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The Australian Nation

Who is the nation?

Almost the first thing the new Commonwealth parliament did was to adopt a White Australia policy. This meant that if your skin was not white you could not migrate to Australia. In the 1880s and 1890s the colonies had already stopped migration from Asia. The new parliament wanted to secure this policy Australia-wide and make it the foundation of national greatness.
White Australia

All parties supported this policy. The Labor Party had put it on the top of its platform for the first election and not just because it could not decide between protection and free trade. Workers had taken the lead in opposing Chinese migration to Australia. In the 1850s thousands of Chinese had come to the goldfields. White diggers objected to them, sometimes violently, and the colonies had stopped the Chinese from coming. When these restrictions were lifted, a small-scale migration resumed. Workers and trade unions objected that these people, coming from much poorer societies, were willing to take low wages. Sometimes employers had turned to Chinese workers because they could pay them less. Pressure from workers had pushed the colonial governments to reimpose bans on Chinese and Asian migration.

Workers believed that, as well as threatening wages, the Chinese were a lower race. Nearly everyone believed this, which explains why the workers got their way on the issue of Chinese migration. It had been accepted as scientific that there were higher and lower races and for the higher to mix its blood with the lower threatened its health. Australians had no doubt that whites were the highest race and among the whites the British were the best. By staying white and British, the new nation would give itself a flying start.

Because a people are thought inferior, they don’t have to be kept out of a country. They can be brought in, exploited, despised, discriminated against in every way. Australians did not want a society like that. They wanted a society of equal political rights, decent wages, opportunity for all, and no firm social barriers. There could be no place here for people whom they could not treat as equals. Because they were democrats and progressive, Australians were stronger racists.
Racism and democracy

The difficulty with the white Australia ideal was that there were large groups of non-whites already in the country. The first Commonwealth parliament decided to ship one group out of the country. These were the Pacific Islanders who worked on the sugar plantations in northern Queensland. They signed on for three years and were paid low wages. When their time was up, a few signed on again; some, after a spell at home, returned for another three years; always there were new young men being shipped in.
Pacific Islanders in Queensland

All this was to stop in 1906. When the time came, some Islanders did not want to go home. Those who had married an Australian woman, bought land, or had been here since 1879 were allowed to stay. To help the sugar farmer pay higher wages to white workers, the parliament put a high duty on foreign sugar. This put up the local price and gave the farmer higher returns.

The largest non-white group could not be dealt with so easily. The Aboriginal people could not be shipped somewhere else. As the white Australia ideal developed, they were seen as a threat to it. They had been a threat of a different sort in the early days when they resisted the invasion of their lands and thousands had been killed. But when that battle was over, no one took much notice of them. Everyone thought they were dying out. Governments recognised that they were poor because they had lost their lands and gave them food and blankets. Some church people were concerned at their plight and started mission stations and persuaded governments to set aside reserves. These did provide a base for new communities to develop. Aboriginal people came and went and many worked successfully as shearers, drovers, stockworkers and harvesters. They were not, like the Chinese, a big political issue.
Aboriginal people

However, the few politicians and administrators who did think about the Aboriginal people were troubled. A black minority threatened the unity and racial purity of the nation. In the south-east of Australia, the number of full-blood Aborigines was decreasing, but the number of Aborigines of mixed descent was growing.

Around the turn of the century, two new policies on Aboriginal people were developed. Those responsible for them thought they were helping Aborigines, but this was help poisoned by racism. In the south-east of the continent, Aboriginal communities were to be broken up and Aborigines of mixed descent to lose themselves in the wider community. That would mean that the Aborigines as a separate people would disappear. In the north and west, where Aboriginal people were still numerous, they were to be kept away from the rest of the community or only allowed to be part of it under strict control. That would protect them and protect white Australia from them.
New Aboriginal policies

To make these policies work, administrators were given huge powers over Aboriginal people. They could say where they were to live or not to live, who they could marry, what should happen to their children. On the reserves they could control and punish them as if they were prisoners in gaol. In the south-east, informal rules operated in country towns to keep Aboriginal people out of swimming pools and down the front in the cinemas. In the north and west, by law, they could not go into towns and cities, or only in daylight hours.

