Former Liberal leader John Hewson has accused the Coalition of "cheap political arse-covering" over attempts to link Malcolm Fraser's 1970s immigration policies to criminal gang activity and Islamic radicalisation in Australia today.
Immigration Minister Peter Dutton attacked the Fraser government's policies on Thursday, saying they were partly to blame for Australia's struggle with foreign fighters travelling to international conflict zones and suburban violence linked to newly arrived communities.
Mr Dutton said many Australians fighting in the Middle East were the children or grandchildren of migrants who settled during the 1970s and 1980s - an apparent reference to the more than 16,000 people who came from Lebanon in the wake of the 1976 civil war.
"The reality is Malcolm Fraser did make mistakes in bringing some people in the 1970s and we're seeing that today," he told Sky News.
"We need to be honest in having that discussion. There was a mistake made."
Mr Dutton said recent gang activity involving young people from Victoria's Sudanese community was a result of "weak" law and order policies from the state Labor government.
Dr Hewson, who led the Liberal Party from 1990 until 1994, slammed Mr Dutton's comments and called on Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull to show leadership.
"I am sure successive governments have made similar 'mistakes'... and probably so too with the present government, that will emerge in the future," he said.
"But, why make this point now? Is this a cheap attempt to appeal to the anti-immigration, anti-refugee movement?
"Time for forward-looking leadership - time to rise above the mire."
During the Fraser government, as many as 200,000 migrants arrived in Australia from Asia, as part of policies focused on multiculturalism and resettlement.
Plans for Lebanese refugees to come to Australia in the Fraser years prompted warnings from immigration authorities about the risk of temporary changes to eligibility standards.
Cabinet records from the period, released in 2007, show officials believed many lacked qualities considered important to integration in Australia, while some were viewed as unskilled, illiterate and of poor character.
The Fraser government also resettled about 50,000 Vietnamese refugees and boat people in Australia, a key legacy of Mr Fraser's tenure as prime minister.
Before his death in 2015, he defended the policies and rejected links between refugee arrivals and racial tensions in contemporary Australia.
The comments came as a newly established parliamentary inquiry prepares to consider resettlement outcomes for migrants to Australia, including community services, the importance of English language skills and whether existing processes adequately assess resettlement prospects.
Opposition Leader Bill Shorten said he supported the inquiry but accused Mr Dutton of trying to distract from the Coalition's own failures on migration.
"Immigration has been part of the Australian development," he said on Friday.
"We've always got to make sure we get the balance right, we've got to get the right mix of skilled migrants and family reunion but I think Mr Dutton is trying to distract from having some discussion about bagging a former Liberal prime minister."
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