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Contributors to public debate about Australia’s asylum seeker policies regularly deploy representations of the past to justify or condemn present-day policies. Refugee advocates might talk about the Fraser government’s “exemplary” response to boat people or trace the origins of Operation Sovereign Borders to the Immigration Restriction Act 1901. The government, on the other hand, often tries to contextualise the detention of asylum seekers by invoking Australia’s “proud” humanitarian record. Historians are called upon to critically examine the use of history in public debate. They are also expected to provide contestants with useable histories (proving or disproving, for example, that Malcolm Fraser managed to convince the Australian public that Indochinese asylum seekers arriving by boat did not pose a threat).


In my talk, I will sketch the outlines of a historical practice that is not reactive and does not take the present as its point of departure, and argue for histories that are relevant without being useful.


Klaus Neumann has written about cultures and pasts in the Pacific Islands, New Zealand, Australia and Europe. He is the author of six books, including three about Australian responses to asylum seekers, refugees and other non-citizens: Refuge Australia, winner of the 2004 Human Rights Award for non-fiction; In the Interest of National Security, winner of a 2007 NSW Premier’s History Award; and Across the Seas, winner of the 2016 CHASS Australia Prize. He is about to start a new project about local responses to refugees in Germany. He is professor of history at Deakin University.

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