Fifteen Eighty Four

Academic perspectives from Cambridge University Press


The White Australia Policy

Karen Stollznow

In the past, anti-immigration sentiment was often enshrined in government policy as a form of institutional racism.

In the late nineteenth century, concern was growing in the Australian colonies about the level of “non-white” immigration to Australia. A political slogan at the time was “White Australia: Australia for the Australians.” When the colonies united in 1901, one of the first pieces of legislation passed was the Immigration Restriction Act. Commonly known as the “White Australia Policy”, it aimed to limit non-British immigration to Australia. Politicians of the time proclaimed the policy was to preserve the “complexion” of Australia, and for the establishment of “social justice.”

The Australian Government actively enforced this policy. An infamous feature was the dictation test, a language test that non-European applicants were required to pass. The dictation test was given in any European language as chosen at the discretion of the immigration officer, so it was easy to ensure failure if the applicant was considered to be “undesirable.” A person who failed the test was deemed a prohibited immigrant and deported. White British migrants did not have to sit for the test at all. The dictation test was also used to exclude people of “suspect sexuality” and “subversives.”

In a famous case, the Australian government attempted to exclude Jewish Communist and anti-war activist Egon Kisch from entering the country in 1934. To outwit Kisch’s fluency in several European languages, a police inspector asked him to recite the Lord’s Prayer in Scottish Gaelic. Kisch failed the test and was sentenced to six months hard labor. He appealed to the High Court, and the decision was overturned when the demand was shown to be unreasonable because the inspector who administered the test was unable to understand Scottish Gaelic.

As a result of this impossible test, non-white people, including Australia’s indigenous population, made up only about two percent of the overall population in the 1940s.

In the wake of World War II, immigration minister Arthur Calwell declared that the country must “populate or perish.” British immigrants continued to be sought, but the UK government discouraged migration, urging its citizens to stay to rebuild its war-ravaged cities and infrastructure. Calwell turned to displaced European people, which resulted in 170,000 migrants being recruited from the Baltic states of Lithuania, Estonia, and Latvia. They were nicknamed the “Beautiful Balts”, and they were chosen for their fair skin, fitting white Australian aesthetic ideals.

The late 1950s finally saw positive changes toward non-European migrants. However, non-European migrants weren’t eligible for citizenship until they had spent 15 years in the country, as opposed to five years for Europeans. The dictation test wasn’t abolished until the Migration Act of 1958, although implicit discrimination against non-Europeans continued.

Under new laws introduced by the Holt government in 1966, migrants were to be selected for their skills and ability to contribute to Australian society, rather than their race or nationality. But it wasn’t until 1973 that the Whitlam government definitely abolished the White Australia Policy, finally putting an end to the country’s shameful history of racial exclusion.

On the Offensive by Karen Stollznow

About The Author

Karen Stollznow

Karen Stollznow is an Australian-American linguist and author. She is a Researcher at the Griffith Centre for Social and Cultural Research and was formerly a Research Associate at ...

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