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March 01st 2011 print

John Izzard

The Deceit of Immigration Nation


One of the most chilling images in the recent SBS television series Immigration Nation: The Secret History of Us is the footage in the opening sequences of the first episode showing an Australian soldier dragging an Asian man towards a ship so he could be deported.


Other scenes showed Asian women and children in distress. The scenes, though brief, are shocking. They portray a barbaric Australian attitude towards Asian people.

The accompanying narration was about the White Australia policy. It appeared to confirm the inhumanity of Australian treatment of Chinese and Japanese people living in this country between 1901 and 1975. The distinct implication of images and script was that these people were being deported as part of the White Australia policy. 

However, SBS and the producers of this three-part series deceived their viewers. The scenes had nothing to do with the White Australia policy, nor with immigration, nor even with Australia’s attitude to Asian people living in this country. They were images taken from old newsreel footage, film actually shot in 1946 of Japanese prisoners-of-war and Chinese refugees (some originally from the Japanese-held island of Formosa) being sent home. The Japanese had been interned in wartime camps in New South Wales and Victoria, while some Chinese detainees had been living and working freely in the Australian community.

Following Japan’s invasion of South-East Asian countries in 1941, about 6000 Chinese refugees had been accepted by Australia on condition they returned home when hostilities ceased. About 5500 freely agreed to return, while 500 refused to leave. The deception by SBS was to twist a wartime act of humanity by Australia into a so-called act of colour prejudice under the White Australia policy. It was nothing of the sort.

The images SBS used came from a two-and-a-half-minute Cinesound newsreel report on about 3000 Japanese and Chinese prisoners and detainees being repatriated back to Japan and Taiwan aboard the Daikai Maru. It was the first Japanese ship to enter Sydney Harbour since the outbreak of the Pacific War in 1941. The newsreel clip also reported on deportees being placed aboard the Japanese destroyer Yoizuki in March 1946.

Immigration Nation is not history but propaganda. But then, the fabrication of Australian history is nothing new, and some of the now familiar academic culprits from the radical class of 1968—Henry Reynolds, Marilyn Lake, Andrew Markus, plus a new face at Inquisition Central, Alex McDermott—are at it again. This time the deconstruction, reconstruction and presentation of “racist Australia” has been given the pulling power of television. 

A taxpayer-funded broadcaster and the taxpayer-funding bodies of Screen Australia and Film Victoria have managed to throw accuracy and impartiality to the wind. You might have imagined that some degree of due diligence would be a requirement before this series was financed, produced and broadcast.

What has been obvious for many years are the crass attempts by many historians specialising in Australian history to engage in a sort of academic nihilism in regards to the European settlement of this country. Denigrating and besmirching the nation and its people have become a major industry in our great centres of learning. And the degree of “certainty” these academics and commentators express in their opinions is really quite chilling.

Key targets have been the legality of settlement itself; black–white conflicts of the colonial period; the trumped-up charges of genocide; the imaginative creation of the “Stolen Generation” and the continual denigration of white Australians and their institutions, from settlement in 1788 to the present day. More recently, there has been the rather hapless campaign to “de-popularise” Anzac Day and replace the national flag. The charge of “racism” is the latest in a long, forty-year campaign, to belittle Australian society and its rich and colourful history. 

The first deceit in Immigration Nation is its name. It gives the impression that the series is about immigration and the people who came to this country as immigrants. In reality the series is basically a three-hour rant attacking the White Australia policy—a policy that was a Labor Party initiative, strenuously defended by Labor politicians from before Federation until the mid-1970s. Somehow the producers of Immigration Nation, and their collection of like-minded academics who appear in the series, managed to shift the focus from the Labor Party to “the Australian people”. In doing so they brand Australians—that is, white Australians—as racists.

The introduction to the first episode of Immigration Nation went thus:

Narrator: Modern Australia is an immigration nation, but 100 years ago this wasn’t the plan. The Commonwealth of Australia was built upon a paradox.

Alex McDermott (La Trobe University): The paradox was they were going to realise a Utopia but they were going to do it through excluding the vast majority of humanity.

Narrator: From 1901 this would mean a tough restriction on immigration—the White Australia policy.

Professor Andrew Markus (Monash University): We would be an exclusively white community. There would be no one in Australia other than members of the white race. This was the objective.

