Why Australia is not a racist country
According to the Monash University historian Marilyn Lake, the yearning for a White Australia has never died. In the midst of the violence between Lebanese and Australian youth on Sydney beaches last December, she claimed the Bulletin's old 1908 masthead, “ Australia for the White Man”, still echoes in the text messages and political slogans of our own time.
Just as the Pacific Islanders Labourers Act of 1901 meant the Australian nation was founded in an act of racial expulsion, she says, so the anti-Lebanese attitudes of youths at Cronulla beach revealed “an odd resonance between the exclusions that marked the first decade of the 20 th century and events 100 years on”. Racial exclusion, Lake asserts, is “a deep part of our heritage, as traditional an Australian value as mateship”.
Lake wrote this in The Age in an article accompanied by a John Spooner cartoon depicting a surfboard rider with his head shrouded in a Ku Klux Klan hood fashioned from the Australian flag. In a profile of its cartoonists on The Age's website, Spooner assures his readers: “You do better work if you believe in what you are doing.”
Earlier in 2005, the La Trobe University politics lecturer, Gwenda Tavan, in her book The Long, Slow Death of White Australia, agreed that racial exclusion still had popular appeal. “Racism remains the skeleton in the closet,” Tavan writes. “Its ghost rises with each new decade to haunt political debate, whether the issue is multiculturalism, asylum-seekers, Asian immigration or Indigenous affairs.”
Lake and Tavan speak for the orthodox view among the academic commentariat, especially in Melbourne. Another Monash historian and the most prolific author on the topic of race relations in Australia, Andrew Markus, believes that Australian geographic insecurity still fuels a racist attitude to Asians today. “The fear of swamping by waves of non-European immigrants from the north”, Markus told a conference on the White Australia Policy in 2001, “remains deeply embedded in the minds of a significant number of Australians”.
At the same conference, Robert Manne of La Trobe University reinforced the same point: “The cruelty of the anti-asylum seeker policy was quite clearly an expression of a subliminal or unselfconscious racism, triggered by the profound ‘otherness' of the swarthy and exotic strangers from Iraq, Iran and Afghanistan.”
In the wake of all this long familiar hand-wringing, it was refreshing to find in the Quadrant edition of November 2005 the dissenting academic voice of Jeremy Sammut: “Virtually nothing is left of White Australia thinking.”
It was an even greater surprise to read the endnote stating that the author had only recently completed a PhD in history at one of the institutions where the orthodoxy is enshrined more than most, Monash University. Sammut's rejection of the portrait of contemporary Australia by Lake, Gavan, Markus and Manne was forthright.
Few white Australians think it a source of shame to marry someone from another race, and such unions create no social stigma. When Australians choose whether to send their child to a particular school, the fact that its best students might well be from an Asian background does not influence their decision. Nor have they sought refuge in all-white sporting clubs or workplaces. They have lived with, worked with, played with, and married with the newcomers … Australia has no Le Pen or National Front. Despite the job losses and associated impacts upon working class communities, no demagogue has been able to exploit these circumstances and parlay economic insecurity into an organized and sustained anti-immigrant national political force.
Against Tavan's claim that the White Australia policy continually recurs in the “hearts and minds of everyday people”, Sammut responds: “I cannot see how this accusation can be sustained. Since 1973, no serious popular desire to reimpose specific, race-based immigration restrictions has developed and restored the issue to the national political agenda.”
But while Sammut now sees an Australia cleansed of racism, he does not extend the compliment to our historical past. Indeed, the emergence of non-racist modern Australia leaves him dumbfounded.
In the light of the prejudices that long lay behind the White Australia policy, the nation's transformation into a harmonious multi-racial society over the last fifty years is amazing. It appears almost miraculous that a country that for so long was determined to reject the mass migration of alien races has peacefully incorporated millions of new arrivals from an array of racial backgrounds.
In other words, although Sammut has broken the mould in his view of contemporary Australia, his stance on Australian history is no reversal. He is neither willing nor able to depart from the doctrine that the White Australia Policy rendered our historical past shamefully racist.
The main thrust of his article is a critique of my 2004 book, The White Australia Policy (Macleay Press). Sammut concedes that my book disproves the academic thesis that Australia was a racist society on a par with Nazi Germany. He agrees that those who claim Social Darwinism was widely influential in colonial Australia have no credibility.
