Another Essay – Humanities!

This time around it was Humanities. Now, Humanities, this essay was less important, but it was also more interesting. Rather than testing my ability to research and write myself, it was about how well I absorbed the class materials, with the anticipation of an actual exam essay.


Australian immigration policy throughout the period of history before World War II was strongly linked to an ideological notion of racial purity, being seen as fundamental not just to the economic success of the country but also to its national and military security. Despite this ideal, however, immigration in the post-World War II reconstruction era took a distinctly less pure turn, for reasons that seem in hindsight to be more pragmatic and practical than in response to any particular ideal. This transition away from a sense of purist national identity as coupled to a purist racial identity coincides with social changes that would make the dissolution of the White Australia policy politically feasible.

Essay Question

In what way did Australia’s post World War II immigration program conflict with the earlier goals of the White Australia Policy?


Australian immigration, encoded in the Immigration Restriction act, and enforced through means of forced deportation and the dictation test, was designed to institute a pure white Australia, racially unified to prevent the loss of a culture to an invasive cultural force – a policy explicitly contradicted by the immigration decisions made post World War II. With population growth only coming from births and immigration, by curtailing non-white European immigration, the Immigration Restriction act was seen as a way to preserve the ideal of a pure white Australia. Therefore, immigration policy before 1945 was regarded as primarily being instrumental in enforcing this White Australia policy, with its most significant control being the dictation test. Despite this policy, though, post World-War II, the population of Australia included more people born overseas in a steadily growing proportion, even during a massive population boom. During this time, immigration came from other sources that previously had offered very few people to Australia – but the decisions were not made based on ideology, but on a purely pragmatic, practical set of decisions. This led to the steady transformation of the Australian population, and their outlook on what made up the population of Australia.

The White Australia policy expressed in the Immigration Restriction Act was seen as being fundamental to the safety and protection of the fledgling nation Australia, and would be enforced with every means available to restrict immigration – most commonly, the dictation test. In the early days of Australia, the White Australia policy, while not explicated, was founded on a belief that a racial purity of Australians was not only a good thing, but was worth proactively achieving through legislation, such as immigration restrictions. One of the tools – the Dictation test – was used to change Australia’s demographics. The White Australia policy was represented in numerous ways such as the writings and opinions of Charles Kingston, the Minister for Trade and Customs. Kingston spoke of the possibility of a secret invasion by other racial groups, suggesting a view on race that indicated a monolithic, almost conspiratorial outlook and one which wanted to meet that threat with an opposing racial conglomerate in the form of a ‘bleached’ Australia (Day, 2000). While efforts were made to remove already-present non-white Australians, it was equally important to prevent further dilution of Australia’s white identity by curtailing immigration from non-European sources. The tool of choice for this was the dictation test, a test ostensibly about ensuring educated immigrants and selected to minimise difficulties to Britain and offending Japan, but applied in practice to exclude non-white immigrants. The test had a huge impact, with the non-white population of Australia representing roughly from 1.3% in 1901, sliding down to 0.2% in 1947 (York, 1996). This test was a tense compromise as an attempt to discourage foreign immigration from non-White European nations without explicitly stating as such. This compromise – ham-fisted as it was – was an example of young Australia’s poor efforts at diplomacy, trying to find a way to diminish criticism of Britain across the empire by its tacit approval of Australia’s policies. Essentially, the dictation test was meant to allow Australia’s authorities to claim a practical reason against an immigrant, rather than explicating the racial bias. That’s not to say the dictation test was used exclusively as a tool to exclude racial groups – it was also used famously in the case of Egon Kisch to try and exclude a subject based on his political views. Nonetheless, with the dictation test as the tool of choice, Australia’s immigration policy meant population growth was almost exclusively White – supporting the ideal of the White Australia.

In the year following World War II, however, facing a declining birth rate and dwindling population, facing fears of losing an opportunity, the Australian government sought to assist immigration from sources they conventionally would not, leading to a steady erosion of White Australia policy’s practical blockade on immigration. The rate of population growth before World War II was reasonably steady, at roughly a hundred thousand people a year. Following the War, though, the rate of population growth exploded to nearly triple that a year, and that growth was aided by the expanded immigration enabled by the government (Australian Bureau of Statistics, 2013). This immigration came primarily from the refugee camps of World War II’s post-war reconstruction efforts, which was seen by the government at the time as a potentially rich field of skilled labour and population (Tavan, 2012). Espousing a ‘scientific’ view of immigration that was driven more by purely pragmatic, urgent desire to not miss an opportunity, the government relaxed restrictions on immigration while trying to avoid giving too strong an impression to the (heavily white) population of Australia that that’s what was happening. This led to a breakdown of the hegemonic vision of White Australia, not due to some cultural revolution but rather a pragmatic need for labour and to bolster a declining population. Effectively, the market’s needs led the culture. During the war period, the AUS population was at its ebb for foreign-born citizens (Dept of Immigration and Multicultural Affairs, 2001). The United Kingdom (through Ireland and Britain) represented 80% of all immigration to Australia in 1901 – a proportion that was never again met. Instead, in the post-war period, a massive increase in foreign-born people from Germany, Greece, Hungary, Italy, Malta, the Netherlands, Poland and Yugoslavia, induced thanks to market needs and social started to corrode the notion of the White Australia as an absolute, which served to eventually erode the idea as mandatory. Chinese immigration was given additional incentive with the 1951 institution of the ‘Colombo Plan,’ as a way to allow Asian students to study in Australia. Even then, this plan didn’t lead to a large or fast influx of Chinese long-term immigrants, which wasn’t noticeable until the 1970s. Essentially, by allowing some immigration from the formerly undesired nations, the fear of impurity had to be reconciled with the reality of increased non-White population.

The purity of Australia’s white population was so absolute and perfect an ideal to the government of 1901 that the Immigration Reform act was put in place to keep Australia’s population as white as it could be. Even in the face of opposition from international forces, including Britain itself, the response was the Dictation test, which was subsequently used for over fifty years to control against non-white immigration. Nonetheless, after World War 2, in the face of declining population and an available pool of refugees full of skilled individuals, a conspicuous effort was made by the immigration ministry to gather up potential immigrants that could improve the economic standing of Australia in the post-war reconstruction. This explicit shift diluted the former purity of Australian immigration, and signalled the eventual end of the White Australia policy. The policy of immigration in Australia, started in 1901 and lasting almost unchanged until the 1950s, was one of exclusion of non-white Europeans. This policy, however, while intended to represent an ideological purity through racial purity, faced and was eventually diminished by the introduction of post-World War II immigration that explicitly contradicted the White Australia policy’s aims. While claims were made of science driving these decisions, the pragmatic truth of immigration as a way to meet a nation’s needs was what truly started the shift in Australia’s cultural attitude towards immigration.


  • Australian Bureau of Statistics, 2013
  • Day, David. The ‘White Australia’ Policy [online]. In: Bridge, Carl; Attard, Bernard. Between Empire and Nation: Australia’s External Relations from Federation to the Second World War. Kew, Vic.: Australian Scholarly Publishing, 2000: [31-46]. Availability: ISBN: 1875606718. [cited 06 May 13].
  • Immigration : Federation to century’s end, 1901-2000 / Statistics Section, Department of Immigration and Multicultural Affairs
  • Tavan, G. (2012), Leadership: Arthur Calwell and the Post-War Immigration Program. Australian Journal of Politics & History, 58: 203–220. doi: 10.1111/j.1467-8497.2012.01632.x
  • York, B, 1996, ‘White Australia and the Dictation Test’, Voices, 6 (3), Spring, 27-36 APAFT [Australia Public Affairs Full text] Database
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