Last night I watched the new SBS program, the Immigration Nation: the secret history of us. I almost didn't. The promo put me off completely. This, it seemed to me, was going to be preaching, not history, another unbalanced perpetration of what have become modern myths. I also thought that it was potentially dangerous.
I did watch the first episode and then browsed the supporting material. You will find the web site here.
I am glad that I did. This is ambitious well made TV. Based only on the first episode and current web material, it is somewhat unbalanced, partisan, Looking at comment responses, it has divided viewer opinion in the expected way; it may well re-ignite the history wars. However, it also draws out some of complexities involved, presenting Australian history in a way that will be new to many Australians. looking at it just as TV, I found it quite fascinating.
I see little point in critiquing the program a this point. Rather, I thought that I should provide a few background comments, pointing to my own writings. In doing so, my aim is simply to provide a deeper context for those who are interested.
The Chinese in Australia
The Chinese were Australia's first large non-Aboriginal, non-European migrant group. They did not just arrive with the gold rushes as many Australian's believe. The NSW colony was on the main shipping route for the China tea trade. With the ending of transportation, there were labour shortages in the bush. Employers looked at India and China as possible sources of migrants, generating the first ethnically linked migration discussions.
The Chinese in New England 1848-1853 provides a short introduction to this early period.
The gold rushes brought large numbers of Chinese to Australia. By 1861, 38,258 people, or 3.3 per cent of the Australian population, had been born in China. This rapid increase caused tensions and resentments among the European population. There was intermittent violence, including the famous Lambing Flat (now Young) riots of 1861.
The pressure of public opinion against the Chinese caused the New South Wales Government to pass the Chinese Immigration Restriction and Regulation Act in 1861 to restrict the numbers of Chinese in the colony. Queensland introduced restrictions in 1877 and Western Australia followed suit in 1886. Anti-Chinese leagues appeared and there was a range of explicit discrimination.
For those who are interested, End Week Reflections - Quong Tart and the Chinese in Australia provides a snap shot of the second half of the nineteenth century focused on one leading Australian Chinese figure.
Chinese emigration was not limited to Australia, nor were the responses among the Australian colonies necessarily different from responses in other places. To many, the Chinese were seen as a direct economic threat.
The point is that White Australia did not just emerge in 1901. Its roots were earlier.
Attitudes to Race and Ethnicity
Reading the official yearbooks after 1901 can be uncomfortable because of their explicit discussion of racial issues. However, we have to be very careful in understanding that discussion.
Ethnic, cultural or racial prejudices exist in all societies. We can see this in nineteenth century Japanese and Chinese views of the Europeans; we can see this in some Asian attitudes to Australia; we can see this in changing US attitudes to its Negro population; we can see it in attitudes to the Jews in multiple countries; we can see it in the ethnic cleansing that took place in the Balkans; the list goes on.
So where does Australia fit in this mix? Were there distinctive features in Australia? And why, if racism was so deeply entrenched in Australia, did White Australia fall so quickly? How come we ended up with a multi-ethnic society?
In some ways, Charles Darwin has a lot to answer for. His idea of competition among the species combined with evolving ideas about people and races to create social darwinism and eugenics. I explored a little of this in Sunday Essay - Race, Eugenics and the views of J H Curle.
The idea of competition and natural selection among races and and peoples (the terms were often used interchangeably) for survival and dominance were deeply held. Curle's own pessimism expressed in his 1937 book lay in his doubts about the ability of the British people to survive; to his mind, the future lay with the Chinese.
Australia and Australians shared this type of view. They believed in the superiority of the British race or people, in the emergence of a new people in a Southern land. But could that new people survive?
This fear was deeply embedded. Australia was on the periphery of Empire. To the north lay the hordes of Asia and especially the Chinese and then, later, the Japanese. Notions of the superiority of the British people demonstrated by the power of Empire wrestled with doubts about very survival. In the cruel world of social darwinism, would we survive?
This fear provided the special and unique Australian features. It drove the initial exclusion focus. Then, when circumstances changed, it drove the need to adjust, to move in new directions.
William Morris Hughes and the Japanese
The first SBS program focuses on the role of Australian PM William Morris Hughes in the Versailles' peace settlements at the end of World War One in preventing the inclusion of a racial non-discrimination clause in the League of Nations convention. Hughes was, the program suggests, a dupe of the British and Americans. To my mind, this is a misreading of history along a number of levels.
Part of the problem lies in the current tendency in Australian historiography to want to write in terms of them (the British) and us (the Australians). The world wasn't like that.
