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Fact Sheet 8 – Abolition of the 'White Australia' Policy

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The 'White Australia' policy describes Australia's approach to immigration from federation until the latter part of the 20th century, which favoured applicants from certain countries.

The abolition of the policy took place over a period of 25 years.

Following the election of a coalition of the Liberal and Country parties in 1949, Immigration Minister Harold Holt allowed 800 non-European refugees to remain in Australia and Japanese war brides to enter Australia.

Over subsequent years Australian governments gradually dismantled the policy with the final vestiges being removed in 1973 by the new Labor government.

The history

The origins of the 'White Australia' policy can be traced to the 1850s. White miners' resentment towards industrious Chinese diggers culminated in violence on the Buckland River in Victoria, and at Lambing Flat (now Young) in New South Wales. The governments of these two colonies introduced restrictions on Chinese immigration.

Later, it was the turn of hard-working indentured labourers from the South Sea Islands of the Pacific (known as 'Kanakas') in northern Queensland. Factory workers in the south became vehemently opposed to all forms of immigration which might threaten their jobs; particularly by non-white people who they thought would accept a lower standard of living and work for lower wages.

Some influential Queenslanders felt that the colony would be excluded from the forthcoming Federation if the 'Kanaka' trade did not cease. Leading NSW and Victorian politicians warned there would be no place for 'Asiatics' or 'coloureds' in the Australia of the future.

In 1901, the new federal government passed an Act ending the employment of Pacific Islanders. The Immigration Restriction Act 1901 received royal assent on 23 December 1901. It was described as an Act 'to place certain restrictions on immigration and to provide for the removal from the Commonwealth of prohibited immigrants'.

The Act prohibited from immigration those considered to be insane, anyone likely to become a charge upon the public or upon any public or charitable institution. It also included any person suffering from an infectious or contagious disease 'of a loathsome or dangerous character'.

The Act also prohibited prostitutes, criminals and anyone under a contract or agreement to perform manual labour within Australia (with some limited exceptions).

Other restrictions included a dictation test which was used to exclude certain applicants by requiring them to pass a written test. Often tests were conducted in a language the applicant was not familiar with and had been nominated by an immigration officer.

With these severe measures the implementation of the 'White Australia' policy was warmly applauded in most sections of the community.

In 1919 the Prime Minister, William Morris Hughes, hailed it as 'the greatest thing we have achieved'.

Second World War

After the outbreak of hostilities with Japan, Prime Minister John Curtin reinforced the philosophy of the 'White Australia' policy, 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 an outpost of the British race'.

During World War II, many non-white refugees entered Australia. Most left voluntarily at the end of the war, but many had married Australians and wanted to stay. Arthur Calwell, the first immigration minister, sought to deport them, arousing much protest.

Minister Holt's decision in 1949 to allow 800 non-European refugees to stay, and Japanese war brides to be admitted, was the first step towards a non-discriminatory immigration policy.

The next major step

The next major step was in 1957 when non-Europeans with 15 years residence in Australia were allowed to become Australian citizens.

The revised Migration Act 1958 introduced a simpler system of entry permits and abolished the controversial dictation test.

The revised Act avoided references to questions of race. Indeed, it was in this context that the Minister for Immigration, Sir Alexander Downer, stated that 'distinguished and highly qualified Asians' might immigrate.

After a review of the non-European policy in March 1966, Immigration Minister Hubert Opperman announced applications for migration would be accepted from well-qualified people on the basis of their suitability as settlers, their ability to integrate readily and their possession of qualifications positively useful to Australia.

At the same time, the government decided a number of 'temporary resident' non-Europeans, who were not required to leave Australia, could become permanent residents and citizens after five years (the same as for Europeans).

The government also eased restrictions on immigration of non-Europeans. The criterion of 'distinguished and highly qualified' was replaced by the criterion of 'well qualified' non-Europeans, and the number of non-Europeans allowed to immigrate would be 'somewhat greater than previously'.

A watershed

The March 1966 announcement was the watershed in abolishing the 'White Australia' policy, and non-European migration began to increase. Yearly non-European settler arrivals rose from 746 in 1966 to 2,696 in 1971, while yearly part-European settler arrivals rose from 1498 to 6054.

In 1973 the Whitlam Labor government took three further steps in the gradual process to remove race as a factor in Australia's immigration policies.

These were to:

  • legislate that all migrants, of whatever origin, be eligible to obtain citizenship after three years of permanent residence
  • issue policy instructions to overseas posts to totally disregard race as a factor in the selection of migrants
  • ratify all international agreements relating to immigration and race.

Because the Whitlam government reduced the overall immigration intake the reform steps that it took had very little impact on the number of migrants from non-European countries.

An increase in the number and percentage of migrants from non-European countries did not take place until after the Fraser government came into office in 1975.

Continuing the trend

In 1978 the government commissioned a comprehensive review of immigration in Australia. Far-reaching new policies and programs were adopted as a framework for Australia's population development.

They included three-year rolling programs to replace the annual immigration targets of the past, a renewed commitment to apply immigration policy without racial discrimination, a more consistent and structured approach to migrant selection and an emphasis on attracting people who would represent a positive gain to Australia.

The present

Australia's current Migration Program allows people from any country to apply to migrate to Australia, regardless of their ethnicity, culture, religion or language, provided that they meet the criteria set out in law.
See: Fact Sheet 20 – Migration Program Planning Levels

At the time of the 2011 Census of Population and Housing (August 2011), the resident population of Australia was 21.5 million people. Over a quarter of Australia’s population was born overseas. Around 46 per cent of Australian residents were either born overseas or have at least one parent born overseas.

Australians identify with some 300 ancestries and practise a range of religions. Australians also speak about 300 languages including indigenous languages. After English, the most common languages spoken are Mandarin, Italian, Arabic, Cantonese and Greek.

The government views Australia's cultural diversity as a source of both social and economic wealth.

Further information is available on the department's website.
See: www.immi.gov.au

The department also operates a national general enquiries line.
Telephone: 131 881
Hours of operation: Monday to Friday from 8.30 am to 4.30 pm. Recorded information is available outside these hours.

Fact Sheet 8. Produced by the National Communications Branch, Department of Immigration and Border Protection, Canberra.
Last reviewed October 2012.

© Commonwealth of Australia 2009.

Last modified Wednesday 27 August 2014