The poison in the policy led to the horror of taking children from their parents. Neglected children were taken from white parents. It was an easy step to say that all children in a rough Aboriginal camp were neglected and would be better off with someone else. The next step was to say that any Aboriginal child would be better off by not being Aboriginal. So children were taken from loving and caring parents for their own good. And for the good of white Australia for if the children were put to work in white homes and farms and married a white person, then the Aboriginal blood and colour would get fainter. Because of this concern with breeding, more girls were taken than boys.
Stolen children

The process of taking away Aboriginal people’s civic rights and placing them under official control had begun when the Commonwealth was formed. In its second year the Commonwealth parliament decided who should have the right to vote in federal elections. (For the first federal election, you voted if you had the right to vote in State elections.) The parliament decided that Aboriginal people should not vote. In Western Australia and Queensland they had already lost the right to vote. In South Australia, Victoria and New South Wales, they still had that right and they kept it. The Commonwealth government had actually included Aboriginal people in its voting bill, but when objections were raised, they readily agreed to exclude them. This was the measure which made Australia famous around the world as a progressive nation because it gave the vote to women. So white women came into citizenship as the Aboriginal people went out.
Aboriginal people denied citizenship

Australia was confident in its white, British identity until World War II. Then Britain could not defend Australia. Its great naval base at Singapore fell to the Japanese and Australia had to look to the United States to defend it. The Japanese came as far south as New Guinea and it seemed as if they could invade Australia. Darwin and other northern towns were bombed.
The end of British Australia

Australia needed a great power to defend it because its population was a tiny seven million. If it was to be more secure in the future, its population would have to grow rapidly. This was the aim of the post-war Labor government and its Minister for Immigration, Arthur Calwell. He had an American grandfather and was a great admirer of the United States, which had built up its population by accepting people from all the countries of Europe. In the great migration program he planned, some migrants would come from continental Europe, but most still from Britain. He knew Australians would be suspicious of Europeans so he made a sort of promise that for every one of them there would be ten migrants from Britain.
Post-war immigration

But not enough Britons wanted to come and there was a problem getting ships. When Calwell visited Europe in 1947, he learned of the millions of refugees who wanted to make a new home and that the refugee organisation had ships. So he broke his promise and set Australia on a new course. The ships brought Poles, Latvians, Ukrainians, Lithuanians and Hungarians. In the 1950s the program Calwell had started was extended by the Menzies Liberal government to Dutch, Germans, Italians and Greeks; in the 1960s to Yugoslavs and Turks. Britons remained by far the largest group, but for every one European there was just one Briton. Australia was rapidly ceasing to be British.
European migrants

Calwell worked very hard to make sure this huge change was a success. He got pictures of handsome, beautiful and fair-skinned migrants into the newspapers. He guaranteed to the unions that migrants would all receive the award wage because unions were always suspicious of migrants taking lower wages. To make migrants feel welcome, he said they should be called New Australians and he formed a good neighbour organisation to help them settle in.

Calwell did not want the migrants to form separate communities but to move quickly into the wider community and adopt the Australian way of life. This is the policy of assimilation. The migrants ignored it. They made adjustments to fit in with their new society, but at their own pace. Since it was a free society, they could live where they liked, run their own newspapers, start clubs and open their own businesses. Naturally as strangers they wanted to keep contact with each other, though in time, as they have prospered, migrants have scattered throughout the cities instead of living in one part of them.

Beautiful Balts
‘Beautiful Balts’: Arthur Calwell, Minister for Immigration, chose fair-haired people from the Baltic countries to persuade Australians to accept non-British migrants.

Photograph courtesy Herald & Weekly Times

With this huge change, the White Australia policy stood firm. As an old Labor man, Calwell was a passionate believer in it. Both parties were still committed to it. But it could not last. The belief that there were higher and lower races had been exploded. Hitler in killing millions of Jews, had shown what terrible consequences could flow from racial prejudice. The new United Nations formed after World War II was committed to racial equality. And Australia, close to the newly independent nations of Asia, could not forever insult them.
The end of White Australia

Scholars from Melbourne University, some of whom had studied in Asia, led the movement for change. They enlisted the support of church people and produced in 1960 Control or Colour Bar?, one of the most influential books in our history. They answered Australians’ fears that if you opened the gates to Asia a flood of migrants would pour in. They said that this migration could be controlled and if the migrants were chosen for their skills and their ability to fit in, they would be like any other migrants.

