Sunday, January 13, 2008

The Rise and Fall of the White Australia Policy

Neil had an interesting post looking at ways of teaching about the White Australia policy. I thought that I would add a few comments, in part because Neil's post may in fact be difficult to understand for someone who has limited knowledge of Australian history.

In simple terms, we can think about the White Australia policy under three headings - genesis, operation, end.

Genesis covers the period up to the adoption of White Australia as a formal national policy by the newly formed Commonwealth of Australia after its creation in 1901. Operation covers the fifty year sweep from then until the early post Second World War period. End covers the progressive dismantling of the policy over the fifties, sixties and early seventies.

If we define racism as the explicit discrimination against people on the grounds of race, the White Australia policy was clearly a racist policy, designed to keep Australia white. I do not think that we can or should walk away from this, nor from the fact that many Australians including Prime Minister Alfred Deakin held explicit views about the superiority of the European and especially British race.

On the other hand, I don't think that we need to agonise too much about it. The purpose of history is to explain, to understand, not create a painful hair shirt for later generations to wear in misery.

In both the genesis and the end of the policy, we need to understand and form opinions about causation. Why did the policy begin, why did it end? In looking at the operation of the policy, we need to understand how it actually worked in practice.

Both the establishment and end of the White Australia policy were very major public policy decisions because they influenced the very composition of the Australian people.

The adoption of the White Australia policy ensured racial homogeneity for the next fifty years. The decision to abolish it meant that Australia was bound to become a multi-racial society. These are not small things.

In looking at the reasons for White Australia. we need to recognise that the policy came about because it represented the majority view of the then Australian population. We also need to recognise that racial views as such, while central, were only part of the mix. Economic considerations and plain fear were critical.

As a people, we modern Australians have a particular difficulty in dealing with the evolution of the White Australia policy because some of our most cherished and important icons - the Bulletin magazine, trade unions, the Labor Party - were passionately involved in its creation.

To my mind, this is silly. The fact that there were racist elements does not detract, destroy, the other elements in the story.

The story of the abolition of the policy is very different from that of its creation. Whereas the creation of the policy did represent public opinion, its abolition did not.

At the time we began unwinding the policy, majority opinion was still in its favour. It was the Australian Government that concluded the policy was no longer viable, that began its cautious unwinding.

This and its subsequent acceptance by the bulk of the Australian people is a remarkable story.

We had already launched in the mass migration program a major experiment is social engineering. Neither the Australian Government nor the Australian people thought of it in those terms, but that was what it was. Now we removed in a series of incremental steps one of the pillars of Australian official policy since Federation.

In all, its a remarkable story, and not one we should be ashamed of.

Postscript

A few later reflections.

The Wikipedia article provides a reasonable overview of the history of the policy including the broader context.

Digging through the links Neil provided as well as other relevant material, one theme is the need to preserve social cohesion. This was, I think, an especially important issue in the minds of ministers during the dismantling of the policy.

In 1947 the partition of India saw mass migration and communal violence leading to the deaths of between 200,000 and a million people. In 1964 race riots in Singapore saw 36 people killed, over 500 injured. Then in 1969 there were race riots in in Kuala Lumpur in which at least 196 died.

Ministers were well aware of examples such as these. The policy had to go on foreign policy grounds if no other - Australia's growing engagement with Asia demanded it - but this had to be done without creating social and racial tensions.

In the ten years from 1957 to 1966 the policy was effectively abolished in a series of incremental steps. By the time, to draw an example from Neil, Sutherland High School debated the policy in 1969, the policy was to all intents and purposes dead. Yet I suspect that remarkably few Australians really realised this simply because it had been done in increments.

I will have to continue these musings a little later.

Later Evening 14 January 08

Neil posted a correction on the debate. He wrote:

Slight correction, Jim. Sutherland High School closed in the 1950s, its students going to Port Hacking High. The debate I mentioned was a Shire competition, in this instance won by Cronulla High, the team involved being peeved that they had to argue for "White Australia", a topic, as you say, somewhat anachronistic in 1969, hence the line they took.

While non-European migrants were still an exotic species then and the philosophy behind the WAP was still out in the public imagination (witness the degree of opposition on the far right and far left to the Vietnamese boat people in the 70s), the bright young people in my team certainly didn't want to argue for racism. I think the effects of Martin Luther King etc in the US and the controversy about South Africa had an impact here, as of course did our own Aboriginal movement in the 60s. Hence the perhaps too clever, but successful, line the team took.

Concern about balancing diversity and cohesion has been clear all through this, with the "pendulum" swinging perhaps too far in the direction of cohesion under the Howard government.

Thanks, Neil. I am sorry that I mis-remembered. However, your comment further stimulated my thinking.

The two things at the moment that I am most interested in my musings are the reasons for what was such a major change and the public policy positions and thoughts involved in managing the change.

