At-a-glance: The White Australia policy

The White Australia immigration policy of last century was formally abolished when the Whitlam government took power in 1972.

When did Australia move towards changing the White Australia policy?

(Transcript from )

The White Australia immigration policy of last century was formally abolished when the Whitlam government took power in 1972.

But the move to change it and open the country to migrants from Asia began around 20 years earlier.

And 50 years ago a group of students and academics from Melbourne University published a manifesto for getting rid of White Australia in favour of a wider immigration policy.

Members of the Immigration Reform Group now say the paper was hugely influential in bringing about the end of what was seen internationally as a racist policy.

When the 50-page manifesto Immigration: Control or Colour Bar? was published in 1963, change was already in the air.

The notorious dictation test in which migrants had to correctly write out words of any European language -- not necessarily English -- had been officially abolished several years earlier,

And some non-Europeans were being allowed in under immigration ministerial discretion

But the White Australia policy that had started under the 1901 Immigration Restriction Act continued with the support of both major political parties.

Historian Kate Darian-Smith says there's no question it was a racially informed policy, designed to keep out migrants from the Asia-Pacific region.

"In the period of post-war expansion in Australia, actually Australia is seeking new migrants. It's looking beyond Britain. It's looking to the displaced persons camps of Europe after the second world war. It's taking in migrants from a far greater range of source countries than it ever has before. But among those source countries there is still not immigration coming from Asia. But certainly for the people in the Immigration Reform Group, the issue is about race and it is about Australia throwing off that previous policy and engaging more widely with the region."

One of the founding members of the Immigration Reform Group, lawyer Stephen Charles, says the White Australia policy had been a simmering issue among university students in the 1950s.

But Mr Charles says it was also an era of increasing numbers of Asian students coming to Australia under the Colombo Plan, which provided scholarships for people in the region.

"In 1958 there were 400 Colombo Plan students at the university. Apart from the Colombo Plan students, there were students going on foreign exchange, to conferences and travelling overseas. And invariably in Asia they were met by very hostile questioning from the locals wanting to know why were were such a pack of racial bastards."

The co-author of Colour Bar was now-retired Supreme Court judge Howard Nathan.

Mr Nathan says, despite the mood for change on campus, many Australians in the wider community were still comfortable with the policy.

"The big fault lines were anti-communism; it was the time of the Labor split and just thereafter. And that this movement was attacking what really was motherhood in the Australian political context. White Australia was upheld by the ALP in its various split forms, and was silently and tacitly applauded by the more conservative side of politics. So they were the major fault lines. It was a fundamental challenge to long-held bigotries and it was in the context, the political context, of upheaval in the Labor parties."

The Immigration Reform Group set out to investigate the intellectual basis of the White Australia Policy.

The resulting manifesto suggested an alternative migration system not based on quotas.

Stephen Charles says it was taken very seriously in the press and by political parties, but change wasn't immediate.

He says it wasn't until Robert Menzies retired in 1966 that his successor, Harold Holt, could take the advice of his immigration minister, the former Olympic cyclist Hubert Opperman, to broaden Australia's immigration intake.

"By 1970-71, something like 10,000 Asians were coming into Australia, compared with the three or four hundred that had been coming in before 1966. So that, in effect, before 1972 the White Australia policy for practical purposes had gone."

4 min read
Published 21 June 2013 at 8:46am
By Kerri Worthington
Source: SBS