White Australia policy

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The White Australia policy refers to an extensive period of official and unofficial discrimination in Australian history, during which immigration policy and citizenship requirements were heavily biased to favour white European migrants, and more specifically Anglo-Saxon migrants over other races. It was the official policy of all governments and all mainstream political parties in Australia from the 1890s to the late 1960s

The United States, Canada, and New Zealand also had similar restrictive policies. Australia though was one of few countries who made race as the dominant national ideology at the time. Only apartheid South Africa and later Nazi Germany and Fascist Japan exceeded Australia in this respect. Moreover, elements of the policy continued well into the 1970s.


The origin of the policy can be traced back to the 1850s when increasing violence and race riots against Chinese gold miners led to the colonial administration introducing restrictions on Asian immigration. The Anglo-Australian population resented the industriousness and frugality of the Chinese, which enabled them to undercut 'white' labour, and also disliked Chinese cultural practises. By 1888 Chinese arrivals were excluded from all the Australian colonies. Towards the end of the 19th century the kanakas (Pacific Islanders recruited to work in the sugar cane fields of Queensland) were the main target of discrimination, again on socio-economic grounds. Some influential Queenslanders felt that the colony would be excluded from the forthcoming Federation if the 'kanaka' trade did not cease. Sugar farmers were offered a subsidy for replacing non-white workers with white labour. Leading New South Wales and Victorian politicians warned there would be no place for 'Asiatics' or 'coloureds' in the Australia of the future. Around 7,000 Islanders were subsequently deported. Afterwards the government and the trade union made sure that only white labourers were allowed to work in the field. The desire to stamp out the Kanaka trade, and to prevent the importation of further non-European labour, was one of the principal motives of the Federation movement of the 1890s. Leader of the movement towards Federation, Alfred Deakin stated, 'I am prepared to do all that is necessary to ensure that Australia shall be free for all time from the contamination and the degrading influence of inferior races'.

In 1901, the new Federal Commonwealth passed it's first legislation, the Immigration Restriction Act 1901, to 'place certain restrictions on immigration and... for the removal... of prohibited immigrants'. Restrictions were placed on the immigration of the insane, of anyone likely to become a charge upon the public, and of those suffering from a serious contagious disease. It also prohibited prostitutes, criminals, and most manual labourers. Early drafts of the Act explicity banned all non-Anglo-Saxons from migrating to Australia. This was modified after protests from the British government that it would discriminate against subjects of the British empire from entry. So preference instead was given to Anglo-Saxon immigrants via the application of a dictation test conducted in a European language of the testers choice, on all arrivals, with which they were not familiar. Immigration officials were given the power to automatically exclude any person who failed. Trade unions and their political party, the Labor Party, were the main driving force for White Australia. It was Labor which forced the Edmund Barton government to pass the Immigration Restriction Act, and Labor clung to White Australia until well into the 1950s. Prime Minister Edmund Barton stated that 'The doctrine of the equality of man was never intended to apply to the equality of the Englishman and the Chinaman'. Arthur Calwell, who retired as Labor leader in 1967, was the last major Australian political leader to openly express his support for the White Australia policy, including his infamous statement 'Two Wongs don't make a White'.

The policy was openly endorsed by both the government and general society during the first half of the 20th century. In 1919, the Prime Minister, William Morris Hughes, hailed the policy as 'the greatest thing we have achieved'. At the Paris Peace Conference at the end of the First World War, Japan attended conference with explicit intention of having racial equality clause included in the League of Nations Charter. It was Prime Minister Hughes who vehemently opposed the proposition. Hughes recognised that such clause would be threat to White Australia and made it clear to Lloyd George that he will leave the conference if the clause is adopted. When the proposal failed Hughes reported in the Australian parliament, 'The White Australia is yours. You may do with it what you please, but at any rate, the soldiers have achieved the victory and my colleagues and I have brought that great principle back to you from the conference, as safe as it was on the day when it was first adopted'.

During the Second World War, many refugees entered Australia. Asian war refugees particularly from the Dutch East Indies, now Indonesia, were deported following the end of the war. It was not until after 1948 that the policy was slightly altered as a result of an extreme labour shortage in the booming post-Second World War economy, and migrants from southern Europe and the Mediterranean region admitted without dictation testing. This trend continued when in 1957, non-Europeans with 15 years residence in Australia were allowed to become citizens. In 1966 non-Europeans were allowed to become citizens after five years and restrictions on migrants were further eased.

By the end of the 1960s there was a marked change in social attitudes in the country, in alignment with the similar social attitude changes occurring in the United States and Europe. The effective 'demotion' of the White Australia policy is usually dated to 1973, when a series of amendments prevented the enforcement of racial aspects of the immigration law. However it was not until the 1978 review of immigration law that racialist aspects were removed from official policy. Long dead in theory, the White Australia legacy continues today to play a role in Australian political life.