Nationalism and the end of White Australia

Although Australian nationalism has changed to try to incorporate a multiracial nation, the culture of White Australia remains dominant, argues James Supple

Australian government policies remain brutally racist, from the indefinite detention of refugees in offshore camps, to the paternalistic controls on Aboriginal life of the NT Intervention.

Many have drawn comparisons with the era of the “White Australia” policy, when non-white immigrants were banned and Aboriginal people were denied citizenship rights.

The continuities with this era are strong, but there are also key differences. The most important change has been the shift in Australian nationalist ideology from one explicitly based on the racial superiority of white people to a “multicultural” nationalism able to incorporate the demographic realities of a multiracial society. Many people from non-European backgrounds have themselves strongly embraced Australian nationalism.

Despite this, many of the cultural aspects that defined White Australia in the past remain the bedrock of Australian nationalism today—even more so since John Howard’s history wars and his effort to reinforce a nationalism based on the superiority of Western culture.

There remains a continued expectation that migrants will embrace the language, political institutions and attitudes inherited from the period under the White Australia policy.

White Australia

Australia was founded on the racial exclusion of non-white immigrants and the genocide of Aboriginal people. This was designed to ensure a racially and culturally homogenous population for the continent’s colonisation. It was driven primarily by ruling class interests in securing Australia for the British Empire.

Driving Aboriginal people off the land was also justified using the racist ideology that justified British conquest elsewhere. In the years prior to Federation in 1901 the emerging Australian ruling class were already becoming imperialists in their own right, hoping to seize territory under the umbrella of the British Empire in modern day Papua New Guinea, Fiji and Vanuatu.

Supporters of White Australia, like the 19th century politician and academic, Charles Pearson, justified the policy in terms of racial superiority, talking of the need to preserve the country for the “higher races”.

This was not simply defined in terms of white Europeans but was explicitly championed as a project of the “British race”. Henry Parkes, the so-called father of federation, justified anti-Chinese legislation by invoking the necessity “to preserve the British type in the population”.

Even during the Second World War Labor Prime Minister John Curtin could declare that, “this nation will remain forever the home of sons of Britishers who came here in peace [sic] in order to establish in the south sea an outpost of the British race.”

This meant that, in addition to the aim of excluding Asian immigration, the White Australia policy was also sometimes used to exclude southern Europeans, such as a boatload of 208 Maltese immigrants in 1916. Italian immigration was limited after 1924 in response to fears that restrictions in the US would see more Italian migrants arrive.

Even the Irish were regarded with suspicion. In 1881 the NSW parliament sent a message of protest to Britain at a law proposing assisted passage for an unrestricted number of Irish immigrants. Sectarianism remained strong through to the 1950s, with Catholics establishing their own schools separate to the state system, “mixed marriages” between Protestants and Catholics discouraged and discrimination at work.

The racism associated with White Australia was never just about race. It always had a “cultural” component. Opposition to Chinese immigration was justified by reference to their supposed inability to assimilate into a British colony based on their cultural characteristics. These, apparently, included servility unsuited to life under democratic institutions, willingness to work in appalling conditions, immorality and opium use. These traits were treated as inherent and inescapable, just as much as being born with a particular skin colour.

There is an obvious parallel with the racist claims of today that Muslims are somehow unable to assimilate or accept “Australian values”.

In this way the evolution of Australian racism mirrors that of racist ideas elsewhere since the Second World War. Theories of racial superiority have been completely discredited as lacking any scientific basis, and as responsible for the horrors of the Holocaust. As a result the “new racism” of today focuses on the supposed cultural differences between ethnic groups, labelling Aboriginal people as lazy or Muslim culture as backward and prone to extremism.

Equally there were cultural traits held to define first the British colonies and later the Australian nation that grew out of them. They included a supposed democratic and egalitarian spirit, summed up in the idea of mateship and the “fair go”. But they also drew upon the history of British settlement, with speaking English and acceptance of the superiority of British political institutions and Western culture taken for granted.

Towards multiculturalism

The period after the Second World War brought significant changes in the Australian population and eventually in the shape of Australian nationalism.

The expanding economy, and the desire to “populate or perish”, required a rapid increase in the labour force. It soon became clear that the government could not attract enough migrants from Britain. As a result, immigration restrictions were gradually weakened.

At first, the government sought migrants from northern Europe among people displaced by the war. In the 1950s they accepted larger numbers of southern Europeans from Italy, Greece, Malta and Yugoslavia.

By the 1960s it was clear that the expectation of rapid cultural assimilation was limiting the migration program. Once the post-war boom in Europe was underway, migration to Australia became less attractive. Increasing numbers of migrants were returning home, dissatisfied with the standard of housing, pay and services on offer, as well as the discrimination southern European migrants faced.

