The White Australia Policy Part 2: The Legacy

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Refugees in White Australia

With the passing of the Migration Act (Cth) in 1958, most of the laws that made up the White Australia Policy came to an end.

The dictation test that was imposed upon potential migrants that the nation wanted to keep out – and no one had passed since 1909 – was abolished.

With its passing, then immigration minister Alexander Downer indicated that “distinguished and highly qualified Asians” might be permitted entry into the country. And it followed on a 1949 decision to allow 800 non-European refugees to remain here, along with Japanese war brides.

Indeed, this opening up to broader immigration – rather than simply letting in those of British descent – was fuelled by the government’s emerging “populate or perish” outlook, which basically meant that under the White Australia Policy the nation was suffering from a workforce shortage.

And while it’s said that the last vestiges of the whites-only migration policy expired with the Whitlam government’s passing of the Racial Discrimination Act 1975 (Cth), the essence of White Australia continues to inform our nation’s deplorable treatment of refugees, asylum seekers and noncitizens.

Imprisoning refugees

As former federal Labor minister Barry Jones tells it in What Is to Be Done?, there’s a level of nativism at play in Australia’s current treatment of refugees and asylum seekers.

Nativism being a settler colonial society harbouring hostility towards migrants from different cultural backgrounds.

Indeed, the laws making up the White Australia Policy were nativist to the core.

On enactment in 1901, the White Australia laws placed restrictions on those who arrived in this country by boat. It was a whites-only policy so limiting that for the most part it meant only those of British descent were permitted entry.

Similarly, these days, the Coalition’s Operation Sovereign Borders policy enforces a ban on refugees and asylum seekers arriving by boat.

Those arriving by sea are placed in mandatory ongoing offshore detention, with no possibility of being settled here. This policy could easily be described as ban on a non-white boat arrivals, considering who it’s involved.

Jones points out that this policy followed an influx of asylum seekers arriving by boat – around 51,000 – between 2009 and 2013. And he also outlines that under the Coalition, 72,000 asylum seekers have arrived by plane over 2016 to 2019.

Those arriving by plane don’t face mandatory detention, however, rather those found to be genuine refugees can eventually obtain permanent residency.

In early 2017, when Donald Trump questioned then PM Malcolm Turnbull as to why Australia has a bias against refugees arriving by boat and not plane, the US president didn’t wait for an answer.

Instead, as it dawned upon him, Trump said to Turnbull, “I know, they come from certain regions. I get it”.

Deporting Kiwis

The main piece of legislation making up the White Australia Policy was the Immigration Restriction Act 1901 (Cth). It allowed for the deportation of resident noncitizens if they’d been convicted of a violent crime, had served their time, failed a dictation test on release and weren’t British.

Former PM Tony Abbott thought this was such a good policy that in late 2014, his government made amendments to the Migration Act, so that a noncitizen resident is automatically deported for any number of sentences that amount to 12 months or more.

The policy has led to the deportation of over 5,700 noncitizens with more than half being New Zealand nationals. These people are often deported for accumulated multiple minor offences. And this has involved people who’ve lived here almost their entire lives.

If turfing out nationals who belong to a country that’s supposed to be our greatest ally wasn’t enough, the government attempted to apply this policy to two Aboriginal men born overseas.

However, the High Court ruled in February this year that the government can’t deport the Indigenous people of this continent as aliens.

Dictation remerges

And aspects of the White Australia Policy are continuing to resurface.

As part of last month’s federal budget, the government quietly announced that it will be instating an English language test that will apply to partner visa applicants and their permanent resident sponsors.

On the day following the budget, prime minister Scott Morrison clarified that the test would ensure that the partner’s of permanent residents who migrate to Australia will be socially and economically empowered within the community.

“I am aware that a lack of English language skills particularly amongst partners has put many of those partners at risk in Australia, at risk of domestic violence, at risk of being abused in their workplace and having their rights overtaken,” Morrison told a press conference.

The inherent racism of this proposed policy and the PM’s justifications for it is palpable.

The guts of the whites-only Australian immigration policy are detailed in The White Australia Policy Part 1: Constructing Fortress Australia

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Paul Gregoire

Paul Gregoire is a Sydney-based journalist and writer. He's the winner of the 2021 NSW Council for Civil Liberties Award For Excellence In Civil Liberties Journalism. Prior to Sydney Criminal Lawyers®, Paul wrote for VICE and was the news editor at Sydney’s City Hub.

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