He also grants my point that historians such as Henry Reynolds have grossly distorted the nature of the 1901 parliamentary debate over the Immigration Restriction Bill. Biological arguments for racism were in a minority in that debate, he acknowledges, and many speakers across the political spectrum specifically repudiated them.
But that is about all Sammut concedes. The rest of his piece is an argument against my thesis that the White Australia Policy was largely economic, political and cultural in origin rather than racist. The policy was primarily designed, I argue, to prohibit cheap Chinese and Melanesian coolie labour and to prevent the emergence of an impoverished underclass that might destabilize democratic egalitarianism. It was an issue of most concern to the organized labour movement.
Genuinely racist sentiments were largely confined to some (but by no means all) trade union activists, labour politicians and socialist intellectuals, especially the bohemian writers on the Bulletin and the members of the Victorian Socialist Party. Their most vocal opponents were the subscribers to classical liberal economic and political ideals, especially the Sydney Free Trade politicians Bruce Smith and Edward Pulsford.
My book, Sammut correctly observes, is a revival of the interpretation made by historians from the 1920s to the 1950s. However, he rejects this explanation and restates the position that has held sway in Australian historiography from the late-1960s to the present.
Sammut claims that, historically, it was not just the labour movement but the whole nation that supported racial exclusion. He says the liberal leaders of Australia were not merely pandering to the workers. They made the issue a national cause.
On this view, the entire nation was determined to prevent the entry of alien races whose presence would lower the national character of a proudly British community. It was xenophobic sentiments of this kind that gave White Australia its powerful patriotic appeal, and which accounts for the fervent support it enjoyed amongst all classes of Austral-Britons as a national ideal.
If Sammut is right about the historical past then it was indeed miraculous that all this could have been jettisoned without any great national trauma. My version of events, however, does not rely on miracles or any other wondrous phenomena.
Rather than a deeply-entrenched prejudice, I argue that non-white immigration restriction was a policy this country wore lightly. Discarding it required no political crisis or even bitter debate. The ease with which the policy was abandoned, largely by gradual and non-controversial shifts in bureaucratic regulation from 1956 to 1966, suggests it had never gone deeply into the national psyche in the first place.
There are two serious problems with Sammut's defence of the historical orthodoxy. He produces very little evidence in favour of it and he fails to address the substantial empirical case I make against it.
If opinion polls had existed in 1901, Sammut writes, ordinary Australians would have been likely to have taken a “contemptuous and xenophobic view of the failings of ‘inferior' and ‘degrading' alien races.” It is true there were no opinion polls on the subject at the time, but that does not give Sammut the right to jump to unsupported speculation, especially when my book offered a considerable volume of alternative evidence.
One test of popular opinion I produce on the subject is best-selling literature. Several academic historians — Andrew Markus, David Walker, Raymond Evans, Humphrey McQueen, Neville Meaney — have cited William Lane's 1888 race war novel White or Yellow? as evidence of popular attitudes of the period. Lane's novel was serialised in a trade union newspaper that distributed at most 5400 copies. I use more credible evidence.
I examine books by Mrs Aeneas Gunn (one million copies sold), Mary Grant Bruce (two million copies sold) and Rudyard Kipling (read by one-third of all Australian book readers). I show how these works not only specifically reject racist views but, in the case of Mary Grant Bruce, consign the sentiment “Gimmee white Orstralia” to the prejudices of her least appealing and most ignorant characters.
Sammut makes no comment about this evidence and offers nothing of his own to counter it.
It is true, as Sammut argues, that in the second half of the nineteenth century, Australian trade unionists orchestrated periodic anti-Chinese agitations. Against my case that the union response was primarily on economic and egalitarian grounds, directed against poorly-paid and unfree coolie labour, Sammut insists the motive was racial prejudice.
No one who reads the colonial press reports about anti-Chinese meetings on the nineteenth century goldfields, he says, can fail to appreciate this. “The streak of prejudice that ran through Australian society was on full display,” Sammut writes, though without actually quoting any of the newspapers of the day. He makes no comment on my detailed account of these incidents.
They were perpetrated, I argue, by a militant minority of white gold diggers. Most had been in the country less than three years. Some goldfields newspapers were certainly prejudiced against the Chinese, especially the one habitually cited by left-wing academic historians, the Burrangong Miner and General Advertiser, which had a brief life in the tent city that sprang up in the Young district in 1861–2. However, the mainstream press of the day took a different view.
