This year is the 150th anniversary of what Daphne Lowe Kelley recently labelled “the worst anti-Chinese riots in Australian history”. The incident took place at Lambing Flat on the goldfields at Burrangong, near Young in New South Wales on June 30, 1861, when European gold-miners attacked a group of about 800 Chinese, knocking down their tents, destroying their possessions, and chasing them from the field.
Kelley is the president of the Chinese Heritage Association of Australia. In an article in the Sydney Morning Herald, reproduced in a number of other newspapers, she said the Lambing Flat riot, plus anti-Chinese immigration restrictions in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, meant that for 120 years “the Chinese were treated in this country as lesser human beings”. She was particularly angry about an entry tax placed on Chinese who came here for the mid-nineteenth-century gold rushes. This was a discriminatory practice, she said, applied only to Chinese, not to white immigrants. It was soon copied by governments in Canada and New Zealand, who retained the tax well into the twentieth century.
Those last two countries, Kelley writes, have since realised the error of their ways. Their prime ministers, Helen Clark in 2002 and Stephen Harper in 2006, made public apologies and paid compensation for them. New Zealand made a $5 million grant to establish a Chinese Poll Tax Heritage Trust, while Canada gave $20,000 each to the surviving payers of the tax or their spouses, plus $35 million for cultural projects and a “national recognition” education program. In 2009, the state government of California also passed a bill apologising for the 1852 foreign miners’ tax aimed at Chinese immigrants and the 1882 Chinese Exclusion Act passed by the US Congress.
Kelley wants Australia to do the same. “Surely we do not have to wait as long as the first citizens of this country to get an apology and be recognised for the contributions we have made to the country we call home,” she said. “It is only now that there are stirrings in the Chinese Australian community to have past wrongs recognised for what they were.”
The “stirrings” Kelley mentions are both academic and political. University of Technology Sydney sociologist Andrew Jacubowitz has taken up her cause, arguing that China’s place in Australia’s purportedly racist history needs to be embedded in the national conscience. The Labor Party is courting Chinese support on similar grounds. In February this year New South Wales Labor Premier Kristina Keneally gave Kelley a Chinese Community Service Award, and federal cabinet member Penny Wong addressed her association. Julia Gillard, desperate for constituents, cannot be far behind.
It is not hard to see, however, that a movement of this kind is utterly irrelevant to the real interests of the Chinese in Australia. In the 2006 census, people of Chinese descent accounted for 3 per cent of the population, most of them Australian-born. They congregated in the larger cities, constituting about 7 per cent of Sydney’s population and 5 per cent of Melbourne’s. In terms of social success, they have long punched far above their weight, producing notable scientists: Victor Chang, Charles Teo, Terence Tao; businessmen: L.J. Hooker, Trevor O’Hoy, Bing Lee; a bevy of federal and state politicians plus lord mayors of Melbourne, Adelaide and Darwin; not to mention actor Jackie Chan, the Wiggles’ Jeff Fatt and one of the heroes of Gallipoli and the Western Front, Billy Sing.
Yet Kelley and her supporters want Chinese Australians to adopt the same political strategy of grievance and dependency that has so conspicuously failed Aboriginal people. Kevin Rudd’s February 2008 apology for the Stolen Generations has yet to produce one positive outcome. Indeed, according to a Productivity Commission report released in August, the majority of social indices for Aborigines have since got worse or are stagnating. Chinese Australians have nothing to gain from going down this road.
The traditional values Chinese immigrants brought to this country—hard work, high savings, an affinity for entrepreneurship and the professions, plus a good deal of tiger parenting to ensure their children do well at school—have served them infinitely better than anything that might be engineered by the politics of public apology.
In any case, the history on which Daphne Lowe Kelley has built her case is badly mistaken. Yes, there was an anti-Chinese riot at Lambing Flat in 1861. But the New South Wales government immediately dispatched a force of police to defend the Chinese miners. The police arrested and jailed white rioters. The only person killed at Lambing Flat was a white digger shot by the police.
