What was the ‘White Australia Policy’?

William Hughes with some fellow White Australians / smh.com.au

William Hughes with some fellow White Australians / smh.com.au

Towards the end of the Victorian era, when neither statesmen or dustmen had yet heard of political correctitude, Australia began the unenviable task of preventing the immigration of non-Europeans. In the 1850s/1860s waves of Chinese and South Pacific islanders had come to Australia because of a dearth of labour in the Queensland sugar farms, but trade unions had been invented in the mother country, and were becoming rife in the Dominions too. They objected, as dirt cheap labour was seen as a threat to their members’ living standards.

By 1890 all regions had passed legislation restricting immigration, arousing great popular support. Without, as the Spanish say, ‘a hair on their lip’, unionists spoke in injured tones of preserving white purity, and the essential avoidance of ‘a mongrel nation’. The new Commonwealth of Australia was formed in 1901, and the legislators instantly passed an Immigration Restriction Act, excluding non-European immigrants by imposing a test in a European language – could be English, could be German or Dutch – though this was changed in 1905 to ‘any prescribed language’, in order to appease the offended Japanese.

Notwithstanding, in 1919, Prime Minister of Australia William Hughes fought successfully against a Japanese amendment to the Covenant of the ill-fated League of Nations which provided for racial equality. The most extraordinary thing is that the White Australia policy was applied also to the Aborigines, whose home land Australia had been! This led in the Twenties and Thirties to special reserves being made where the natives were forced to live, unless they had some protected employment elsewhere. Aborigines could not become citizens of the Commonwealth of Australia until 1948, and until that year they had no legal rights. The White Australia policy existed, even if it did not flourish, through all the first part of the 20th century.

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