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Subject: Cultural Studies »

Gwenda Tavan on the impact of White Australia

Mara Moustafine and Gwenda Tavan.

Historian Gwenda Tavan explains the impact of White Australia



Date Added:

06 February 2009


source not available


mov (Quicktime);

File size:

9.6 MB






I think one of the dangers is that we presume that because the communities –for example the Japanese, Indian and Chinese communities – where dramatically affected that this meant that they became a kind of moribund presence in Australia. Some of the most recent research that has been done shows that despite the fact that, for example, the Chinese community began to you know, diminish in numbers, they were in their own right, quite vibrant and dynamic communities. John Fitzgerald has written a terrific book, which talks about Chinese in Australia, in the early 20th Century and you know, reading that I was struck by the fact that Melbourne had – there were four Chinese Republican newspapers in the early part of the 20th Century, Chinese made many trips between Australia and China over that period of time, so there was a lot of commercial activities.


There were political activities and so, you know, I think it would be wrong to kind of ignore that aspect, there were communities here, they had an impact, they were living a life basically.


One of the interesting things about the Immigration Restriction Act of course is that it doesn’t overtly exclude Asians, what it does is, set up a mechanism by which immigration officials and customs officials will be able to control the entry of people that are considered to be undesirable. Now that in its most overt state was directed at non-Europeans but it could also then be used to keep out people who were considered to be culturally very different or people whose political views were considered to be threatening and dangerous. And what we actually saw in this country in that pre-war period was the dictation tests then used to keep out political undesirables and also in the 1920s you see that notion of identity, that notion of who can be part of the national community and who must be excluded extended past non-Europeans to other groups – southern Europeans for example.


So, you know, restrictions are introduced in the 1920s against Italian migrants and various others and now that comes – you know, there’s lobbying for example in Queensland in the sugar industry for example, who worry about Italians coming out and again, there’s a – the argument is partly economic but it’s also partly based on racial and cultural considerations: that some groups are not like us, they don’t fit that white British Australian definition of national membership and so they must be either severely restricted or excluded –


- if you were an Italian or a Greek or a Maltese person, who found themselves excluded through use of the say the dictation test or unable to join your family who was already here, then your attitudes toward it would have been I suspect quite cynical.


End transcript