The White Australia Policy book launch
responding to Frank Devine's launch of
The White Australia Policy and Washout
Tattersalls Club, Sydney
December 6 2004
Because they've had few besides Geoffrey Blainey to criticise them for the past thirty years, academic historians have taken the story of immigration restriction in Australia and used it to draw conclusions that have become increasingly bizarre. They now argue that the White Australia Policy put this country on a moral equivalence with South Africa under apartheid. Some even compare Australian nationalism to the racist nationalism of Nazi Germany. Far from being something that was dismantled between the 1950s and the 1970s, the White Australia policy, they claim, lives on today, manifesting itself in the Howard government's border protection measures, revealing a purported deep-seated racism at the core of Australian culture. Rather than go through all the arguments in my book why the picture painted by these academic historians is a travesty of our past and a grotesque caricature of recent events, I want to focus here on two particular groups who argued this issue in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries.
The historians' case does have some basis in reality and is not entirely concocted. There were some Australians who did subscribe to theories of racist nationalism, and they were the people who most strongly argued for a White Australia. In their day, they constituted the intelligentsia. They were in favour of the fashionable new ideas, theories and political movements out of Europe. They were in favour of socialism, republicanism, feminism, eugenics, the strong state and the romanticist, racist form of nationalism that emerged in Germany at the time. They took many of their ideas from the latest continental theory, especially the ideas of Nietzsche and the German versions of Social Darwinism. They despised those of their fellow Australians who remained loyal supporters of the British Empire and who lived bourgeois or respectable working class lives in the suburbs. They were republicans who despised the British connection and who wanted to remake Australia anew. Norman Lindsay wrote a memoir which he titled Bohemians of the Bulletin, which is a convenient label for them all. From the 1880s to the First World War, the Bulletin was their main publishing outlet. Most historians today treat the Bulletin of that period as a widely popular journal. If fact, if you look more closely at its content and its circulation figures you find it was the late nineteenth century equivalent of, say, Nation Review and National Times in the 1970s, or the ABC's Radio National today, that is, very influential among the cultural elite and labour politicians of an intellectual bent, but greatly out of step with the majority of their fellow Australians in the suburbs and country towns. It is uncanny how much this late nineteenth century intellectual elite is a mirror image of its radical, tertiary-educated counterpart in our own times, whose views exercise such a disproportionate influence in our media, artistic and educational circles. Both the historical and the current elites have regarded their more conservative fellow citizens with condescension and contempt. Both groups have seen their dreams of socialist economics and an Australian republic rejected by the majority. Though separated by a century, they agree on almost everything, with the conspicuous exception of immigration policy, where their positions are reversed. But the hard version of multiculturalism favoured by the modern elite, which is really a form of ethnic separatism, is itself not all that far removed from the ideas behind the White Australia Policy itself.
In contrast, the anti-racists of one hundred years ago came from the despised middle classes. In fact the strongest opponents of the White Australia Policy, and the people that my book names as the heroes of the resistance movement against it, were the politicians of the Free Trade party. They objected to the Immigration Restriction Bill of 1901 on the grounds that it was an instrument of racial prejudice. The two most prominent protestors were Bruce Smith, the federal member for Parkes, and Senator Edward Pulsford from New South Wales, both Sydney Free Traders, who were classical Adam Smith liberals who took their ideas from the Scottish Enlightenment and the liberal political tradition. Despite the claims of historians who say no one in the new federal parliament objected to White Australia, if you actually read the whole debate, you find plenty who did, which this book demonstrates. When it came to dismantling the White Australia policy, which was done gradually by the Menzies, Holt and Whitlam governments between the mid-1950s and the mid-1970s, it was these same classical liberal political views that won the day.
In the Sydney Morning Herald on Saturday, and in the internet blogs that have appeared since, I am painted as a kind of professional controversialist. But the views of this book should not really be controversial at all. They only appear that way because the interpretation of history they are arguing against is itself so extreme. This book's arguments are, in fact, closely in accord with the interpretation made by the several historians who wrote on this subject between the 1920s and the 1950s. Most of them took the view that the origins of immigration restriction, apart from its support amongst the intelligentsia, lay primarily in the labour movement's desire to end the system of Chinese and Melanesian coolie labour and to protect its members' living standards. Coolie labour was contracted and indentured, and it paid only a fraction of the money earned by free labourers. At the time, to campaign against it was understandable, morally legitimate and even progressive. Regrettably, the left intelligentsia and some of the labour politicians in the first federal parliament took this campaign beyond what was reasonable and propounded a genuinely racist discourse, but their voice was always that of a minority. The historians of the 1920s to the 1950s thought that by the time they wrote, the policy had put paid to the coolie system and should be abandoned. That is pretty much my view. The White Australia Policy is nothing to be proud of, but nor is it anything before which we should cringe or apologise. Australia is not, and never has been, a fundamentally racist country. The race card, which the academic left has played for all its moral worth for the last thirty years, is a ring-in that should be dropped from political debate. But, unfortunately, no one should hold their breath waiting for that to happen.