Racial discrimination in Australia, as manifested in what became known as the White Australia policy, had its origins in mid-19th century anxiety among European settlers about Chinese immigration during the gold rush and perceived threats to ‘Australian’ jobs. During this period and up until 1901, the New South Wales and Victorian governments presented the greatest opposition to non-European immigration, claiming that there would be no place for ‘Asiatics’ or ‘coloureds’ in the Australian future. This racism led, at the time of Federation, to the Immigration Restriction Act 1901, which aimed ‘to place certain restrictions on immigration and to provide for the removal from the Commonwealth of prohibited immigrants’.1
In force throughout the first half of the 20th century, the White Australia policy was initially reinforced by the events of World War II and the threat of Japanese invasion. The arrival of refugees, however, would create the first cracks in the rigorously racist laws, notably with Immigration Minister Harold Holt’s decision in 1949 to allow 800 non-European refugees to stay in Australia.
While the policy persisted at the Australian government level, activism against the policy began in other sections of society. At the University of Melbourne an activist group called the Immigration Reform Group emerged. Head of Indonesian and Malayan studies James Mackie and economics professor Kenneth Rivett and other members dedicated themselves to informing the public about immigration policy and the potential benefits of a peaceful coalition with Asian countries, especially in light of the growing economic importance of these countries to Australia. This group began as a study group, intent on discovering how immigration policy worked and analysing its impact both within and outside Australia. They attempted to discover how many non-Europeans were being admitted to Australia and the rules governing their admittance. They soon sought alternatives to the discriminatory nature of the White Australia policy.2
After several meetings the Immigration Reform Group published a pamphlet entitled Control or colour bar? A proposal for change in Australia’s immigration policy.3 This pamphlet, together with a revised edition printed a few years later,4 outlined the history of the White Australia policy. Whilst analysing key objectives and arguing that non-Europeans should be admitted into Australia, the group also maintained that some form of regulation should remain. They argued, however, that the White Australia policy was not efficient and that it severely affected Australia’s reputation abroad.
Publication of the pamphlet sparked a greater national movement, with immigration reform groups forming in Western Australia, Queensland, South Australia and New South Wales (the last spearheaded by Ken Rivett after transferring to the University of New South Wales). A broader Victorian group, the Victorian Association for Immigration Reform (VAIR), also formed in 1960. Members of the Immigration Reform Group were influential in founding the organisation Student Action, which was established at the University of Melbourne and spread nationally.
Thus what began as an informal study group turned into a successful, influential and national organisation, exerting pressure on government to reform immigration policy. Significant changes to immigration policy occurred during the 1960s and, while a racially restrictive policy remained in place until the 1970s, the Immigration Reform Group sparked debate and challenged attitudes, and therefore played a key part in successfully overturning racially discriminatory immigration policy.
- Australian Government, Department of Immigration and Citizenship, Fact sheet 8: Abolition of the ‘White Australia’ policy, 2009, reviewed October 2012.
- Gwenda Tavan, ‘Immigration: Control or colour bar? The immigration reform movement, 1959–1966’, Australian Historical Studies, vol. 32 no. 117, October 2001, pp. 181–200.
- Immigration Reform Group (Australia), Control or colour bar? A proposal for change in Australia’s immigration policy, Melbourne: The Immigration Reform Group, 1960.
- Kenneth Rivett (ed.), Immigration: Control or colour bar? The background to ‘White Australia’ and a proposal for change, Melbourne University Press, 1962.