Added to this was the reality that ethnic groups including Italians and Greeks had not simply assimilated. They continued to speak their own languages, usually alongside English, and remained distinct cultural groups with their own ethnic community organisations.

The 1970s were also a period of powerful anti-racist struggles, like the protests against apartheid South Africa during the Springboks tour and the Aboriginal rights movement. Migrant communities also began to demand an end to discrimination and rights of cultural expression, alongside increased welfare services and English classes. Ethnic Communities Councils were formed in Melbourne and Sydney in 1974 and 1975 to bring together migrant organisations and advocate for change. Australia also sought to increase trade with Asian countries.

The policy of multiculturalism, along with the official end of the White Australia policy in 1973, was the response.

Australia’s rulers saw a need to better incorporate the new “ethnic communities” into the Australian nation. The concentration of migrants in poorly paid jobs, and higher rates of unemployment and poverty, was seen as a potential source of social unrest.

There had been riots in both 1952 and 1961 at the Bonegilla migrant centre near Albury by new migrants unable to find work.

The explosive quality of the strike led by migrant workers at Ford’s Broadmeadows plant in 1973 in particular shocked employers, the government and union officials alike. Over four hours 1000 workers rioted and fought police, refusing to go back to work in defiance of their union officials after a four-week strike.

Official reports discussed the need to ensure “social cohesion”, which meant preventing the development of large numbers of working class migrants being disenfranchised.

Malcolm Fraser’s Liberal government in particular sought to encourage middle class “community leaders” to help control their respective ethnic communities. This was achieved through an increased level of services and funding on the basis of ethnicity. The idea was that this would help smooth over class divisions within ethnic communities and allow them to be better incorporated.

As Fraser himself put it in 1981, “The key lesson to be drawn from their [other countries] experience is that there is no social peace to be found in the failure to acknowledge the rights of ethnic minorities”.

Part of the purpose of multiculturalism has been to reshape who can be accepted as Australian.

Multiculturalism created a certain latitude for migrant groups to express their culture and traditions, and to give them some official recognition.

It represented a real move away from the explicit racism of “White Australia” and should be defended against attacks from the right.

But multiculturalism was never simply about accepting ethnic diversity. It was conceived as a more tolerant approach to integration, even if the full process might take a few generations after migrants arrive.

Even the Hawke Labor government, more associated with promoting “tolerance” and “cultural diversity”, demanded that “the first loyalty of all Australians must be to Australia”.

Its official 1989 National agenda for a multicultural Australia document emphasised that, “multicultural policies require all Australians to accept the basic structures and principles of Australian society”.

As Paul Keating put it, “These include the Constitution and the rule of law, parliamentary democracy, freedom of speech and religion, English as a national language, equality of the sexes and tolerance.” These are precisely what John Howard would later champion as the bedrock of “Australian values”, received from the European tradition coming out of the Enlightenment of the 1700s.

The Labor Party has continued to echo these sentiments, with then Immigration Minister Chris Bowen commenting in 2011 that, where “Australian values” conflict with the values new migrants bring with them, Australian values must win out.

As he pointed out, “This has been the case since multiculturalism was introduced as Australian policy in the 1970s”.

Howard and multiculturalism

John Howard’s attack on multiculturalism, then, was less of a break with the policy than is often assumed. In his first few years as Prime Minister, as Judith Brett has noted, he refused “even to utter the word”. Howard wanted to re-invigorate Australian nationalism.

On coming to power, he abolished bodies like the Office of Multicultural Affairs and made new migrants wait two years before they could access unemployment or welfare payments. This spread racism by pandering to the idea migrants were receiving special privileges, or represented a threat to workers’ jobs and standard of living.

This was a standard complaint of the new right, taken up by historian Geoffrey Blainey in the 1980s who denounced multiculturalism as, “granting special rights to all kinds of minorities, especially ethnic minorities”.

In 1997 Pauline Hanson, in her maiden speech, called for multiculturalism to be abolished, claiming Australia was being “swamped by Asians” and weakened as a nation. Howard moved to accommodate her concerns.

Howard said he supported “multiracialism” but not multiculturalism. Like his predecessors, he insisted, in a speech in 2006, that migrants must “make an overriding commitment to Australia”. The integration into Australia of people from diverse ethnic backgrounds was welcome, he said, but only if they accepted “Australian values”.

He identified these with the same kind of principles earlier multicultural policies had insisted new migrants must accept, but also went further, saying the nation had to remain, “very proud and conscious of those ongoing, distinctive, defining characteristics of being an Australian which we tend to identify with what I might call the old Australia”.

