King's theatre playbill poster c. 1909, promoting the play 'White Australia or the Empty North', illustrates the role race played in creating national identity.
Source: La Trobe Picture Collection, State Library of Victoria
While the Australian Government encouraged British immigration with offers of assisted passage, at the same time it restricted non-Europeans, especially Asians from immigrating to Australia.
The Immigration Restriction Act of 1901, or the 'White Australia Policy' as it became known, stated that immigrants had to write and sign, in the presence of an Immigration Officer, a passage of 50 words in a European language as directed by the officer. The Dictation Test was usually first given in English. If the prospective immigrant passed, but was considered to be racially or politically unsuitable, the officer could then give the test in another European language.
The Dictation Test was given 805 times in 1902-1903 with 46 people passing, and 554 times in 1904-1909 with only six people passing. After 1909, no person passed the Dictation Test. People who failed the test were refused entry to Australia and were deported.
The most infamous case involving the Dictation Test was that of Egon Kisch in 1934. The Prague-born Jewish socialist had a valid visa for Australia, where he had come to address the Movement Against War and Fascism. However, the conservative Lyons Government was concerned that Kisch was a communist and attempted to stop him from disembarking in Fremantle. Kisch proceeded on to Melbourne, and when he was arrested, jumped from the liner onto Station Pier and broke his leg.
Kisch was arrested again and sent to Sydney. When he disembarked, the authorities gave him the Dictation Test in Gaelic, as he spoke English and a number of other European languages fluently.
His case was taken to the High Court and Kisch won. The Attorney-General, Robert Menzies, was humiliated in the High Court and parliament, and Kisch went on to address huge crowds throughout Australia.
To read more about Egon Kisch, go to the article "The Big Jump: Egon Kisch in Australia" on the National Centre for History Education's 'Ozhistorybytes' website.
The Immigration Restriction Act remained in force until 1958, when the Dictation Test was abolished, and was not fully dismantled until the introduction of the Racial Discrimination Act of 1975. For a copy of the original Immigration Restriction Act and a further discussion of its history go to http://www.foundingdocs.gov.au/item.asp?dID=16