The Sydney Morning Herald defended the Chinese and condemned the rioters. It hoped the parliament had “enough English feeling to protect the Chinese now in this country against the savage oppression of the vandals — many themselves foreigners — and who have no other right on our gold-fields than is given by the laws they violate.” [emphasis in original] Sammut's article does not admit the existence of, let alone attempt to explain, such divergence of opinion.
Sammut's comments on the goldfields also avoid the information I provide about the attitudes of the authorities at the time. The government dispatched a force of police to defend the Chinese miners. The police arrested and jailed white rioters. The only person killed in the worst riot at Lambing Flat, Burrangong, was a white digger shot by police.
Under police protection, the Chinese miners returned to the field and re-established their camps and mines. The government compensated them for the tents and gear lost during the riot. The Victorian government paid £7300 for the losses at Buckland River and the New South Wales government gave £4240 to the Chinese at Lambing Flat.
While the New South Wales compensation grant is listed in Myra Willard's 1923 history of the White Australia Policy, I have not seen one academic historian of the post-1960s generation mention it. The only one of them to mention the Victorian grant is Andrew Markus. The rest ignore both payouts. This is not surprising. Those who want to beat up the goldfields violence prefer not to tell their readers that the actions of the rioters always remained lawless and gained no sanction from either the state or the mainstream opinion of Australia 's middle class and educated working class.
Although he cites the colonial press as part of his case, Sammut avoids commenting on my content analysis of four newspapers ( Sydney Morning Herald, Sydney Mail, Melbourne Argus, Adelaide Advertiser ) during the Afghan incident of 1888 when orthodox historians claim anti-Chinese sentiment was at its height. Rather than displaying a prejudice that ran through all society, the mainstream press largely echoed the views of the Sydney Morning Herald which denounced the “the unreasonable clamour and violent language of a portion of the people”.
Elsewhere, Sammut simply asserts his case about anti-Chinese sentiment, without offering evidence of his own or even citing other sources that do. He writes: “A clear and hostile social divide was established between the Chinese and European workers in Australian towns and cities.”
Since he is writing a critique of my book that deploys a substantial body of evidence to the contrary, Sammut was obliged to show where I had gone wrong. But he makes no comment at all on my following points:
- On the Kiandra and Braidwood goldfields between 1858 and 1870, Barry McGowan's recent study has shown a fair degree of economic co-dependence and familiarity between European and Chinese miners, with numerous instances of Chinese miners buying claims and working claims cooperatively with European miners. There were also joint European-Chinese social events, such as the Braidwood races where Chinese diggers were invited to enter their own horses. At Kiandra, the Chinese were early participants in the fledgling sport of snow skiing and the local Snowshoe Club ran a special day's racing for its Chinese members.
- After the early gold rushes, the Chinese were largely excluded by the organised labour movement from the traditional skilled trades, as well as other unionised occupations such as shearing and wharf labouring. Nonetheless, they found their own economic roles. They came to dominate market gardening and eventually had an effective monopoly, growing no less than 75 per cent of the vegetables in the whole country. This led them to become the principal hawkers of vegetables and to control about one-fifth of Australia 's fruit trade. Chinese also found ready employment in the hospitality industry, especially as cooks. Half the cooks in Australian hotels in the late nineteenth century were Chinese. In the 1880s they dominated the low-cost furniture manufacturing industry, leaving the high-quality end of the market to European tradesmen.
- Cathie May's history of the Chinese in far north Queensland, where Chinese cash crops became important to the economic health of Cairns and Innisfail, found local Chinese shopkeepers, farmers and artisans succeeded in promoting a degree of friendship and a favourable reputation for themselves. References written by leading townsmen for Chinese merchants showed an unmistakable element of personal esteem. Commercial contacts extended to personal relationships. May found Europeans who grew up in the 1890s recalled visiting the gardens of their father's Chinese tenants on Sundays and taking refreshments. White merchants paid more formal visits to their Chinese counterparts who kept open house and entertained lavishly.
- Geoffrey Bolton's 1970 history of far north Queensland, A Thousand Miles Away described race relations in the 1870s on the Palmer River goldfields, where the Chinese constituted a majority of miners, in the following terms: “The remarkable feature about the Chinese question in those years is that very little serious racial trouble occurred, even on the goldfields … Talk, rather than action; a grudging tolerance in practice, rather than stern measures urged by public-house orators.”
