Discovering Democracy Units
HomeThe UnitsTeacher NotesState & Territory LinksKey TermsA Guide to Government & Law in AustraliaSelected SourcesESL InformationCivics and Citizenship Education About DDUDownloadsSitemapSearchHelpDiscovering Democracy Banner

Focus question 2: How has immigration shaped the kind of nation we are?

Teaching and learning activities

Activity 1: The make-up of Australia's population: Interpreting data

ESL Activity 1

Activity 2: Australia's immigration policies

ESL Activity 2

Activity 3: Marketing an immigration policy

ESL Activity 3

Activity 4: Your class population

ESL Activity 4

Activity 5: Advice for new immigrants to Australia

ESL Activity 5

Activity 6: Assimilation to multiculturalism

ESL Activity 6

Activity 7: Conditions of citizenship

ESL Activity 7

Activity 8: Essential values

ESL Activity 8


Migrants are people who leave their native country to make a new home in another country. It is often said that, apart from the Indigenous peoples (meaning 'native' Aboriginal people and Torres Strait Islander people), Australia is a nation of migrants.

Australia today has a higher proportion of people who were born overseas than any other country in the world except Luxembourg, a tiny European country, and a greater number than any other country apart from the United States of America, Germany and Canada.

Activity 1: The make-up of Australia's population: Interpreting data

1a Find a way of expressing graphically the information in each of Tables 1-5 so that the information they contain can be easily read. You might choose bar graphs, pie charts, line graphs or any other useful means. When you answer the questions that follow each set of data, read the information from your graphs or from the figures.

How many Australians?

Table 1 The population of Australia (selected years 1788-1951)


Indigenous* Australians

All Other Australians





314,000 (?)







































Table 2 The population of Australia (selected years 1971-96)


Indigenous**** Australians

All Other Australians



















Figures compiled from a variety of sources.

* These figures have to be treated with special caution. No one knows the exact size of the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander populations at the time of European settlement. The figure here is a generally agreed estimate. But other estimates suggest that the population may have been 750,000 or even a million. According to the Australian Bureau of Statistics:

Whatever the size of the Indigenous population before European settlement, it declined dramatically under the impact of new diseases, repressive and often brutal treatment, dispossession and social and cultural disruption and disintegration. This decline continued well into the twentieth century.

Australian Bureau of Statistics 1998, 1998 Year Book Australia, AGPS, cat. no. 1301.0, Canberra,
p 153/AusInfo.

Following European settlement the colonies and, after Federation, the States sometimes took censuses, but some figures about Indigenous people are more reliable than others. At various times some State Governments chose to bump up their figures to get more financial support from the Federal Government.

Until 1967, people with 'more than 50 per cent Aboriginal blood' were excluded from the official national census. Recent censuses have included a broader definition of Aboriginality.

In addition, for many years some Indigenous people were afraid of publicly identifying themselves as Aboriginal or Torres Strait Islander. In more recent times Indigenous people have been able to take more public pride in their origins and so the number of people identifying themselves as Aboriginal or Torres Strait Islander has increased substantially.

** Indigenous people were not counted in official censuses before 1967. 'Totals' to that time include only those who were officially recorded.

*** These are the figures for the number of adult males and females not including Indigenous Australians on the Australian mainland. There were also 7,568 children who were counted separately and 7,185 convicts living in Van Diemen's Land. These figures don't include the number of military personnel who were guarding the convicts.

**** These figures are included in the male/female totals.

1b What do the figures show about the Indigenous population of Australia? What was the period of greatest decline? Why would this decline have occurred? Read the notes to the tables above carefully.

1c Your graph will show some interesting things about the balance between the number of males and females living in Australia. When was the population most out of gender balance? Why? If you had been in charge of immigration policy is this something that you would have tried to do something about? Why or why not?

1d If Australia's population keeps growing at the same rate, what will it be (approximately) in 2050?

What proportion of migrants?

Table 3 Percentage of the Australian population born overseas (selected years)























Adapted from Camm, J, McQuilton, J & Yorke, S (eds) Australians: A Historical Atlas, Fairfax, Syme & Weldon, Broadway, NSW, p 141.

1e Your graph will show that people born overseas are and have been a significant part of Australia's population. It will show two trends. What is a trend? Below your graph write down what the two trends have been.

Where have migrants to Australia come from?

Table 4 Overseas-born inhabitants of Australia (selected years, 000s)

Country of birth







UK and Ireland







New Zealand







Northern Europe







Eastern Europe







Southern Europe







Middle East





















America (North and South)







Pacific Islands







* some, but less than 500

Source of data: Vamplew, W (ed) 1987, Australians: Historical Statistics, Fairfax, Syme and Weldon, Broadway, NSW, pp 8-9.

