Racism in Australia

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Australia has a long history of racism dating back to the founding of the first colony in Sydney Cove. The establishment of the British colony in 1788 was justified by a racist ideology later expressed by the 'Terra Nullius' concept, in which the colonists believed they had first rights to the land over other groups. Racism is closely tied to nationalism, and the use of immigrants as scapegoats during lean economic times.

Lambing Flat massacre

Australia's experience with the Chinese on the goldfields probably established the pattern of discriminatory practice towards Chinese in particular and Asians in general. Early Asian immigrants in Australia generally took jobs unwanted by Europeans such as railway workers, shepherds on new land, fruit pickers and clearing bushland. By the early 19th century, with 24,000 Chinese immigrants in Australia there was a perception about Australia being 'overrun'. More particularly, Chinese miners were a perceived threat to the Australian economy. The discovery of gold in Australia and a subsequent Gold Rush saw a boom of Asian immigrants against extreme difficulties posed by white settlers such as the Poll Taxes of ten pounds in Victorian ports and widespread anti-Chinese violence.

In 1857, just before the outbreak of a major anti-Chinese riot on Victoria's Buckland River goldfield, Henry Parkes, best known as the 'Father of Federation' and owner of the Empire newspaper, railed against the 'unnatural vices and practices' that supposedly prevailed in China. In June 1861, just before another anti-Chinese riot at the Lambing Flat goldfield (near Young, in New South Wales), the Empire warned that:

... there is a good deal of the animal about the Chinaman ... the white population is becoming demoralised by the presence of hordes of idolatrist barbarians, destitute of religion and morality, as well as every social virtue which makes us proud of our Anglo-Saxon race and institutions.[1]

The bloody riots at Lambing Flat in the 1860s were an indication of the depth of feeling aroused. The miners had accused the Chinese diggers of 'stealing' their gold and taking their land. The massacre marked the beginning of institutionalised anti-Asian racism in Australia. The Lambing Flat massacre (or Lambing Flat riots), were a series of violent anti-Chinese demonstrations that took place in the Burrangong region, in New South Wales, Australia. They occurred on the goldfields at Spring Creek, Stoney Creek, Back Creek, Wombat, Blackguard Gully, Tipperary Gully, and Lambing Flat, between 1860 - 1861. Many unarmed Chinese miners were beaten to death or chased off the goldfield, with their possession looted by the mobs and their houses set on fire. Later in 1861, the Chinese Immigration Regulation Act passed the New South Wales Parliament, which prohibited the naturalisation of Chinese citizens in the state.

During the same period, Tasmania had seen Chinese workers in the North-East where they displaced Europeans on the tin fields. When numbers had reached 1000 in 1880, a public meeting was called to oppose them. The Bulletin weekly magazine came to the forefront of expressing racist sentiments of the time by proudly proclaiming on the front cover masthead: 'Australia for the White Man'. In 1887, after praising the Australians as egalitarians emancipated from the tyrannies of the Old World, it declared:

All white men who come to these shores - with a clean record - and who leave behind them the memory of class distinctions and the religious differences of the old world… are Australians… No nigger, no Chinaman, no lascar, no Kanaka, no purveyor of cheap, coloured labour is an Australian.[2]

White Australia policy

See also: White Australia policy

Racism has been a familiar under current in Australia's social and political culture since the gold rushes and the Lambing Flat anti-Chinese massacre in 1861. The Australian colonies had passed restrictive legislation as early as the 1860s, directed specifically at Chinese immigrants. The Factories and Shops Act in Victoria, passed in 1896, made it mandatory that all furniture made by Chinese in the state must be stamped 'Chinese Labour'. To politicians, the objections to the Chinese originally arose because of their large numbers, their perceived paganism and their habits of gambling and smoking opium. It was also felt they would lower living standards, threaten democracy and that their numbers could expand into a 'yellow tide'.