Hughes was both an Australian and Imperial political player, quite prepared to intervene in British politics at an electoral level if that suited his interests. Further, he had a number of objectives at Versailles; a key one was to punish Germany, to make the Germans pay the full cost of the war.
Hughes's personal views as well as Australian interests played out at Versailles across a range of spectrums. Of course, those such as Britain's Lloyd George used him to promote their own positions, but this was part of the political process.
There is a rather wonderful cartoon by David Low, I couldn't find a link, that shows Hughes banging the table at Versailles while those around him look bemused. Yet the point is that Hughes was no mere cipher, nor was the damage done limited to the racial-non inclusion clause. Hughes was a power in his own right. Arguably, his role in helping place punitive sanctions on Germany was far more important in creating World War Two than his objections to the racial non-discrimination clause.
All this said, the SBS program does show Hughes, dupe or not, pursuing an independent line defending what he saw as the Australian interest. This wasn't the first time that Australia or the Australian colonies had tried to force the Imperial or Commonwealth hand. Pacific Perspective - Australia in the Pacific describes earlier action by Queensland to force the annexation of Papua. Again, defence concerns were an issue.
The SBS program also shows how Australian actions could have side-effects. The impact of the non-exclusion clause on the Japanese is little known in Australia. However, here the program has so far at least missed an important local sub-text.
New England Story - The life and death of the mysterious Harry Freame provides a glimpse into the life of one of Australia's more colourful characters. The story ends with Freame's role as an Australian spy in Japan just before the Second World War and his subsequent death. There I said in part:
In my post Ethnicity, ideology and the sometimes slippery concept of Australian "independence" - Part One: "Independence", I spoke of the evolution of Australian independence. I also mentioned the role that Billie Hughes had played at the end of the First World War for both better and especially worse. One of my points in the post was that the simple us (Australia)/them (London) model that seemed to be so popular today acted to conceal the reality and complexity of the Australian position.
The complexity of the Australia-Japan relationship in the period leading up to the Second World War is an example.
The adoption of the White Australia policy, in some ways the new Federation's first foreign policy act, created real problems with Japan and also for the Imperial Government wishing to maintain good relations with the Japanese Empire for broader strategic reasons. This included the signing of the Anglo-Japanese alliance in 1902. These Imperial imperatives actually led to some modifications of the policy, exemptions allowing for some types of Japanese entry.
Then during the First World War, Japan played a critical role in keeping shipping lanes open to Australia. There was disappointment on the Japanese side when Hughes at the subsequent peace conference fought to limit Japanese mandates over former German colonies in the Pacific. One can argue that he was right in the case of New Guinea, a Japanese New Guinea would certainly have complicated things later, but scarring was there.
By the early 1930s, Japan was central to Australian life in a way that I, for one, had not realised. Japanese trading companies played a major role in Australian trade, while there were tens of thousands of Japanese living in Australia under various forms of entry arrangements.
The idea that there were tens of thousands of Japanese living in Australia in the 1930s is somewhat alien to the SBS presentation. To understand this, we need to go back a little in time.
In the world of competition and social darwinism, European expansion met empires in China and Japan equally convinced of their own cultural and ethnic rightness. The result was massive cultural shock, for the Europeans had the power to support their own version of rightness. One outcome was modernisation movements in both China and especially Japan.
The Russo-Japanese War of 1904-1905 in which, for the first time, a European power was defeated by an Asian one, marked a turning point in attitudes. Japan was now a force to be reckoned with.
Relations between the British and Japanese Empires had been generally good, with the British providing intelligence to the Japanese during the Russo-Japanese War. These links were strengthened during the First World War. So in arguing as he did at Versailles, Hughes was not being a British patsy, he was actually working against the Imperial interest.
The SBS program draws out the reservations in Australia about Hughes' position, but does not address the practical outcomes. A key one is that Japanese power meant that from the beginning of the White Australia Policy, the Japanese had to be placed in a somewhat special position. That is why there were tens of thousands of Japanese in Australia. By the early 1930s, relationships with Japan had become the second most important element in Australia's evolving foreign policy after the Empire itself.
The establishment of the Australian Legation in Japan, one if not the first independent Australian diplomatic posts outside the Empire itself, was intended to extend Australian reach and to protect our economic and political interests in Japan.
White Australia and Individual Rights
The SBS program uses case studies, individual personal examples, to draw out some of the personal costs of the White Australia Policy. This is a useful technique, one that I use myself.
