I really struggled with the last episode of SBS's Immigration Nation. I thought it was unbalanced; it really made me wonder what conclusions people would draw from it. I was sufficiently depressed by it that I actually didn't want to write about it. To my mind, there were sufficient code words built in to obscure it's final message.
Let me start with a parody.
The Liberal Country Party Government of Sir Robert Menzies started the Colombo Plan because of fear of communism, little realising that it would destroy the White Australia policy. Having met Asians, Australians decided they were quite nice.
In the face of agitation led by Charles Perkins and student radicals especially from Sydney University and in part energised by the Prasad case, Minister for immigration Hubert Opperman was forced to change. This was aided by the departure of Menzies. There is then a long segment on the fight in the ALP to change it's approach, to abolish its support for the White Australia Policy. Sadly, PM Whitlam when faced by the challenge of Vietnamese boat people went to water, really maintaining a racist stance. Surprisingly, it was left to Malcolm Fraser as the leader of the incoming Liberal-CP Government to make the dramatic gesture to really end the policy by the wholesale admission of Vietnamese refugees. In all this, there are shots that continue to equate support for ten pound poms with racial discrimination.
This really is a parody. Let me start with a brief historical summary. Here in Migration Matters - A Personal Perspective: Times of Change I noted that the White Australia 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.
If you look at this chronology, what a remarkable thing it was that a migration policy deeply entrenched in 1949 should have effectively collapsed by 1966, equally remarkable that thirteen years later Australia would be welcoming large numbers of Vietnamese boat people.
There is no doubt, as the SBS program suggested, that the Colombo Plan played a major role in changing Australian attitudes. Here I wrote in 2006:
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.
At a purely personal level I added:
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 undergraduates 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.
The next photo shows overseas students at the University of New England attaching a banner for overseas week 1960. The impact of the Columbo Plan was not limited just to students. There was, in fact, a broader international movement that both affected and was influenced by the Colombo Plan.
Two examples to illustrate. One personal, none general.
At a purely personal level, the biography of Uncle Horace records:
During the Second World War Belshaw collaborated with colleagues in Auckland and with fellow members of the New Zealand Institute of International Affairs in promoting discussion of key issues of post-war organisation, development and security in New Zealand and internationally. In 1944 he was appointed research secretary to the Institute of Pacific Relations in New York. Two years later he became professor of agricultural economics at the Davis campus of the University of California and also economist at the Giannini Foundation of Agricultural Economics. His writing in this period reflects his growing interest in rural welfare and agrarian reform in developing countries. With others, he produced a survey of reconstruction problems and needs for the Economic Commission for Asia and the Far East in 1947. His background made him an ideal appointee to the post of director of the Agricultural Division of the Rural Welfare branch of the United Nations' Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO) in 1948. With typical energy and enthusiasm, he organised surveys, conferences and action-oriented programmes, and motivated constructive work by others.
Horace Belshaw was just one of a number of Australian and New Zealand academics actively involved in international agencies in the forties, fifties and sixties. These included my father and two cousins. So regardless of the White Australia Policy, there was a strong ANZ outreach.
The second example is the foundation of International House at Sydney University in 1967. This was driven in part by Rotary and its members who saw international houses as a way of facilitating international understanding.
It may be, as the SBS program suggested, that Australia's role in the Colombo Plan was intended in part to "sell' the White Australia Policy, although I would need a fair bit of convincing on evidence that this was significant as compared to political window-dressing. However, it was also a pragmatic response to change.
Let me give another example. In 1957, Country Party Leader and Deputy PM John McEwen steered through a trade agreement with Japan. Coming just twelve years after the war, this was a pragmatic but highly risky political gesture, one that laid the basis for subsequent economic expansion.
My point here is that there were a whole series of engagements with Asia during the period over which the policy was abolished. The policy had to go because it now stood in the way of Australia's national interest.
Student activities at Sydney University and the Prasad case make good TV. They are indicative of changing attitudes. However, and this links to my earlier points, that agitation was part of a broader process.
It's actually very interesting from my perspective because of some other writing I am doing on social change in New England during the same period involving the same players. At the time, I saw the Prasad case as an example of the injustice of the White Australia policy. Today, and here I am influenced by the Howard period, I see is more as an example of the injustice associated with the application of rigid rules by officials bound in with current policy.
In 1972 I ran for Country Party pre-selection for the Federal seat of Eden-Monaro.
As a candidate, I had to take into account the attitudes of the Party, my own views and and those of the pre-selectors. At a personal level, I was strongly opposed to the policy. At a Government level, the policy had gone. Yet, at an electorate level, many still supported it.
Asked a question on White Australia, I carefully explained why the policy could not be maintained. After the meeting Ian Sinclair, who was representing the Federal Party, came up and congratulated me on my answer.
My point here is that the process of change was far more nuanced, more graduated, than Immigration Nation allowed. I wonder how many viewers would understand that the policy had gone by 1972, that the issue at an electoral level was how to sell the changes.
I want to finish this post with a few brief comments on Vietnamese boat people.
Living in Canberra in the late sixties and seventies, I was part of a strongly Asiaphile group, several of whom had Vietnamese girlfriends. We ate Vietnamese food, talked about Vietnam, looked at photo albums of life in Saigon over many generations.
As South Vietnam collapsed over 1975, as it became clear that the Whitlam Government would not help rescue people who had been involved with Australia, the group started to try to lobby for change. I had been strongly opposed to Australian participation in the Vietnam War and had registered as a conscientious objector, but I regarded Mr Whitlam's actions as betrayal and so tried to help. All I did was to write to Ian Sinclair seeking his support.
This episode, the Whitlam Government refusal to help refugees, was dealt with at some length in Immigration Nation and put in the context of White Australia. Maybe this is right, maybe Mr Whitlam was concerned about Party attitudes. I can only say that this thought never occurred to me at the time. Rather, I saw it as the application of rigid ideology that, coming out of the war conflicts, regarded helping those supporting the South Vietnamese Government as wrong. There were also some broader foreign policy issues, including relations with China.
I had something of the same reaction to the presentation of Mr Fraser's later role with Vietnamese boat people. By then, the White Australia policy had been well and truly buried and for some time, yet this was presented as its real end. Certainly I did not see it this way at the time. White Australia was an irrelevancy, something past. Yet maybe the program was partially right, in that this was a mass Asian entry into Australia.
I am not a strong supporter of Mr Fraser. However, as I learn more, I have to regard Mr Fraser's role here as a major contribution to Australia.
Well, finishing here, I think that my final judgement on immigration Nation is that it has failed in a most fundamental sense: it will not convince anybody not already convinced. I think that's a pity.