Monday, June 2, 2014

The White Australia Policy

During the nineteenth century, Australians defined themselves as a British outpost in an alien region. In the first half of the nineteenth century, labour shortages were a major problem for Australian economic development. Some believed that Chinese ‘coolie labour’ could turn “wilderness into gardens”.[1] Pastoralists also lobbied hard for cheap labour. However, the arrival of significant numbers of Chinese, as indentured labourers after 1848 and as prospectors on the goldfields after 1851, caused increasing friction with Anglo-Celtic miners.[2]

Anti-Chinese sentiment flared again in the 1870s with new gold discoveries in Queensland. At this time, one in seven settlers in Queensland was Chinese.[3] Determined to put a halt to the influx of Chinese immigrants, by the late 1880s all Australian colonies had banned Chinese immigration. Concerns about Japanese immigration also rose as Japan opened up to the world in the late nineteenth century.[4] White Australia’s increasingly hostile attitude to Asia and Asian immigration in the latter part of the nineteenth century restricted the growth of trade with East Asia, as did the preference for British imports and exports.

The Immigration Restriction Act 1901 – the White Australia Policy’s (WAP) official title – was the first major piece of legislation passed by the newly federated Australian Parliament.[5] Hostility to Asia and Asian immigration pervaded all levels of Australian society.[6] The British, however, were concerned about the WAP’s direct banning of non-white immigration and Japanese sensitivities to such overtly racist exclusion policies. These concerns led the Australian Government to introduce a dictation test for new immigrants, which after 1905 could be conducted in any European language, just in case the potential immigrant was proficient in English.[7]

It is important to remember that from 1902 until 1921, Japan was a British ally. Britain saw a formal alliance as one way to solve its strategic problems in the Pacific as its global reach declined. It provided a temporary solution to Britain’s anxiety about Russian expansionism and allowed them “to do without a fleet in the Pacific”.[8] Australia, however, did not share Britain’s faith. As one commentator remarked at the time, “Japan has ulterior motives. Her policy can be summed up in one word – expansion ... Japan has no love to the white man, not even of her British ally”.[9]

Events at the 1919 Paris Peace Conference at the end of World War I further antagonised Australian-Japanese relations. Japan wanted a racial equality clause inserted into the new League of Nations Covenant but Australian Prime Minister Billy Hughes saw the clause as a threat to White Australia and fought to have it rejected. Hughes won the day, despite the fact that the British made considerable effort to placate the Japanese. Hughes also resisted US President Wilson’s plans to allow the League of Nations to be responsible for German New Guinea because he did not want Japanese immigration to an island just off the coast of Australia. After the war Hughes became increasingly concerned about Japan’s intentions and dismissed British reassurances:
It is a long way from Tokio to Whitehall, but we are with a stone throw. I desire again to emphasise that our fleet is practically without fuel, and in any case quite unequal to meet Japanese with any hope of success; that there are no British squadrons in eastern waters fit to do so; that we profoundly distrust Japan; that the experience of Port Arthur shows she strikes first and declares war afterwards; present belligerent mode evident in attitude to Shantung; and as you doubtless know, her strong animosity has been roused by our opposition to her desire for an equal treatment of their [nationals] and their entry to Australia.[10]
While Hughes was eventually shown to be correct about Japanese intentions, his fears did not translate into greater effort to build up Australian defence.

The defeat of Japan in World War II provided an end to Japan’s hegemonic ambitions and an end to one source of Australian anxiety, although many Australians saw Japan’s rise to power as a warning for the future. The victory of the communists in China in 1949 combined an old fear with a new one - communism. Labor Immigration Minister Arthur Calwell utilised an earlier slogan, “populate or perish” and proclaimed that Australia had “twenty-five years at most to populate this country before the yellow races are down on us”.[11]

Despite the perceived desperate need for a larger population, Australia’s Anglo-Celtic policy-makers continued to discriminate against non-white immigrants. Post-war immigration continued to take place under the rubric of White Australia, officially defined by the phrase: “In pursuance of the established policy, the general practice is not to permit Asiatics or other coloured persons to enter Australia for the purpose of settling permanently.”[12]

The WAP was a major impediment to Australian-Asian relations. After replacing Menzies as Prime Minister, Harold Holt removed discriminatory elements of Australian immigration law and between 1966 and 1971 non-European migration increased from 746 a year to 2696. Although the Whitlam Government reduced overall immigration as a response to the economic downturn, it legislated to enable all migrants to become citizens after three years and instructed all overseas immigration posts to disregard race as a criterion for settlement. The Fraser Government removed all vestiges of the policy from the statute books and allowed the entry of a large number of Vietnamese refugees.[13] This influx of Vietnamese was the first significant migration of Asians to Australia since the nineteenth century.