In short, Sammut's claim that Australian towns and cities were marked by a clear and hostile social divide between Chinese and Europeans is a gross exaggeration. Like other members of the academic orthodoxy, he has listened, selectively, to the public-house orators and overlooked more mundane but more common views.
The reliable historical sources do not claim the two races lived together in blissful celebration of cultural diversity. The social accord that did exist was not due to any especial virtue among the white inhabitants, and had nothing to do with any moral advocacy of racial acceptance, let alone a theory of multiculturalism. It was simply a product of the everyday workings of trade, commerce, industry and employment. Cathie May probably summed it up best when she said most Queensland communities accepted the Chinese with “apathetic tolerance.”
When Sammut does deign to offer some direct evidence about the fervent appeal that racial prejudice supposedly enjoyed among all social classes, he turns to the first decade of the Commonwealth Parliament. He repeats my own argument that the smallest party in the new parliament, Labor, was the most determined on the issue. Because it held the balance of power, Labor was able to use its position to influence both Protectionists and Free Traders.
However, Sammut loads his case to give the Labor perspective far more influence than it deserves. He quotes party leader Chris Watson's notorious statement — “The question is whether we would desire that our sisters or our brothers should be married into any of these races to which we object.” In a remarkable leap of logic, Sammut extrapolates this view to the whole population. “Nobody in parliament questioned whether Watson's plain statement of communal intolerance was a faithful reflection of community views.” Therefore, since no member disagreed, what Watson said must have been true of everyone!
The truth is that many members vocally disagreed with Watson, as my book records with numerous examples. Sammut acknowledges that I am the first historian to comprehensively examine the parliamentary debate over the 1901 Immigration Restriction Bill. But he shirks my finding that there was a solid block of opinion from Free Traders against the bill precisely because they felt it was racially prejudiced, and that several leading Protectionists, and even some Labor members, publicly stated they were not supporting it on those grounds. So concerned was he by Watson's speech that the Free Trader Edward Pulsford moved an amendment in the Senate specifically stating that the bill meant no racial prejudice.
Sammut also avoids mentioning the views of the only parliamentarian who attempted to quantify members' opinions on the issue, Donald Cameron, who said “two thirds of the honourable members of this House really object to the Chinese, not so much on the ground of the possible contamination of the white race, as because they fear that if they are allowed to come into Australia the rate of wages will go down.” Rather than acknowledge these clear repudiations of Watson's statement, Sammut pretends they don't exist.
Instead, Sammut cites the opinions of just five parliamentarians. Only one of them, Chris Watson, as quoted above, was speaking in the 1901 debate. Three others were writing commentaries on the issue. Alfred Deakin wrote in a newspaper article describing not his own view but those of the working classes, who he thought had “an unreasoning hostility to strangers and foreigners”. Two others, one of whom is left unnamed, were expressing positions that can fairly be described as racist — if Sammut has quoted them accurately.
The fifth was Free Trade leader George Reid who, Sammut says, “conspicuously endorsed the argument that alien races were ‘inferior' in an attempt to prove to Labor that Free Traders were more rabid supporters of racial exclusion than were the Protectionists.”
It is true that Reid made a Faustian bargain over this issue. He abandoned his earlier disdain for the politics of race and supported White Australia in a bid to win Labor Party support that would elevate him to prime minister — a position he gained in August 1904 and held for a mere ten months.
However, I cannot locate any record of Reid saying that alien races were “inferior” [Sammut's quotation marks]. I re-read the debate in Hansard but could not find that term in any of the speeches Reid made, nor in any of his many interjections. His worst description was “undesirable aliens.”
Nor, I might add, can I find in my own writings any grounds for the following assertion by Sammut: “Windschuttle says he is puzzled that many parliamentarians let the point about intermarriage speak for itself.” Nowhere do I say I am puzzled or perplexed about this point, nor that anyone let it speak for itself.
Sammut appears to be a graduate of the Henry Reynolds school of historical methodology which allows you to invent or rewrite other peoples' words as you fancy.
