by Bruce Pennay OAM,
Associate Professor Bruce Pennay OAM is an historian in the Institute for Land, Water and Society at Charles Sturt University
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Executive summary

  • This month marks the fiftieth anniversary of the Bonegilla Riot.
  • Newcomer non-compliance prompts administrative reviews that can lead to shifts in policies and practices.
  • Non-compliance that leads to violence attracts media attention, which almost invariably gives rise to attempts to understand the plight of those prompted to it.
  • There is an on-going unease about the style of accommodation taxpayers are to provide to newcomers, be they invited assisted passage migrants or uninvited refugees. Are the facilities too ill-equipped or too comfortable? Damage to such taxpayer-funded facilities is regarded as an insult to the nation’s hospitality.
  • Newcomers, in reception centres then, or in detention centres now, are in holding pens where one of their biggest challenges involves killing time.
  • Regional communities like to think they can offer community support important for newcomer settlement.
  • The nation is sensitive to how its reception policies and practices are portrayed overseas – to donor countries in 1961 and to the United Nations High Commission for Refugees in 2011.
  • The nation is particularly sensitive as to how reception policies and practices are seen to affect the young.

Riot on two days at the Bonegilla Reception Centre in July 1961 was a rude interruption to contemporary storytelling about the success of Australian postwar immigration. Fifty years on, the riot prompts reflection on that storytelling, particularly how it was resumed after the riot to reassure the community and donor countries about reception policies and practices. The storytelling indicates sensitivity to questions about how the nation goes about receiving the newly arrived. The argument here is that the responses to the 1961 riot are illustrative of determined attempts to maintain favourable impressions of the immigration program. This account of that storytelling suggests contemporary resonance and invites consideration of several propositions.

Revisiting our immigration past
The film Oranges and Sunshine, and two SBS productions, the documentary Immigration Nation: the Secret History of Us and the reality show Go Back Where You Came From, have recently revisited our immigration history as a sorrowful past and present. They do so within an apologetic frame, underscoring the discomfort of the host society (and donor society in the case of Oranges and Sunshine). Australians are prompted to think again about immigration policies and practices.

The Bonegilla Riot
On 17 and 18 July 1961, fifty years ago, migrants residing at the Bonegilla Reception Centre, near Wodonga in North-east Victoria, held a noisy procession. In a variety of languages they chanted ‘We want work’ and paraded ‘ugly signs’ with similar messages. The demonstration became worrying when they attacked and damaged the Employment Office, which had not provided them with work. Police were rushed to the Centre. There were scuffles. One policeman was hospitalised with a dislocated shoulder. The director of the Centre received minor injuries. Later that evening, demonstrators reassembled and threw stones breaking street lights and windows in the canteen. Police launched a baton charge to disperse the crowd and imposed a curfew. On the next day, more police were mustered. Migrants booed the police and threw stones at police cars. That evening, police raided Block 13 where further mischief allegedly was being planned.

Responding to disgruntled newcomers
The riot attracted the attention of the metropolitan, the ethnic and even the international press. Charges of riot, assault and damage to Commonwealth property were issued against a total of eleven men. No one expected assisted passage migrants to behave this way. The Sydney Morning Herald declared their actions ‘un-Australian’. The Minister, Alex Downer, exclaimed that ‘such behaviour was not tolerated in this country’. The demonstrators had caused hundreds of pounds of damage. This was an abuse of Australian hospitality.

Centre officials blamed ‘expert outside organisers’ for inflaming a small group of disgruntled hotheads. Downer promised firm action against the ringleaders. With Cold War relish, ASIO officers descended on the Centre and used their usual ruses to identify migrant leaders and to investigate Communist Party involvement. They tapped telephones. They arranged for a young police constable of Italian background to pose as a migrant and act as an undercover agent. ASIO found a German and an Italian of particular interest amongst the eleven arrested. They also identified four reception staff members who were either communists or sympathetic towards communism, but concluded that they were unconnected to the incident.

The media covering the incident were not at all sure that the demonstrations were the work of a few. They almost invariably agreed that there was a general discontent about not getting jobs among all the resident nationalities, of which Germans, Italians and Yugoslavs (predominantly Croatians) were the most numerous. Unemployed residents had been voicing their discontent for three or four months. Churchmen and consular officials had made representations about the distress of what were becoming long-term unemployed migrants. Little was done, but the Minister had written asking the unemployed to be patient.