The early years of the Howard government also saw the rise of Pauline Hanson and a reinvigoration of a virulent strain of anti-Asian sentiment. Hanson argued that “Australia was in danger of being swamped by Asians”. The failure of Howard to criticise these anti-Asian views attracted widespread condemnation in the region and reinforced the perception of his government’s downgrading of Asian engagement.[14] Hanson garnered support among some disillusioned white Australians, especially those in regional areas, because she offered a return to the past on Asian immigration, attitudes to aborigines, industry protection, and welfare policy.

While racism obviously remains rife throughout the Australian community (as it does throughout the world), the rise of Hanson shows just how far mainstream politics has shifted away from White Australia. It is no longer acceptable to be overtly racist or to argue that discriminatory immigration policies are acceptable. Nevertheless, attitudes to and policies towards asylum-seekers show that fears continue to exist about immigration and about border control.

Today, Australia is a truly multicultural country. According to the ABS:
One-third of Western Australia’s population were born overseas, the highest proportion of any state or territory according to new figures released today by the Australian Bureau of Statistics (ABS) … People born in the United Kingdom (256,100), New Zealand (81,000) and South Africa (39,800) were the largest groups of migrants, accounting for almost half (48 per cent) of Western Australia’s overseas born population in 2011 … Victoria had the second highest proportion of migrants at 29 per cent born overseas. The largest migrant groups were those born in the United Kingdom (228,400), India (126,800) and China (112,800) …

In June 2013, Australia’s population included 6.4 million migrants (28 per cent of the population). Over the past decade the number of people born overseas who are now living in Australia has increased by 1.7 million people …

People born in the United Kingdom remained the largest group of migrants with over 1.2 million calling Australia home, followed by those from New Zealand (608,800), China (427,600) and India (369,700).

[1] S. H. Roberts (1935) “History of the Contacts between the Orient and Australia” in I. Clunies Ross (ed.) Australia and the Far East: Diplomatic and Trade Relations, Sydney, Angus and Robertson and the Australian Institute of International Affairs, pp. 3-4.
[2] By the late 1850s, there were 42,000 Chinese in Victoria alone. Ibid., p. 6.
[3] Ibid., p. 7.
[4] Ibid., pp. 22-3.
[5] For a copy of the Act see It is important to note that the term “White Australia Policy” was never officially used.
[6] Edmund Barton (1901) Commonwealth Parliamentary Debates, 26 September, p.5233, cited in ABC Television (2001) “Episode 2 Transcript Rise and Fall of White Australia”, 100 Years: The Australian Story. <>
[7] Cited in ABC Television, “Episode 2”.
[8] Frederic Eggleston (1914) “Naval Policy and the Pacific Question”, Round Table, 9, in W. Macmahon Ball (1969) Australia and Japan: Documents and Readings in Australian History, Melbourne, Thomas Nelson, p. 14.
[9] Louis Esson (1908) “Japanese Imperialism”, The Lone Hand, Oct 1st, p.617ff, cited in ABC Television (2001) “Episode 5 Farewell Great and Powerful Friends”, 100 Years: The Australian Story. <>
[10] Cited in Kim Beazley (2010) “Nervous about Nippon”, Australian Literary Review, 3 February. <>.
[11] Alison Broinowski, (1992) The Yellow Lady: Australian Impressions of Asia, Melbourne, Oxford University Press, p. 11. Calwell maintained that he was not a racist and that his statement that “Two Wongs don’t make a White” had been misconstrued.
[12] Dyster and Meredith, Australia in the Global Economy, p. 210.
[13] Department of Immigration and Citizenship, “Abolition of the ‘White Australia’ Policy”, Immigration Fact Sheet No. 8. <>
[14] Paul Kelly (1997) “The Asian Imperative”, The Australian, 10 May.

Video Resources

White Australia Policy 1960s News

Immigration Nation: The White Australia Policy

100 Years the Australian Story: Rise and Fall of White Australia (this is a link to the first part - follow links for the rest of the documentary)

Dept of Immigration and Border Protection: Fact Sheet 8 – Abolition of the 'White Australia' Policy

End of the White Australia Policy

Australian Immigration Timeline 

Immigration Restriction Act 1901

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