Critics of a ‘racist White Australia policy’ have it all wrong

Critics of a ‘racist White Australia policy’ have it all wrong, by Sherry Sufi.

Many critics are suggesting that Anning wants to drag us back to the inglorious days of the so-called White Australia policy. …

We can never return to the White Australia policy because there never really was one. …

There is a difference between what those policies were and what their present-day critics make them out to be. And in an age when emotional over-reaction has become a substitute for logical ­debate, we must understand that difference.

Outside the transcripts of parliamentary debates, the only primary source for analysis con­cerning the White Australia policy is Myra Willard, an award-winning student who went on to publish the only contemporaneous account of the policy in 1923, titled A History of White Australia Policy to 1920.

Willard notes: “In the formation of their policy the leaders of the people were not actuated by any idea of the inferiority of the mindset or physique of the ­excluded peoples. It seemed to them that the dissimilarity of their development and, consequently, of their outlook and training, would cause a body of resident Asiatics to be fatal to progress along the lines that seemed best to Australians.”

In a similar vein, historian Keith Windschuttle points out that ­almost all contemporary historians have drawn exaggerated comparisons with other xenophobic regimes, such as the South African apartheid government or the German Third Reich.

But there never was a White Australia Bill, let alone a White Australia Act. The invented label colloquially refers to three concurrent pieces of legislation ­enacted at the time of Federation in 1901. These are the Immigration Restriction Act, the ­Pacific ­Island Labourers Act and the Post and Telegraph Act.

The policy involved a “dictation test” for new entrants. Its underlying motivation was to enable the newly federated nation to manage its economy in a way that ensured the preservation of its British character.

Some MPs did support the policy for reasons that would appear xenophobic to the contemporary observer. Labor leader Chris Watson and Protectionist prime minister Edmund Barton are ­examples. But most MPs who supported the policy did so for economic and cultural reasons rather than due to blatant racial prejudice. Contemporary historians have tended to quote selectively from those few MPs who held racially prejudiced beliefs, which is misleading.

The majority opinion in parliament is summed up in Tas­manian MP Donald Cameron’s little-known words: “It appears that two-thirds of the honourable members of this house really ­object to the Chinese, not so much on the ground of the possible contamination of the white race, as because they fear that if they are allowed to come into Australia the rate of wages will go down.” It’s true that unskilled ­labourers earned £6 a fortnight at the time when foreign workers were paid £6 a year working on sugar plantations.

The debate over the Immigration Restriction Bill lasted months and featured contributions from prominent MPs. It stretches across 600 pages of Hansard comprising more than a half-million words. Windschuttle contends that Cameron’s statement is the most accurate ­estimate of the prevailing parliamentary opinion in those times. He points out that “not one of the historians of race in Australia has ever ­quoted it before”.