a multicultural History of Australia

Making multicultural Australia

Search the complete site: ... Sitemap » ... Links to other sites »

multicultural Timeline »

Period: White Australia »


Commentary on: Mass migration »

Prof Andrew Jakubowicz.

Text Commentary

Populate or perish?

1945 - A new immigration policy announced to build population after the war

Australia’s post-war immigration program brought millions of people to the country in the years after 1945, like this family on board an immigrant ship. British immigrants (and later other nationalities) could purchase ten pound (about twenty dollar) passages, with the remainder of the fare funded by the Australian government.

The experience of the Second World War convinced some Australian politicians and social and economic planners that building the population was crucial to Australia's future security and stability. By 1944 the wartime Labor government under John Curtin had come to believe that a major national strategy was needed to build the economy and to ensure Australia could become a significant manufacturing nation. It needed to escape its total dependency on primary products and their export, and to be liberated from the tyranny of the British banks - a major issue during the Depression of the 1930s.

The Post-War Reconstruction program was devised to build population, infrastructure (energy, roads, etc.) and housing. A key component was to be the immigration program, still operating under the restrictions of White Australia, which would bring millions of immigrants, many of them government sponsored, to break the production bottlenecks that the peacetime economy faced. The policy was announced late in 1945 as the war in the Pacific was ending, and grew over the following decades into a massive population development program.

Recent historians have challenged the common view that the immigration program was a wonderful success based on exemplary planning. They note that it was "conceived in fear, nurtured in secret, launched in trepidation, received with disappointment, and subsequently developed amid bitter controversy and recrimination" (Lack and Templeton 1995:2). The scheme was controversial, including a period of strong anti-Semitism in the Australian press directed against the Jewish refugee survivors of the Holocaust in Europe, followed by additional controversy as the Liberal government after 1949 allowed the entry of many former Nazi collaborators, many from countries such as Yugoslavia, Lithuania, the Ukraine, and the Baltic States.

The program still excluded non-Europeans, though it did start to come to grips with the incongruity of Australia as a country on the edge of Asia trying to defend itself against its own geography. It also had to deal with the concerns of the trade unions that immigrants would undercut wages and reduce the working conditions of Australian workers. Various agreements were reached in regard to these concerns, particularly as refugees from Soviet expansion in eastern Europe began to arrive after about 1948. Sponsored immigrants were often sent for compulsory labour on major work schemes such as those associated with the sugar industry in Queensland, or construction projects such as the Snowy Mountains Scheme.

In 1947, the Australian population was just under 7 million. About one person in ten had been born overseas - three quarters of them in Britain or Ireland. New Zealand born made up about half of one percent. Slightly larger proportions had been born in parts of Europe other than Britain or Ireland.

British immigrants were the most preferred by the government and the most heralded in the media. They received preferential treatment in relation to accommodation and employment. European immigrants faced much harder conditions and were confronted with a settlement policy based on "assimilation". Assimilation assumed that immigrants would shrug off their own cultures and become "new Australians", learning English and how to behave.

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.