By the time of the formation of the Commonwealth of Australia, in 1901, 98% of people in Australia were white. Trade unions were keen to prevent labour competition from Chinese and Pacific Islander migrants who they feared would undercut wages. One of the first pieces of legislation passed in the new Federal Parliament was the Immigration Restriction Act. Now known as the infamous White Australia Policy, it made it extremely difficult for Asians and Pacific Islanders to migrate to Australia. This Act stated that if a person wanted to migrate to Australia they had to be given a dictation test. The dictation test could be in any European language. So a person from China or Japan who wanted to live in Australia could be tested in one or all of French, Italian or English languages. The small minority that did pass were then given another test in another language. Of course, most Asians failed the tests and were not allowed to migrate to Australia unless they were able to enter the country under very strict exclusion rules and fortunate enough to have well connected sponsors.

Racism is a device politicians and the media have used through out the 19th and 20th Centuries to attract votes and gain political support in the Australian community. Alfred Deakin, Attorney General in Australia's first Commonwealth Government, steered the Immigration Restriction Bill through a willing Parliament. He explained that this racist measure was important in drumming up popular support for Federation:

... no motive operated more powerfully in dissolving the technical and arbitrary political divisions which previously separated us than the desire that we should be one people and remain one people without the admixture of other races.[3]

Australia's first Prime Minister, Edmund Barton agreed with these sorts of views wholeheartedly. Barton treated the Federal Parliament to quotes from one of period's leading theorists of 'race war', Professor Charles Henry Pearson (who, incidentally, had served many years as the first Education Minister in colonial Victoria). Barton believed that stopping coloured immigration was vital to avoid 'waking to find ourselves elbowed and hustled, and perhaps even thrust aside by peoples whom we looked down upon as servile ...'

In 1901 William Morris Hughes, future Prime Minister of Australia, launched the Labor Party's platform citing:

Our chief plank is, of course, a White Australia. There's no compromise about that. The industrious coloured brother has to go – and remain away![4]

The White Australia Policy persisted until the 1970s, when elements of it were dismantled, due in part to political and trade pressure from SEATO members of which Australia had been a founder country in 1954. With the international sanctions towards apartheid in South Africa in the late 1960s, such a government sponsored policy of restrictive immigration barriers were perceived as diplomatically embarrassing.

The Blainey debate

Geoffrey Blainey was a Professor of History at Melbourne University who spoke in March 1984 to a group of Rotarians at Warrnambool, Victoria, about his concerns regarding Asian immigration to Australia. Blainey was one of the first academics to legitimise his concerns in his talk and later publications, by a need to protect the dominant 'Anglo-Celtic' Australian culture from the alien and often unacceptable habits and beliefs of other nations and cultures. In other words, Blainey and his supporters no longer based their objections to immigration from Asia on an ideology of the superiority/inferiority of phenotypical characteristics such as skin pigmentation, hair texture or shape of nose, but on different 'cultural' characteristics'. It was thought to be 'natural' to protect one's own customs, values and institutions from the unacceptable customs and values of people from different ethnic groups. Blainey spoke in his many writings and interviews of unacceptable living standards, cooking methods, employment expectations which posed a threat to 'the Australian way of life', and the population increases which caused unemployment, conflicts and division.

Militant racism 1980s-2000s

The mid-1980s saw a rise in organised extremist violent racism. The existence of several organised racist groups in Australia including the Australian Nationalist Movement (ANM), the League of Rights and Australian National Action (ANA). National Action was known to operate under front names, including the Australian Populist Movement, an offshoot of National Action whose leader publicly wore Nazi swastikas. Both the Australian Nationalist Movement and Australian National Action have actively target recruited skinheads between 1984 and 1994. As many as one-third to one-half of the participants in National Action rallies have been skinheads.

During the 1980s, the Australian Nationalist Movement, based in Perth, Western Australia, and led by Jack van Tongeren, engaged in a widespread campaign of harassment from posting large anti-Asian posters in public places, intimidating Asian students on TAFE and university campuses, to firebombing Chinese restaurants. The organisation also engaged in targeted burglaries. Between 1987 to 1989, National Action members in Sydney - some of them skinheads - actively harassed anti-apartheid activists and members of homosexual organizations.