1f Look at Table 4 and answer the following questions:

  • Where was the largest group of migrants born?
  • Which groups of overseas-born people were the most consistent in their migration pattern?
  • Which groups of overseas-born people changed the most in their migration pattern?

1g Write a short summary of the main changes which occurred in the make-up of Australians born overseas from 1901 to 1954.

In more recent times there have been two big changes in the pattern of migration to Australia. Look at the 'top six' countries that migrants come from and the range of other countries that they come from.

Table 5 Top six birthplaces of immigrants and the overall proportion of the top six (selected periods)

1962-66 (%)

1972-76 (%)

1982-86 (%)

1992-96 (%)

UK and Ireland 49
UK and Ireland 41
UK and Ireland 21
UK and Ireland 12
Greece 12
Yugoslavia 5
New Zealand 11
New Zealand 11
Italy 10
New Zealand 4
Vietnam 10
China 6
Yugoslavia 5
Lebanon 3
Philippines 4
Hong Kong 6
Malta 3
South Africa 3
Vietnam 5
Germany 3
Greece 3
Poland 3
Philippines 5
Total proportion
of top six
Total proportion
from other countries

Source of data: Australian Bureau of Statistics 1998, 1998 Year Book Australia, cat. no. 1301.0, AGPS, Canberra, p 159.

1h Which parts of the world did most migrants come from in 1962-66? Which parts of the world did most migrants come from in 1992-96? Write a sentence which describes this change.

1i The two totals show the other major change. Write a sentence which describes it.

Activity 2: Australia's immigration policies

2a Look through the material below and write down the main reasons put forward for having an immigration policy based on race.

2b Write your own views on these arguments.

2c Look again at Table 4. What evidence can you find of immigration policies based on race? Look in particular at the figures for 1901-21.

The White Australia policy

Governments around the world generally consider it their responsibility to decide who can and who can't come and live in their countries. This was not always the case in Australia. Until the 1860s, immigration was uncontrolled. People who wanted to come to the colonies could and, of course, hundreds of thousands did, especially during the gold rushes. After that time some of the colonies introduced measures to control migration from particular countries. But since 1901 Australia has had national policies to control migration.


Over the years, the aims of Australia's migration program have been:

  • to maintain Australia's European culture and ethnic background (the White Australia Policy, 1901-66)
  • to increase population quickly to ensure national survival after World War II (late 1940s to 1960s)
  • to attract people with skills that are needed in Australia and to reunite families (1978 to the present).

For over 50 years after Federation, the White Australia Policy meant that most people from countries other than Britain, Ireland and other parts of the 'white' British Empire were denied permanent entry to Australia.

There was never something actually called the 'White Australia Policy'. Three Acts passed by the new Federal Government attempted to maintain Australia as a 'white' British country: the Immigration Restriction Act 1901, the Pacific Islander Labourers Act 1901 and the Naturalisation Act 1903.

Origins of attitudes

The origins of the attitudes that produced these Acts can be traced to colonial days. Chinese diggers came to the Victorian and New South Wales goldfields in the 1850s and South Sea Islanders (sometimes called 'Kanakas') worked on the Queensland canefields in the late 1890s. Many European people thought that non-white people were 'inferior'. It was claimed that Asians would accept lower working conditions and living standards, and would therefore undermine the position of European workers. It was also widely believed that a population consisting of a single race and ethnic group was important for the stability and growth of a new nation. Being able to have uniform immigration laws was one of the major reasons for federating.

Speaking in support of the Immigration Restriction Act 1901 Alfred Deakin said in the Commonwealth Parliament:

The unity of Australia is nothing, if that does not imply a united race. A united race means not only that its members can intermix, intermarry and associate without degradation on either side, but implies one inspired by the same ideas, and an aspiration towards the same ideals, of a people possessing the same character ... and tone of thought ... Unity of race is an absolute essential to the unity of Australia.

Australia, House of Representatives 1901, Votes and Proceedings,
vol. 4, pp 4805-7.

This idea is still supported by a few Australians. But you will notice how completely Deakin seemed to have forgotten the existence of the people who owned and lived on the land prior to British arrival. There were other people who had not, however, and who thought that something was wrong with that attitude. Edward Foxall wrote in 1903:

The frequency with which the assertion has been made, that Australia is in danger of being 'swamped' by 'hordes' or 'millions' of coloured aliens [foreigners], has evidently caused it to be regarded by some people as a strong argument; whereas it is merely one of those silly scares and bogeys which a little calm examination will disperse ... The advocacy of a 'White Australia' ... is not only absurd to the last degree; it is diabolical [devilish]. It is an assertion of the right of men of one colour to take a country away from people of another colour, and then to refuse admission, on the grounds of their colour only, to people of the same colour as those they dispossessed.

Gizen-no-teki 1903, Colorphobia, RT Kelly, Sydney, p 65.