Narrator: Ironically it not only tore families apart, it also threatened Australia’s economic future. And may even have turned an ally [Japan] into an enemy.

The above is humbug, a cleverly scripted ploy to grab attention, but devoid of truth. Australia wasn’t “built on a paradox”. Australia did not “exclude the vast majority of humanity” and there was never an objective that “there would be no one in Australia other than members of the white race”. As for Australia turning “an ally [Japan] into an enemy”, we will get to that fantasy a little later.

The opening comments from Immigration Nation set the tone of the first episode. A classic propaganda construct: winkle out the alleged crime; reveal alleged victims; identify and expose the villains; hold the “villains” in utter contempt. The general thrust of Immigration Nation is the accusation that Australians are fundamentally racist and, from 1901, with the passing of the Immigration Restriction Bill, our “white supremacist” instincts were exposed. 

The opening sequences of Immigration Nation make it clear this series breaks all the rules of objective documentary film-making. Unwritten rules usually define the difference between an educational revelation and propaganda. They include:

  • balance 
  • presenting conflicting views and arguments
  • never showing false or misleading images to complement a narration or montage
  • never manipulating the audience with contrived emotion
  • never allowing the narrator to take sides using their tone of voice
  • avoiding judging the past using present-day standards, morals or ideology
  • simply telling the unvarnished truth 

In the first episode the issues raised or accusations made were:

  • racist reasons for passing the Immigration Restrict-ion Bill 
  • an interpretation that the Bill was based on race and colour
  • an interpretation of what became known as the White Australia policy
  • the blackbirding of South Sea Islanders in Queensland
  • accusations that Australia was the cause of Japanese imperialism
  • the wish for Australia to maintain an Anglocentric society

In briefly discussing the way these issues were handled in Immigration Nation it should be pointed out that the style of documentary-making involved followed certain observable traits. These included generalisations, misinterpretations of historical events, historical inaccuracies, and an overall relentless sneer at white Australians that seemed to dominate both the presentation and the academic opinion. 

The big problem that the producers of Immigration Nation had to overcome was the fact that before Federation and the introduction of the Immigration Restriction Act, this country was already a multiracial society and fairly comfortable with that idea. Convicts, early settlers, gold-rushers and later migrants, while mainly English-speaking, were from an array of countries, ethnic nationalities and enjoyed a range of skin colours. At Federation in 1901 (according to Wray Vamplew ed., Australians: Historical Statistics), as well as the locally born there were 685,754 of British birth; 29,907 Chinese; 10,231 Pacific Islanders; 7681 from India; 3602 from Japan; 1892 from the Middle East; 932 from Malaya; 611 from Ceylon; 823 from the Philippines and 394 from Afghanistan. In short, of those born overseas, 7.7 per cent came from Asia and the Pacific—to say nothing of Germans, Greeks, Italians, Spaniards and other Europeans who were not British either.

The Chinese originally came to Australia as gold miners in the 1850s but by the end of the nineteenth century they were prominent in agriculture and hospitality. According to the government statistician, Timothy Coghlan, in Labour and Industry in Australia, Volume III (1918), the Chinese came to dominate market gardening, growing no less than 75 per cent of the vegetables consumed in the entire country. They also provided about one fifth of Australia’s fruit trade. Chinese found ready employment in the hospitality industry, especially as cooks. About half the cooks employed in Australian hotels at the time were Chinese. In twentieth-century Australia, it would have been hard to find a suburb or country town that did not have its own Chinese restaurant at a time when, according to SBS, Australia was creating an exclusively white country. 

It is also important to point out that there was no official doctrine called the White Australia policy. This was a name used by journalists and historians to describe some of the early legislation enacted by the parliament after Federation in 1901. The two laws that feature most in this discussion were the Immigration Restriction Act of 1901 and the Pacific Islanders Labourers Act of 1901–06. 

The producers and writers of the SBS series failed to explain these Acts accurately, and avoided telling us what the politics behind them were all about. At Federation, the members of the new parliament were made up of three loose political groups: Free Traders (twenty-nine members), Protectionists (thirty-one) and the Labour movement, whose sixteen members sat on the cross benches. The Labour members thus held the balance of power and used their parliamentary leverage to insist on the immigration restrictions their trade union constituents demanded.

