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White Australia Policy

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The White Australia policy was a system of both official and unofficial discrimination in Australian history, during which immigration policy and citizenship requirements were heavily biased to favour white European migrants, and more specifically Anglo-Saxon migrants over other races.

Although in the present day Australia generally prides itself on being one of the most multicultural of the "western-style" democracies, its past contains a long period of government-endorsed racism that, among modern Western democracies, was matched by few and possibly exceeded only by the apartheid regime of South Africa.

The origin of the policy can be traced back to the 1850s when violence against Chinese miners led to the colonial administration introducing restrictions on Chinese immigration. Towards the end of the 19th century the kanakas[?] (the Pacific Islanders recruited to work under near-slavery conditions in the sugar cane fields of Queensland) were the main target of discrimination, again on economic grounds. In 1901, the new Federal Government, as its first act, passed the Immigration Restriction Act to "place certain restrictions on immigration and... for the removal... of prohibited immigrants". Restrictions were placed on the immigration of the insane, of anyone likely to become a charge upon the public, and of those suffering from a serious contagious disease. It also prohibited prostitutes, criminals, and most manual labourers.

The policy was openly endorsed by both the government and general society during the first half of the 20th century. It was not until after World War II that attitudes began to change, though initially the change in social attitudes was less the result of a more enlightened viewpoint, but rather the result of an extreme labour shortage in the booming economy of the 1950s. An attempt to deport non-white migrants that had arrived during the war aroused much protest and in 1949 refugees were allowed to stay and Japanese war brides were also admitted.

This trend continued when in 1957 non-Europeans with 15 years residence in Australia were allowed to become citizens. Further the Migration Act of 1958 introduced a simpler system for entry and removed references to race. In 1966 non-Europeans were allowed to become citizens after five years and restrictions on migrants were further eased.

By the end of the 1960s there was a marked change in social attitudes in the country, in alignment with the similar social attitude changes occurring in the United States and Europe. The 1972 Whitlam Labour Government initiated the widespread removal of all racist elements from Australian law. The effective end of the White Australia policy is usually dated to 1973, when a series of amendments prevented the enforcement of racial aspects of the immigration law. However it was not until the 1978 review of immigration law that racism was entirely removed from official policy. During the 1980s all forms of racial discrimination were made illegal in a series of anti-discrimination Acts.

The social attitudes which underpinned the White Australia Policy have largely, but by no means entirely, disappeared in Australia. As in most other predominantly caucasian democracies (for example, the United States, the United Kingdom or France) there is a small minority that still actively promotes racist attitudes, and a larger minority that has some sympathy for them. The short-lived but briefly influential One Nation party, led by Pauline Hanson, gained some notice in the late 1990s when it gained a single seat in Federal Parliament.

Long dead in theory, the White Australia legacy continues to play a role in Australian political life. First, as One Nation discovered, to advocate explicitly racist policies is to bring down the condemnation of all bar a tiny fringe. Secondly, and on the other hand, the stigma still attaching to the White Australia Policy makes it almost impossible to discuss national population policy without either advocating high immigration levels, or else (however unfairly) being tarred with the racist brush. Thirdly, and more controversially, there is the matter of illegal immigration, particularly by unauthorised arrivals as opposed to visa over-stayers who, for some reason, hardly rate a public mention despite being far more numerous. The current Howard Government has made a great deal of political capital by cracking down on illegal immigration or, as the current jargon has it, "asylum seekers". (This term is held to be more neutral by those advocating a more liberal policy, and eagerly adopted as a demonstration of non-racist credentials by their opponents.) Supporters of a tougher anti-illegal immigration policy, notably Prime Minister Howard, argue passionately and persuasively that it has nothing whatever to do with race, and everything to do with the fundamental right of any nation to defend its borders. Many observers, however, claim that the real objection to the current wave of asylum seekers is at least partly racially or religiously based. In that sense, the incoate fear of "the other" that motivated the White Australia Policy can be said to be alive and well.

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