Six days after the Tiananmen Square massacre, then prime minister Bob Hawke wept with hundreds of Chinese students and other mourners at a memorial service at Parliament House.
Australia had been wrestling with refugee issues since the end of the Vietnam War and its impact on immigration policy.
But Hawke’s tears ushered in new sympathy for refugees, one more conditioned by human rights.
But the minister for immigration Robert Ray told cabinet told the sudden influx of 16,500 Chinese nationals to Australia – and nearly half of them ‘‘overstayers’’ – would blow the refugee allocation intake of 14,000 places to pieces.
He anticipated other groups would push to be regarded the same as the Chinese.
‘‘The Kurds, Afghans and Lebanese have already reacted with hostility,’’ he said.
But Hawke’s tears carried the day.
The previous year a group chaired by Professor Stephen Fitzgerald to advise on immigration policies stressed the need for a high proportion of skilled, entrepreneurial and youthful immigrants.
It downplayed the importance of multiculturalism, and Ray warned cabinet of likely public criticism of the new approach and recommendations.
Ethnic communities feared the consequences of Fitzgerald’s economic thrust, Ray said. The two streams of immigration – family reunion and ‘‘a response to economic imperatives’’ – were not logically contradictory, he said.
The only way the immigration program could reverse the ebbing community support over recent years was if it was presented in terms of a mature economy needing skilled labour, cabinet was told.
That message, however, would not prove to be the panacea required, either with what Fitzgerald identified as the custodians of the values of ‘‘older generation Australians’’ or with the new ethnic communities.