The debate on immigration was dominated by the demand of the trade unions to restrict the importation of cheap labour. In particular, the furniture union members in Melbourne were under pressure from cheap furniture products made in Melbourne’s Chinese furniture factories. In North Queensland, white labourers and independent sugar farmers both wanted to weaken the competitive position of the Colonial Sugar Refining Company, which dominated the sugar industry. CSR employed Pacific Islanders as coolie cane cutters on wages of six pounds a year at a time when an unskilled white labourer could earn six pounds in a fortnight. The threat of cheap labour has always been a concern to both unions and the parliamentarians they control.

The Protectionists and the Labour movement in the federal parliament decided they had a mutual interest. Most Free Traders argued against the Immigration Restriction Bill but the Protectionists voted in favour in return for Labour support for a Protectionist government, thus giving the position of Prime Minister to the early Protectionist leaders, Edmund Barton and Alfred Deakin.

As Keith Windschuttle has pointed out in his book The White Australia Policy (2004), the Immigration Restriction Bill was possibly the most debated piece of legislation ever passed by an Australian parliament. The debate ran for four months, from August to December 1901, with passion and heated argument. Hansard recorded 600 pages of debate covering half a million words. SBS and their contracted writers and producers should try reading a little more of it. They should at least have read what Windschuttle calls the most accurate summary of the whole debate by one of its participants. Donald Cameron, a Tasmanian member, told the parliament:

It appears that two-thirds of the honourable members of this House really object to the Chinese, not so much on the ground of the possible contamination of the white race, as because they fear that if they are allowed to come into Australia the rate of wages will go down. 

The next on the list of Australian “race crimes”, according to Immigration Nation, was the “blackbirding” of Pacific Islanders—contracted labourers recruited for the sugar-cane fields of north Queensland between 1860 and 1904.

Again we find the use of an old flickering movie depicting alleged kidnapping of Pacific Islanders. Again the image is enduring and sets the viewer in the correct frame of mind for the narration and academic interpretation that follow. Again we are presented with intellectual humbug. Using an old film-drama acted out on a set to suggest reality is yet another breach of the professional protocol of documentary film-making.

In 1977, Faith Bandler, a descendant of people from Ambrym Island in the New Hebrides (now Vanuatu) stated in her book Wacvie: “The slave trade of Australia has never been included in school curricula. I have found that most Australians do not believe that slave labour was used to develop the sugar industry.”

Possibly the reason that most Australians do not believe their country employed slaves is because it never did. Peter Corris, whose ANU PhD thesis on Pacific Island labour migration was published as the book Passage, Port and Plantation (1973) wrote:

by 1883 [the period of Bandler’s book] the Ambrymese were not the passive victims of Queensland “blackbirders”. Like other Melanesians they had entered actively into the labour trade, allowing some people to depart and not others, rationing the supply and driving hard bargains in trade goods for the recruits … The Pacific labour trade lasted for more than 50 years. Without the compliance of the islanders it could not have lasted for ten.

Between 1863 and 1904 some 50,000 Kanakas signed a total of 62,000 indentured labour contracts to work in Queensland, with the vast majority of these contracts signed with Melanesians from the New Hebrides, Solomon Islands, New Caledonia and New Guinea.

These labour agreements were made originally under the auspices of the Master and Servant Act that applied to all Australian workers who worked under contract. From 1868 to 1906 the Pacific Island labour trade was governed by thirteen specific Acts of parliament, fifty regulations and forty specific instructions. Keith Windschuttle writes:

After 1871, all the recruiting voyages to Queensland and the return voyages that took the labourers home had government agents on board to ensure all relevant laws and regulations were observed and all health and medical standards were enforced. The hundreds of government agents who filled these positions had the power to halt recruitment, to refuse recruits, or to turn the vessels home if they decided …

Once in Queensland, magistrates, government agents, immigration officials and Inspectors of Pacific Islanders supervised their contracts, payments and conditions of employment. They [the officials] were responsible for overseeing the arrival of recruits, ensuring they had entered contracts voluntarily, were of legal age, and were healthy enough to work for the term of their contract.

This bureaucratic activity arose to avert suspicions that the trade might involve kidnapping and slavery, and to ensure that neither took place. If anything the Pacific Islander three-year contract system in Queensland, from 1868 until its abolition in 1907, was possibly the most legally-protected and supervised workforce practice in the world.

