The Race that Stocks the Nation: Australia’s Immigration Policy History has Evolved and Revolved around whatever Races are Viewed as Beneficial at any given Time


by Nurdeena Anuar


Executive Summary

  • In the past, Australia was known to be racist in developing its immigration policy, with the ‘White Australia Policy’ the dominant example.
  • Australia’s immigration policy evolved through the world wars era as different approaches were taken for the security and interests of the country.
  • Significant changes started to happen during the 1950s, as policies were became non-discriminatory and the ruling government promoted cultural diversity.
  • The current problem with the immigration policy is addressing the question of refugees and asylum seekers. It gained national and international attention when the Tampa Crisis occurred in 2001.
  • Media plays an important role in informing the public and forming their views. The media should be transparent with the information that is being reported.
  • The federal government can tackle the debate of ‘charity should begin at home’ by creating Awareness Classes that pay local citizens to attend in order to promote understanding among locals and the new Australians.
  • It is important for both parties to learn about each other’s history, culture, and way of life to avoid unnecessary and misplaced suspicion. Learning about Australia’s immigration history also is important in order to avoid repeating the same mistakes in the future.
  • New Australians should realise their role and responsibility in this new country and aspire to give back to the country. Everyone should be encouraged to learn to adapt to core Australian values but without undermining their own culture and traditions.

Immigration has a distinctive role in Australian history as it plays an integral part in developing this young nation. The immigration history of Australia, however, has featured some dark phases. Today, one can assume that Australia has learned a lot from its checkered past and now upholds its multiculturalism principle. Yet, this assumption can be contested if we analyse the current immigration policies and compare them with previous ones. Many improvements certainly have been made to the current policies but even so it can be argued that, until recently, the Australian government always formulated its immigration policies based on favouritism towards particular ‘races’ or ethnic groups that were considered at any given time to be those who could most benefit the country. Though the counter argument can be that such decisions are made ‘for the good of the country’ and its people, consequently the backlash will be the existence of discrimination and racism within the society. Nonetheless, to understand the current situation, we can trace immigration policies that have been made in the past and use them to justify the argument. We will analyse several policies and notable situations that occurred in order to understand why it happened. In addition, potential solutions will be discussed in order to overcome such problems and how to prevent Australia from repeating its history in the future. Finally, we will look back at the points used in order to support the argument that Australia’s immigration policy from past to present is evolving based on the races that benefit them.

As a young nation, Australia always has been cautious in developing the country’s policies since the creation of its government. By being too precautious and sometimes unrealistic, however, the government tends to overlook some important matters that can cause calamities within society, including, in this instance, various immigration policies and their outcomes. First, we can look at the well-known ‘White Australia Policy’ or the Immigration Restriction Act created in 1901. Clearly, this policy was created to exclude non-British immigrants especially with its Dictation Test that was outright discriminatory and caused complications for immigrant acceptance into the country. Besides the racially discriminatory policy, people suffering physical or mental diseases, convicted criminals, prostitutes and those reliant on charity also were refused entry. It is understandable for Australia, during its developing period, to be selective in choosing the right citizens that could best contribute to the country. But policymakers clearly ignored the fact that the early British settlers had included any convicts, thus the situation smacks of hypocrisy. Ideas about ‘racial superiority’ continued to dominate the development of further policies such as the Pacific Islanders Act and the Commonwealth Naturalization Act (1948).

The creation of such acts showed the selfishness of the country for denying the right of Pacific Islander labourers, Asians, and non-European immigrants who faced discrimination under the above mentioned acts. After their labour, strength, and energy had been exploited, there was no chance for them to become citizens of Australia. It can be argued that the White Australia Policy can be blamed for this because of its misguided belief to protect its security and as it asserts its identity as a member of the British Empire.  This fear of accepting such labourers to the country stems from the idea that locals will have difficulties in securing jobs through such competition. Such a myopic viewpoint also underpinned the then governing party, the  Labor Party, which believed in  maintaining a strong connection with its British roots.

Due to this connection with Britain, any common enemies automatically were viewed as enemies to Australia. During both world wars, immigrants from particular countries that were considered as the enemy were faced with discrimination and particularly harsh treatment by the law. From the 1920s until the 1940s, several acts were created to target immigrants from Germany, Austria, Hungary, Turkey, and Italy that were referred to as ‘enemy aliens’. The Enemy Aliens Act saw immigrants from some of the mentioned countries to be confined in internment camps or restricted from entering Australia, as they were suspected of potentially remaining loyal to their former homelands. Such situations reaffirm the argument, because it shows that such suspicions by the government caused them to take drastic measures even though the threat had not really existed. During the mid-1930s, Jewish refugees fleeing from Nazi persecution began to arrive in Australia because of promises made by the government. The promise was the entrance of permit for 5000 Jewish and non-Jewish refugees from Nazism including enemies. Ultimately, however, they were denied permission to enter Australia. To reiterate, this rejection towards refugees was influenced by the disfavour towards non-British immigrants that stemmed from centuries. This also is where the infamous Dictation Test again played its part in hindering such immigrants for a chance to avoid catastrophe in their country of origin, but sadly were faced with another hurdle from the country they were seeking shelter. On the contrary, the government took a different approach following the Second World War whereby the term ‘populate or perish’ was coined. The fear of invasion by the Japanese army made the government rethink its policies and increase its population. Furthermore, ‘total war’ and conscription put a huge strain on the economy and further emphasized the need to ‘populate or perish’. The government, then, was starting to be more accepting of non-British immigrants but nonetheless it was only for what they saw as to ‘protect’ and, again, benefit the country.

