti;

  • racist speeches or statements made in public;

  • racist abuse that happens in public;

  • racist statements or remarks in a newspaper or other publications, or on the radio or television;

  • people wearing racist symbols (such as badges) or clothing with racist slogans in public;

  • racist gestures made in public; and

  • racist posters in a public place.

This legislation which was introduced through the late 1970s then further amended during the 1980s was aimed at curtailing the tactics of National Action.  Legislation was designed “to send a strong message that, in a pluralist society politically committed to multiculturalism, racist words and conduct are unacceptable, harmful, dangerous and not tolerated”.xiii For the most part National Action interpreted the Racial Discrimination Acts as attacks on fundamental human rights such as freedom of speech. National Action claimed it was under pressure from government and the newly established Human Rights Commission to cease its role in the immigration debate. National Action argued “our opinions against the Asian invasion are considered thought crimes and that it’s on the cards that we will be outlawed by amendments to the Racial Discrimination Act.”xiv

In addition to the legislative approach to curtailing the anti-immigration tactics of National Action, there was significant activity by other organised interests which formed organisations to counter the information being distributed by National Action. In 1984 a group was launched to combat racism in the workplace and community. The Combined Unions Against Racism (CUAR) was founded by Frank Walker, the NSW Minister for Youth and Community Affairs and Stewart West, the Federal Minister for Immigration and Ethnic Affairs. The CUAR comprised twenty-four trade unions including the Metal Workers Union and National Union of Students.

The CUAR planned to counter the work of National Action by distributing literature to factories and offices as well as holding public meetings to educate workers about the dangers of racism. It also supported anti-discrimination legislation. The main thrust of both government legislation and the CUAR’s campaign was the protection of human rights of minority groups which were emerging through multiculturalism. The division of ideas was clear. National Action argued immigration under multiculturalism would lead to a decline in Australia’s living standards and employment prospects while the CUAR argued that immigration wouldn’t. Meanwhile, the Federal Government argued that National Action through its protest was negatively impacting the prospects for foreign investment and tourism particularly from Asian countries.xv

The battle between National Action, the CUAR and governments was for the most part one of propaganda. For a short time it was difficult for some multiculturalists and government to get public support for their anti-discrimination laws. Journalists, particularly, had some difficulty arguing in favour of laws that would restrict freedom of speech and political association. Yet, this dilemma was soon overcome as the debate turned into violent conflict.xvi

In 1984, the Students Against Racism attacked National Action supporters handing out literature on Macquarie University’s campus in Sydney. National Action supporters were forced to leave the campus. Prior to the violence the Vice Chancellor of the University, Professor Edwin Webb, refused to bar National Action from its campus because he did not want to be seen as restricting freedom of speech. However, under pressure from student activists supporting multiculturalism, he later changed his position and barred the group on the grounds that National Action’s “policies were undesirable” and led to violence on campus.xvii

While it was pro-multicultural groups that started violent campaigns, National Action also took part in a number of intimidation techniques. After being thrown off Macquarie’s campus, National Action returned and invaded the offices of the University’s Student Council “upsetting furniture, overturning files and allegedly assaulted a staff member”.xviii In 1985, an official of the CUAR had their car fire bombed. The victim claimed it was National Action that orchestrated the attack. Although National Action denied being part of fire bomb incident,xix in 1989 it claimed responsibility for attacking the offices of the Anti-Discrimination Board in Sydney. At that rally, National Action leaders argued that further amendments to the anti-discrimination laws were restricting their freedom of speech. The legislation being introduced by the State government was perceived as muting the immigration debate. Further disruptions of meetings were conducted by National Action that year. One member was arrested by the NSW (State) police after he stormed a political meeting of the Liberal Party which was the governing party of NSW at the time and was energetically sponsoring multicultural policies and antidiscrimination laws.xx

As National Action changed its tactics from propaganda to more confrontational and violent methods, such as disrupting meetings and intimidation, it attracted greater scrutiny. National Action did not attack individual migrants but rather the institutions and individuals that were promoting multiculturalism and immigration. The media were particularly critical of National Action’s new tactics and in a number of articles described them as Nazis. Despite complaints to the Australian Press Council, National Action was unable to get any of the stories retracted. National Action then launched its “political attack” upon what it described as “the traitor class” – journalists.xxi Within a short time, the Anti Discrimination Board received complaints from journalists that they were being harassed by National Action members who were publishing the journalist’s telephone numbers and addresses in the group’s journals. Seven journalists also lodged complaints with the Human Rights Commission. The journalists reported after the publication of their residential details they received threats via mail and telephone. National Action published the addresses of journalists after its own members had their homes descended upon by the media. This tactic was also used against the police after officers raided National Action headquarters. National Action published the address of the senior police investigator who had been instructed to prepare a case against the organisation. In 1989 the violence hit its pinnacle when National Action’s leader was gaoled for ordering a shotgun attack on Eddie Funde the chief representative of the African National Congress in Australia. But this is a charge that the National Action leader denies even today.

