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Restrictive immigration Acts

Riots and a strong anti-Chinese sentiment led the governments of the time to believe Australia should not be a culturally diverse society. During the gold rush, legislation was introduced around the country to restrict Chinese immigration. Later, after Federation, the Australian government introduced legislation that acted as the foundation of the so called White Australia policy.

The Chinese a headache for young Victorian government

After the Eureka Stockade uprising a Royal Commission was appointed to examine the miner’s grievances. They were so concerned with the increase in Chinese miners on the gold fields and alarmed by the digger’s many complaints about the Chinese they recommended a landing tax be imposed to "check and diminish this influx". The Legislative Council and the Governor agreed and despite protests from pastoralists who believed the Chinese were peaceful valuable colonists, the council passed the Chinese Immigration Act. The legislation imposed a head tax of 10 pounds on every Chinese migrant entering a Victorian port and restricted their number to one per ten tonnes of a ship’s cargo.

The Act also stipulated that the tax revenue be used to supervise and protect the Chinese. If the tax revenue was insufficient for this task, the Act enabled the government to levy an additional tax on every Chinese resident. The supervision entailed salaried Protectors on each field who organised the Chinese into separate camps, controlled hygiene and settled disputes.

The effectiveness of the supervision system is debateable but the Act, as a means of restricting Chinese migrants from entering Victoria, was a dismal failure. Ship owners simply landed their Chinese passengers in South Australia and New South Wales, at ports several weeks walk from the diggings. The Melbourne Chamber of Commerce was outraged that the Act simply served to fill the pockets of South Australians who serviced the Chinese migrants. Late in 1857 the Victorian government repealed the Act as ineffective. However a storm of protest and violent incidents against the Chinese convinced the government to reinstate the legislation.

The Chinese residence licence

John Pascoe Fawkner, son of an ex-convict, convinced the legislative council to form a Select Committee under his leadership to "effectively prevent the gold fields of Australia Felix from becoming the property of the Emperor of China and of the Mongolian and tartar hordes of Asia". Before the Committee had compiled their report, news reached Melbourne of more violent clashes including the riot at Buckland River. These events, together with a stream of petitions from European miners compelled the government to introduce a Bill "to regulate the residence of Chinese population". This required all adult male Chinese residents of Victoria to produce a receipt for their entry tax and pay an additional residence tax of 1 pound every two months. The Bill included a clause that denied any Chinese miner the right to take legal action for the recovery of a mining claim, property or damages, giving European diggers virtual immunity to jump Chinese claims.

Experienced New South Wales politicians debate the Chinese problem

The New South Wales government took a similar course of action after the Lambing Flat riot in 1861, but the more experienced politicians came to what seemed like a less ad-hoc solution. The New South Wales legislation was based on the Victorian Chinese Immigration Act, but added a clause denying Chinese to right to naturalisation. Opposition to the Act came from pastoralists who appreciated Chinese labour and from W. Forster who argued that the Chinese were industrial and civilised people who could assist European migrants in developing the colony.

Wild opinions frequented Government debates over Chinese immigration at the time. Publicist and politician Henry Parks (known later as the Father of Federation due to his efforts to unite the Australian colonies) did not attack the Chinese for their character or habits, but believed that further immigration of Chinese would lead to "future discord, anarchy and civil war". Others such as W. Russel, complained of Chinese vice, disease and dirtiness, and deplored the possibility of a "mongrel" population resulting from the immigration of an "inferior race". This sense of European superiority over other races prevailed in Australian for decades. Years after the gold rush, when the colonies of Australia united to become a nation, it remained a topic of political debate.

Steps towards the White Australia policy

The vision of Australia’s first federal government was a white Australia. The first Acts passed by the new Federal parliament in 1901 were the Pacific Islanders Labourers Act, and the Immigration Restriction Act. The first act enabled the government to deport any Pacific Islanders working in the northern states, ridding the nation of cheap non-European labour. The second, more importantly, preserved the white majority in the Australian population.


By Benjamin Hoban


Charles A Price, The Great White Walls Are Built; Restrictive Immigration to North America and Australia 1836 – 1888, Australian National University Press, 1974.

The World News Perspectives, White Australia, try this quick quiz.

Australian Bureau of Statistics


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