The longest part of Sammut's article is his explanation for the slow and cautious approach by politicians to winding back the legislation of 1901. He argues that local elites feared that in a racially mixed country, unscrupulous politicians of a demagogic bent would prey on racial antipathy, allowing racial issues to inflame politics and divert attention from other national priorities. “Holding very British reservations about ‘mobocracy',” Sammut writes, “the elites who formulated the White Australia policy wanted no repeat of the anti-Chinese agitations.”
His argument is based on a set of psychological presumptions — what he calls “visceral racial prejudice” and “latent popular prejudice” among the lower orders — and the need for political elites to manage them.
In making this case, Sammut succumbs to a common confusion of terminology that has long muddied this debate. He presumes that xenophobia and racism are synonyms. There is an important difference in the meaning of these words that has implications for how we interpret both the history and the politics of race.
Xenophobia is a fear or dislike of foreigners or strangers; racism is a fear or dislike of people of other races. While strangers can obviously be people of a different race, xenophobia can also be a response to people who are strangers but of the same race or ethnicity.
On the other hand, racism can be a response to people of a different race, even though they are not strangers. Under the Nazis, many German people took a racist attitude to Jews who lived in the same village, or even in the same street.
In Australia, many academics routinely label hostility by some Europeans towards other Europeans as racism. For instance, there was some abuse — almost entirely verbal — of Italian immigrants who came to work in the Queensland sugar industry in the 1920s. Sammut describes these incidents as racist.
A crude disdain for ‘dagoes' found expression, and began to rival the traditional antipathy towards ‘inferior' Asians … In the pre-war heyday of White Australia, the popular view was that eastern and southern Europeans were like Asians, that is non-white and inferior aliens.
But Italians were not members of another race and the White Australia Policy never excluded them. Nor, for that matter, did it ever exclude people from other Mediterranean countries such as Lebanon and Syria. Sammut is trying to take the moral opprobrium that rightly applies to racism and apply it to xenophobia, which is a far more common and far more natural phenomenon.
The fear or dislike of strangers, especially those whose language, manners and dress are radically different, derives from the small-group tribalism of humanity's hunter-gatherer origins, and was once entrenched in human nature. It is still there in the incessant conflict that characterizes tribal societies as far apart as the New Guinea highlands and the Amazon basin.
But the rise of cities after the neolithic revolution, followed by such globalising cultural phenomena as exploration, imperialism, trade, travel, tourism and immigration, gradually replaced kinship and tribalism as social forces in much of the world.
The cosmopolitanism of the Roman Empire influenced, and was itself shaped by, the anti-tribalism of Christianity. St Paul said God made all nations “of one blood”, a view reiterated in the fifth century by St Augustine and in the fifteenth century by the Spanish Dominicans in the New World who declared “all mankind is one”. The universalism of the European and British Enlightenments was a secular expression of the same sentiment.
Today, in ethnic relations as in so many other matters, our ancient instincts have been largely suppressed by the requirements of civilization and urbanisation. Complex and large-scale society has made most of us learn to live by impersonal rules and manners rather than through the loyalties and authority of kinship. The most successful societies, as both Elie Kedourie and Ernest Gellner have argued in their studies of nationalism, have long been those whose members owe allegiance to rules-based political institutions rather than to blood, kin and nepotism.
For a thousand years, the British political inheritance has essentially been of the rules-based kind, where the king himself was always subject to the law of the land and where foreigners have been readily accepted, provided they abide by the prevailing laws and customs. This, in turn, was forged deep into Australian culture.
All this runs counter to the assumption on which so much history of Australian race relations has been written. Most recent Australian intellectuals have assumed, like Sammut, that xenophobia and racism are the same thing: universal phenomena, lying just beneath the human surface and ever ready to burst forth, especially among the lower orders.
Unlike xenophobia, racism is not something that was once universal or innate. It is a product of intellectuals. It is a modern ideology whose emergence can be specifically dated to mid-nineteenth century Europe. It was not until 1795 that the German anthropologist, Johann Friedrich Blumenbach, first defined the broad racial categories — Caucasoid, Mongoloid and Ethiopian (later Negroid) — that still inform, or rather misinform, popular discussion today. By the 1850s, German intellectuals were leading a movement to make race and language the basis of the unification of the many small German states and princedoms of northern Europe.