In its 1991 Report of the National Inquiry into Racist Violence in Australia, the Human Rights and Equal Opportunity Commission noted that 'many people who gave evidence before the Inquiry alleged that intimidatory tactics employed by extremists included abusive phone calls and hate mail; attacks on private property and visits to the homes of anti-racist activists; disruption of meetings, distribution of inflammatory, racist literature and occasionally physical violence'. In that same year, 13 year old schoolgirl Karmein Chan was abducted and murdered, from her home in Templestowe, Victoria. Anti-Asian graffiti had also been daubed on a vehicle in the front yard of her home.

In 1992, Romper Stomper an Australian film written and directed by Geoffrey Wright, starring Russell Crowe, Daniel Pollock, Jacqueline McKenzie and Tony Lee, followed the exploits of a neo-Nazi skinhead group in blue-collar suburban Melbourne against Vietnamese. In February 1994, four skinhead females, chanting 'Romper Stomper', attacked four Asian girls with a knife and table-leg clubs at a Melbourne railway station. Train passengers were also reportedly harassed.[5]

Ku Klux Klan in Australia

Since the Second World War, the activities of the Ku Klux Klan have been sporadically reported in Australia.[6] Cross burnings and membership ceremonies have been largely confined to northern New South Wales, particularly the Tweed Shire towns of Uki, Murwillumbah, Mullumbimby, and rural Queensland. In November 2007, in the Barmah forest north of Shepparton, Victoria, a jogger came across a camp of about 300 Ku Klux Klan members dressed in full regalia, while he was passing through the forest.

Pauline Hanson's One Nation

Following the Wall Street crash of 1989, and the economic downturn that followed, saw the rise of racism in Australian politics once again. Pauline Hanson was an independent conservative politician ('independent' because she was expelled by the Liberal Party) elected in 1996 by the majority of the people of Oxley, Queensland to represent them in the Commonwealth Parliament. She used her election and maiden speeches to repeat well worn urban myths about the 'special' advantages enjoyed by Asian migrants to the detriment of 'ordinary' Australians. She spoke of the 'swamping' of Australia by people from Asia, the consequent unemployment of 'Aussie battlers' and complained that none of these 'battlers' had participated in national policies on immigration, social security or welfare expenditure.

I believe we are in danger of being swamped by Asians. Between 1984 and 1995, 40 % of all migrants coming into this country were of Asian origin. They have their own culture and religion, form ghettos and do not assimilate.[7]

While the influence of One Nation gradually waned after successive personal scandals and election losses, entrenched institutional racism still persisted, with a series of incidents including the prolonged detention of Asian refugees and racism in the police,[8] such as members of the NSW Chatswood detectives who racially intimidated and violently coerced Asian suspects into false confessions. The New South Wales Ombudsman in a report in 2000[9] and 2009, indicated the sending of racist and homophobic emails were widespread amongst police officers. Sensationalist media stories involving and stereotyping Asians (ie. the perverted 'evil Asian' caricature[10]) often inflamed racial tensions.


  1. Henry Parkes, Empire, June 1861.
  2. 'Australia for the Australians', The Bulletin, 2 July 1887, p.4.
  3. Alfred Deakin, Commonwealth House of Representatives Debates, 12 September 1901, p.4804.
  4. William Morris Hughes, The Bulletin, 16 February 1901.
  5. Romper Stomper (1993): Historical background
  6. 'Ku Klux Klan sets up Australian branch', BBC News, 2 June 1999
  7. Pauline Hanson's maiden speech in federal parliament, 10 September 1996.
  8. 'Young people fight back against racist police violence', Green Left, 10 December 2003
  9. Police and Improper Use of E-mail, NSW Ombudsman, 14 March 2000
  10. http://sallycinnamon77.files.wordpress.com/2010/08/asian_octopus.jpg