An eminent Australian historian predicted Australia's current ethnic problems

Aghast at their television screens as they watched Sydney's race riots, how many Australians cast their minds back 20 years to remember Geoffrey Blainey's thoughtful warning that such horrors might happen? Happen, that is, unless we reconsidered our program of almost indiscriminate immigration and the accompanying madness of multiculturalism. I suppose very few viewers - or newspaper readers, or radio listeners - made the connection: if a week is a long time in politics, two decades is almost an ice age in the public memory span of history. Yet warned we were, and little heed we paid.

In mid-1984 Blainey, who then held the Ernest Scott chair of history at Melbourne University and was dean of the arts faculty, gave an address to the Rotary Club of Warrnambool, Victoria. This was hardly a commanding forum; there was no TV or radio coverage. Blainey's themes, quietly and soberly presented, were simply these: Australia each year was taking in migrants at a rate faster than the national fabric could absorb; many migrants were coming from backgrounds so starkly different from Australian norms that prospects of a social fit into our community might lie a long way off.

He went on to say that should a time come when ordinary Australians began to feel crowded or pressured by new arrivals, resentment might soon end the ready acceptance upon which migrants hitherto knew they could rely. Blainey's position was reasonable almost to the point of being obvious and appealed to the commonsense of anybody with worldly experience, and with some acquaintance with wider human nature, of whatever colour or culture.

For those who held a different view, the way was surely open to civilised debate with this most urbane and good natured of scholars. No such thing! Almost as if he had set a match to dry grass in summer, Blainey's few sensible words from quiet, coastal Warrnambool ignited an Australia-wide bushfire of howling criticism. The arsonists fanning the flames were his colleagues at the University of Melbourne's history department

On June 19, 1984, 23 academics published in Melbourne's The Age a letter that two decades later still holds some sad record for unctuous academic bilge, expressed with unprickable pomposity. Drawing in their skirts and elevating their fastidious nostrils, they disowned their own professor, saying in effect that Australia's immigration program was a subject too delicate for him to be allowed to discuss, though clearly it was OK for them. By inescapable inference, Blainey was a racist.

The issue soon surged beyond animated controversy to become a full-scale witch-hunt. There were disorders on campus, and threatened disorders if this vile man should be allowed to go on teaching. Students organised boycotts of his lectures. His colleagues hung him out to dry, at least some of them slyly conniving in the wider campus hoo-ha. Acting to perfection the part of Pontius Pilate, the university gave the mob its head. In this impossible situation, Blainey eventually resigned from his chair and Melbourne University lost one of its most distinguished, original and publicly accessible scholars. (A few years later it conferred on him the nowadays rather perfunctory distinction of emeritus).

To reread today the 23 signatures on the letter of 1984 is a curious experience. Going down the list, the mind stops repeatedly to ask: "Who? Who?" They resemble little dogs snapping at the heels of a stately thoroughbred.

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