In Italy, nationalist leader Guiseppe Mazzini used the same appeal to gain independence from the Hapsburg Empire and unify the several Italian states. Arguments by philosophers, novelists and poets influenced by the romanticism of the era made national culture, and its purported roots in blood, language and song, one of the fashionable intellectual issues of the day. These are the origins of racism as described by the most exhaustive recent study of the concept, Ivan Hannaford's Race: The History of an Idea in the West (1996).
As an ideology initiated and largely supported by intellectuals, it is wrong to presume, as most Australian historians have long done, that racism spontaneously generates among the lower orders. Racism is not natural. Children are not inherently racist and can grow up in a racially mixed but culturally uniform environment well aware of facial and skin colour differences but treating them as largely irrelevant. Racism is learnt — as Rodgers and Hammerstein emphasise in South Pacific :
You've got to be taught to be afraid
Of people who's eyes are oddly made
And people whose skin is a different shade
You've got to be carefully taught
As a settler society founded in an age of global imperialism, Australia was born modern, founded by people from the world's most cosmopolitan city, London. With a polity derived from the rules-based tradition of Britain, and inheriting an Enlightenment culture that was curious rather than xenophobic about foreigners, Australia was always going to be a country where people quickly got used to living amongst newcomers of various ethnicities.
This hypothesis is confirmed by the historical evidence. As my book shows in some detail, Australia was a racially mixed society from the outset. In the 1790s, the streets of Sydney were inhabited by people of various skin hues, including Indians, Ceylonese, American negroes, Hawaiians, Tahitians, Maoris, Aborigines, as well as blacks and mulattoes from the West Indian colonies and Mauritius. More than 1200 of the convicts transported to New South Wales and Van Diemen's Land were not white.
Australians have never needed to be lectured by clergy or academics about ethnic mixing. The normal interactions of making a living meant it was inevitable. This is one of the reasons why popular Australian culture has never been seriously obsessed by race. This is not an especial virtue deserving any self-congratulation. Everyday-life has made it so since 1788.
Despite their reputation among academics, the Australian goldfields also confirm the thesis. In the 1850s, the gold rushes attracted adventurers of many races and creeds from around the world. There were noticeable numbers of American negroes and New Zealand Maoris among the diggers, but no incidents of racial animosity towards them. They shared a cultural affinity with diggers from Europe. They spoke the same language, wore the same clothes, used the same mining techniques and drank in the same pubs.
The incidents of hostility that did break out against the Chinese were influenced most by cultural difference compounded by economic rivalry: the Chinese did not speak English, wore oriental dress and pigtails, had different work habits, and kept to themselves. They also outnumbered other diggers. In New South Wales in 1861 at the time of the Lambing Flat riot more than 60 per cent of all gold miners were Chinese.
Despite their initial differences, as time went by and the Chinese became more Australianised, the studies by Cathie May and other authors recorded above show that ordinary Australians accepted their presence in their towns and suburbs. Some educated and wealthy Chinese, like Quong Tart in Sydney, became high-profile and respected figures.
However, in some of the capital cities' inner-urban areas, where working class Chinese tended to keep to themselves in ethnic ghettoes, they were seen by the trade union movement as an alien group willing to out-compete Australian tradesmen by accepting work at rates of pay so low that no one else could live decently on them.
Their self-imposed cultural and economic isolation was itself a cause of some animosity. However, in the little moral world inhabited by our academic historians, these facts are not today allowed to be spoken. Non-Anglo ethnic groups must always be portrayed as culturally blameless. Only Anglo Australians can have cultural prejudices and foibles.
Apart from its deeply muddled assumptions about racism itself, the other notable aspect of Sammut's article is his interpretation of the politics of White Australia. In a novel version of the story, Sammut makes the Labor Party's Arthur Calwell the hero of reform. As Opposition Leader for most of the 1960s when he refused to countenance any change, Calwell has been portrayed by most historians as the chief obstacle to amendment.
However, Sammut offers an ingenious argument that turns this on its head. “The reason abolition was so long in coming is simple,” he says. “Australian society had to change first … the nation had to address its core prejudices and become prepared to accept the radical changes in thinking that ending the White Australia policy involved.”
As immigration minister in the 1940s Chifley government, Calwell largely initiated this himself, Sammut argues. He oversaw the post-war importation of large numbers from central, eastern and southern Europe. He labeled them “new Australians” and persuaded old Australia that their arrival was economically and politically essential if the country was to have a population big enough to produce large-scale infrastructure and to defend itself.