The fact that he published his book under a pseudonym (Gizen-no-teki) might suggest that he knew his ideas would be unpopular. This is supported by views expressed widely and very strongly in the press. Until 1961, for example, The Bulletin's slogan was 'Australia for the White Man'. For many of the people who shared the idea, 'white' also meant British, or at most British and Irish.

Momentum for change

The Act and the way it was administered cast a bad light on Australia abroad, but it wasn't until the 1950s and 60s that momentum gathered for a change. In 1960 an influential pamphlet, Control or Colour Bar? written by the Immigration Reform Group argued:

... there is only one argument left for a strict White Australia policy. That is, that race prejudice within Australia is so intense that to admit even a small number of non-Europeans would lead to tension. There are Australians who know that race prejudice is a squalid ['mean', 'dirty'] absurdity, but who think it exists here in such a degree that relaxation of the present policy would be unwise. This, if true, would be a terrible indictment of Australia ... Why should we be the only white country that needs to adopt such an attitude?

Immigration Reform Group 1960, Control or Colour Bar?, Melbourne.

Efforts by groups like this led to a gradual change in policy during the 1960s. The number of Asian settlers grew from several hundred to several thousand a year, mainly people with professional skills or seeking reunion with their families. Later, following the wars in South-east Asia, this number increased significantly.

Activity 3: Marketing an immigration policy

Populate or perish

Australia's population at the end of World War II was about 8 million. Although the nation had survived the hardships of the Depression and the War, it was clear that something had to be done quickly to make use of the huge land area available and encourage economic growth. This was not a new idea. For example, in 1907 the Victorian Land Settlement Division of the Immigration League published a pamphlet which said:

The only way to keep undesirable immigrants out of Australia is to bring plenty of desirable immigrants into it. The only way to secure the standard of living of the white man in Australia is having enough white men to defend it. This continent has the vastest areas of unoccupied or slightly occupied lands on earth ... In our present state we invite invasion.

Victorian Land Settlement Division of the Immigration League 1907, The Peril of Melbourne (pamphlet).

The doubts and fears provoked by World War II finally led Australia's politicians to decide that a large and rapid increase in population was required. The war had left millions of Europeans without homes or possessions. They were known as 'displaced persons'. Many of these people as well as many British people wanted to come to Australia and the Government believed they would make excellent settlers. But with its strong belief in Australia's 'British-ness' and fear of foreigners, there were many among the Australian population who still had to be convinced.

Some of the migrants worked on the Snowy Mountains Scheme, a huge project designed to produce hydro-electricity from the rivers in the Alps in Victoria and New South Wales. Novelist George Johnston worked on this project in the 1950s and wrote about his experience:

This immigration has created, and will continue to create, certain virulent forms of xenophobia [fear of foreigners] ... [But] the average man, if the unions will let him, is willing to accept the migrant if he feels that he brings with him no threat to the standard of living and a readiness to become a 'fair dinkum Aussie' ... They came from all countries of the world ... and they worked together ... There were Jews and Christians; there were Italians, Greeks, Americans, Britons, Canadians, Danes, Germans, Russians, Swedes, South Africans, Maltese, Spaniards ... and Australians ... They were all working the same hours, or any hours when the job needed it, and getting the same money; and never in my life have I seen such a team before.

Johnston, George 1954, 'Their way of life' in Bevan, Ian (ed), The Sunburnt Country: Profile of Australia, Collins, London, p 156.
Courtesy Barbara Mobbs Literary Agency.

The 'Beautiful Balts'

Migrant Women, 1948

The 'Beautiful Balts', as these migrants became known, were the first of many hundreds of thousands who came from non-British parts of Europe and altered the mix of the Australian community forever.

The Sun/The Herald and Weekly Times.

3a What was it that impressed George Johnston so much?

3b Why do you think he says 'if the unions will let him'?

3c Imagine that you are George Johnston, and Arthur Calwell then Minister for Immigration has asked you for some advice about how he could 'market' the value of an immigration policy which allowed a more varied intake. What would you advise?

Activity 4: Your class population

4a Many school classes in Australia have students with differing ethnic and cultural backgrounds. Check if yours is one of these by counting and recording the number of students:

  • who were born in Australia
  • who were born overseas
  • who speak a language other than English
  • whose parents were both born in Australia
  • one of whose parents was born overseas
  • both of whose parents were born overseas.

4b If there are any students who responded to the second, third or last two points, write down the countries involved.

4c Write a summary of what you have found out.

Activity 5: Advice for new immigrants to Australia

5a Would the advice given in the government pamphlet below still be good advice today? Select and note which parts would and which parts would not.

5b In pairs, write some advice that you would give to people migrating to Australia today.

