White Australia policy

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This badge from 1906 shows the use of the expression "White Australia" at that time

The White Australia Policy, the policy of excluding all non white people from the Australian continent, was the official policy of all governments and all mainstream political parties in Australia from the 1890s to the 1950s, and elements of the policy survived until the 1970s. Although the expression “White Australia Policy” was never in official use, it was common in political and public debate throughout the period. It was a form of hidden discrimination.


Origins of the Policy

The origin of the policy can be traced back to the 1850s when large numbers of Chinese immigrated to Australia during the gold rushes. The Anglo-Australian population resented Chinese who were undercutting white labour prices, and also disliked some Chinese cultural practices, there were several race riots. In response, the newly self-governing colonies introducing restrictions on Chinese immigration. By 1888 Chinese were excluded from all the Australian colonies, although those Chinese who were already in Australia were not deported. Prime Minister Edmund Barton stated that "The doctrine of the equality of man was never intended to apply to the equality of the Englishman and the Chinaman."

Another source of the policy was opposition to labourers from Melanesia (known pejoratively as "kanakas") in the sugar-cane fields of Queensland. A justification for the importation of kanakas to Queensland was the theory, commonly held by medical specialists, that European men were physiologically unsuited to work in the tropics. Many of the Kanakas were indentured labour who were brought into Australia for a fixed period on low wages. It is probable that the availability of a low cost and relatively docile work force was a significant reason for the importation of the Kanakas. There is also evidence that some of the Kanakas had been forcibly removed from their homes in a practice known as "blackbirding." The leaders of Australia were determined not to follow the mistake of America. The desire to stamp out this human trafficking, and to prevent the importation of further non-European labour, was one of the principal motives of the Federation movement of the 1890s. Around 7,000 Islanders were subsequently deported. Afterward the government and the trade union made sure that only white labourers were allowed to work in the field.

The main rationale of the policy was to keep Australia racially pure. "I am prepared to do all that is necessary to ensure that Australia shall be free for all time from the contamination and the degrading influence of inferior races." (Commonwealth Parliamentary Debates, 12th Sept 1901 p.4845) The trade unions and their political party, the Labor Party, were the driving forces for White Australia. Chris Watson, the leader of the Labor Party stated that "The objection I have to the mixing of these coloured people with the white people of Australia - although I admit it is to a large extent tinged with considerations of an industrial nature - lies...in the possibility and probability of racial contamination." It was widely believed that racial purity was essential for social and political stability. "The unity of Australia is nothing, if that does not imply a united race. A united race not only means that its members can intermix, intermarry and associate without degradation on either side, but implies one inspired by the same ideas..." (Alfred Deakin, Commonwealth Parliamentary Debates, 12 September 1901, p.4807). See Stolen Generation for other events related to the notion of racial purity in Australia.

The Policy in practice

In 1901, the new Federal Parliament, as its first piece of legislation, passed the Immigration Restriction Act to "place certain restrictions on immigration and... for the removal... of prohibited immigrants". Early drafts of the Act explicitly banned non-Europeans from migrating to Australia. But objections from the British government, which feared that such a measure would offend British subjects in India and Britain's allies in Japan, caused the Barton government to remove this wording. Instead, a "dictation test" was introduced as a device for excluding unwanted immigrants. Immigration officials were given the power to exclude any person who failed to pass a 50-word dictation test in any European language.

Australia was not the only nation to have a discriminatory immigration policy. The United States, Canada and New Zealand also had racially restrictive immigration policies in the 19th and early 20th centuries. At this time many people believed that there were deep and innate differences between races, and that their own race was superior to all other races. Many Japanese believed this as strongly as did Europeans. However, it should be noted that these racist views were common but not the dominant political ideology at the time. The acceptance of slavery was long gone in Europe. At the Paris Peace Conference at the end of World War I, Japan attended the conference with the explicit intention of having a racial equality clause included in the League of Nations Charter. It was Australian Prime Minister Billy Hughes who vehemently opposed the proposition. Hughes recognised that such a clause would be threat to White Australia and made it clear to Lloyd George that he would leave the conference if the clause was adopted. When the proposal failed Hughes reported in the Australian parliament, "The White Australia is yours. You may do with it what you please, but at any rate, the soldiers have achieved the victory and my colleagues and I have brought that great principle back to you from the conference, as safe as it was on the day when it was first adopted." Australia was one of few countries who had race as a dominant political ideology at the time.

Fears about Asian immigration were based on the fact that in 1901 the Australian continent had a population of 3.7 million, and was a short distance from countries where hundreds of million of people lived in conditions of great poverty. Many believed that these people would "swamp" European Australia if allowed to do so. The unions also believed that large numbers of workers might be imported from Asia to undercut Australia's high wages if immigration was not restricted. This was not an unfounded belief - many employers said openly that they wished to do just that. Arthur Calwell, who retired as Labor leader in 1967, was the last major Australian politician to publicly express adherence to the White Australia policy.

The White Australia policy retained almost unanimous public and political support until the late 1940s. After World War II opinion began to shift. The deportation of Indonesians and Filipinos who had arrived during the war as refugees aroused protests. Some of the refugees were allowed to stay, and Japanese women who had married Australian servicemen were also admitted. The revelation of the crimes of the Holocaust in Europe had the effect of making racism less acceptable, as did political changes such as the struggle for independence in India.

Abolition of the Policy

Under the 1950 Colombo Plan, students from Asian countries were admitted to study at Australian universities. This helped break down racial attitudes. This trend continued when in 1957 non-whites with 15 years' residence in Australia were allowed to become citizens. The Migration Act of 1958 abolished the dictation test and introduced a simpler system for entry.

After a review of the non-European policy in March 1966, Immigration Minister Hubert Opperman announced applications for migration would be accepted from well-qualified people on the basis of their suitability as settlers, their ability to integrate readily and their possession of qualifications positively useful to Australia.

At the same time, the Holt Liberal government decided a number of ‘temporary resident’ non-Europeans, who were not required to leave Australia, could become permanent residents and citizens after five years (the same as for Europeans).

The effective end of the White Australia policy is usually dated to 1973, when the Whitlam Labor government implemented a series of amendments preventing the enforcement of racial aspects of the immigration law. These amendments legislated that all migrants, of whatever origin, be eligible to obtain citizenship after three years of permanent residence and ratified all international agreements relating to immigration and race. The 1975 Racial Discrimination Act made the use of racial criteria for any official purpose illegal.

It was not until the Fraser government's review of immigration law in 1978 that all selection of prospective migrants based on country of origin was entirely removed from official policy. Currently, a large number of Australia's immigrants are from non-white majority countries such as China and India, though New Zealand and the United Kingdom remain the two largest single sources of immigrants.

Today advocacy of racial discrimination in migration is openly expressed only by fringe racist groups, although undoubtedly some fear and dislike of non-European migrants persists in some sections of Australian society. In recent years the focus of this sentiment has shifted from people of South/East Asian origin to people of Arab and/or Islamic origin or culture. Many people view the success of Pauline Hanson and the current Australian immigration policy of Prime Minister John Howard to be symptoms of the White Australia policy reasserting itself.




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