In 1992 the immigration minister Gerry Hand argued that there was grave potential for Australia to become an easy target for spontaneous mass movement unless the Keating government introduced mandatory detention of asylum seekers.
In an echo of later arguments used by the Howard government, Hand said there was immense migratory pressure worldwide in the early 90s and the asylum route was being increasingly used as a way around immigration processes.
“If Australia does not maintain strict border controls and regulate who is allowed into the Australian community, there is a grave potential for Australia to become an easy target for spontaneous mass movement,” Hand argued in a submission to cabinet in April 1992.
He noted an increase in boat arrivals – nine boats had arrived carrying 438 people in just over two years before the cabinet discussion.
The 1992-93 cabinet documents released by the National Archives also show the Keating government was trying to resolve the backlog of refugee applications after the decision by Bob Hawke to let Chinese students stay in Australia after the Tiananmen Square massacre in 1989.
By the end of 1991, there were 23,081 refugee applications awaiting processing, including 16,512 from China.
While the documents show the submissions, they do not record the responses or the debate within cabinet, apart from the final decision. During this time, the cabinet agreed to reaffirm the 50-year rule on the cabinet notebooks that record such debates.
But the submissions marked a distinct change of approach by the Australian government, with cabinet agreeing in the same year to cut the annual migrant intake for 1992-93 from 92,000 places to 80,000.
This approach was also reflected in the crackdown on asylum seeker applications. Hand noted that China was emerging as a major source of illegal migration and said US reports had exposed multimillion-dollar people-smuggling rackets, which were causing the increase in asylum seeker claims. He said between 1983 and 1991 there had been a 730% increase in claims in 16 countries.
The Keating cabinet agreed to change the migration laws to enable all people who arrived by boat between 20 November 1989 and 1 December 1992 to be held in custody for no more than nine months. It also allowed for those who were refused refugee status to be removed from Australia.
Hand argued that it was “undesirable” for asylum seekers to be released into the community because soon other factors would influence their claims, such as marriage or other “compassionate” grounds. He was concerned the government would lose control over asylum seekers and they would “disappear” into their communities.
“I propose that there be an effective legislative mechanism which allows for these persons to be subject to a single custodial arrangement,” he told cabinet in a submission.
Hand was concerned that courts would find the government detention invalid in some cases.
“Due to the complicated circumstances surrounding the arrival of the boats, we cannot rule out the possibility that a court might ultimately find custody invalid in some cases and order the person’s release,” the minister wrote. “Of equal concern is the possibility of a court simply exercising its general discretion and releasing these people and others, in the future, into the community.”
Hand wanted – and got – powers to ensure that if a court ordered the release of asylum seekers before the Migration Act was changed, the government would be able to take the person back into custody.
The minister also instituted changes designed to increase the efficiency of asylum seeker processing. Hand’s issue was that, while he needed to clear the backlog of claims, he felt that a group decision on the Chinese students might increase the numbers claiming asylum from China and contravene Australia’s international obligations.
The prime minister’s department and Treasury argued against this view, mostly on the grounds of cost and administrative burden.
In commenting on Hand’s submission, the prime minister’s department wrote: “This department is not convinced by the argument that such a decision would increase Australia’s vulnerability to boat arrivals from the PRC [People’s Republic of China].
“The possibility of this has always been present and did not occur at the time the 20 June 1989 PRC group was given 4 year TEPs [temporary entry permits].”
• Cabinet records for 1992 and 1993 held by the National Archives of Australia reach the open access period on 1 January 2017. Information about the cabinet records and copies of key cabinet documents, including selected submissions and decisions, are available on the archives’ website