White Australia was at last being debated, but while Sir Robert Menzies was prime minister there would be no change. When he retired, the new Liberal prime minister, Harold Holt, changed the law in 1966 to allow non-white migrants to come and soon there were more than the reformers had thought possible. The Whitlam Labor government, elected in 1972, completed the change and established a migration policy with no racial discrimination, which both parties have supported since. This has allowed thousands of Chinese, Vietnamese, Indians and other peoples from Asia and Africa to settle here.

Beginning in the 1970s Australia took on a new identity; it was not British, not white, but multicultural Australia. Instead of an official policy of assimilation, multiculturalism encouraged migrants to preserve their own culture.

As Australians changed their idea of who they were, they could stop thinking of Aboriginal people as aliens and a threat. In the 1930s Aboriginal people had formed organisations to demand that they have the same rights and opportunities as other Australians. With white sympathisers they kept up the pressure and had a great victory in 1967 when the Australian people agreed in a referendum to change the constitution on Aboriginal matters. This was a symbolic moment of reconciliation, though the actual changes made were not what many people think. Aboriginal people had already been given the vote in the Commonwealth in 1962. Their civil rights in the States had been almost fully restored. In 1967 the Commonwealth gained the power to pass laws on Aboriginal affairs (which has been very important) and Aboriginal people were now to be counted in the census.
Civil rights of Aboriginal people

In the 1950s and 1960s governments thought Aboriginal people would gradually assimilate and, like the migrants, live like other Australians. There was a moment in 1966 when that changed. The Gurindji people, who worked on a cattle station in the Northern Territory, went on strike for equal wages. They had a white supporter on the spot, Frank Hardy, an old communist who knew something about how to run a strike. To his surprise, the Aboriginal people told him that they really cared more about getting their land back. Frank thought they had no chance, but he turned himself into an adviser for a land rights campaign. That came to success when in 1975 Prime Minister Gough Whitlam handed the Gurindji the title to their land. The Liberal prime minister who followed him, Malcolm Fraser, passed land rights legislation for the Territory and some States have done the same for their lands. National land rights were established by the High Court with their Mabo and Wik decisions.
Land rights

Aboriginal people living on their own land and upholding some of their traditions were not following ‘the Australian way of life’, but in a multicultural Australia this was perfectly acceptable. Official policy on Aborigines changed so that they were to decide how they would live. This is the policy of self-determination. In 1990 most of the money the federal government spent on Aboriginal people was given into the control of a body elected by them, the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Commission (ATSIC).

Some people have opposed multiculturalism. They fear that if migrants are encouraged to retain their own culture, the nation will be too divided. Often they are not aware of all parts of the policy. It sets down that migrants’ first loyalty must be to Australia and to its principles of democracy, equal rights for men and women, toleration of differences, and the rule of law. There is a strong element of assimilation in multiculturalism.
Success of migration

The success of the migration program has been the great wonder of Australian history. On the whole migrants have done well, are pleased with Australia and want to belong to it. Australia has become a more lively and interesting place because of all the different people in its population. There has not been great tension and bitterness. Of course migrants have suffered prejudice from some Australians but, compared with other nations, Australians have been very tolerant of the newcomers and ready to accept them as citizens. No nation has had its population change so much in such a short time.

One reason for the success is the nature of the Australian people. Imagine millions of migrants going to a country which cared a lot about who your parents were, or your schooling, or how you spoke, or whether you had read the right books, or whether you gave people their right titles. Australia is the opposite to all this. Because it is easygoing, informal and egalitarian, it was more welcoming to migrants and wanted them to have ‘a fair go’. We’ve met up with these qualities before. They’re the ones that make Australians reluctant to think of themselves as citizens.

At the same time as Australia was ceasing to be British, Britain was ceasing to be a great power. It joined the European Union and could no longer give Australia special trade deals. Australia’s trade shifted to Asia and the Pacific; its defence ties were already with the United States. The links with the ‘mother country’ were weakening. The one formal link was that the English Queen was still Australia’s head of state. To more and more Australians the Queen did not seem an appropriate symbol for an independent, multicultural Australia whose destiny was no longer bound up with Britain. They have argued that Australia should become a republic. If it does, perhaps we will remember the date on which it happens.
The last link with Britain

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