Home Indigenous Knowledge and Education The White Australia Policy

The White Australia Policy

The Event

The White Australia Policy, otherwise known as the Immigration Restriction Act of 1901, was a policy put in place by the newly-formed Australian government. The policy was largely driven by both the feeling of racial superiority of white people and the fears of white miners potentially losing their jobs to Chinese and Pacific Islanders, who were willing to work longer and for less pay (Waugh, 2001). Another element to the White Australia Policy was that of assimilation. One of the reasons for not allowing the Chinese and other races into the country was the belief that their culture could not be assimilated into Australian society (Jayasuria, Gothard, Walker, 2003).

The policy also included a dictation test, which called for non-white or otherwise undesirable immigrants to pronounce 50 English words correctly. If they passed this, the test was repeated in a random European language chosen by the test administrator. As a result, the number of successful applicants was miniscule, eventually dropping to zero after 1909 (National Museum of Australia, n.d.).

After the Second World War, the government slowly began to dismantle the policy. After changes to the Migration Act in 1958 removed the dictation test, 1966 announced the end of the White Australia Policy, and legislation in 1975 sealed its fate (Australian Department of Immigration and Border Protection, n.d.)

Continued Effect on Indigenous Australians

While the primary purpose of the White Australia Policy was to prevent those of a different culture from entering the country, it also intended to unite Australia into one culture – the British culture. This, of course, meant that the Indigenous Australians were forced to conform to White Australian standards. At a public meeting regarding the Anti-Chinese movement in 1861, as detailed by Laksiri Jayasuria (2003, p. 23), barrister William Windeyer said “A native savage could be civilised, but a semi-civilised man like the Chinese could not”. It is possible that the attitudes exacerbated by the White Australia policy, particularly the sense of racial superiority and the commitment to a singular British culture, are what led to the change from segregation policies to assimilation policies when it came to Indigenous Australians.

Přemysl Šourek’s thesis on the effects of White Australia on Australian media (2009) indicates that the goals of the Australian government in the early years of federation was “to assimilate the Aboriginal population into the white citizenry, or let those not willing to assimilate become extinct”. Anthony Moran (2005, p. 174) writes in his journal article “for settlers and their governments, the “half-caste” or “mixed blood” was the category of Aboriginality crucial to the imagining of absorbing or assimilating into the white nation”. From this reasoning, we can assume that the perceived need for a homogenized white society enforced by the White Australia Policy was most likely at least part of the reason that half-blooded Indigenous children were removed from their families to receive a British-based education: The Stolen Generation.

Community Learnings

With the abolition of the policy, the number of non-European immigrants rose from 746 in 1966 (the year White Australia was abolished) to 2696 in 1971 (Waugh, 2001). According to the 2011 Census (data released in 2012) about 27% of the population are first-generation Australians, and approximately 20% are second generation. Efforts are also being made to repair the damage to Indigenous Society caused by events occurring during the White Australia years, including the official apology Even so, The White Australia Policy continues to have an effect on the Australian image, having only been officially dismantled in the early-to-mid seventies. The Australian Government (2013, p. 5) proudly proclaims it is “unwavering in its commitment to a multicultural Australia” when the early years of our Federation were defined by a policy that explicitly forbade it. However, perhaps this is as reflection of how far Australia has come as a whole, even if there is still a lot of work to be done.

For one thing, it seems many have not have taken to the variety of cultures now part of Australia. The returning popularity of the One Nation Party is testament to that. In his maiden speech to the Australian Senate, One Nation Senator Bryan Burston advocated for an immigration policy not dissimilar to the White Australia Policy. Burston (Commonwealth of Australia, 2016, pg. 1497) says “The motivation for the Immigration Restriction Act 1901 was threefold: to maintain high wages, preserve social cohesion and protect national identity…One Nation does not advocate racially selective immigration but does seek to minimise cultural incompatibility, evident in the case of Islamic immigration”. Time will tell if history repeats itself, but with the policy now reviled and a nation composed of immigrants, it seems unlikely that it will.

Incorporation into Future Teachings

The White Australia policy and the associated injustices make up a large part of our country’s history, and many people are desperately trying to forget it. It is important that we acknowledge this and take measures so we do not repeat it, and the primary method is through education. In Sarah Booth’s thesis on teaching Indigenous history (2014, p 1), she notes “Education can play a vital role in bringing a balanced perspective to the school system by challenging colonial values and negative stereotypes of Australia’s Indigenous peoples and encouraging reconciliation”.  “Challenging colonial values”, specifically those which led to the White Australia Policy in the first place, are the primary target of education on the matter, as limited understanding will only enforce outdated values and principles.

The primary focus should be on the time of colonialism and its effects on Indigenous people, as this is what students are likely to be familiar with and any misconceptions should be cleared up quickly. The justification and consequences of the White Australia policy should be outlined, and discussion on the matter and how to improve the situation should be discussed with students.

The key discussion points should include:

  • Why white Australians prevented people from different cultures live in this country
  • The lack of discussion of that point in our history, and why that is so
  • The idea of forcing one sort of culture onto people who aren’t familiar with it
  • The treatment of Indigenous and non-European people by white Australians in the name of assimilation
  • What we have learned from that time, and how Australia has changed

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