• By the 1950s, migrants from Europe – particularly Italy and Greece – outnumbered British arrivals. (SBS)Source: SBS
With the end of World War Two came an unprecedented mass migration scheme that would shape Australia’s national identity.
Nicola Heath

19 Mar 2019 - 5:02 PM  UPDATED 20 Mar 2019 - 11:50 AM

“Populate or perish!”

It was the catch cry of a drive to encourage immigration to Australia in the years following World War II. Australia’s first immigration minister, Labor’s Arthur Calwell, believed that Australia’s economic and military security relied on population growth, and he launched a campaign to entice migrants to start a new life in Australia.

SBS series Australia in Colour examines the enduring impact of post-war immigration on Australia’s national identity. In 1945, when Australia’s population was 7.5 million, Australians were still considered British subjects – citizenship wouldn’t be introduced until 1949 – and our immigration laws under the White Australia Policy favoured Britons.

A pillar of the Populate or Perish policy was the Assisted Passage Migration Scheme, launched by the government in 1945. The scheme offered British subjects subsidised passage to Australia and the promise of job opportunities and affordable housing once here. These new arrivals were known as ‘Ten Pound Poms’, named after the price of their fare.

At the same time, the government relaxed its immigration policy, accepting tens of thousands of Jewish Holocaust survivors and refugees from southern Europe, a policy decried by critics who believed migration should be limited to Brits, American and blue-eyed Nordic types. Australia in Colour features newsreels from the time showing boatloads of migrants arriving in Sydney – some, like the fair-skinned ‘beautiful Balts’ from northern Europe, more welcome than others.

Despite the controversy, a steady stream of migrants continued to arrive on Australian shores, and their influence shaped the nation. Construction on the Snowy Mountains Hydro-Electric Scheme, the biggest civil engineering project in Australia’s history, began in 1949 with the most diverse workforce the country had ever seen: two-thirds of its 100,000 workers were migrants hailing from 30 different countries around the world.

By the 1950s, migrants from Europe – particularly Italy and Greece – outnumbered British arrivals. Many moved to Far North Queensland, where they help establish the sugarcane industry. The Greek community in Melbourne, responsible for the city’s milk bars and nascent dining culture, grew to be the largest outside Greece.

The White Australia Policy was dismantled in the 60s and officially abolished under the Whitlam government in 1973. Since then, waves of immigration have continued to shape our increasingly multicultural society. Today, 70 years after Arthur Calwell launched his Populate or Perish campaign, almost half of us have at least one parent who was born overseas.

Experience Australia’s story brought vividly to life with the new four-part series Australia in Colour premiering on SBS at 8.30pm on Wednesday March 6. Available anytime and anywhere on your favourite device after broadcast on SBS On Demand. 

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