History Wars

The White Australia Policy

See Also: John Izzard on “Immigration Nation” here…

Address to the Sydney Institute, August 10, 2005, in debate with Gwenda Tavan of La Trobe University: 

The consensus among academic historians today is that the White Australia Policy made this country the moral equivalent of South Africa under apartheid. Some historians label Australia at Federation one of the ‘herrenvolk democracies’. Herrenvolk is German for ‘master race’ and historians who use the term, like Andrew Markus of Monash University, are making a direct compari­son with the racist nationalism of the Nazis. According to Richard White of the University of Sydney, the Australian national character projected by both the outback pastoral worker and the sun-bronzed surf lifesaver ‘was uncomfortably close to Nazi ideas about the Aryan master race’. 

Moreover, the White Australia Policy purportedly lives on today. The unanimous opinion of an academic history conference on the policy in December 2001 was that John Howard’s border protection measures tapped into deeply-embedded sentiments of ‘blood and race’ to ensure his election victory that year. Gwenda Tavan claims the White Australia Policy is not just a skeleton in our historical cupboard but a ghost that rises anew every decade to haunt our political debate. 

Rather than go through all the arguments in my book why this interpretation is a travesty of our past and a caricature of recent events, I want to focus tonight on the big issue, the passing of the Immigration Restriction Bill of 1901. Modern historians have seriously misrepresented the views of the parliamentarians of 1901. Henry Reynolds writes: ‘Most of them were convinced of the imperative need for a homogeneous nation. Their prescription for reaching that end was pervaded with ideas of race and blood … Any amount of alien and inferior blood was too much.’ Gavin Jones of the Australian National University asserts: ‘Most speeches in the debate on the Immigration Restriction Act demonstrated this racial pride and arrogance.’ Neville Meaney of the University of Sydney writes: ‘When the Commonwealth Government placed before parliament as its first major piece of legislation an Immigration Restriction bill there was not one voice raised against the principle of racial discrimination.’ Meaney’s interpretation has been particularly influential because he is one of the few today in the Department of History at the University of Sydney who is a real historian rather than a left-wing ideologue His notion that ‘British race patriotism’ was central to Australian national identity has spread beyond the circles of the Left, influencing writers such as the journalist Paul Kelly. Unfortunately, Meaney has not done the research he has led his readers to believe. 

To show this, let me first say that it is certainly true that some parliamentarians did speak in terms that were offensively racist, even for the times. Labour leader Chris Watson and Protectionist Prime Minister Edmund Barton both made overtly racist arguments, and their words are often quoted today. However, what historians who discuss this debate never tell you is that most politicians voted for other reasons entirely. Here are some statements from the debate that give the lie to the claim that not one voice was raised against racial discrimination: 

Bruce Smith, Free Trade party, said:

The foundation of the bill is racial prejudice… the whole thing is a bogy, a scarecrow. I venture to say that a large part of the scare is founded upon a desire to make political capital by appealing to some of the worst instincts of the more credulous of the people.

James Fowler, Labour party, said of the people of India:

Many of these peoples are at least our equal in all that goes to make up morality, or even intellectual or physical qualities. We should not, therefore, argue this question upon such grounds.

William Higgs, Labour party, said:

No one who has paid any attention to the question of the coloured races will attempt for one moment to despise either the Japanese or the Chinese.

Sir John Downer, Protectionist party, said:

This is not an urgent matter in practical politics at the present moment. It is merely a political cry for the purposes of gaining kudos… I do not anticipate or fear any intermixture of races from any Asiatics who may come here.

Edward Pulsford, Free Trade party said:

I look upon the whole of the inhabitants of Asia as my friends. I am perfectly willing that they should be called my friends, and I hope so long as God gives me breath that I shall have the courage to stand up for what I consider to be right for them.

James Macfarlane, Free Trade party, said:

I do not approve of this Bill, which is against the traditions of the British Empire. It is evident that it is very objectionable to the British Government because it takes cognizance of race, colour and country of origin.

Edward Harney, Free Trade party, said:

I am not prepared to admit, and certainly I am not disposed to base any arguments on the admission, that the Asiatic peoples are inferior to us in any respect, morally, intellectually, or physically. But admitting their equality, even their superiority, I still say that we should keep them out.

Read my book to find many more comments like these. In the Senate, Edward Pulsford moved an amendment to the Bill that specifically stated that it meant no racial offence. 

The truth about the majority opinion in the parliament was expressed by Donald Cameron, a member for Tasmania. In the 1901 debate he said:

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.

This debate lasted from August to December 1901 and most parliamentarians spoke. It occupies more than 600 pages of Hansard and more than half a million words. On my reading of it all, I think Cameron’s statement is the most accurate estimate of parliamentary opinion of the day. It is significant that not one of the historians of race in Australia has ever quoted it before. 

Apart from the impact of large-scale foreign immigration on wages, the other major fear of most politicians was that the creation of a racially-based, political underclass, living on very low wages, which meant they could only afford sub-standard housing, food and clothing, would undermine the egalitarian society which most democratically-minded people wanted Australia to be. 

In short, the White Australia Policy was introduced for economic and cultural reasons, not primarily because of racial prejudice. 

Since the 1970s, the case presented by the historians of this subject has been a travesty of the truth. They have scraped together comments from what was clearly a minority opinion within parliament to claim that everyone thought that way. The historians who have dominated this debate have all presented the same kind of selective and skewed evidence, usually borrowed from one another’s own work without any reading of the original sources, to reach the same conclusion. Our academic historians have betrayed their responsibility to tell this story in all its dimensions. 

