a multicultural History of Australia

Making multicultural Australia

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Commentary on: Victoria's resurgent diversity »

Prof Andrew Jakubowicz.

Text Commentary

(Audio file available at a later date)

Embarking on the post-war reconstruction of Australia, the Government abandoned its earlier fixation with “Britishness” and actively pursued a mass migration program from Europe, championed by the first federal Minister for Immigration, Arthur Calwell. Thousands of displaced people and migrants from war-torn Europe began arriving at Port Melbourne from the late 1940s. In the 1950s and 60s, many received assisted passage under agreements with various countries, Italy and Greece among them. Migration agreements were later signed with other countries, including Turkey in 1967. The Bonegilla Migrant Hostel near Wodonga became the first Australian home for hundreds of thousands of migrants while they waited for employment placement. Others settled in migrant clusters in inner city Melbourne suburbs such as Carlton and Brunswick.

People’s experiences of settling into a new life in Victoria varied, even in one family. While racist slurs and fear-mongering about the new arrivals was not widespread, it was not uncommon. The expectation was that the “new Australians” would assimilate into the mainstream Anglo culture and leave behind their “foreign” ways. But the reality was somewhat different. Not everyone saw their migration as permanent. Some came to test the waters, then brought out family and triggered chain migrations from their places of origin. Others went home to Europe for a while and returned to Melbourne. Of critical importance to the settlement process were the communities migrants established to support each other, where they could give expression to their language, culture and religion. Gradually cosmopolitan influences began to permeate the Australian way of life.

Still, the Government’s commitment to a White Australia remained firm and restrictive laws against Asians stayed in place, at least until the late 1950s. Then, the economic and security imperatives of good relations with Australia’s Asian neighbours drove it to relax some of the harsher immigration restriction measures. In 1956, the year Melbourne hosted the Olympic Games, the Commonwealth government approved the naturalization of non-European spouses of Australian citizens. And in 1957, permanent residence was granted to Asians who had been residents in Australia for 15 years or more. In 1958, the dictation test was finally abolished. Following these steps toward the dismantling of the White Australia Policy, in 1959 the Melbourne based Immigration Reform Group launched a campaign to end the Policy altogether. Such public advocacy put pressure on the major political parties to drop the White Australia Policy from their platforms in the mid 1960s. By this time, many of the restrictions on Asian migration, including restrictions on family reunion and citizenship rights, had been eased.