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Tuesday 6 May 1997 public lecture presented by the
Australian Centre, University of Melbourne.


Dr David Day, Visiting Fellow, History, Latrobe; Author of Claiming a Continent.

Mr David Dutton, doctoral student of history, Melbourne.

Ms Vijaya Joshi, doctoral student of history, Melbourne.

Introduced and chaired by Michael Cathgart, Lecturer, Australian Studies.

"A discussion of the Australian mindset in 1901 when the Immigration Restriction Act was passed, and the mindset in the 1960s and 70s as the White Australia Policy began to crumble...(and) the impact of the White Australia Policy on our external relations, particularly in Asia."

Science was at the root of nineteenth century and early twentieth racism. Racism was the theory that some races were inferior, less intelligent, immoral or less cultured than others. In European thought, the concepts of nation and race had fused. Nationalism and racism were endemic to European society and political thought.

The "radical nationalism" existing in Australia around the time of Federation often focused on race, particularly anti-Asian and anti-indigenous racism. The centenary of Federation is also the centenary of the White Australia policy.

For Sir Edmund Barton, the first Prime Minister of Australia, the doctrine of equality did not extend to racial equality. Australia had a racially segregated labour policy. Non-whites worked in conditions where whites would not (or could not) work, e.g., hard labour in the tropics, pearl diving. The Aboriginal population had reduced from over a million to about sixty thousand since 1788, and this indigenous population was expected to die out.

A fifty word dictation test in a "prescribed" (i.e., European) language was introduced to block immigration of non-Europeans. Europeans were usually not required to take the test, while those who appeared non-European were tested in a language with which they were unfamiliar. Even shipwrecked sailors were prevented from entering Australia, and black American soldiers arriving in 1942 were initially not allowed to land.

The intention was not just to stop new arrivals, but also to exclude those already living in Australia. The dictation test was applied retrospectively and used to deport non-whites, especially the Chinese. The thirty thousand Chinese, mostly male and middle aged, were expected to disappear through aging and returns to China. To encourage this attrition, rice and opium were heavily taxed, and opium made illegal from 1909. Chinese were also limited to a few occupations.

There were ten thousand Pacific Islanders in Australia, who were the most feared non-European population. The Federal Parliament passed the Pacific Island Labourers Act, ordering recruiting to cease as of 1904 and repatriation of as many Pacific Islanders as possible by 1907. 1600 Pacific Islanders proved long residence, and were allowed to stay. Over four thousand were deported. There were also about five thousand Indians, some Japanese (who controlled the pearling industry in the north) and Malays.

A bounty was placed on excluding work in the sugar industry to white labour. The Sugar Cultivation Act 1913 stated that non-white labour would be illegal unless the worker had passed the dictation test. By 1920, sugar was dominated by white labour, proving that Europeans could work in northern Australia and survive. The population of northern Australia towns had been mainly non-white and non-indigenous. This population were restricted in their movements so that they would not mix with indigenous people for fear they would strengthen the genetic stock of the indigenous population.

Other countries recognised the racist nature of Australian policies, evidenced by diplomatic comments from Japan and India. In 1942, the Australian government was more concerned to promote White Australia than the war effort. Washington was cabled with the request that no black troops be sent.

America rejected this request and sent a mixed race force.

The White Australia policy arose from a Commonwealth government objective of creating and maintaining a monoracial Australia, termed "racial integrity". Although there were other racist policies in the earlier years, by the 1950s, this usually meant only restrictions on immigration. It was the most important and lasting policy adopted in 1901, described as providing "an impetus to our national life".

Some people considered that some races were not capable of participating in democracy, and had conflicting views which would interfere with the functioning of Australian democracy. Racism was supported by the labour movement (trade unions and the ALP) due to industrial issues. It was feared that immigrant labour would undermine wage levels, work conditions and the standard of living, and create a subordinate class.

The White Australia policy was also supported on the grounds of domestic social harmony. It was feared that separate "alien" communities would harbour a fifth column for foreign powers, as well as producing social division and conflict. There was also the concern, based on white supremacism, to avoid imperfection in white racial quality.

In the 1920s and 30s, racial discrimination became opposed in world opinion, particularly racial discrimination which was not considered to serve a social purpose. In the 1940s and 50s, the economic and standard of living defense was countered by the Industrial Award system. Immigration policy was more about allowing controlled numbers of skilled workers than about huge numbers entering. International accusations of racism were avoided by constantly changing terminology.

The White Australia policy was defended as a protection for the British institutions which formed the basic structure of Australian government and society. It was claimed by Prime Minister Arthur Caldwell that different races existing side by side had always led to conflict. It was argued that Australians were too intolerant to cope with non-Europeans.

In the 1960s, Australia and the USA disagreed strongly about race relations. Criticism increased due to post-WW2 outrage over the racism of Nazi Germany, and the civil rights and equality campaigns in the USA.

Harold Holt, Prime Minister in 1966/7, admitted the racial basis of the White Australia policy. He conceded it was indefensible on economic grounds, but claimed it was politically impracticable to remove such an entrenched policy. Culture had become a bigger issue than race. Racial assumptions had collapsed, and the White Australia policy was losing support.

It has been suggested that our current policy of multiculturalism is based on fear of what opinions our Asian neighbours and the world would otherwise have of Australia. The White Australia policy produced difficult relations with other nations, and made negotiations for defence and trade difficult. Any new racist policy would lead to a similar or worse situation.

This summary copyright© Evan Ling

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