Friday, September 15, 2006

Migration Matters - A Personal Perspective: Times of Change

Note to reader: I am still having recurrent problems uploading photos. I will add supporting photos if and when I can.

This post continues my review of Australia's post war immigration policy through the prism set by my own experience. In previous posts I:

  • provided an overview of post war immigration pointing to its size and dramatic impact on Australia, suggesting that that the Australian experience was unique. I qualified this slightly in my second post with a brief comment comparing the US and Canada, wondering whether the Canadian experience had in fact been similar.
  • then looked in my third post at the emergence of the mass migration policy set in the context of the Australia of 1945, a far country so different from today that it really has to be thought of as another country.

This post extends the story, looking at the changes in Australia over the fifties and sixties.

White Australia Policy

The White Australia policy was firmly in place at the time mass migration began. Adopted at the time of Federation, the deeply entrenched policy was designed to protect living standards and preserve racial homogeneity and reflected the fears of a small European population on the edge of Asia.

Twenty years later White Australia was dead, replaced by a non-discriminatory migration policy, continuing the remarkable changes associated with the Australian migration program. The policy was not killed by a single major decision, but by a series of incremental changes:

  • During the war years Australia had admitted a number of non-European refugees, some of whom had married Australians. Moves to deport them created protests, and Harold Holt, the Immigration Minister in the newly elected Menzies Government, allowed 800 to stay while also allowing Australian soldiers to bring back Japanese war brides.
  • In 1957 non-Europeans with 15 years residence in Australia were allowed to become Australian citizens. This was followed in 1958 by a revised Migration Act introducing a simpler system of entry permits and abolishing the controversial dictation test. Some restrictions on non-European migration remained, but entry was eased while the revised Act avoided references to questions of race.
  • In March 1966 after a review of the non-European policy, Immigration Minister Hubert Opperman announced that 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. This was a watershed decision, effectively ending the White Australia policy.
  • The last remnants of the old policy were removed in 1973 by the newly elected Whitlam Labor Government, putting a completely non-discriminatory policy in place.

Importance of the Colombo Plan

The Colombo Plan played a major role in facilitating this change in migration policy.

Australia faced a dark and clouded international environment at the end of the war. The old security provided by membership of the Commonwealth and Empire had been swept away, lost with the fall of Singapore to the Japanese. War with Germany and Japan had been replaced by the cold war between East and West, fear of the spread of communism and the threat of nuclear war. Decolonisation was underway, requiring Australia to develop new international relations.

In late 1949 Australia was invited to attend a meeting of British Commonwealth Foreign Ministers to be held in Colombo. Australian officials had been discussing policy options towards Asia including a possible aid program. The Australian Government believed that economic development would improve political stability and help stop the spread of communism.

In January 1950, an Australian delegation led by External Affairs Minister Percy Spender took the Australian aid plans to the Colombo meeting. Commonwealth foreign ministers agreed to establish a Commonwealth Plan for Co-operative Economic Development in South and South-East Asia, modelled in part on the Marshall Plan. The plan, although then sometimes referred to as the 'Spender Plan', came to be called the 'Colombo Plan'.

The Plan began with seven members of the British Commonwealth - Australia, Canada, Sri Lanka (then Ceylon), India, New Zealand, Pakistan and the United Kingdom. By 1954 these countries had been joined by Burma, Cambodia, Indonesia, Japan, Laos, the Philippines, the United States, Thailand and Malaya.

Prior to the Plan few Australians had had any day to day contact with people from Asia. The plan changed that in a quite dramatic way. Over the next 35 years some 40,000 Asian students studied in Australia under the Plan, bringing large numbers of Australians into contact with Asia and Asians for the first time.

A Personal Perspective

The changes I have been discussing are mirrored in my own life.

As outlined in my last post, I was born in 1945 in Armidale. There was no racial prejudice in our household, I did not hear any negative race based comments from either my mother or father and indeed I know that my father strongly disapproved of anyone expressing such comments. However, I had no direct personal exposure to people from other cultures. With the exception of a small number of local families of Greek or Lebanese extraction, I knew no-one who was not of ango-celtic extraction.