The Pacific historian Clive Moore points out that half the cases brought before the Bundaberg Summons Court for infringements, such as non-payment of wages, were found in favour of the Pacific Islanders. He said; “Melanesians in such cases demonstrated agency, conscious of their rights and interests and were not passive victims of an inequitable labour process.”

Immigration Nation makes much of the Pacific Islander Labourers Act which decreed that no Pacific Islander could enter Australia after March 1904. Those who had not returned to their home islands by 1906 were to be deported. 

The reality was that the Pacific Islanders were brought to Australia under a standard three-year contract. Their situation was not dissimilar to that of present-day foreigners, many from the same region, who also enter the country on a limited visa, and face deportation if they overstay.

However, some of the Pacific Islanders had been able to settle in Australia after their contracts had expired. Some had married and had children here, and eventually purchased homes and farms. They objected to deportation. They argued they had been absent from their island homes so long that they and their families would be aliens if forced to return. As Windschuttle points out: 

Most federal politicians had assumed that, since the great majority of the 50,000 labourers recruited since the 1860s had returned to their island homes, the end of contract labour would not cause any great hardship or objection. They were surprised to see the emergence of an organised reaction by the islanders. A petition signed by 3000 was sent to the King.

Contrary to the impression given in Immigration Nation of a callous and racist Australia, the government established a Royal Commission to examine the islanders’ grievances. The Commission reported in June 1906, recommending the following exemptions from forcible repatriation:

  1. those who arrived in Australia before 1879
  2. those too old or infirm to be able to work in their island homes
  3. those married, or living as man and wife with someone from another island
  4. those married to or living with someone not a native of the Pacific islands
  5. those whose children had been educated in state schools
  6. those who owned freehold land in Queensland
  7. those who held un-expired leaseholds
  8. those who had been continuously resident here for twenty years before 1906

Of these recommendations, only numbers 5 and 7 were not accepted by the federal government.

However, a total of 7068 islanders were repatriated, mostly to the Solomon Islands and New Hebrides. Windschuttle argues that some of these islanders were certainly treated unfairly. It was one thing to stop recruiting them from their villages when the demand for their labour collapsed with the end of the “company plantation system”; it was quite another to deport those who had established themselves in Australia, who adapted to modern life and who remained productive and law-abiding citizens.

Nonetheless, so-called “White Australia” still retained substantial populations of non-white people. No one who was here legally before 1901 was interned or deported. Any Asian domiciled in Australia before the Immigration Restriction Bill was enacted could travel overseas and return without jeopardising their Australian status. Over the subsequent twenty years, when immigration restriction was at its height, the only two non-white ethnic groups whose population declined substantially were the Chinese and the Pacific Islanders. This was not the result of racist phobias but because the “coolie” or indentured labour system, which these two groups had mainly supplied, came to an end, as the parliament intended. By 1921, all Australian-born Chinese who chose to remain here still did so, as did another 15,256 people born in China. At the same time, some 3168 people born in the Pacific Islands were counted as Australian residents too.

By 1921, the number of Indians, Japanese, Malayans, Syrians, Ceylonese and Filipinos living in Australia had not changed substantially since 1901. If the claims about immigration policy made by Andrew Markus and Andrew McDermott at the start of Immigration Nation had been true, none of these ethnic groups would have been allowed to stay.

Indeed, Indians occupied a special immigration status (and so did Japanese, as we will see below). After the First World War, because of the service of Indian soldiers in defence of the British Empire, Prime Minister Billy Hughes implemented a reciprocal program that placed Indian and Australian passport holders on an equal footing and permitted the entry of wives and children of Indians resident in Australia. Indian merchants, students and other visitors were able to land and remain indefinitely as long as they retained their occupational status. Again, Markus and McDermott fail to inform their viewers of this clear contradiction to their wild generalisations.

The most outrageous notion floated in Immigration Nation is that Australian immigration policy was to blame for the rise of Japanese aggression. According to the writers and academics involved in Immigration Nation, we upset the Japanese with the introduction of the Immigration Restriction Bill of 1901, and were the root cause of the Japanese getting wanderlust about the Pacific. According to Alex McDermott, “Australia turned an ally into an enemy.” McDermott really needs to read more history. 

