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Commentary on: Welcoming new migrants as New Australians »

Prof Andrew Jakubowicz.

Text Commentary

Becoming good neighbours...

1950s - The Good Neighbour Movement provides help... and encourages assimilation of migrants

The diversity of the Australian population, evident here in a photograph from the 1950s, was not well recognised by government. The expectation was that immigrants would assimilate, abandoning their past allegiances and cultural "baggage", and replacing them almost instantaneously by adopting the idealised Australian lifestyle.

By the end of World War II, the Australian Government was committed to immigration numbers of around one per cent increase in population each year, to match an estimated one per cent natural increase. The intention was that for every "foreign" migrant, another ten would be British, but the supply from Britain was never to be as great as the Australian government had first expected. Post-war Immigration Minister Arthur Calwell was forced to cast the immigration net wider, first to "Empire and Allied" ex-servicemen and then, by 1947 to other Europeans, primarily the Displaced Persons (DPs) being cared for by the International Refugee Organisation.

But Calwell and others had doubts about just how much non-British migration supposedly monocultural Australia could stand. He planned a careful strategy which included choosing as the first DP immigrants "Nordic looking" young men from Baltic countries whom he thought would be acceptable to Australians. From then on he referred to all "new Australians" as "Balts", a ploy which was largely successful and which resulted in Baltic refugees becoming what Jock Collins has called "the Trojan horse of non-English speaking migration".

The Government policy of the time toward all migrants was that of assimilation; migrants were to become "Australian" as quickly as possible, with limited assistance from the Government. The idea of Australian culture was not seen as problematic. "New Australians", the term which replaced the pejorative "reffo" (refugee) were to speak English, not live in cultural "ghettos" and wherever possible marry into the Australian-born community. This policy paralleled the Government's policy of forced assimilation of Aboriginal people, which included the now notorious practice of removing Aboriginal children from their families and rearing them in white environments.

It soon dawned on the Government, however, that the unprecedented numbers of migrants were challenging its attempts at social engineering and in 1950 the first of what became annual National Citizenship Conventions was called to encourage the entire community to play a role in helping such large numbers of arrivals to assimilate. Through these Conventions it is possible to track the gradual abandonment of the assimilation policy in favour of integration and then of multiculturalism, the move from a perception that Australia must be an "homogenised" society to the value put today on cultural diversity.

But while assimilation was still the preferred mode of dealing with immigrants, a valuable tool known as the Good Neighbour Movement was established by the inaugural Citizenship Convention. In the 1950s and early '60s, Good Neighbour Councils provided grassroots community support for migrants as they were encouraged to "fit into" the Australian way of life. Staffed largely by volunteers, Good Neighbour Councils were established around Australia with the few paid workers funded by the Federal Government. These volunteers would visit new arrivals and provide contact points for support and services which they might need.

The emphasis through the Good Neighbour Movement was on helping immigrants to learn English, encouraging schools to aid in assimilating migrant youth and encouraging all migrants to become naturalised. Yet even in the '50s there was some recognition that immigration was a two-way opportunity; the "older" Australians could learn from new migrants as well as teach them, and migrants should be recognised for their contribution to the development of the Australian economy.

Deficiencies in service provision to migrants and issues like the shortage of housing began to be discussed and at the 1959 Citizenship Convention the notion of integration was first introduced. Integration reflected an awareness that the first generation of immigrants was unlikely to assimilate completely, and that their adaptation to the new society would be more effective if their cultural needs were recognised rather than denied.

This gradually took precedence over the notion of assimilation and in the early '60s the contribution of migrants to Australian lifestyle and culture was increasingly recognised. While emphasis was still placed on English language acquisition, it came to be recognised that bilingualism was an advantage and more support was given to "foreign language" media as a way of communicating with New Australians.

The Good Neighbour Council model, with its middle class Anglo-Australian leaders and volunteers, was increasingly challenged by ethnic communities uncomfortable with the continuation of assimilationism in practice. The emerging leaders sought initially to change the Councils, but finally, often frustrated by the slow pace of change, moved to bypass them altogether through the creation of their own coalitions. As the migrants by their sheer numbers had altered and diversified Australian society, there was no longer a monoculture into which newcomers could assimilate; the stage was set for the emergence of multiculturalism as a Government policy.

Further reference:
Collins, Jock Migrant Hands in a Distant Land: Australia's post-war immigration, Sydney, Pluto Press, 1988.

Jordens, Ann-Mari Alien to Citizen: Settling Migrants in Australia, 1945-75, Sydney, Allen & Unwin/National Archives of, Australia, 1997.

Lack, John and Templeton, Jacqueline Bold experiment: a documentary history of Australian immigration since 1945, Melbourne, Oxford University Press, 1995.