White Australia Policy






Find us on Youtube     Find us on Facebook     Find us on Pinterest     Find us on Instagram     Support us on Patreon




The White Australia Policy can trace its origins back to the early days of the goldfields when Japanese and Chinese miners were competing for mining space with European miners. The Anti-Asiatic League was formed in Coolgardie just two years after gold was discovered in 1892 and there were also problems associated with competition between Afghan cameleers and European carters.


Similar race problems existed on the New South Wales goldfields as far back as the 1850s.


The White Australia Policy was one of the first enactments of the newly created Federal Government in 1901 and it remained in force until the 1970s.


The 1901 legislation was enacted 'to place certain restrictions on immigration and to provide for the removal from the Commonwealth of prohibited immigrants.'


Prohibited immigrants included the insane, anyone likely to become a drain on public funds, prostitutes, criminals, anyone with an infectious disease, anyone who within three years of arrival who was convicted of a criminal offence and sentenced to 12 months or more and anyone 'of a loathsome or dangerous character.'


All political parties supported the policy and few people outside politics questioned it. The Minister of External Affairs said, 'Good results can never be attained through the mixture of races disparate in blood and traditions.'


One of the main problems encountered when the policy was established was how to handle Japan. At the time Britain was more afraid of Russia than Japan and had entered into a treaty with the Japanese government. This also made Australia and Japan allies by proxy and Britain did not want the White Australia Policy to offend the Japanese.


In order to try not to appear racist, a language test was established that in theory, applied to all immigrants. In practice, however, this was far from the truth.


The language test could be given in ANY European language and was 50 words long. The tests were administered by Australian Customs officers. Instructions given to the officers were secret but today we know they contained the following:


"All aboriginal inhabitants of Africa, Asia and Polynesia should be subjected to the test unless they come within the exceptions to Section 3, or are Pacific Island labourers, or are otherwise exempted. In the case of White Races, the test will be applied only under special circumstances. The passage for dictation is to be one of the set forwarded herewith and is to be changed according to the dates given."


"The English Language will in general be adopted for the purpose of the test; but if in your opinion, the immigrant would, for reasons which you would be prepared to state, be an undesirable immigrant, it may be better to substitute for the English test, a passage from some other language. The choice of the language and of the passage will be left to your discretion. In every such case, a special report is to be furnished."


The passages selected for the test were changed every fortnight to help stop rote learning. Following is one example of the type of passages that were used:


"We all call the lion king of the beasts, but compare the biggest maneless lion with the full-grown male tiger, and we see at once which is the mightier animal. The tiger does not look it, but he is really more terrible than the great maned lion. The lion looks, with his noble mane, as terrible as he is."


Racism became firmly established in popular culture and anyone who was seen to be in opposition to the policy was vilified.


The Bulletin published the following with regard to a European woman (married to a Chinese man) who had committed suicide by setting herself on fire:

Chinaman's Wife,
It is well you died.
Though poison, knife
Or river-tide
Give rest from shame,
Only by flame
Can such as you
Be purified.


After World War 1, Japan moved a detailed motion in the League of Nations to stop discrimination on the basis of race or nationality being used by member nations. This motion was not accepted so they tried again with a more general motion. 11 nations voted in favour and 5 against but the motion was vetoed by the American President on the grounds that all nations did not agree. This could be regarded as one of the seeds that led to Japanese aggression in World War 2.


The first stages of the dismantling of this policy began with (then) Immigration Minister Harold Holt in 1949 when 800 non-European refugees were allowed to remain in Australia and Japanese 'war brides' were also allowed entry.


In 1950 the Colombo Plan enabled Asian students to enter Australian universities.


In 1957, non-European immigrants who had been in Australia for 15 years or more were eligible to become Australian citizens.


In 1958 the dictation test was removed and a simpler system of entry permits was established.


In 1959 Australians could sponsor Asian spouses for citizenship.


In 1966 a number of 'temporary residents' were allowed to remain in Australia indefinitely and after 5 years residence could gain citizenship.


Non-European immigration numbered just 746 people in 1966 but this had risen to 2696 by 1971.


The Whitlam Government in 1973 put a final end to the White Australia Policy by allowing any immigrant after three years residence to obtain citizenship and by putting in place measures to instruct immigration officials to disregard race when determining suitability for entry to Australia. Despite this non-European immigration did not really increase until the Fraser Government took office in 1975.


In 1975 the Racial Discrimination Act made it illegal to discriminate on the basis of race.


It has to be pointed out that Australia was not on its own when it came to restricting immigration based on race. Canada, USA, Britain, South Africa and New Zealand have all had similar racially based policies in the past.


Today around a quarter of the people residing in Australia were born overseas and 45% have at least one parent who was born overseas. The current Australian population originates from around 250 different countries and 200 different languages are spoken here. After English the next most common language in Australia is Italian.


In 2007, shortly before being soundly defeated at the general election, the Howard Government introduced tougher language tests and an Australian values test.


Nationalism and right-wing politics in Australia are gradually moving the country back towards a position where non-European immigration is regarded as less desirable.




Become a supporter of this website for just $5 a month



Go to the Home Page Go to the Help Page Go to the Help Page

Western Australia Now and Then website - Copyright (c) 2019 - Marc Glasby. All rights reserved.