Fact sheets

The "White Australia" Policy

The 'White Australia' policy describes Australia's approach to immigration, from federation until the latter part of the 20th century, which favoured applicants from certain countries.

The origins of the 'White Australia' policy can be traced to the 1850s. White miners' resentment towards Chinese diggers led to violence on the Buckland River in Victoria, and at Lambing Flat (now Young) in New South Wales. The governments of these two colonies introduced restrictions on Chinese immigration. Later, indentured labourers from the South Sea Islands of the Pacific (known as 'kanakas') in northern Queensland were also resented. Factory workers in the south became opposed to all forms of immigration, which might threaten their jobs - particularly by 'non-white' people (people other than Anglo-Celtic or northern European) who they thought would accept a lower standard of living and work for lower wages.

In 1901, the new federal government passed the Immigration Restriction Act which ended the employment of Pacific Islanders and placed tight controls on certain immigrants. The Act prohibited those considered to be insane, anyone likely to become a charge upon the public or upon any public or charitable institution, and any person suffering from an infectious or contagious disease 'of a loathsome or dangerous character' entry to Australia. It also prohibited prostitutes, criminals, and anyone under a contract or agreement to perform manual labour within Australia (with some limited exceptions).

Other restrictions included a dictation test, used to exclude certain applicants by requiring them to pass a written test in a language, with which they were not necessarily familiar, nominated by an immigration officer. With these severe measures the implementation of the 'White Australia' policy was warmly applauded in most sections of the community. In 1919, Prime Minister Hughes, hailed it as 'the greatest thing we have achieved'.

After the outbreak of hostilities with Japan in 1941, Prime Minister Curtin reinforced the philosophy of the 'White Australia' policy, saying ' this country shall remain forever the home of the descendants of those people who came here in peace in order to establish in the South Seas an outpost of the British race'. During World War II, many non-white refugees entered Australia. Most left voluntarily at the end of the war, but many had married Australians and wanted to stay. The Immigration Minister of the newly created immigration portfolio sought to deport them, arousing much protest. However, the major period of government sponsored post-war immigration to provide much-needed popultion growth and labour, resulted in a progressive relaxation of the policy as more and more souces of migrants were sought.

In 1949, the new Immigration Minister, Holt's decision to allow 800 non-European refugees to stay, and Japanese war brides to be admitted, was the first official step towards a non-discriminatory immigration policy.

The next major step was in 1957 when non-Europeans with 15 years residence in Australia were allowed to become Australian citizens.The revised Migration Act of 1958 introduced a simpler system of entry permits and abolished the controversial dictation test. The revised Act avoided references to race.

After a review of the non-European policy in March 1966, Immigration Minister Opperman announced 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. At the same time, the government decided a number of 'temporary resident' non-Europeans, who were not required to leave Australia, could become permanent residents and citizens after five years (the same as for Europeans). The government also eased restrictions on immigration of non-Europeans. The number of non-Europeans allowed to immigrate was to be 'somewhat greater than previously'. The March 1966 announcement was the watershed in abolishing the 'White Australia' policy, and non-European migration began to increase.

In 1973 the government took three further steps in the gradual process to remove race as a factor in Australia's immigration policies. These were to:

However the government also reduced the overall immigration intake and so an increase in the number and percentage of migrants from non-European countries did not take place until after the new government came into office in 1975.

In 1978 the government commissioned a comprehensive review of immigration in Australia. Far-reaching new policies and programs were adopted as a framework for Australia's population development. They included three-year rolling programs to replace the annual immigration targets of the past, a renewed commitment to apply immigration policy without racial discrimination, a more consistent and structured approach to migrant selection, and an emphasis on attracting people who would represent a positive gain to Australia.

Government policy now recognises and celebrates our cultural diversity. It accepts and respects the right of all Australians to express and share their individual cultural heritage within an overriding commitment to Australia and the basic structures and values of Australian democracy. It also refers specifically to the strategies, policies and programs that are designed to:

IMMI Fact Sheet 8 – Abolition of the 'White Australia' Policy

Adapted from:
DIAC Fact sheet 8 Abolition of the 'White Australia' Policy

See also:

Theme: Australian history and race relations - Racism in Australia