September 2013

It’s 40 years since White Australia ended

The last vestiges of the White Australia policy were removed on September 17, 1973. Have we as a nation evolved much since then, asks Moira Byrne Garton.

BY Moira Byrne Garton

With media focus on the federal election throughout this year, it has not generally been recognised that 2013 marks the fortieth anniversary of the complete removal of the White Australia policy, a significant milestone in Australian history.

The notorious Immigration Restriction Act 1901 was the first piece of legislation passed by the Commonwealth of Australia, and the official beginning of the White Australia policy. The Act placed certain restrictions on immigration and provided for the removal of “prohibited immigrants” from Australia, including for non-white people, and skewed migration from British, Irish and particular European countries.

The 1901 Act was just the beginning. The White Australia policy was actually more a collection of legislations and practices that shaped Australia’s approach to immigration and the community throughout the early decades of the last century.

Interestingly, churches were involved in the debate about Australia’s restrictive immigration policy, and in fact, opinions differed on what an ethical or moral Christian stance on the White Australia policy should be.

Throughout the years following World War II, until the 1960s, the Australian Council of the World Council of Churches supported a quota system, whereas the Quaker, Presbyterian and Catholic churches considered it wrong and incompatible with Christian values. The Australian Catholic Bishops condemned “the false assumption of racial superiority which too often underlies the White Australia policy” and declared that exclusion could not be justified.

However, following World War II when a number of non-white refugees entered Australia, the Chifley Labor government relaxed the Immigration Restriction Act in 1947 so that non-Europeans could settle in Australia for business reasons. In 1949, under the Menzies Liberal government, this was extended to permit non-European refugees to stay, and Japanese war brides to be accepted. This marked the beginning of increasingly more open immigration approaches.

In 1950, students from Asian countries were allowed to study at Australian universities; in 1957 non-European residents of at least 15 years were permitted to obtain citizenship; in 1958 the controversial dictation test was abandoned and the potential for Asian immigration flagged; and in 1959 Australians’ Asian spouses could be sponsored for citizenship. In 1963, proposals for eliminating the White Australia policy drew currency, and in 1964, entry conditions for non-Europeans were lowered. The Holt Government’s Migration Act 1966 was a significant step in the abolition of the policy, as access to migrants of non-European background increased.

Under the Whitlam government, the last vestiges of the White Australia policy were removed.  A number of legislative amendments passed by the parliament ended racial aspects of immigration law and the Australian Citizenship Act 1973 received assent on September 17, 1973. All migrants with three years’ permanent residence were able to obtain citizenship, regardless of race, and Australia ratified international agreements on immigration and race. A number of minor amendments in ensuing years have sought to remove further discriminatory aspects of public policy.

But sometimes I wonder how far we have come in the 40 years hence. Signs in the years soon after 1973 indicated we were becoming a more welcoming, inclusive and culturally diverse community, with the Fraser government accepting Vietnamese boat people landing on our shores and organising resettlement. While those years are sometimes hailed as a golden era for more open immigration, this is not the full story; the government was resistant to permanent resettlement of Asian immigrants. Yet for some, the 1970s and 1980s revealed a greater openness in the community. At the very least, political leaders were less inclined to use immigration as a divisive issue for potential political advantage.

During the last few months, a number of events prompted me to reflect on the Australian community of 2013 and whether we have evolved much since the White Australia policy and its abolition 40 years ago.

Firstly, the former Labor government made asylum seeker policy more stringent by transferring any arrivals by boat to be detained in Papua New Guinea. Secondly, a federal election candidate pledged to “stop the boats”, despite arriving as a refugee from Vietnam. And thirdly, another candidate for political office blamed asylum seekers for traffic on Sydney’s motorways and for hospital waiting times.

While not explicitly prejudiced, such incidents cause me to speculate on why arrivals by plane are not subject to the same judgements, and why some in our community appear so determined to reject others.

These days, many religious organisations remain among the most supportive of asylum seekers and refugees, advocating for them in the political sphere, and are frequently involved with refugee resettlement. Indeed, some in the broader Australian community also make connections with refugees and new migrants from different cultures. Knowing means opportunities for understanding and connection, rather than judgement and rejection.

It is my hope that the next 40 years will further reduce fear and division, and bring Australian society closer to a common practice of empathy, acceptance and community for people of all backgrounds.

Moira Byrne Garton

Dr Moira Byrne Garton is a mother, caregiver, public servant and writer.

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