Saturday, March 24, 2012


by: Paul Maley
From: The Australian
March 23, 2012 12:00AM

FORMER Labor prime minister Paul Keating has savaged the tone of the asylum-seeker debate, saying policies over boatpeople are built "on race" and are hurting Australia's standing in Asia.

In a swipe at his political successors, Mr Keating said there were "racial undertones" to the debate.

"I often used to say as prime minister, when they were handing out continents, not many people got one, but we did and there's only 20 million of us," Mr Keating told the Asia Society in Sydney on Wednesday night.

"And yet we're complaining about 6000 people coming by boat and we want to push all of them away."

Mr Keating, who is known for his bombast as well as his Asia-centric view on foreign policy, said Australians demonstrated no "generosity of spirit" when it came to asylum-seekers.

Instead, they complained about the negative social effects asylum-seekers supposedly brought with them.

This, Mr Keating said, was damaging Australia's reputation in Asia at a time when economic and military weight was shifting from the West to the East.

"Racism is a form of sickness and when a country starts building policies on race, or racial undertones, then you know you don't have much of a future, especially when you've got three billion Asians around you and we're 20 million," Mr Keating said. "You wouldn't think it was a winning policy, but some people in this country do."

It was not clear who Mr Keating had in mind when he referred to policies built on race.

Mr Keating's office declined to clarify his remarks yesterday, saying the former prime minister was away and not available for comment.

However, it was not the first time Mr Keating has weighed into the asylum debate.

In October, he accused the Howard government of abusing the system of mandatory detention established in 1992 when Mr Keating was prime minister.

Mr Keating said mandatory detention of non-citizens was conceived as a way of checking the bona fides of non-citizens and for performing basic health and security checks.

"It was sort of a way station," Mr Keating said.

"What Howard did was turn it into essentially a quasi-penal structure. This was never our intention and we never did it."

Mr Keating, who has long advocated a deeper engagement with Asia, said he favoured onshore processing of refugees.