The newly federated Australian government in 1901 quickly introduced national legislation to protect its security and assert its sense of identity as a member of the British Empire. The first act it passed was the 1901 Immigration Restriction Act. Known as the White Australia policy, the act restricted the entry of non-Europeans by means of a dictation test, which could be given in languages other than English. People suffering physical or mental diseases, convicted criminals, prostitutes and those reliant on charity, were also refused entry.
Poster, about 1910
Source: State Library of Victoria, La Trobe Picture Collection
From 1901 the Australian Government passed other legislation which marked out the racial boundaries of the nation by restricting immigrant entry and curtailing the rights of existing non-European residents. This included The Pacific Islands Labourers Act, 1901, which enabled the deportation of over 9 000 Pacific Islander labourers who had been working in the sugar cane fields of Queensland and northern New South Wales.
In 1903, the Commonwealth Naturalisation Act excluded all non-Europeans from becoming naturalised, and severely limited their ability to bring spouses and children to Australia. One such example was the Chen family. Chen Ah Kew had arrived during the gold rush, and later brought his Chinese wife to Victoria. They moved back to China with their six children in 1901. As adults, the sons returned to Melbourne, forming Wing Young & Co., wholesale fruit merchants. Despite the sons’ Australian origins, the new laws meant that their Chinese-born wives were denied permanent residency here. The women were forced to live a precarious existence on temporary visas, accepted and denied entry at the discretion of government officials.
Three generations of the Chen family in Melbourne, 1928
Source: Wang family
The ideal of the white, egalitarian Australia became increasingly widespread around the time of Federation. These ideals were based on genuine beliefs in the inferiority of non-white races, a desire by unions to protect local trade and labour, and on the sidelining of Aboriginal people from any notions of national identity and citizenship. Publications such as the Bulletin, and organisations such as the Australian Natives’ Association (a Friendly Society providing benefits to its Australian-born members), were staunch supporters. Edmund Barton stated in 1902 that
We can bring in, without delay, our kinsmen from Britain and, if the numbers be insufficient, such other white races as will assimilate with our own. Or we can…see the doors of our house forced, and streams of people from the lands where there is hardly standing room pour in and submerge us.
The Immigration Restriction Act was not universally accepted. Federal parliamentarian Senator Pulsord of the Free Trade Party argued against it, although he was isolated in his stance. Beyond parliament, the Chinese community continued to voice opposition to immigration and economic restrictions. The Pacific Islands community mounted a political campaign to oppose their deportation, supported by the sugar cane farmers who employed them. But these opinions were in the minority and remained so until the gradual breaking down of the White Australia policy from the 1950s and its final removal from legislation in 1973.
As national capital, Melbourne was at the centre of the movement for a ‘White Australia’. While the gold rush and its aftermath had brought people to the city from many countries, the overwhelming majority of Melburnians were of British or Irish ancestry, and shared a hope that Australia would remain that way.
Davison, Graeme, Hirst, John and McIntyre, Stuart (eds), The Oxford Companion to Australian History, Oxford University Press, 1998.
Jupp, James, From White Australia to Woomera. The Story of Australian Immigration, Cambridge University Press, 2002.
Tavan, Gwenda, The long, slow death of White Australia, Scribe Publications Pty Ltd, 2005.