a multicultural History of Australia

Making multicultural Australia

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Period: White Australia »


Text Commentary

(Audio file available at a later date)

The Immigration Restriction Act of 1901 that established the White Australia Policy was one of the first laws passed by the new federal parliament. While quite a number of restrictive measures had already been implemented in Victoria and the other colonies in the preceding years, this Act signaled a clear commitment to build a nation that would be white and British. While not always overt, the power of race to control and constrain people’s lives was evident in various situations. A number of different communities suffered racial discrimination, including Indigenous people, the Chinese, later other Asians, southern Europeans and Jews. Throughout the first half of the 20th century race remained a key influence in shaping Victorian society and the lives of its people.

The White Australia Policy forced a dramatic decline in the number of Chinese arriving in Victoria. Under the Policy, Immigration Officers used a dictation test, which could be given in any language, to deny entry. It also created serious hardships for Asians continuing to live in Australia. Asian men were not allowed to bring their wives and children to live permanently with them. They could not apply for naturalisation and were thus denied citizenship rights. But with remarkable resilience, these people continued to carry on with their lives, building their own communities and interacting with others, quite often other migrants.

With the Government determined to maintain Australia as a predominantly British country, Europeans of non-British “stock” also faced difficulties, especially in times of political or economic tension or war. The deep sectarian divide between the English and Irish Australians was exacerbated during the First World War. In the face of trade union protests against the large number of predominantly Italian southern Europeans, who had arrived in the early 1920s, the government imposed restrictions and later quotas on their entry. As the Depression struck, the entry of almost all non-British Europeans was banned altogether.

The key weapon of exclusion – the dictation test – was also used against political undesirables, including the Czech Jewish journalist, Egon Kisch, who arrived in the 1930s to address an anti-war congress in Melbourne. The entry of Jewish refugees, fleeing persecution in Nazi Germany, was severely restricted by Commonwealth government quotas. At the Evian Conference in 1938, the Australian government agreed to accept 15,000 Jewish refugees, however only 6,500 managed to arrive before the outbreak of the Second World War.

During the war, some Jewish refugees from Germany, Austria and Italy found themselves interned along with other “enemy aliens”, citizens of countries with whom Australia was at war, some of whom had lived in Australia for years. From 1943, Italian prisoners of war, mainly soldiers captured in the north African campaigns, were used to supplement the rural workforce which had been depleted as a result of war service.

Chinese Australians were accepted into the Army, though for a while not the Air Force. Non-white evacuees from neighbouring colonies in the Pacific, including Singapore, Indonesia, Malaya and New Guinea, found refuge from the Japanese aggressors in Australia, but faced deportation once the war was over, some under the Wartime Refugees Removal Act of 1949. Such contradictions came to challenge the logic of the White Australia Policy at its heart, raising questions about its long term survival.