(Grantlee Kieza, The Sunday Mail)
NOT long after the greatest cataclysm the modern world had seen, this newspaper reported on Queensland’s efforts to help with a refugee crisis that saw millions of people facing death, disease and famine.
The terror and the carnage of World War II was still alive in the scarred minds of the new residents at the Wacol Migrant Centre when it opened in November 1949.
The Sunday Mail reported the first intake of 650 migrant women and children in the camp had “already converted their former army huts into comfortable living quarters’’ and that “the Department of Immigration has ambitious plans for making it a self-supporting community’’.
Kindergartens with fully-equipped playgrounds would soon be established.
“A school within the camp will be opened for children between five and 14 years. Teachers have been chosen for their ability in languages. They will teach the children elementary English, Australian coinage, and Queensland geography.’’
The camp was established in an age when Ben Chifley’s Labor government promoted the slogan “Populate or Perish’’ with fears that Australia was too big and too sparsely settled to withstand invasion.
At the official opening of Wacol, immigration minister Arthur Calwell said Australia needed to “grow strong rapidly if we are to hold this country for ourselves and our descendants’’.
There was so much Australia and so few Australians.
In the early years at Wacol, which closed in 1987, women and children lived at the camp while the men laboured around Queensland for two years to repay their passage to freedom.
One of the residents in the early days was Henry Palaszczuk, whose parents were in similar circumstances to the 50 million refugees that wars have produced in today’s world.
Henry was born in 1947 in Germany to Polish refugees and came to Australia aged three, living first at a migrant camp at Greta outside Newcastle, and then at Wacol.
On Wednesday, I was at the launch of an intriguing new book compiled by Melbourne writer Sophie Church that looks at aspects of Australian history and the way ahead.
The book is called Goondeen, an Aboriginal word for “wise man”, and it centres on three wise Queensland men: Henry Palaszczuk; Everald Compton, who is a tireless worker for the aged community and advocate of the inland rail; and the Aboriginal elder, Albert Holt. The book was launched by Henry’s daughter Queensland Premier Annastacia Palaszczuk.
For a long time, Albert felt like a refugee in his own country. It wasn’t until 1967 when a national referendum recognised Australia’s first people in the census that he came to be regarded as a human being in his own land.
As a young person he lived in terror of being torn from his family, like so many other young indigenous men, and sent to the notorious Palm Island settlement, a virtual prison camp for Aboriginal people. Henry grew up at the Wacol camp before moving to Inala. His parents had only a smattering of English and from a very early age he was the interpreter when his parents went shopping. By the age of 10 he was doing his father’s tax returns.
Henry became a great migrant success story, first as a schoolteacher and then as a Labor politician with more than 20 years in the Queensland Parliament and a variety of ministerial portfolios.
Refugees might be a hot political topic, Everald Compton told me at the launch, but it was Henry and the 182,000 like him who came to Australia fleeing hunger and terror just after World War II who repaid Australia by making it a better and more compassionate place.