The media was generally sympathetic to the unemployed migrants who felt they had been lured into coming to Australia with the promise of work being available within three or four weeks. Many of them were skilled and had left jobs to come to Australia. The economic recession meant that their expected one-month wait had turned into waits of two, three and even four months. This was not the ‘Australia Unlimited’ they had been led to expect.

The Sydney Morning Herald rebuked Minister Downer for his handling of the incident. Unlike Holt facing a similar riot by unemployed Italians at Bonegilla in 1952, Downer had ‘failed most lamentably to show any appreciation of the plight of the unemployed migrants in human terms’. Australia, the newspaper declared, had moral obligations if not contractual requirements to supply work for those who had left jobs overseas to come on the promise of work. Holt, at least, had secured funding to offer ‘emergency employment’ for the restive Italian migrants in 1952. Downer, by way of contrast, only gave migrants who could not find jobs the right to reapply for admission to the reception centre where they could get accommodation and assistance in finding employment. He did, however, with the riot, arrange for the unemployed at Bonegilla to be moved to city-based worker hostels, where there might be a greater range of work opportunities.

The Labor Party Opposition seized on the incident to discomfort the Government. Plainly the migrant intake had to be modified in straitened times. Politicians visited the Centre and expressed their sympathy for the unemployed workers. Together with the media, they welcomed Downer’s announcement, within the week of the riot, that he would temporarily reduce the migrant intake for the rest of the year. Both the Opposition and the media read the policy change as an open admission that the economy was not faring well in an election year.

The police, like the media and the politicians, were not unsympathetic. On the day of the trial the police prosecutor prudently withdrew the charges of riot and assault. He was satisfied that the men before the court had not intended harm or hurt. Moreover, they had apologised. This prompted the magistrate to adjourn the remaining charges of damaging Commonwealth property, while at the same time rebuking those charged for their behaviour.

The government and immigration recruitment officers, if not the reception centre officials, breathed sighs of relief. It was better not to proceed and have jailed migrant martyrs who inevitably would draw further unfavourable attention from the national and international press to the difficulties facing the Australian immigration program through an economic recession. Australia did not want to impede future efforts to recruit migrants. Newspaper interest in the story and in the reception centre petered out once the trial had been truncated.

Resuming the immigration program success story
Immigration Department publicists crafted and promoted postwar immigration program success stories. They had prompted celebrations of the population reaching a significant 10 million milestone in 1959. They declared that by 1961 the nation had taken in and absorbed 1.5 million postwar immigrants. They explained how the program was changing. By 1961 there were fewer calls to prioritise migration from Britain. Two out of every three of the new arrivals were non-British. By 1961, the publicists were proffering official encouragement for the term ‘New Settler’ to replace the now disparaged term ‘New Australian’. There was talk, at the Australian Citizenship Conventions at least, of ‘integration’ rather than ‘assimilation’.

Publicists plied the media with migrant success stories that helped sell the benefits of the scheme. The Konrads kids, who had learned to swim at the nearby Uranquinty Holding Centre, had become world champion swimmers. The fictional Nino Culotta, after many linguistic adventures, had disappeared into married suburban life, enjoying an occasional swim at Cronulla beach. Before the end of 1961, Tanya Verstak, the daughter of White Russian migrants, was selected as Miss Australia.

Publicists won the support of country newspapers in promoting the merits of the large-scale immigration program and in gathering support for migrants at the local community level. Serving Bonegilla’s immediate host society, Albury’s Border Morning Mail kept the community up-to-date on the comings and goings of the Centre. It gave space to lengthy reports of the Australian Citizenship Conventions.

The Border Morning Mail found its own immigration program success stories in the achievements of the newly arrived and, more particularly, in the hospitable responses of the local community. It reported the endeavours of local organisations like the Country Women’s Association and the Young Women’s Christian Association to make newcomers feel welcome. It congratulated the local community on the generous way it had responded in 1957 to the arrival of large numbers of people who had fled Hungary with few belongings and, then, in 1958, to the survivors of the ill-fated Skaubryn that had caught fire en route to Australia. It hailed its own role in promoting the cause of Otto Kampfe, whose arrival as the 250,000th refugee had been officially celebrated, but who subsequently found himself forgotten and struggling to live without work. The local Jaycees had intervened to help him find a job.

