White Australia policy – the beginning of the end 50 years ago
Fifty years ago, on 9th March 1966, Hubert Opperman, the Minister for Immigration in the Coalition government led by Prime Minister Harold Holt, announced the outcome of a departmental review of immigration policy.
It was a landmark shift away from the White Australia policy, which had been in force for nearly 70 years since the passage of the Immigration (Restriction) Act in 1901.
The essence of the White Australia policy was that it sought to stop any new permanent settlement in Australia by ‘non-Europeans’, which mostly meant Asians.
Opperman’s announcement changed that policy by allowing non-Europeans who wanted to settle in Australia to be considered, as he told Parliament, “on the basis of their suitability as settlers, their ability to integrate readily and their possession of qualifications which are in fact positively useful to Australia”. The reform also placed the residency requirement for citizenship for non-Europeans on the same basis as Europeans: reducing it from 15 years to five years.
It was the beginning of the end of the White Australia policy.
There had been an earlier liberalisation, in 1956 and 1957, which granted permanent resident status to non-Europeans who had arrived as refugees during the Second World War or had resided here for at least 15 years and allowed non-European spouses of Australian citizens to be naturalised. In 1957, a further change permitted non-Europeans other than spouses to apply for citizenship after 15 years residence.
This was still discriminatory, as Europeans only had to be resident for five years to apply for citizenship. Yet it was also a step away from the old policy in that it allowed for some new settlement by Asians and other non-Europeans, albeit only a very small number.
The changes to policy were a product of three main factors: the campaign waged by progressive thinking politicians, business people, academics, university students, religious figures and some trade unions for immigration reform; diplomatic protests by newly-independent countries in the region against the policy, and recognition of the fact that the postwar world was changing rapidly and Australia’s relationship to Asian countries was becoming closer in terms of trade, diplomacy and ‘Cold War’ regional defence arrangements.
In 1966 Japan replaced the United Kingdom as Australia’s leading merchandise export destination; about a third of our exports now went to Asian countries. The United Kingdom had joined the European Free Trade Association in 1960 and was moving closer to Europe as we moved toward Asia (and the USA).
The final nail
The hammering of the final nail in the coffin of the White Australia policy took place in January, 1973, when the Labor Government led by Prime Minister Gough Whitlam announced that future immigration policy would not distinguish between immigrants on the basis of race, colour or nationality.
Today, Australia’s ‘non-European’ population exceeds two million which means that at least one in ten Australians would almost certainly have been excluded under the old policy.
The White Australia policy and mentality that was once bipartisan, endorsed by Coalition and Labor parties until the mid-1960s, is now so marginal that any new political party associated with it is rejected at the national polls by 90% of the voters.