Postwar, Australian immigration policy was opportunistic as large waves of migrants were welcomed. Through the signing of immigration agreements with more than twenty European countries, Canberra was hoping to boost the nation’s defence and economy. Once again, the White Australia Policy was the linchpin for policymaking especially by the ruling government and thus created the ‘Bring Out a Briton’ Program as Britain and north western Europeans were perceived to be most suitable to accept the Australian way of life. This ignorant mentality by policymakers who looked highly upon the British was illogical, and even reached the extent where some immigration officers rejected any non-Anglo looking applicants purely based on the reason that it was for their sake as well as Australia’s.

Seeing that such policies were receiving widespread criticism, Australia managed to improve their policies after the 1950s starting with the Colombo Plan. It can be said that the Colombo Plan was the start of a new approach towards the immigration policy that became realistic and less biased. It was a chance for Australia to redeem itself followed by the creation of the Migration Act (1958). Through this act, the White Australia Policy finally came to its end thus witnessing arrivals of 250,000 postwar refugees in the 1960s. Furthermore, the outrageous Dictation Test was abolished and an immigration entry permit system was being introduced.

As mentioned before, incumbent governments develop immigration policies based on Australia’s immediate national interests and needs. Through the Liberal government, the restriction on non-European immigration was eased and cultural diversity increased. The Labor Party’s longstanding commitment to the White Australia Policy was removed from its party platform. These drastic changes resulted in a mixed reaction by the public as some were unhappy to distance themselves from the British identity and some were relieved as discrimination towards them was being addressed. A significant factor for such disappointment by some of the public can be blamed on the inaugural government as its past policies have infiltrated the mind in hating the ‘other’. This can be a perfect example of the calamity caused by such policies.

Through the creation of the Numerical Multifactor Assessment System (NUMAS) in the late 1970s, Australia continued to practise changes in immigration policy because immigrants were selected with points tallied against preferred criteria. This effort was continued with the formation of the Racial Discrimination Act that prohibits discrimination on the grounds of race, religion, colour, descent, or ethnicity. Despite such positive changes, it is hard to eradicate the notion of discrimination among society towards immigrants especially with the arrival of refugees or so-called ‘boat people’ from Vietnam and other war-torn countries. Xenophobia seemed to exist at the back of the minds of many Australians, causing the country to be divided if we look closely at the acceptance towards these refugees or asylum seekers. The notion of having to face competition in finding jobs started to resurface again, similar to what had happened in the past. The tension worsened due to several factors including Professor Geoffrey Blainey’s proposal to limit immigration from Asia, which sparked public debate on the immigration policy, the formation of Pauline Hanson’s One Nation political party, and also the Howard government’s indifferent attitude toward multiculturalism.

Through prime minister John Howard’s ruling, the Tampa Crisis can be a suitable case study to justify our argument and observe the actual reality of Australia towards outsiders. The focus now has shifted to asylum seekers and refugees being handled by the government. Paradoxically, Australia is now known for having an ‘open door policy’ but it is questionable because the government has reduced immigration processes by 14 percent and the Humanitarian Program figures remain below 2004 levels. To this day, an effective solution is yet to be found to solve the crisis. Only debates going back and forth which concern national security and fair process are countered with arguments about compassion & human rights. As for the current state of immigration policy, such measures are being tackled by detaining the asylum seekers and refugees in detention camps such as the one on Christmas Island. There are pros and cons by detaining them but mostly concerning the long-term detention of people seeking refuge and the conditions under which both adults and children are held. Critics of detention perceive the function of these camps as both an administrative tool and as a deterrent to future asylum-seekers. In contrast, critics of ‘boat people’ are worried those on-shore asylum seekers are jumping an ‘immigration queue’ and they feel that the overall process should be fair and impartial, and that Australia’s national security should be respected and protected.