Knowing your new homeland

Nearly three million European migrants arrived in Australia between October 1945 and June 1960. During this period there was a clear expectation that migrants would assimilate, leaving behind their own culture and identity and becoming 'dinkum Aussies'. This is an extract from a government pamphlet written in 1948 to advise migrants how to get on in their new country:

And now a few words about Australians themselves. Those who met you on your arrival in Australia and at the training centre were eager to help you. When you have left the centre you will have to make your own friends. You will usually find people to help you if you are in difficulties, but the Australians admire a person who can stand on his own feet.

Learn the habits and customs of Australians and you will quickly feel at home in your new homeland. The day when fellow Australians stop being specially polite to you because it is obvious that you are a newcomer, or stop looking at you because your manners or speech are different, you will know you have been accepted as one of the community.

Perhaps the most important thing is to learn to speak the language of the Australians. Australians are not used to hearing foreign languages. They are inclined to stare at persons whose speech is different ... Also try to avoid using your hands when speaking because if you do this you will be conspicuous.

The Australians have a sense of humour that you might find hard to understand at first. They seldom show much enthusiasm about anything. Instead of saying something is magnificent or marvellous, they are more likely to say it is 'not bad'. And they are very fond of what they call 'kidding'. They may make good-natured jokes about you if you do something wrong, or use a wrong expression in speech.

Australians are keen on fair play. They do not like or trust people who take unfair advantages. They admire people who are loyal to their friends and fellow work mates.

Australia, Ministry for Immigration 1948, Your Introduction to Australia: Hints and Help on Knowing Your New Homeland, Melbourne.

Activity 6: Assimilation to multiculturalism

Gradually public policies and attitudes changed and there was a shift from assimilation to multiculturalism, with a recognition that different cultures could exist together harmoniously, making the whole nation a richer, more interesting place. This was true of attitudes to both Indigenous people and the new national and ethnic groups who had arrived in Australia through the migration program.

In 1978 the Australian Government accepted a major report on migrant services and programs. This report said:

We are convinced that migrants have the right to maintain their cultural and racial identity and that it is clearly in the best interests of our nation that they should be encouraged and assisted to do so if they wish. Provided that ethnic identity is not stressed at the expense of society at large, but is interwoven into the fabric of our nationhood by the process of multicultural interaction, then the community as a whole will benefit substantially and its democratic nature will be reinforced.

Review of Post-arrival Programs and Services for Migrants (Chair: Frank Galbally) 1978, Migrant Services and Programs, AGPS, Canberra, p 104.
Commonwealth of Australia copyright reproduced by permission of AusInfo.

6a What would people in the 1940s have thought of the Aboriginal painting Galuwun the Goanna (page 137 of Commonwealth of Australia 1998, Discovering Democracy Middle Secondary Units, Curriculum Corporation, Melbourne) being used as a symbol of Australia?

6b The extract above contains statements about a right, a warning and a benefit of multicultural societies. In your own words write what they are.

6c Discuss as a class:

  • what makes up 'cultural and racial identity'
  • things that people have in common which help to make it easy to live together
  • where different cultural and racial identities might come into conflict
  • how multiculturalism might support the democratic nature of a country.

Activity 7: Conditions of citizenship

The policy of multiculturalism does not seek to give advantage to any group. It is based on the idea that people's chances in life should not be affected by their ethnicity, religion, language or place of birth, and that they should be able to maintain their own culture. However, there are some conditions of citizenship which have to be met - commitment to Australia and its needs, and acceptance of the essential values of Australian society. These values include:

  • respect for the law
  • freedom of religion
  • equality of all people in the eyes of the law
  • the majority rules, but minorities are protected and their views and interests are considered in the formulation of policy
  • respect for people from different cultures
  • equality of men and women
  • people do not have the right to encourage violence or racial hatred.

Working in small groups, decide whether the list of values above is a good list. Should other values be substituted or added?

Activity 8: Essential values

In theory, in a multicultural society people are able to keep their own cultural identity and there is equal opportunity for all. In practice, it is sometimes hard to achieve this and still maintain the unity and essential values of the nation and social cohesion.

In small groups consider the following three situations:

  1. A new political party says citizens born in Australia should be given preference for public service jobs. Would you vote for them? Why? Why not?
  2. A group of people with a particular religious belief decide to start their own church and a private school which will only admit children of that religion. If you were the Minister for Education, would you allow the school to open? Would you give them money to help run the school?
  3. A war has broken out between Country A and Country B, both of which are near neighbours of Australia. A considerable number of people from each country have migrated to Australia within the last fifteen years, and have become Australian citizens. The government has decided to assist country B in this conflict because the government believes this is in Australia's best interests. You are the prime minister. What would you say to migrants coming from Country A?

ESL activities

Back to 'What Sort of Nation? - At a glance'

AcknowledgementsLegal Information