Alongside this were Howard’s “history wars”, designed to eradicate any sense of shame about the massacres and dispossession of Aboriginal people, and boost national pride in the history of European settlement. And in boosting confidence in Australian nationalism Howard had real success.

Howard had attacked refugees, then he seized on hysteria about terrorism and “Muslim radicalisation” after the London bombings in 2005 to target the Muslim community and attack multiculturalism.

He declared the issue of terrorism in the Muslim community was, “not a problem that we have ever faced with other immigrant communities who become easily absorbed by Australia’s mainstream.” Integration and the acceptance of “Australian values” had to be pushed harder, he said.

In 2006 he introduced an infamous “citizenship test” which required migrants to learn about Anglo-Australian culture, including “the Anzac legend”, Australia’s colonial history and sporting trivia about Don Bradman and the Sydney Olympics.

This was all an effort to turn back the clock, but even Howard recognised that there was no returning to the era of White Australia and racial dominance.

In fact, after initially reducing immigration levels, the Howard government dramatically expanded immigration to its near highest level in history by the time it left office. It did so in full knowledge that a greater and greater proportion of migrants were being drawn from Asia, but migration was increasingly tailored to the skills needs of the Australian economy.

What Howard tried to do was reassert the cultural dominance not just of Western liberal values like parliamentary democracy and the rule of law, but of cultural traits associated with white Australian nationalism.

Popular attitudes

The changes in Australia’s population and the shift away from racial exclusion over the last few decades have also had a significant impact on popular attitudes.

There is now wide public acceptance of diversity of cultures and, over time, the acceptance of new migrant groups as “Australians” has grown.

Even between 1995 and 2015 there was a significant increase in acceptance of overseas born residents, so that 56 per cent of people now believe that being born in Australia is not important to whether you can be considered Australian, according to an ANU poll. A minority of 31 per cent thought that “Australia’s culture is generally undermined by immigrants”.

This has taken place as the percentage of the population born outside Europe has grown to 16.2 per cent, according to the 2011 census.

A range of surveys over time have also established that the level of agreement that “cultural diversity” is a good thing “reaches the range 70-90 per cent”, according to academic Andrew Markus.

But Australia remains deeply racist. A 2011 study by ANU academics found that someone with a Chinese sounding name had to submit 68 per cent more applications and someone with a Middle Eastern sounding name 64 per cent more to secure job interviews.

An Essential poll this year found 62 per cent believed racism against those born overseas was a problem in Australia. Aboriginal people are put in prison and have their children forcibly taken at some of the highest rates in the world.

And opinion polls consistently show that at least 60 per cent of people continue to believe that new immigrants should “assimilate” and take on “Australian” customs and practices. This should hardly be a surprise when this is the essential reality of multicultural policy.

It is not simply the result of the persistence of old, racist attitudes amongst a minority that sustains racism in Australia.

Despite no longer being racially exclusive, Australian nationalism continues to exclude people who are judged not to share “our values” or to accept a culture largely established by British colonial settlers.

Racism continues to be promoted from the top of society by governments and the mainstream media. The recent poll indicating 49 per cent of the population oppose Muslim immigration came after almost two decades of constant demonisation of Muslims through the “war on terror”.

While the era of White Australia and theories of racial superiority may be over, even a nationalism that incorporates migrants cannot be progressive. Trying to redefine Australian nationalism in terms of tolerance, a “fair go” and multiculturalism is no solution.

Nationalism is by its very nature exclusionary. It defines people in terms of whether they are part of the nation or outsiders. National pride and belief in the superiority and distinctiveness of “our way of life” means foreigners are inevitably regarded with some level of suspicion. Nationalism, then, encourages racism against migrants and people from other nations, particularly those with noticeably different customs or beliefs.

Nationalism only developed with the rise of capitalism and the nation state over the last few centuries.

Governments and the rich and powerful still go to great lengths to strengthen nationalist sentiment, from funding national sports teams to promoting national holidays like Anzac Day, teaching national history in schools and constantly talking up national pride.

This is because nationalism helps to obscure the class divisions in society, and encourage working class Australians to identify with their bosses and the ruling class. It is therefore a powerful tool for social control and defusing class struggle.

Workers who believe in defending Australian companies against “foreign multinationals” are far easier to convince to take a pay cut or work unpaid overtime to save an Australian company that says it can’t afford to pay them properly or to support wars.

The adoption of multiculturalism has meant a move away from some of the most racist elements of Australia’s past.

But while Australian nationalism persists, it will continue to encourage racism and carry the legacy of White Australia.


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