Day 211: Understanding the White Australia Policy

Day 211: Understanding the White Australia Policy

Monday, 30 July, 2018

A little-known Australian senator, Fraser Anning, recently gave a speech that made world headlines. In it, he called for a “final solution”* to public debate around immigration and for a return to the White Australia Policy.

As outrage spread quickly in response to his words, I found myself inspired by the new Spike Lee film, BlacKkKlansman, to ask what it was like to actually experience the White Australia Policy. More specifically, I started asking what it would be like to then to see, after all these years, that not only is the White Australia Policy not quite dead, it might one day come back**.

It occurred to me that I know next to nothing about the experience of living through the White Australia Policy. Most people today assume the worst and react with blind opposition, but that’s not the understanding I’m looking for. I’m looking for something more qualitative. I want to know how people behaved. I want to know whether racist jokes were openly told to people’s faces. Were there places that non-White people weren’t allowed to go? How do things today compare with how they were back then?

I needed to ask someone. I needed to ask a non-White person; someone for whom issues of race and culture are daily, unconscious challenges. Do these people exist? How many are there? How many of such people are still around who are willing to talk?

The first person my thoughts came to, surprisingly, were my father. He came to Australia in 1962 to attend high school, and he left in 1968 to attend university in the US. He saw the tail-end of the policy – when in 1965 the Menzies government dismantled the last of the laws that brought the White Australia Policy into effect. Perhaps he’d observed something about life during and after the policy?

I’ve never spoken with him about this before, so I literally didn’t know what he was going to say. When I finally got the chance to ask, this is what he told me:

Nothing much changed. He was warned before coming to Australia that the rules of entry were very strict. He didn’t encounter anything unusual in the application process and, once on Australian soil, he didn’t experience any kind of backlash or discrimination. If there was any, he was oblivious to it. He did notice, however, that after 1965, the number of students from Hong Kong increased dramatically.    

I feel a little stupid for having hoped for more: the White Australia Policy never existed in name as a statute or anything so formal – it was more of a goal or a position, spoken of colloquially, adopted in the 1850s, and then enshrined in multiple statutes like the Immigration Restriction Act and the Pacific Island Labourers Act. The goal was to promote the growth of an Anglo-Christian society by explicitly excluding (at the time) Asians and Pacific Islanders. By the time my father came into the picture, the policy had already well and truly fallen out of favour.

Of course, today, the list of restrictions being either imposed, debated, or proposed is far wider; refugees, Muslims, Africans… If a government really did want to return to the White Australia Policy, only a fool would refer to it by name. The people empowered to do so would use different words, phrases and codes. Scott Morrison’s “Sovereign Borders” springs to mind***.

And if that happens, would we know? Would we realise it?

As for my little research project into the White Australia Policy, I think I’m going to have to do much more digging.


About today’s photo: I’ve fallen nearly a month behind on my photos. And… well… life is complicated.


*He pleaded, speciously, ignorance to the connection most civilised people made between “final solution” and the language of Adolf Hitler.

**After learning about the Overton Window, at the rate the Internet turns everything into binary arguments, it doesn’t seem so impossible to me for the White Australia Policy to make an eventual return.

***He’s our new Prime Minister, by the way. Check out his video to refugees

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