The newspaper recognised the role being played by ethnic churches and groups in supporting fellow nationals. It pointed out the ways in which the migrants were engaging with the community at Anzac and Australia Day ceremonies and in support of local charities. It was intent on chronicling evidence of a welcoming local community absorbing new arrivals and encouraging their community involvement.

Within a month of the riot, the Border Morning Mail rediscovered the importance of the migrant presence to the local workforce. It hailed all involved in local government naturalisation ceremonies, where new citizens expressed gratitude for being received into their new country. It noted migrant group support for the local hospital and blood bank. Such news items served as reassurances for those anxious about the growing migrant presence. They helped overcome any unfavourable impressions that lingered after the riot.

Reception centre concerns
The Italian riot in 1952 primarily had been about the lack of jobs, but also gave voice to complaints about conditions at Bonegilla, particularly the food. The 1961 riot prompted the national media to investigate living conditions at the reception centre. Almost invariably, journalists found Bonegilla to be uninviting yet bearable for short stays of a few weeks. They indicated that food was now served on a 28-day menu, not a 7-day menu; cooks paid some heed to national tastes; the food was plentiful, even if hostel-like. Furthermore, the accommodation had improved: the sewerage system had been extended and deep-pit latrines removed. The cubicles now had 9 inch inner-spring mattresses and electric radiators. They found that reception centre life was particularly difficult in winter, however, when there was no swimming, boating and fishing in the adjacent Lake Hume. Newcomers had little to do, but walk aimlessly about. Boredom, the media decided, was one of the major problems causing the unrest that led to the demonstrations.

Writing for the Bulletin, Desmond O’Grady was impressed with the brave pretence of ‘men walking along the road side looking as if they had somewhere to go’. German and Italian newspapers, he feared, would carry stories of their nationals stagnating in a former army camp. O’Grady observed: ‘Even in the best of weather it is no fun getting up each morning with nothing to do, to be an able-bodied man without work and see your wife sitting idly on the step of your hut and your young child scrabbling in the dust outside it’. It was, as residents warming to the vernacular said, ‘boring Boney-bloody-gilla’.

Recovering the reputation of the reception centre
Downer moved quickly to refute and to counter criticism of Bonegilla. He suggested that the Government might augment the amenities fund, as Holt had done after the 1952 riot. This time the increase could be used to provide better school transport services for the transient secondary school children. Women with newborn babies might be issued with soft towels, napkins etc. Dentists might be permitted to perform fillings as well as extractions. As always with Bonegilla, the changes draw attention to the conditions that prompted them.

To counter boredom and to help newcomers equip themselves for lives in their new country, P R Heydon, the new Secretary of the Department, pushed in 1961 for the redesigned Adult Education and Children Leisure units at the Centre. Heydon wanted better use to be made of film as a learning medium. At what had been renamed the Film and Study Centre, a weekly film program and a well-stocked library would help those waiting for employment to learn English and to find out more about their adopted country. The new lively Children’s Creative Leisure Centre would offer families and children support and similarly help the young adjust to life in new surrounds.

The power of film was further realised with the promotional film A World for Children, produced by the Children’s Library and Craft Movement. It reassured the Australian public and intending immigrants that Australia took good care of its youngest new arrivals and helped restore the reputation of the reception centre that had been sullied by the riot. The film showed primary school-aged children happily exploring the Centre. To a gentle refrain on flute, then violin, they wordlessly greeted the local policeman, engaged in indoor creative activities, climbed along fallen trees, played tunnel ball in bare feet and swam and splashed in Lake Hume. Plainly plenty of new friends, the river, sunshine and open paddocks made Bonegilla a pleasant holiday camp. The absence of words made the film accessible to prospective immigrants from many nations as well as to the Australian people. The film wooed favourable public opinion with a variation in the genre of what Emma Greenwood and Anna Haebich have called ‘the celluloid migrant’. In 1947, Calwell had sought the electorate’s approval of the program by publicising the first contingents as fit, young, single, work-ready people. By 1949, the supply of such valuable Displaced Persons in European refugee camps had disappeared, and Australia had to take in more displaced families. Calwell then opted to promote the young as necessary for the population-building aims of the program. Calwell’s ‘Beautiful Balts’ morphed into Calwell’s ‘Kissable Children’.

In the wake of the 1961 riot, Downer, like Holt in 1952, promised to reduce the intake of unskilled male workers and to increase instead the number of migrant families. In times of high unemployment, it was more appropriate to emphasise population-building rather than workforce expansion. The film showed that the focus of a successful immigration program was on the young who would readily adapt to Australian ways.

