Ugh! The #WhiteAustralia policy… #PLT110

I never understood this one… we’re all human no matter what colour or creed we are. This policy is the part of Australia’s history I will always be ashamed of. Of course, our current Prime Minister is working on topping that one too…  *grrr*

In what ways was the White Australia policy racist?  Why was the policy devised? 

Australia’s former policies of racially preventive immigration are informally identified as ‘White Australia’. Beginning in the mid nineteenth century, ‘White Australia’ was propelled by the aspiration of the early Australian colonial settlers to preserve a completely white settlement (Firth 2011, pp. 26-27).

Anti-Chinese attitudes, based on fiscal and discriminatory grounds, became the central reason for the quest for a ‘White Australia’. By the late 1890s, laws were endorsed which constrained Chinese immigration: Chinese residents were prohibited from specific occupations and refused the right to become Australian citizens. Chinese immigration was mainly defined by the nineteenth-century language of policies surrounding racial superiority. Consequently, the Chinese were deemed ‘inferior’ because of their genetic traits, along with their moral depravity, and tendencies to crime and corruption. Moreover, they were also considered to potentially infect the purity of an unmixed race, which was also believed to be the inevitable state of unity and social consistency. This racist dogma included the deep-seated resentment of Australian settlers towards Indigenous Australians, Aboriginals. Inspiring this sentiment was the insistence on racial and cultural uniformity as defining the elements of Australian identity. Therefore, one of the earliest proposals of the newly founded Commonwealth was to ratify the racial exclusion legislation of 1901, the Immigration Restriction Act, with the explicit objective of maintaining an unmixed nation.

The reason and justification of these strategies eventually became the essence of Australian national identity and continued to be a governing influence on all other legislation, mainly during the first five decades after Federation. The attitudes of a White Australia had a major effect on regulating the character and custom of external affairs and defence policies. It’s worthwhile to note that the period following Federation was also marked by a fundamental feeling of national insecurity, which surfaced because of a fear of being located and surrounded by the peoples of the Asia-Pacific, what was continually referred to as “the Yellow Peril”. It was this sense of uneasiness that offered the excuse for Australia’s prolonged devotion to racist policies and restricted immigration.

The official repealing of the White Australia policy occurred during the reformist Whitlam Labor government in 1972 (Hall et al. 2004, p. 374)., which implemented unprejudiced plans for immigration.

The subsequent removal of the White Australia policy from law has witnessed a continuous, but highly controlled, influx of Asian immigrants to Australia. This has included refugees, as well as other immigrants. The increased presence of Asian settlers within Australia led to reactions creating unique, but significant, anti-Asian immigration movements, such as Pauline Hanson’s One Nation. Covert fears and anxieties, similar to the early days of the White Australia policy, were revitalised in 2002, as hostility resurged in reaction to the “boat people” seeking asylum as refugees. Furthermore, the incidence of phrases such as “death cult” and “war on terror” from the government feeds the fear of the other in Australia, which serves as a form of control over the citizenry.


Firth, S. 2011. Australia in international politics : an introduction to Australian foreign policy, Crows Nest, N.S.W., Crows Nest, N.S.W. : Allen & Unwin.

Hall, R., Boreham, P. & Stokes, G. 2004. The Politics of Australian society : political issues for the new century, Frenchs Forest, N.S.W., Frenchs Forest, N.S.W. : Pearson Education.

Another student’s response to my post above:

Re: In what ways was the White Australia policy racist? Why was the policy devised? by Ross – Sunday, 14 June 2015, 9:13 AM

It’s true that the White Australia policy was based entirely on a racial prejudice and explicitly discriminatory on the basis of race i.e. restricting migration to exclude certain ethnicities, but it’s interesting to note the level of acceptance and to consider why this policy iwas readily accepted until 1966.

Race wasn’t the only discriminatory practice allowed for under the statutes. A range of other policies or laws were in operation in Australia at that time which we now view as discriminatory such as the way women were viewed in the home and workplace, the fact that homosexuality was illegal in Tasmania up until 1994! (See Toonen v. Aust) and up until 1967 Indigenous Australians were specifically discriminated against in the Constitution.

At the time of the operation, and until the abolition of the White Australia policy, Australia was a reasonably ‘young nation’ in the British colony. Australia was focussed on capturing an identity as Stokes remarks “White Australia contributed both to the consolidation of an Australian racial identity”.

Yes, it was, by definition, racist and in hindsight a blight on Australia’s history but should be viewed in the terms of a young nation in a race to establish it’s own racial/societal/cultural identity.


Hi Ross,

You make some valid points. I am intrigued by your last statement, where you agree that the White Australia policy was “… racist and a blight on Australia’s history” and “… should be viewed in the terms of a young nation in a race to establish its own racial/societal/cultural identity.”

Does that final statement, in your mind, excuse the White Australia policy? The previous points you made before that statement also acknowledge the changes made in Australia’s legislation since the Menzies era. But, I am of the opinion that although changes have officially been made to the status of women, the legality of homosexuality and the indigenous population being discriminated against, there is still much work to be done:

  • Even today, women do not receive equal pay in many industries/sectors and experience a large amount of discrimination in many areas of society. Our first female Prime Minister was no exception (Summers, 2012)
  • Homosexuality may no longer be illegal, but I believe a current debate, that’s been raging since Ireland voted on equal marriage recently, is still struggling to be heard in Australia, with much apathy and/or resistance from the federal government
  • As for our indigenous population, they may have been apologised to by Kevin Rudd, but they are definitely discriminated against on a wide scale all over Australia… even by our own Prime Minister for Indigenous Affairs (Graham, 2013). There’s a great documentary on this by John Pilger (2014), if you haven’t seen it yet.

So, I’m curious… because of these current situations in our modern Australian society, do you still think we’re a “young nation in a race to establish its own racial/societal/cultural identity”? Or, perhaps all these examples of racism and discrimination in our history persist and will be prevalent for some time into the future? And, where does multiculturalism fit in to our current picture?


Graham, C. 2013, ‘Prime Minister for Indigenous Affairs? Hardly’, The Drum, 13 September, viewed 16 September 2013, <>.

PinnacleFilmsAu 2014, Utopia, 12 March, viewed 14 June 2015, <>.

Summers, A 2012, Her Rights At Work. The Political Persecution Of Australia’s First Female Prime Minister, Anne Summers, viewed 8 August 2012, <>.


About Maha @ Uni

Studying online, and want to keep a record of my progress and experiences...
This entry was posted in 'White Australia' Policy, 'Yellow Peril', Australian Government, Australian History, Australian Politics, Australian Settlement, Cultural Homogeny, Immigration, Indigenous Australians, Pauline Hanson's 'One Nation', Post-Federation, Racism, Whitlam Government and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

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