The current Australian Government and many refugee advocates claim that Australia’s response to refugees was traditionally generous. The paper examines this claim by analysing five cases: the Government’s response to German sailors jumping ship in the late 1930s; the admission of displaced persons in the late 1940s; the recruitment of migrants in Trieste in the mid-1950s; the so-called Portuguese deserters case in 1961-62; and the Australian response to West Papuans seeking asylum in the Territory of Papua and New Guinea in the 1960s. The paper suggests that it is useful to juxtapose past and present Australian responses to refugees and asylum seekers. It argues that the humanitarian argument (rather than utilitarian reasoning) ought to be the key argument in the debate about Australia’s response to refugees. But since that argument is no longer endorsed by the Government, appeals to the citizens’ personal sense of responsibility have become more effective than appeals to the policy makers’ or Australia’s collective conscience.