White Australia Policy

The White Australia Policy encompassed legislation passed with the intention of restricting the immigration of “non-white” peoples into the country. The Immigration Restriction Act of 1901 was one of the first acts passed by the new Federation.

Racial antagonism had existed from the 1850s when large numbers of hard-working Chinese entered the country to mine during the gold rush. They were resented by white miners who acted violently against them with the result that Victoria and NSW introduced restriction on further immigration from China.


White Australia cartoon from The Bulletin (1895)

Subsequently workers called ‘Kanakas’ from the South Sea Islands entered Australia to work on the sugar plantations. Local workers thought that foreign labour threatened their own jobs because they believed that the new immigrants worked for lower pay, accepted poorer conditions and were averse to unionisation.

The Australian Dictation Test

It was this climate of feeling that led to the 1901 Immigration Restriction Act and the introduction of the notorious Dictation Test. As the British Colonial Secretary in London announced in 1897, “We quite sympathise with the determination of these colonies that there should not be an influx of people alien in civilisation, alien in religion, alien in customs, whose influx would seriously interfere with the legitimate rights of the existing labouring population.”

The implementation of the strict conditions laid down in the Immigration Restriction Act was warmly welcomed by most Australians and in 1919 the then Prime Minister, William Hughes, declared, “It is the greatest thing we have achieved.”

The White Australia Policy was held dear for many years. In 1925 Prime minster Bruce maintained, “We intend to keep this country white.” At the start of the war, Prime Minister Curtin was still reinforcing the policy by saying, “This country shall remain forever the home of the descendants of those people who came here in peace in order to establish in the South seas and outpost of the British race.”

Populate or Perish

The tide started to turn after the war when Australia realised that its population was too small. In 1949, Immigration Minister Harold Holt allowed 800 non-white refugees to apply for residency and agreed that Japanese war brides should be permitted to stay. From then on there was a move to encourage immigration. “Populate or Perish” became the catchphrase.  And, among many others, the Ten Pound Poms certainly did the honours and filled up a lot of empty spaces!

The White Australia Policy became defunct in 1973 but it was not until 1975 that the Racial Discrimination Act was passed making it obligatory to disregard race as a criterion in selection of immigrants.

Can you pass the Dictation Test?

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