A reading of the 1901 parliamentary debate also undermines the fashionable notion that Australian engagement with Asia is a recent idea. A number of the speakers in that debate were very well traveled men who had visited Asia where they were actively engaged in trying to boost trade. Senator John Ferguson, for instance, had not only visited Asian countries to promote trade deals but had spent several months living in Japan. Despite the claims of Henry Reynolds that the White Australia Policy in 1901 put an end to a burgeoning trade between northern Australia and Asia, the trade statistics show, in fact, that the opposite occurred. By 1920, Australian exports to Asia were five times greater than in 1900 and imports were nine times greater. By 1936, despite our political wariness of expansionist Japan, that country had become our third biggest trading partner. 

It is important to recognize that racism is not an ancient concept but a modern one. Racial divisions among human beings were first defined in the late eighteenth century. Racism, as such, emerged only in the 1850s. In the then non-unified German states and princedoms, biological theories of race became predominant soon after, when they were used by politicians and writers to define the prospective German nation. 

Now, there were some Australians who did subscribe to these theories of racist nationalism. By the 1880s, racism, along with socialism, republicanism and feminism, was one of the latest trendy ideas from the continent which inspired our colonial intelligentsia. Among these people, our academic historians’ case does have some basis in reality. The greatest enthusiasts for White Australia, and the genuine racists of that era, were the members of the late nineteenth and early twentieth century Left intelligenstia, especially its writers and artists. Norman Lindsay wrote a memoir which he titled Bohemians of the Bulletin, which is a convenient label for them all. From the 1880s to the First World War, the Bulletin was their main publishing outlet. Most historians today treat the Bulletin of that period as a widely popular journal. In reality it was the late nineteenth century equivalent of, say, Nation Review or National Times in the 1970s, or the ABC’s Radio National today, that is, very influential among the cultural elite and labour politicians of an intellectual bent, but greatly out of step with the majority of their fellow Australians in the suburbs and country towns. It is uncanny how much this late nineteenth century intellectual avant garde is a mirror image of its radical, tertiary-educated counterpart in our own times. 

In the nineteenth century, the principal objections to non-white immigrants had come from trade unions and labour movement politicians. They objected to Chinese immigrants not primarily because of their race but because many were ‘coolies’, that is, indentured labourers recruited in their home country at wages a fraction of Australian market rates, which left them an impoverished underclass. They also objected to the Melanesian islanders employed as coolies on Queensland sugar plantations, which paid them six pounds a year at a time when an unskilled white labourer in Sydney or Melbourne could earn six pounds a fortnight. The union campaign against coolie labour was at the time a progressive movement to extend the freedom and dignity of labour, in the same mould as the campaign to end black slavery and convict transportation. Nonetheless, it remains true that by the end of the century some labour politicians appealed to their electorate on the basis of race. The worst was Labor’s federal leader Chris Watson, followed closely by King O’Malley. In the early parliaments, the two major political parties were the Protectionists and the Free Traders. Labor was a minority party but it held the balance of power and could make or break the Prime Minister. Immigration policy was one issue that determined which of the two major parties it would support. That was probably the main reason why the Protectionist Edmund Barton declared himself for White Australia. 

In 1901, however, White Australia was not the burning issue with the majority of the Australian electorate that academic historians claim. Most Australians defined their national identity not in terms of race but in terms of politics. In fact, Australians had two identities. On the one hand, they identified themselves as democrats who were proud to be building the most democratic country in the world. At the same time, Australians were also internationalists who owed loyalty to the British Empire, an organization that specifically rejected hierarchies based on race. In 1897, the British government refused demands by the colony of Queensland to restrict immigration on grounds of country of origin. Colonial Secretary Joseph Chamberlain told the Premier that Queen Victoria, who reigned over an empire containing many different races, could never be persuaded to approve a bill that discriminated among them in such a way. 

Because Australian political identity was based on civic patriotism rather than racial nationalism, the White Aus­tralia Policy could be readily discarded once the political decision was made. Immigration restrictions were gradually liberalised, starting with the Menzies government in the mid-1950s. John Howard’s recent claim that it was the Liberals, not the Labor Party, who really ended the White Australia Policy is largely true. The biggest single change to the policy was made in 1956 when Harold Holt was Minister for Immigration. He allowed highly-skilled non-Europeans to enter the country and become citizens and also allowed the non-European spouses of Australians to become citizens. The Labor Party opposed such measures for another ten years. When Holt became Prime Minister in 1966, he effectively ended the policy, permitting entry of non-Europeans who had skills that were ‘positively useful to Australia’ and giving European and non-European residents the same qualifying period for citizenship. The last vestiges were eliminated by the Whitlam government, with Coalition support, in 1975. Within the Liberal Party in the 1950s and 60s, the debate was between the Deakinite liberals, of whom Bob Menzies was one, who supported state protectionism, wage determination and White Australia, versus the free traders or classical Adam Smith liberals. The latter eventually prevailed. Ending the White Australia Pol­icy required no cultural crisis and was accom­plished by liberal politicians — that is, small ‘l’ liberals — from both sides of parliament, whose values were similar to those of the 1901 bill’s original critics. The proof that Australia wore the policy lightly was the ease with which it discarded it. 

Overall, the White Australia Policy had aspects that were both reactionary and progressive, discriminatory and humane. It is nothing to be especially proud of, but nor is it anything before which we should cringe or apologise. A proper reading of its history reveals there is no ghost of racism haunting mainstream Australia culture. 

Keith Windschuttle’s The White Australia Policy was published by Macleay Press in 2004

See Also: John Izzard on “Immigration Nation” here…

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