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White Australia policy

The White Australia Policy, the policy of excluding all non-European 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.

The origin of the policy can be traced back to the 1850s when large numbers of Chinese came to Australia during the gold rushes. The Anglo-Australian population resented the industriousness and frugality of the Chinese, which enabled them to undercut "white" labour, and also disliked some Chinese cultural practises. 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.

Another source of the policy was opposition to the importation of labourers from Melanesia (known as "kanakas") to work in the sugar-cane fields of Queensland). Some of this opposition was based on humanitarian concerns for the conditions of near-slavery in which the Kanakas worked, but much of it was economic and social. The desire to stamp out the Kanaka trade, and to prevent the importation of further non-European labour, was one of the principal motives of the Federation movement of the 1890s.

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 explicity 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.

It is easy, but mistaken, to attribute all these actions to what is now called racism - a word which did not exist before the 1930s. In the 19th century virtually everybody believed that there were deep and innate differences between races, and most people believed that their own race was superior to all other races. The Chinese and Japanese believed this as strongly as did Europeans (and to a considerable extent still do). The belief that people of different races could not live together in relations of equality was scarcely challenged before the 1920s. Australia was not the only nation to have a white or discriminatory immigration policy. Canada and New Zealand also had restrictive immigration policies.

The principal force driving policies of racial exclusion in Australia was not a belief that non-Europeans were inferior, but fear of their economic competition. Alfred Deakin, the most liberal-minded of Australian politicians, wrote: "It is not the bad qualities, but the good qualities of these alien races that make them so dangerous to us. It is their inexhaustible energy, their power of applying themselves to new tasks, their endurance and low standard of living that make them such competitors."

This was why the trade unions and their political party, the Labor Party, was the driving force for White Australia. It was Labor which forced the Barton government to pass the Immigration Restriction Act, and Labor clung to White Australia until well into the 1950s. Arthur Calwell, who retired as Labor leader in 1967, was the last major Australian politician to believe in White Australia. Calwell is now commonly depicted as a reactionary racist. In fact he spoke Chinese and had a great respect for Asian cultures: his views were based on a genuine fear of Asian economic competition.

It is important to realise that these fears were not baseless. In 1901 the Australian continent had a population of 3.7 million. It was a short distance from countries where hundreds of million of people lived in conditions of great poverty. The belief that these people would "swamp" European Australia if allowed to do so was mistaken, but it was not unreasonable. Nor was the belief that large numbers of workers might be imported from Asia to undercut Australia's high wages - many employers said openly that they wished to do just that.

An example was the pearling industry in Western Australia, which resisted the move towards a European work-force. In 1912, the federal government reacted by setting up a Royal Commission into the pearling industry. The commissioners were to inquire into, and report on, among other issues, the following:

Despite the attempts of the Commonwealth and State governments, the pearl divers in Western Australia remained mainly Japanese until the start of World War II.

Despite such minor exceptions, the White Australia policy retained almost unanimous public and political support until the late 1940s. The deportation of Indoesnians and Filipinos who had arrived during World War II as refugees aroused protests. Some of the refugees were allowed to stay, and Japanese women who had married Australian servicemen were also admitted.

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-Europeans 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. In 1966 non-Europeans were allowed to become citizens after five years residence and restrictions on migrants were further eased.

The Holt Liberal Government initiated the dismantling of all discriminatory elements from Australian immigration law in 1966. The effective end of the White Australia policy is usually dated to 1973, when a series of amendments prevented the enforcement of racial aspects of the immigration law. 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 - it was never officially based on "race" as such. Currently, a large fraction 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 Asian origin to people of Arab and/or Islamic origin or culture.


John Bailey, The White Divers of Broome, Sydney, MacMillan, 2001. ISBN 0-7329-1078-1
James Jupp and Maria Kabala, The Politics of Australian Immigration, Australian Government Publishing Service, 1993
Myra Willard, History of the White Australia Policy to 1920, Melbourne University Press, 1923 (old but still very useful)