The experiment worked, but not only in political and economic terms. Sammut says Calwell showed that newcomers could be readily accommodated if their arrival was accompanied by the right kind of political slogans and leadership. Hence, according to Sammut, although Calwell still supported White Australia, he was nonetheless the one who broke the old psychological mould and paved the way for the post-1975 non-European immigration program.
This is a fanciful story for several reasons.
First, as I have already shown, Sammut fails to provide any good evidence for the psychological assumptions of visceral and latent racism on which his account depends. He assumes from the outset the very point that his case needs to establish. Moreover, he not only fails to counter the evidence my book provides against those psychological assumptions, he does not even address it.
Second, Sammut fails to examine any of the economic reasons behind the introduction of White Australia, and completely ignores the economic changes behind the demise of the policy. There are several economic arguments that are relevant to the issue: the trade unions' objections to low-paid coolie labour and to employer attempts to develop the tropical north with Asian and Melanesian coolies; the demise of the labour-intensive sugar plantations that once employed Melanesian labourers and their replacement by more economical owner-occupied sugar farms; the end of the Chinese-dominated gold rushes to the Northern Territory and far north Queensland; the relationship of immigration policy to protectionism and the industrial arbitration system; the growth of Australian trade with Asia throughout the twentieth century, which made Japan Australia's third biggest trading partner by 1936 and a major influence on the Australian economy in the 1960s.
Third, on any objective assessment, Arthur Calwell's role in the 1960s was a positive drag on reform. The Menzies and Holt Liberal-Country Party governments made the reform process gradual because they were unsure of the electorate's response. Without ever testing the issue in practice, they feared that a combined appeal by Calwell to racial prejudice and working class self-interest might swing him enough votes to win government. The Liberals' concern over this unknown quantity — largely unwarranted in my opinion — delayed reform for more than a decade.
Fourth, Sammut's interpretation fails to address any of the issues I raise about Australian security: the unease in southern capitals about the vulnerability of the largely uninhabited northern coastline; the emergence of Japanese population enclaves in the Torres Strait and at Broome in the early twentieth century, which raised the prospect of territorial claims by an expansionist Japan; the removal of these threats with the defeat of Japan in 1945. Neither the origins nor the end of White Australia can be properly discussed by avoiding this context.
Fifth, Sammut completely discounts the influence of liberalism, as either an economic policy or a political ideology. My book argues that White Australia was ended for reasons of business and economic policy by the intellectual heirs of those classical liberals who had protested most strongly about its introduction in 1901. Sammut instead wants to give all the credit for ending the policy to social democrats, that is, to the party largely responsible for introducing it in the first place and which kept it intact for far longer than was either economically desirable or politically seemly.
In making this case, Sammut demonstrates how steeped he is in the oldest and most jaded thesis in Australian historiography: the belief that the parties of progress are those of the left, and the parties of reaction are those of the right. This has long been the standard Melbourne interpretation of Australian history.
On the topic of race relations, however, the evidence is not only incompatible with the Melbourne thesis, it positively contradicts it. The multiracial Australia we inhabit today was only made possible by a repudiation of the old Laborite social democracy, grounded in protectionism, unionism, industrial arbitration and White Australia.
All that social democrats contributed to Harold Holt's reforms was to impose on them the doctrine of multiculturalism, that is, a government program to encourage immigrant communities to preserve the cultures of their old countries, no matter how irreconcilable they might be with Australian mores. Fortunately, apart from a number of publicity-seeking spokesmen and the members of Middle Eastern subcultures in a few urban areas, the great majority of immigrants have shown little interest in such backward-looking ethnic compartmentalisation and have opted to join the mainstream.
The multiracialism of contemporary Australia, which Sammut rightly recognises and commends, is a product not of nationalist social democracy, let alone its luminaries such as Arthur Calwell, Al Grassby and Gough Whitlam. It owes its existence to the founding traditions we inherited from Britain : political and economic liberalism, Christian and Enlightenment humanitarianism, and an internationalism that made us open to the world.
Without these historical traditions, and the deep cultural traits they have embedded in Australian society, multiracialism could never have worked, in our own time or any other. In short, despite the ethos that emerged within sections of the labour movement and among nineteenth century radical intellectuals, Australia has never had a mainstream culture that can properly be described as racist. It is unlikely it ever will.