a multicultural History of Australia

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Commentary on: The end of White Australia »

Prof Andrew Jakubowicz.

Text Commentary

The white walls come down...

1958 - The notorious dictation test dropped: the beginning of the end of the White Australia Policy

These children in Surry Hills, an inner Sydney suburb, in the early 1970s, reflect the range of cultures that had begun to change Australian society. Here they include Chinese, Turkish, Lebanese and Yugoslav - the young girl in the foreground is Koori (Indigenous). But it wasn’t until 1973 that all racial qualifications for immigration were removed.

When Mick Young, Immigration Minister in the Hawke Government in the mid 1980s, first went to work, his union ticket said “no Asiatic” could become a member. Arthur Calwell, the champion of Australia’s post-war immigration program is famous for his anti-Asian quip that “two Wongs don’t make a White”, and was to hold to his view in favour of restricting Asian immigration until the 1970s. Yet in the 1990s, Asian countries have been the source of the fastest growing group of immigrants to Australia. The change began in the 1960s with a series of measures which heralded the demolition of the White Australia Policy.

In a sense, the Australian nation was founded on the White Australia Policy with the Immigration Restriction Bill of 1901 entrenching as Federal policy the racism and xenophobia characteristic of all the Australian colonies. When the push for an expanded immigration program began at the end of World War II, the idea was to bring in British migrants and, where that failed, Europeans who were most likely to assimilate into Australian society. Asians and - so the government thought - Jews could not be assimilated and their migration continued to be severely restricted.

But the rebuilding of the European economies in the '50s and early '60s began to choke off the flow of "acceptable" migrants, so the Australian immigration authorities began to look elsewhere. They were also under rising pressure from the small Asian community within Australia, some churches, and a progressive network of campaigners concerned to end the policy. In 1958 the notorious dictation test for migrants was officially abolished and permits for immigration were thereafter solely at the discretion of the Minister (and therefore his Department).

In the '60s there was agitation on the campuses for an end to racist immigration policy and Australia was beginning to forge economic, defensive and strategic alliances with nations of south-east Asia, a process which put Australia's immigration policies in the spotlight; Australia was becoming internationally embarrassed.

The new foreign affairs policy of "good neighbourliness" and the increased recognition by Australia of its responsibilities to assist in the development of its Asian neighbours led to such plans as the Colombo scheme which saw hundreds of Asian students studying at Australian universities. The logic which underpinned the White Australia Policy - to keep Australia as homogeneous as possible - was crumbling. In 1966 the then Immigration Minister in the Menzies Government, Hubert Opperman, announced an amended immigration policy which opened the door for selected non-European migration. Asian migrants who were particularly skilled or valuable to Australia would be allowed to settle. The Australian Labor Party in its 1965 annual convention had eliminated officially from its immigration policy words about maintaining White Australia - after a strenuous series of debates. At that time within both major political parties were those who still believed in the White Australia Policy, those who recognised its political unacceptability, as well as those who had a genuine ideological opposition to the position.

The easing of barriers to non-European migration was matched by the move toward integration as a social policy for migrants. Was this because assimilation had to be abandoned as the "visibly different" could never be assimilated? Or was there recognition by government of the important role played by the ethnic communities in the process of settlement and adjustment? Both perceptions played a part so that migrants were now to be encouraged to retain elements of their "home culture" and ethnic community organisations were seen as useful integration tools. By 1968 the Immigration Department was recruiting in its first non-European source country, Turkey, even if attempts were still made to select only the lighter-skinned applicants.

Between 1966 and 1970 an average 6500 Asians were permitted to settle each year. The Labor government in 1973 was to remove all racial qualifications to immigration, and lower the time required for gaining citizenship. However it was not until after 1975, with the end of the Vietnam War, that the major inflow of Asian immigrants was to occur. This immigration challenged the values of older Australians who still felt in some senses that Australia should stay "white".

So the end of White Australia as a formal policy did not necessarily mean that there was universal support for non-European immigration - nor the end of discrimination, intolerance and prejudice against non-European immigrants. The debate about how "white" Australia should be was to remain a potent element in Australian political life. Yet there was a growing awareness that was identified by Walter Lippmann, then Chairman of the Migrant Welfare Committee of the Australian Council of Social Service, and a member of the Immigration Advisory Council, when he said in 1971:

In the last ten years we have gingerly shifted the accent from migrant assimilation to migrant integration, recognising that there are differences in cultural background, experience, environment and outlook which distinguish most migrants and even their children from the majority of Australians.

For most migrants, ethnic background is meaningful because it is an important part of their personality. Coming to a strange country, they find security and a sense of belonging to their own national or ethnic group. We are doing ourselves a great disservice in not openly recognising them and utilising them for development of a multicultural society. Let us do away with ambivalence; acculturation is taking place among the immigrants but we must not cripple their personalities by expecting them to renounce part of themselves. (Wilkes [ed] 1971:p.49).

Further reference:
Curthoys, Ann and Markus, Andrew (eds) Who are our Enemies? Racism and the working class in Australia, Sydney, Hale and Iremonger, 1978.

Markus, Andrew Australian Race Relations, 1788-1993, Sydney, Allen and Unwin, 1994.

Roberts, Huw (ed) Australia's Immigration Policy, Perth, University of Western Australia Press, 1972.

Stevens, Frank (ed) Racism: the Australian Experience: vol 1, Prejudice and Xenophobia, Sydney, ANZ Book Co, 1971.

Wilkes, J (ed) How Many Australians? Immigration and Growth, Sydney, Australian Institute of Political Science and Angus and Robertson, 1971.