Speaking to an audience of 500-600 people in Central Hall in Fitzroy on 11 October 2011, Bishop Vincent Long van Nguyen spoke movingly of his experience as a boat person among the several million people fleeing Vietnam after the communist take-over in 1975.
Recently appointed a Catholic auxiliary bishop in Melbourne, he described the boat journey, the hardships, thirst, deaths, the pillage by pirates and the perils of a small crowded boat on the open ocean. He thanked Australia for welcoming him and 250,000 other Vietnamese to settle with freedom in this country. He especially thanked the former Prime Minister, Mr Malcolm Fraser, for the principled decision to welcome the Vietnamese refugees as a matter of national honour.
Bishop Long contrasted this honourable reception with the treatment boat people now receive, with many in remote, harsh detention centres for prolonged periods, resulting in further trauma and distress.
Mr Malcolm Fraser explained why he had been so determined to open Australia to Vietnamese refugees, and lamented that the bi-partisan consensus on refugee policies had been shattered. The earlier bi-partisanship had been crucial in allowing the gradual abandonment of the White Australia policy, and helped Australia develop as a vibrant multicultural society. As a result, our country was strengthened and able to play a more confident role in an increasingly cosmopolitan world. He highlighted how the Vietnamese had settled very constructively into Australia, and were making an exceptional contribution to the common wellbeing.
The appreciative audience gave Mr Fraser prolonged applause, indicating their strong support for more humane policies towards boat people and refugees, particularly for women and children.
This event was held under the title of the Rerum Novarum lecture, an annual event in Melbourne to commemorate Pope Leo XIII’s great social letter of that title, known in English as “The Condition of the Working Class”. It began the modern stream of Catholic social teaching of the popes. The night was organised by the Commission for Justice, Development and Peace and the Catholic Migrant and Refugee Office of Melbourne.