Labor in, white australia outGough Whitlam’s Labor government was elected after 23 years of Liberal Party rule. In 1973, the government legislated to eliminate the last vestiges of the infamous White Australia policy. Increased Asian immigration saw food choices diversify, in restaurants and in retail outlets.

One of the first parliamentary Acts passed in newly federated Australia was the Immigration Restriction Act, 1901. It was a response to the widely held belief in ‘Australia for Australians‘ – Australians in this case meaning white people from mainly British backgrounds.

The Attorney General, Alfred Deakin put the purpose of the Act very plainly:

That end, put in plain and unequivocal terms … means the prohibition of all alien coloured immigration, and more, it means at the earliest time, by reasonable and just means, the deportation or reduction of the number of aliens now in our midst. The two things go hand in hand, and are the necessary complement of a single policy – the policy of securing a ‘white Australia’.

Cartoon supporting a white australia

The Mongolian Octopus – His Grip on Australia’, a cartoon by Phillip May, published in The Bulletin magazine, 1886. National Museum of Australia.

The Act gave authorities the power to administer a dictation test to any potential immigrant in any European language. Non-white people who had arrived in Australia before 1901 could be made to sit the same test and deported if they failed.

Anti-Chinese sentiment had increased in Australia as Chinese immigrants attracted to the goldfields drifted back to the cities. Although Chinese people made up only 1.25 per cent of the population, it was believed they threatened white men’s jobs by accepting lower wages and selling goods at cheaper prices. There was also a reaction against the South Sea Islander ‘Kanaka’ labour being employed in Queensland’s sugar industry.

The White Australia policy persisted until the late 1950s when rules were relaxed somewhat. The Holt government’s Migration Act 1966 established legal equality between British, European and non-European migrants to Australia, but there were still elements of bias against Asian immigration.

In 1973, the Whitlam Labor government renounced the White Australia policy setting the stage for a new policy of multiculturalism, legislating that all migrants, of whatever origin, be eligible to obtain citizenship after three years of permanent residence.