We don’t talk about the White Australia Policy

I was so excited to write an essay on the White Australia Policy. When a history professor gave me an essay question on national memory and politics, I immediately started asking  a simple question to anyone I could: “When did the White Australia Policy end?”. Most of the time, I got blank stares or vague answers. This did not bode well for my essay.

The only person who spoke with certainty was my dad. I’ve heard many times the story of his family moving to Australia in 1969 so his father could work as a doctor. My dad believed the White Australia Policy ended the year he and his family arrived, and that it ended because of a skills shortage – Australia needed doctors, so it let the Ittimanis enter.

He wasn’t quite right. Nor were any other suggestions. My classmates reckoned the Policy was abolished as recently as the 1990s, and more for economic reasons (like skills shortages) than moral ones. Few of the people I asked even mentioned the possibility the Policy’s inherent racism might have been a reason for twentieth-century Australia to get rid of it. 

Why the confusion? Much of it comes from our limited education on Australian history. In school, we don’t learn about the White Australia Policy as such. Some primary school students are taught about the violent British settlement of the continent and see how Australia became white. For others, however, the frontier violence is glossed over. Australia, for them, was born white. None of them learn that racial homogeneity was actively produced: first by violence, then by a hodgepodge of restrictions varying between the colonies, and finally with a uniform Immigration Restriction Act 1901, which stopped non-British people from entering Australia as migrants.

As a result, we have generations of Australians that don’t know how immigration relates to our national identity. White Australia, for the modern student, is a colonial relic. Thanks to Cardi B, the Policy isn’t even the most famous thing to have the acronym W.A.P. anymore. The White Australia Policy has become a joke.

This poor understanding is cultivated not only in the classroom but in our general tendency to avoid discussing the Policy. Explorations of immigration in TV and museums treat racial restrictions as a backdrop, not a causal factor, and present reform and liberalisation as the inevitable product of enlightened reconsideration. Documentaries on Australian history briefly mention the 1901 Act but never refer back to immigration restrictions. Instead, Australian media focuses on the positive image of multiculturalism and modern Australia’s diversity. 

The politicians who control our modern immigration programs are perhaps most keen to avoid discussing the Policy. They proudly celebrate racially non-discriminatory policy and claim that Australia has always been a multicultural nation. When the White Australia Policy is mentioned, they rush to claim the moral high ground and win political advantage. Liberal politicians blame Labor for demanding the Policy in 1901 and celebrate the 1960s Liberal governments for reforming it, while Labor supporters say it was buried by 1970s Labor PM Gough Whitlam. When rogue Senator and red-blooded racist Fraser Anning called for immigration restrictions to come back, the parliament raged and blushed and treated him as a creature of an ancient past.

We’ve not only consigned the White Australia Policy to the dustbin of history but hurled that dustbin beyond the bounds of acceptable public speech. Modern Australia draws a sharp dichotomy between the racist past and the perfect present. But this sharp dichotomy is false. The public insistence that race restrictions are a forgotten relic, and that multiculturalism is our only true national identity, betrays the anxiety at the heart of immigration discourse. We left the White Australia Policy behind, but some Australians never stopped wanting immigration restricted. 

Some still long for a White Australia. They believe, just as the British majority did in 1901, that Australia’s national security depends on cultural homogeneity. They mistakenly think race, or ethnicity, or country of birth, determines our physical and cultural traits. Online, YouTubers and Redditors bemoan our modern cities as ethnic slums. In politics, Fraser Anning gives them a voice. In the real world, this strain of Australian thought births violence and abuse, from the 2005 Cronulla Riots to the contemporary attacks on Chinese Australians. This racialised view persists in a minority, despite its moral and logical failings.

Most Australians reject this explicit racism. However, many of us still want to achieve some amount of cultural homogeneity. Homogeneity demands that immigrants assimilate and conform to Australian culture. In the 1950s, this meant becoming a blank slate and imitating British Australia in every aspect. Eating the food and observing the festivals of other cultures is now acceptable, but immigrants still face pressure to hide their religion and change their cultural practice from across the political spectrum. Progressive (white) friends of mine believe the government should prevent immigrants from practising arranged marriage because it’s coercive for women. Not everyone translates their assimilationist views into immigration policy, but 2018 polling found almost half of all Australians wanted to ban Muslim immigration and a majority thought immigration was too high.

Our (white) political leaders give these fears a voice. Prime Ministers John Howard and Tony Abbott targeted asylum seekers and refugee immigration. Scott Morrison, former prime minister, argued in 2011 that Muslim immigrants couldn’t integrate into Australian culture. “Muslim” and “refugee” are deracialised terms, but they still represent a fear of the “other” …often of non-European origin.

Is that so surprising? Australia may now be the most culturally diverse it ever has been, but it’s still incredibly white. Look at our media, our boardrooms, and our bus stops. Every time I venture beyond the cities, I feel like my skin gets a few shades darker. Humans want to be like everyone else. Inversely, they want everyone else to be like them. When a country’s state-legitimated national identity was based on a race-culture nexus for 70 years, it’s no shock that this basic desire produces demands for racial or cultural assimilation. The need for homogeneity implies a rejection of diversity, which gives rise to xenophobic tendencies in national debate. We clamour for restricted immigration and demand that culturally diverse Australians leave their heritage at the door. Our political leaders certainly can be blamed for weaponising this fear – but their campaigns could not succeed without a genuinely-held public belief that immigration constitutes a threat.

Yet we know this xenophobia is wrong, and we are ashamed that our beliefs veer so close to it. We are ashamed to lock refugees in detention. We claim to despise the racists and centre blame on them, as Raida Chowdhury writes elsewhere in these pages. We treat individual incidents as scandals to direct attention away from our fundamental assimilationist and xenophobic beliefs. The White Australia Policy is a scandal to modern Australia, and we reject it as a beast from an evil past.

We don’t talk about the White Australia Policy because to do so would invite comparison between our current society and the racialised Australia we claim we’ve consigned to the past. We would recognise the continuities of our restricted immigration policy and xenophobic politics. We are afraid to confront our xenophobia head-on. Our politicians praise multiculturalism with one hand while locking in boat turnbacks with the other. It’s doublespeak. It’s a lie we’d rather hide from.

We are forgetting the White Australia Policy. Few Australians faced the Policy while it was in operation, and their numbers decline each year. Our public figures are stuck in a populist bind and won’t confront the Policy’s legacy. By keeping the Policy absent from public discussion and confused in public memory, we maintain the facade of perfect multiculturalism. Maybe, just maybe, as immigration continues and Australia’s diversity grows, our xenophobia will lessen. Maybe we will forget the prejudice and fear that even now pushes us to support harsh and spiteful immigration controls. The facade might yet become a reality by default. 

But fear of the “other” transcends race and religion. I reckon we’ll always want to shut the door to the world in times of uncertainty. It’s what we did in 1901. It’s what we did in 2001. Even this year, opposition leader Peter Dutton proposed immigration restrictions to limit housing price growth. Our kneejerk tendency is to stop the “other” coming in. We can be as ashamed of the White Australia Policy as we want, but we’ll probably never grapple with its continuity to the present. At least history students will have an interesting conundrum to write their essays about.

We acknowledge the Ngunnawal and Ngambri people, who are the Traditional Custodians of the land on which Woroni, Woroni Radio and Woroni TV are created, edited, published, printed and distributed. We pay our respects to Elders past and present. We acknowledge that the name Woroni was taken from the Wadi Wadi Nation without permission, and we are striving to do better for future reconciliation.