As the migration program got underway, it was featured in the newsreels, press and magazines, so I was certainly conscious of it. However, most migrants went elsewhere and it would be the early fifties before I came in contact with my first migrant child at the Armidale Demonstration School. Poor Karl. Children can be cruel. He spoke only German, the war was not long over, and he had to cope with chants in the playground of Karl Herman is a German.

It was the Colombo Plan that changed Armidale. From the early fifties an increasing number of overseas, especially Asian, students came to study at the University of New England. Full time undergraduate numbers were small, Armidale itself was relatively small, so the overseas students really stood out. The new overseas students found the locals friendly and curious, but it was something of a culture shock on both sides.

The initial changes were almost imperceptible. By the time I moved from the Demonstration School to The Armidale School in 1957, another overwhelmingly anglo establishment, the Asian students at the University were visible but still remote. Things then changed rapidly.

The real dividing line in my mind came in class one day.

R W L (George) Crossle set the class an essay on the White Australia Policy. While conservative in his personal views, George was a man who liked his students to think. I wrote a conventional essay in favour of the White Australia policy. Another student, I do not remember who, wrote an essay against. George praised the second essay in class because the student had been prepared to argue a counter view. This gave me a real jolt, forcing me to reasses my own thinking including my own un-critical acceptance of the status quo.

Personal contact with Asia and Asians widened. My geography honours class focused on Asia. I met more, especially among Dad's students. The first Asian students came to school as boarders, although they had a pretty hard time of it initially. The local deli was now carrying Asian ingredients, I ate my first Asian food including Indonesian cooked by some of those students, mum started incorporating some Asian elements into her cooking. And all this in a family that five years before had rarely used even garlic in cooking!

By the time I started University in 1963 I had become something of an Asiaphile. I do not think that I was unique. Rather, I simply belong to the first Australian generation that really discovered Asia.

University extended this process. There were only 1,200 or so full time undegraduates on campus, some 10 per cent of these from overseas. Including its affiliate members (only overseas students were eligible for full membership), the Overseas Students Association was the largest student society. Many overseas students occupied senior places on campus. Soo Khoo edited the student newspaper, Ahdi - an Indonesian student - was the paper's chief cartoonist.

Culture shocks continued. Which foods did people eat or not eat? What was acceptable behaviour in different cultures?

A small but not insignificant example. In Australia boys and girls hold hands. In many Asian societies boys or girls held hands, not boys and girls. Australia was then a homophobic society. I still remember my sense of shock when, standing on the Union steps, a Pakistani friend took my hand and held it while talking to me! I gulped inaudibly, and allowed him to do so.

At the end of 1965 I learned some more important lessons.

My father had gone to work for the Economic Commission for Asia and the Far East in Bangkok. Brother David and I went to join the family. On the way we spent the first week in Singapore staying with an Indian university lecturer and his wife. Then we had a week in Taiping staying with Peng Ng and his family, Peng had been one Dad's tutors, before joining our parents in Bangkok. While there we also spent a week in Cambodia.

This total experience deserves posts in its own right. At this point I would only note that for three months we were effectively immersed in mutiple cultures. I learned at first hand the differences between the cultures, including the presence of very real ethnic tensions. I also discovered, and this was a shock, that many Asians looked down on Australia, seeing us as gauche and insensitive.

I had come a long way from the boy who thirteen years before had helped tease Karl in the playground because he was different. This experience was mirrored to greater or lesser degree across the whole country. Australia had changed and dramatically.

In my next migration post I will look at the end of the mass migration program and subsequent changes in Australia, trying to tease out why (at least as I see it) Australia has become a narrower, more inward looking country, why we are in danger of losing some of our unique features.


Anonymous said...

This series is timely and very good. As to your memory of Karl, I recall us bashing a Dutch boy at Sutherland Primary School circa 1953 because we thought he was German! "Square-head", we called him. Later (by 1959) he and his family were church friends...

Jim Belshaw said...

Thank you Neil. Interesting story. Aren't we lucky that people can change. And forgive.

Daniel said...

I am shocked by this revelation, Neil. Neil, 'bashing'!

The only bashing I have ever done was 'Bible-bashing' during a short-lived period of religious fervour.