Now we can move on to discussing a few possible solutions for this crisis. Understanding, acceptance, and awareness can be the key elements in developing future immigration and multicultural policies including programs for the assimilation of immigrants within the society. Understanding is where the government and the public investigates and tries to understand the reasons why such asylum seekers and refugees chose Australia to seek shelter. Acceptance is where, once the understanding has been achieved without any prejudice or discrimination, governments and locals accepts the immigrants into the country and try the best way possible to help them. Awareness is then implemented by being aware of the immigrants’ culture, background, and personal stories. They may have gone through a lot before coming to the country; this is where a good support system becomes helpful. An informative program for the public must be created in order to inform Australians to differentiate between refugees, asylum seekers, and illegal immigrants. It is important to differentiate both in order to eradicate notions of suspicion towards the immigrants. This effort can be seen with the creation of informative documentary programs by SBS such as ‘Immigration Nation’ and ‘Go Back to Where You Came From’. Media also plays an important part in this solution because it is what we see, read, and hear from the media that influences us in developing our views that then also can influence the government in shaping their policy. It is the media that also brought attention to the Tampa Crisis and ignited the interest and exposed the real truth of the immigration problem in this country. Nonetheless, media also can make or break the effort to form a positive mentality among Australians and immigrants

The public needs to know the truth that Australia’s acceptance to refugees and asylum seekers is far smaller than other countries. According to the UNHCR Statistical Yearbook 2009, around 112,400 refugees were resettled in 19 resettlement countries, including the United States of America with 79,900, Canada with 12,500, Australia accepted 11,100, Sweden 1,900, and Norway with the least number of refugees at 1,400. The fear of losing jobs to them should be eradicated. The debate of ‘charity should begin at home’ can be addressed by the government creating a program that pays locals to integrate, assist, and get informed about the mentioned immigrants. Through these classes, locals also can learn the social culture of the immigrants.  A suggestion by Klaus Neumann is also helpful to overcome this problem. He mentions that currently immigrants are expected to learn about Australian history including its antecedents. In return, it would be better for Australians to be familiarized with the histories of the immigrants whom now can be considered as the new Australians. Neumann suggests that Australia’s heritage should also comprise the histories of all Australians, irrespective of their date of arrival. Besides learning about each other’s history, we can add to this the learning of Australia’s immigration history to the locals and the immigrants. This is important for them to realise the evolution of Australia in this matter in order to move forward and to avoid repeating the same mistakes. In addition, immigrants must be aware of their role and responsibilities as new Australians and aspire to assimilate and contribute something back to the community. It is best to embrace their own culture together with adapting new values that they can gain from their new environment despite any differences in race or ethnicity.

In conclusion, Australia’s immigration policies from past to present are evolving based on the races that benefits them. Though it started to change from the 1950s, the stigma is still there when it comes to the treatment of refugees and asylum seekers. In order to form a coherent immigration policy, cooperation from everyone is essential. It needs to start from the grassroots level of the social community. Understanding, acceptance, and awareness are the key elements to be implemented within the government and the community. It is from grassroots that we know what benefits and interests of the country are needed and we make the decision by informing the government who are responsible in forming policies based on our feedback. Informative classes that pay the locals and the immigrants to be informed of each other’s backgrounds, histories, and traditions can be the solution. Media also must be transparent and promote unity among citizens rather than dividing us and highlighting our differences. At the end of the day we all are humans with similar basic needs including finding shelter, a source of income, and a place that provides a sense of belonging. If we focus on these similarities rather than our differences, it is possible for us to live harmoniously and overcome prejudice.


Selected further reading:

Asia Pacific Forum, Australia Ongoing problems in immigration detention, Asia Pacific Forum, 2009, retrieved 18 September 2012,

Granier, A & M Kretzschmar, Contentious Past, Contentious Present? Immigration Nation and the Origins of Australia’s Multiculturalism, Australian Policy and History, 2011, retrieved 30 September 2012, http://www.aph.org.au/contentious-past-contentious-present

Department of Immigration and Citizenship, Australia’s Humanitarian Program, Department of Immigration and Citizenship, April 2011, retrieved 19 September 2012, http://www.immi.gov.au/media/publications/pdf/hp-client-info-paper.pdf

Department of Immigration and Citizenship, Fact sheet 8- Abolition of the ‘White Australia’ policy, Department of Immigration and Citizenship, 2012, retrieved 13 September 2012,

Department of Immigration and Citizenship, Refugee and Humanitarian Issues, Australia’s Response, Department of Immigration and Citizenship, July 2011, retrieved 18 September 2012, http://www.immi.gov.au/media/publications/refugee/ref-hum-issues/pdf/refugee-humanitarian-issues-june11.pdf

Department of Immigration and Citizenship, The People of Australia; Australia’s Multicultural Policy, Department of Immigration and Citizenship, 2011, retrieved 30 September 2012,

Neumann, K, Historians to the Fore, Or How to Inform a Much-needed Debate about Australia’s Response to Refugees, Australian Policy and History, 2010, retrieved 30 September 2012, http://www.aph.org.au/files/articles/historiansTo.htm

Immigration Museum’s Discovery Resource Centre website:

© APH Network and contributors 2012. All rights reserved.


Citation: Nurdeena Anuar, The Race that Stocks the Nation: Australia’s Immigration Policy History has Evolved and Revolved around whatever Races are View as Beneficial at any given Time. Australian Policy and History. October 2012.

URL: http://www.aph.org.au/the-race-that

Permanent link to this article: http://aph.org.au/the-race-that