I think that Neil is right that there were fundamental changes in attitudes among the young. In my migration matters series, I explored my own experiences here. I also think that he is right that things such as the US Civil Rights movement had an impact. However, it was more than that, for there were shifts among the older generation as well.

Those who read this blog on a regular basis will know that I was strongly influenced in many ways by my grandfather, David Drummond. This was the man who taught me to box when I was being bullied, who tried to educate me by giving me books to read.

In 1961 he gave me as a present J W Schulte Nordholt's book The People That Walk in Darkness.

Published in 1960, this was the story the Negroes of America, starting on the day in 1619 when the first twenty slaves were put ashore from a Dutch boat and then working through to the start of the civil rights movement.

At the time he gave me the book, my grandfather was 71 and coming to a the end of a long career as a Country Party Parliamentarian that had begun in 1920 with his election to the NSW Parliament. He was thus a Government backbencher during the period of Australia's initial post war engagement with Asia and the start of the end of the White Australia policy.

At the time he gave me the book in 1961 he was just my grandfather, a source of fascinating stories and a window into politics. It was only later, looking back after research into his life, that I could see the evolution of his views. That evolution mirrors many of the changes in Australia.

In first writing and researching about my grandfather I was not not concerned about his changing views on racial issues. They were a sideshow to the main story. Yet they are germane to the story that I am writing about now.

To a degree, Drummond's views mirrored the changing attitudes of the time.

In 1926 at a smoke social in Tamworth he spoke of the need for Australia to build its population to avoid conquest. If we failed to do this, he said, then we would become like the Aborigines, skulking on the outskirts of the land that had once been ours. No pussy-footing here. Just explicit recognition of a conquest that might later be repeated.

A proud nationalist, he saw no conflict between this and his support for Commonwealth and Empire. Here he became a member of the Australian chapter of the Round Table, the Empire group founded by Milner whose members included the writer John Buchan. Indeed, my grandfather loved Buchan's books - I do too - and met Buchan while he was Governor-General of Canada. There is an underlying anti-Jewish flavour to some of Buchan's books, a flavour to the words, that makes modern readers uncomfortable.

I suspect that Drummond shared this as measured by his intense personal response to Sir Otto Niemeyer (and here) recorded in later interviews with George Baker.

Then when we look at his role in Aboriginal education in the thirties when as Minister he had to try to reconcile the conflict between community attitudes, official rules and the needs of Aboriginal communities, we see that he personally articulated the concept of the Aboriginal people as a child race.

Now writing in a modern frame it would be very easy to type Drummond as racist. Yet his views were always tempered by a powerful personal awareness of injustice. Indeed, in modern "liberal" Australia some of his views would be seen as soft left indeed.

Drummond would not have thought in these terms. He would simply have concluded that some modern obsessions such as our civil controls and sentencing rules were outrageous.

One example to show what I mean in broad terms.

In 1936 Drummond went on an international trip to investigate technical education.

In Germany, Nazi officials turned a Jewish family off a ride to accommodate Drummond and his eldest daughter, my mother. Both were outraged. Drummond had read Mien Kampf, and came back convinced that war was inevitable. He and Mick Bruxner, the NSW Country Party leader, moved to put NSW onto a war footing well in advance of Commonwealth action.

So in all this, the views of the David Drummond who in 1971 gave me a book telling the story of the American Negro had clearly evolved from the earlier David Drummond. And this is my key point.

When we come to look at the evolution of Australia, we need to recognise that views do change over time. We also need to recognise that particular views are only one element in an overall tapestry.

4 comments:

ninglun said...

Slight correction, Jim. Sutherland High School closed in the 1950s, its students going to Port Hacking High. The debate I mentioned was a Shire competition, in this instance won by Cronulla High, the team involved being peeved that they had to argue for "White Australia", a topic, as you say, somewhat anachronistic in 1969, hence the line they took. While non-European migrants were still an exotic species then and the philosophy behind the WAP was still out in the public imagination (witness the degree of opposition on the far right and far left to the Vietnamese boat people in the 70s), the bright young people in my team certainly didn't want to argue for racism. I think the effects of Martin Luther King etc in the US and the controversy about South Africa had an impact here, as of course did our own Aboriginal movement in the 60s. Hence the perhaps too clever, but successful, line the team took.

Concern about balancing diversity and cohesion has been clear all through this, with the "pendulum" swinging perhaps too far in the direction of cohesion under the Howard government.

The riots and troubles you refer to arose, of course, in very different circumstances to any that have confronted us.

Jim Belshaw said...

Hi Neil. Will correct main post tonight. There are some interesting issues here in terms of the processes of change in public opinion.

ninglun said...

You may have missed this: Trevor Khan has caught up with the post about him I did a while back. It does have some relevance to this thread.

Jim Belshaw said...

I had missed this. It odes indeed have relevance. By the way, I am pleased to report that a post generated by one of our exchanges has appeared in on-line opinion as one of the best independent blog posts of 2007 - http://www.onlineopinion.com.au/view.asp?article=6867