There is no doubt that Federation and the national application of the White Australia policy imposed personal costs. Our treatment of Australia's quite large Japanese community is an example, one that probably dwarfs any other example in terms of actual numbers. The Australian Government simply classified them all as "seamen", a legal fiction allowing mass deportation.
In all this, we need to keep a sense of perspective.
It is sad but true that most, if not all, Government policies have adverse outcomes for some individuals. it is, I think, equally true that "good" policies can be badly administered. These are the reasons why many of us watch Government like a hawk.
The question of what is good and bad can really only be judged in retrospect. Over the last fifteen years, Australia has probably (I haven't checked the numbers) deported more people than in the rest of the nation's history. Over the last ten years, we have had hundreds of documented cases of wrongful treatment of individuals under our migrations laws. Some of us believe that these things are wrong, others disagree. In the end, history will decide.
Whether the White Australia policy was wrong in principle is a matter of perspective. I would argue, I think, that it was probably a necessary precondition for the later emergence of a multi-ethnic community given the fears and even xenophobia that existed among the Australian population at the time. Had Chinese migration continued, for example, had we ended up with a large Chinese minority group, then I doubt that the country today would be as united or tolerant.
I can adopt this position without condoning the way the policy was administered. My view is that this - the administration - was done in an unnecessarily harsh and unfair fashion.
Changes to the White Australia Policy
I don't yet know how the SBS program will handle the changes that have taken place in Australia's migration policy. This one has been a matter of personal interest to me, so I wrote a series of posts back in 2006 looking at the history of the changes. In date order:
- Migration Matters
- Migration Matters - Canada and the US
- Migration Matters - A Personal Perspective: beginnings
- Migration Matters - A Personal Perspective: Times of Change
- Migration Matters - A Future Perspective
- Migration Matters - End of Consensus
- Migration Matters - the view from 1949
Looking back of those posts as well as later posts, I would argue that the some what dramatic change in Australia's position was due to a combination of things:
- Australians' capacity to distinguish between views on groups and individuals. Wogs or chinks or whatever are bad. Fred's a wog or a chink but he's all right. He's our wog or chink. The program has already shown cases of neighbours and friends coming to the defence.
- Australia's sense of fair play. However imperfect, it's there.
- Government leadership. Successive Governments and Ministers knew that change was required and lead. Their views shifted over time. Immigration Minister Caldwell infamously said that two Wongs don't make a White, but he still drove European mass migration. The changes that resulted in the Australian population were enormous. Then, a little later, you had the Colombo Plan bringing tens of thousands of especially Asian students to Australia at a time when the policy was still in force. You had John McEwen's campaign on economic grounds for closer relations with Japan despite the war. And so it went on.
- A general national consensus on the importance of migration.
- Adjustment time. Looking back, change happened remarkably quickly. There were constant incremental changes. Yet the pace of change did not outrun the capacity of the Australian people to adjust, in part because the changes were incremental.
Each migrant group experienced prejudice. We will probably see a bit of that in the SBS series. Yet it is still a remarkable transformation.
Today's Australian had some lyrical reviews on the series. This, for example. If Graham Blundell wishes to add to the ethnic slurs from Australia's history he might consider banana (yellow on the outside, white inside) or coconut (brown on the outside, white on the inside). Ethnic slurs are not limited to Australia's Anglo population.
There is no doubt that it's very good TV. Whether it's good history is yet to be seen. It's impact on popular opinion is also an open question. I really hope that it adds to a balanced understanding, that it reinforces views on a diverse Australian community that began to erode during the Keating years.
In saying these things I have taken off my historian's hat and am speaking at a purely personal level. Australia has come a long way, and not in the right direction, since the decision of the Fraser Government to accept mass Vietnamese refugees, something that I discussed in New Year celebrations 09 and the 97 Cabinet records.
It is hard to believe today that an Australian Government from only thirty three years ago would be prepared to accept a refugee intake that finally totaled more than 200,000 from one country. It is harder still to believe that that intake was accepted by the Australian people without protest even though public opinion polls actually showed majority opposition.
While I was preparing this post, Neil (Ninglun) brought up a useful post. As it happened, I wrote some of the original migration series as part of a set of discussions I was having with him.
Even as I was posting, Neil brought up a second post, Being Australian 7: inclusive multiculturalism Aussie style 2, this one specifically referring to our past discussions. We start from different perspectives, but much of the time reach common ground. That's what dialogue is for, specification of difference, identification of areas of agreement, mutual challenge as to views.