Even the most cursory familiarity with the history of Meiji Japan would reveal the Japanese attitude towards the West and their feelings of racial superiority, which continued until their defeat in the Second World War. From 1868 Japan embarked on an ambitious program of social, economic and military reform. From the perspective of 1901, Australia’s concerns regarding Japan (and China) were neither radical nor illogical. Immigration Nation tries to portray Japan’s concern as a fight for “racial equality” with the West, whereas in reality Japan’s thrust was for the status of economic and military equality with the West. It was “equality within treaties with the international community” that Japan desired. Immigration Nation fails to mention that in 1901 the main concerns in this country about Japan centred on its invasion of China. The First Sino-Japanese War (1894–95) had followed the 1879 annexation of the Ryukyu Kingdom by Japan. The argument made in Immigration Nation, portraying Australia as a villain while trying to present Japan as some sort of victim or hero of “racial discrimination”, is pure humbug.

Moreover, the Japanese never suffered from a racial inferiority complex. Their belief in their own racial superiority was unbending and quite openly flaunted. The worst “race riot” on Australian soil was not between white Australians and coloured immigrants but took place in Broome in 1920 when the local Japanese population, numbering about 2000, armed with guns, clubs and sticks, attacked the local Timorese or Koepanger population of about 400, leaving seven dead and sixty injured.

McDermott should also take on board the inconvenient truth that the Japanese were largely exempt from the 1901 Immigration Restriction Act. As Windschuttle points out in The White Australia Policy, the major Japanese multinational firm MBK was allowed to establish branches in Australia in 1901 and subsequently developed a large trading network. In 1904, Japanese merchants could come to Australia and bring their wives and children. Despite the widespread unease about Japanese imperial ambitions on our northern coastline, Japanese divers in the pearl shell industry of the Kimberley coast and Torres Strait were also granted exemption from the policy, as were other Japanese residents of Broome, such as the doctors of the town’s Japanese hospital. 

In 1938 there were still ninety Japanese luggers operating between Broome and Darwin. Japanese merchants and students in the southern states could enter Australia without restriction for as long as they needed to pursue their vocations. Our government calculated this was in our economic interests since the emergence of Japan as a world power increased our trade dramatically. By 1936 Japan had become Australia’s third-biggest trading partner. It was not until the outbreak of warfare in 1941 that Australia put an end to the relationship. 

While this review has addressed only some of the more outrageous claims in Immigration Nation, the rest of the three-hour series follows the same relentless pattern of misinterpretation and misinformation in the same rancid and sneering tone.

The really sad thing about Immigration Nation is that it was a lost opportunity, a great chance to present an interesting and important part of Australian history. It passed up the opportunity to hear from a variety of academics, writers and descendants of immigrants, who hold various views and interpretations about both the White Australia policy and the migrant experience. Instead, the viewer was subjected to the worst sort of biased political propaganda and nation-assassination.

In the mainstream media, the only serious questioning of the series came from Troy Bramston in the Weekend Australian:

Open any newspaper of the past few weeks and you will more than likely find a blatantly racist advertisement for the new SBS documentary Immigration Nation: The Secret History of Us … 

The real secret history of Australia is how it transformed itself into one of the most ethnically diverse nations on earth, with a high degree of tolerance and respect for this diversity. This is what we should be celebrating.

The series is being offered to schools and education establishments as history. That is the wrong subject. Instead, Immigration Nation should be used in media studies classes to teach how the manipulation of historical events and the creation of dubious myths can be a dangerous thing. Immigration Nation is a great resource for teaching children to spot the difference between our history, honestly presented, and propaganda. Too bad there is little chance of it being used for that purpose.

Let me finish by returning to the misused Cinesound newsreel from 1946. As well as failing to identify the true background of the footage, SBS failed to tell its viewers about the other important issue the newsreel raised. The narration told Australian audiences about the terrible conditions aboard the two Japanese ships that the Japanese and Chinese deportees had to endure on their voyage home to Japan and Formosa. Even though it was just nine months after the end of the war, and the memory of the barbaric treatment of Australian prisoners-of-war by Japanese forces was still fresh in the public mind, Australians still considered the welfare of the Japanese and Chinese deportees a topic worthy of reporting and anguishing over. So much for White Australia. 


John Izzard is a former documentary film-maker whose work has been shown on the ABC and the Nine Network.