The scope of this paper does not allow — nor does it need — further detail about the violent acts and methods undertaken by National Action and pro-multiculturalist groups nor the role of the police and politicians in banning the group. In the process, human rights were violated by all parties, even though they all claimed to be acting in the name of human rights. Pro-multicultural groups with assistance from government were able to disband National Action in the name of protecting the human rights of individuals and sectional groups. Through its intelligence agencies the Federal Government planted listening devices on the premises of National Action, sent agents to disrupt meetings and inform on members. National Action, on the other hand, argued it was defending the human rights of the majority of Australians and was having its rights of free speech and free assembly revoked. But its intimidation methods toward the end of the 1980s violated the rights of those speaking against National Action.

It is debatable how far the anti-discrimination legislation which criminalised the propaganda activities of National Action led to the group behaving in an even more militant and criminal fashion. The criminalisation of National Action either through its own doing or through racial discrimination legislation meant that it could no longer seek protection through appeals to human rights. There appears a general consensus that once an individual or group violates another’s human rights (particularly through violence) it is no longer given protection from violation of its own human rights. A high profile case in point is Nelson Mandela who sparked debate amongst members of Amnesty International in 1964. At its Canterbury congress, Amnesty International decided not to continue to support Mandela because he chose violence as a means for political change.xxii

This historical case study has aimed to mark out the how human rights were interpreted differently by traditional Australian nationalists and multiculturalists. That the traditional view was utilitarian in that it emphasised the greater good for the majority with the proviso that the majority embodies traditional Australian values and beliefs and human rights did not interfere with national cohesion. The alternative view — which is now the dominant view of human rights in Australia – is that of sectional and individual rights. During the 1980’s this view had gained currency as the dominant view because society became more multicultural, sectional and minority-focussed. This view reflects the international view of human rights, and in many respects has migrated into Australian domestic politics as immigration itself increased in Australia.

Finally, this case study has shown that the tensions between these two groups reveal not only the different interpretations of human rights but also how human rights were invoked to further a particular cause. The multiculturalists invoked the human right of eliminating racism and argued those who were against multiculturalism were racist. On the other hand, National Action’s argument against multiculturalism claimed that attempts to silence them were violating their human rights of free speech and free assembly. Even though both sides also saw themselves as fighting in the name of human rights, each group felt the most expedient way to win the struggle was to violate the other’s human rights. In many respects human rights had become a catch cry and certainly a casualty.

i Even though Aboriginal Australians had been traditional occupiers of the land, they were not viewed as citizens until the 1967 referendum. This provides further evidence that Australian citizenship was tied more to culture than residency.

ii The Commonwealth shall not make any law for establishing any religion, or for imposing any religious observance, or for prohibiting the free exercise of any religion, and no religious test shall be required as a qualification for any office or public trust under the Commonwealth.

iii A subject of the Queen, resident in any State, shall not be subject in any other State to any disability or discrimination which would not be equally applicable to him if he were a subject of the Queen resident in such other State.


 Paynder, Nick, Recent Implementation of the Refugee Convention in Australia and the Law of Accommodations To International Human Rights Treaties. Have We Gone Too Far?, Australian journal of human Rights No. 5 1995. date accessed 13th May 2008.

v Asiaweek, 19th March 1983.

vi date accessed 19th May 2008.

vii O’Neill, Nick, “A never ending journal? A history of human rights in Australia” in Human Rights: the Australian Debate, Redfern Legal Centre Publishing, Marrickville, Australia, 1987, pp12-13.

viii National Action pamphlet, “They want our Country,” 1984.

ix Donni, Eugene, “The menace of multiculturalism”, JANUS no. 2, 1984.

x Ross, Catriona, “Prolonged Symptoms Of Cultural Anxiety: The Persistence of Narratives of Asian Invasion within Multicultural Australia”, JASAL No. 5, 2006, pp.87-88.

xi National Resistance pamphlet, “Why you are out of a job…or soon will be,” 1982.

xii National Action Booklet, A Political programme for Australian National Action, 1983 p. 7.

xiii Meagher Dan, “So far so good? A critical evaluation of racial vilification laws in Australian”, Federal Law Review vol. 32 p. 226.

xiv Olszewski, Peter, Anti-Asian Mob feels the heat” The Truth, 21st January 1984.

xv Hawke, The Hon. Robert, Parliament of Australian Hansard, 5th April 1989.

xvi Sydney Morning Heral,d 8th November 1988.

xvii Sydney Morning Herald, 24th March 1984.

xviii Brown, Peter, “Racist Incidents at Macquarie University”, Jewish Times 29th March 1984.

xix Ultra: internal Bulletin of National Action, Trial by Media Special Issue, 1984.

xx Ultra: Internal Bulletin of National Action No. 57, January 1989.

xxi Sydney Morning Herald 18th October 1989, p. 7.

xxii date accessed 4th June 2008.

This paper is a work in progress and cannot be referenced or reprinted without the author’s permission.

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