The Chinese miners returned to the field and re-established their camp under police protection. The New South Wales government compensated them for their losses. It gave them a total of £4240—the equivalent of about $400,000 today—a generous sum for the loss of tents and gear.
Kelley’s understanding of this event relies on the work of academic historians who have left her seriously misinformed. When I researched the Lambing Flat incident for my 2005 book, The White Australia Policy, I found not one of the post-1960s historians acknowledged that the Chinese had been given compensation. They had airbrushed this revealing fact from existence. I had to go back to Myra Willard’s 1923 book on the history of the policy to find any mention of it. Moreover, after a similar incident at Buckland River, the Victorian government also compensated the Chinese to the extent of £7300, or about $700,000 today.
Those who want to beat up the goldfields violence prefer not to tell their readers that the actions of the rioters always remained lawless and gained no sanction from either colonial governments or the mainstream opinion at the time of Australia’s middle class and educated working class.
The complaint of discrimination about the entry taxes the Chinese miners had to pay is similarly misguided. During the 1850s, New South Wales and Victoria were British colonies, established and maintained at considerable cost to the home country. Unlike the great majority of gold seekers who came from the British Isles, the Chinese were foreigners. There was no reason to apologise to them then, or now, for charging them for the privilege of seeking their fortunes under the rule of law and the public infrastructure provided by Britain. Their entry tax was no more discriminatory than today’s practice of charging international students higher university tuition fees than locally-born students, whose parents and grandparents paid the taxes for the establishment of the universities in the first place.
The use of history to promote a sense of victimhood among various ethnic and sexual identity groups is one of the major cultural diseases of our time. It not only debilitates the social and political aspirations of the groups themselves but, with telling irony, also infects the perpetrators. The politicisation of history—in the words of Henry Reynolds, history “should aim to right old injustices, to discriminate in favour of the oppressed, to actively rally to the cause of liberation”—is the major cause of a decline in interest in the subject by the current generation of students at school and university, and a consequent decline in the number of jobs for historians.
This was evident as long as a decade ago when the University of Melbourne’s Stuart Macintyre reported to the Australian Historical Association on the number of historians employed by Australian universities. In a survey covering a ten-year period of expansion in the university sector, during which the total number of universities in this country trebled, the number of historians they employed not only failed to keep pace but actually fell by one-third, from 451 in 1989 to 300 in 1998.
Last month, Macintyre, the long-time Marxist chosen by Julia Gillard to convene the national history curriculum committee for schools, had more bad news. His university commissioned a review of its history program. It found between 2007 and 2010 the history department’s overall share of arts students fell from 12 to 9 per cent. Undergraduate history students in the Australian Studies program dropped 24 per cent to just sixty-eight. The review recommended the School of History redesign its Australian curriculum and that several of its twelve teaching and research staff be made redundant. There was no recommendation, however, for the redundancy of the professors who created and have long sat on the top of this shrinking pile, so we should expect nothing more than token changes.
We can expect a similar outcome when Gillard’s national curriculum comes into force. Confronted by history topics steeped in political correctness and political bias, school students will stay away in droves and many history teachers will either have to retrain or retire.
In June, the Institute of Public Affairs organised a very effective conference on the failure of the national curriculum to properly address the rich and complex legacy of Western civilisation. In a collection of papers for conference goers, Richard Allsop provided a depressing insight into the modern history curriculum:
Too much of the content appears to be premised on the basis that the only important aspect of history is finding out who was oppressed, whether this was due to class, race or gender, and casting moral judgment on the oppressor, with bonus points if it can be shown that the oppressor also despoiled the environment.
In the study of oppressed and disadvantaged people there does not appear to be any scope for considering the candidates for the most oppressed people in modern history—those who suffered under Hitler, Stalin and Mao—but, of course, there is room for those who suffered racism or sexism in Western democracies.
Allsop’s paper plus a number of others just as illuminating are published in the booklet The National Curriculum: A Critique, edited by Chris Berg, and available from the IPA office in Melbourne. Strongly recommended.