Storm in a teacup
The local and the national public were reassured that the riot was of little consequence. It was a storm in a teacup. The media had sensationalised the wild actions of a few irresponsible stone-throwing youth, who meant no real harm, and afterwards apologised. Migrants were really grateful for being allowed to settle in Australia. Government members assured parliament Bonegilla was doing a sterling job.

The reception centre continued to take new arrivals and to function as before. The Border Morning Mail was pleased to note the arrival of the next contingent as trouble-free. The official files, however, show that subsequent incidents of migrant unrest were not disclosed to the media. Furthermore, Bonegilla never again housed more than half of the 3500 it had in 1961.

Remembering the 1961 riot
In 1982 TT.O, who had earlier migrated with his family, challenged the notion that the riot and Bonegilla were forgettable. He read newspaper accounts of the riot looking for material for a poetry cycle about his family’s move from Greece. He shared his discoveries with John ‘Darc’ Cassidy of the ABC and they set about interviewing migrants and former reception centre staff to form a radio documentary impression that was broadcast in 1982. The radio program focused on the riot of 1961 and traced the involvement of people who appeared as champions of those arrested for riot. This riot was for them and for TT.O an overlooked workers’ protest, ‘another Eureka’.

In the program and in subsequent poems, TT.O expressed how migration was not a pleasant experience. He railed against the way migrants were pushed into the rudimentary accommodation at ‘Hotel Bonegilla’, which, for him, was set in the middle of nowhere. He empathised with those who waited for months for a job and had little to do but walk aimlessly about. They were then allocated the undesirable jobs Australians did not want to take up. Migrants were seen as ‘industrial cannon-fodder’, ‘wogs for cogs’, a ‘bottomless pit of cheap labour’, mere ‘pick and shovel men’. For him, as for his father, the migrant experience was structured by unsympathetic policymakers and administrators.

Subsequently historians have tended to favour migrant perceptions of the reception centre and its processes. Bonegilla remains notorious. Nevertheless, the fiftieth anniversary of the Bonegilla riot in 1961 will probably pass more or less unremarked, because the official version of the incident has prevailed. The incident was of little consequence.

The riot, however, coincided with the announcement that Australia would temporarily reduce its migrant intake during the economic recession. It did prompt speedier and more radical renovation at the Bonegilla Reception Centre and, perhaps more indirectly, a subsequent review of migrant accommodation. It is of some importance that the Italian consulate remained unconvinced that Bonegilla was suitable for families. Italy did not renew its assisted migration when it expired in 1961, and no more assisted Italians came until 1967.

In the latter part of the 1960s new migrant accommodation facilities were built, providing flats with family bathing and cooking facilities closer to workplaces and doing away with the notion of ‘reception centre’. The local newspaper explained, ‘Migrants coming from conditions of improving affluence in Europe expected better conditions than a military-style camp where washing and toilet facilities were shared.’ Bonegilla was not refurbished. It had become ‘redundant and obsolete’ and closed in 1971.


National Australian Archives files: A 6122, 2383; A6122, 1064; A6122, 383; A2567/1 1961/168; A2567, 1960/103; MP918/1, 1961/2456.

Commonwealth Parliamentary Debates 3 October 1961, pp.1604-1605; 26 October 1961, p.2526; 20 August 1963, p.437; 14 October 1964, p.1909.

Contemporary press reports and media analysis, including Desmond O’Grady, ‘Migrant Camp Blues’, Bulletin 11November 1961, p.12-14.

Anna Haebich, Spinning the Nation: Assimilation in Australia 1950-1970, Fremantle Press, North Fremantle, 2008.

TT.O (or Pi O, as publishers and cataloguers prefer), ‘The Bonagilla Riots’ a documentary impression, John Cassidy producer, Doubletake, broadcast ABC radio, 3 and 10 August 1982.

Pi O, Big Numbers, Collective Effort Press, Melbourne, 2008.

Glenda Sluga, ‘Bonegilla Reception and Training Centre, 1947-1971, MA thesis, University of Melbourne, 1985.

Glenda Sluga, Bonegilla: ‘A Place of No Hope‘ History Department, University of Melbourne, 1988.

Citation: Bruce Pennay OAM, The Bonegilla Riot, July 1961: Maintaining favourable Impressions of the Postwar Immigration Program. Australian Policy and History. July 2011.


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