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Issue #1925      July 27, 2020

Origins of White Australia

Many Labor supporters believe the White Australia policy is the result of Labor’s efforts to protect living standards, but the truth is, that the policy was first advocated by the employing classes of Britain and Australia.

“The Mongolian Octopus – His Grip on Australia.”

Why have the employers supported a White Australia?

When the settlement of Australia was first mooted at the end of the Eighteenth Century, British imperialism saw a safety-valve for the unrest in England – an agricultural community that could absorb the tens of thousands of agricultural labourers pauperised by the great land enclosures, and the poor that overcrowded her jails and hulks, under sentence of the harshest penal code in Europe.

At this stage, Australian employers were not averse to using cheap coloured labour if insufficient convict labour was available. In the 1830’s, W C Wentworth used Indian labourers and some pastoralists employed up to as many as forty Indians on their farms.

What caused a change of heart in Australian employers was the growth of the sheep industry, and particularly the discovery of gold. No longer could Australia be regarded only as an agricultural dumping-ground. Her future as a capitalist state began to be recognised.

Chinese influx

There was a great influx of Chinese into the gold-fields during the ’50s. By 1858 Chinese comprised one in sixteen of the population in New South Wales and the following year there were 42,000 in Victoria alone.

The Chinese often did not come as free gold-seekers. They were employed by wealthy Chinese in China, came under an overseer, and the gold they found was sent back to China. Even those who came independently usually had no intention of settling. So from Victoria alone, in 1857 over 116,903 ounces of gold were sent back to China, representing over £500,000.

Moreover, the Chinese on the diggings lived so frugally that they scarcely patronised the shops. Business interests became most vigorous in protest against their presence, since they did not benefit as they did from the lavish spending of the European diggers.

In the eyes of Australian capitalists, the great crime of the Chinese was that they were taking the gold out of their hands.

When Chinese coolies were introduced about the ’50s for pastoral work at £1 a month, many of them, on discovering that their rate of pay was much lower than that generally given, refused to work, and absconded, or forced the pastoralists to enter into new contracts raising wages and conditions.

To keep Australia’s riches for themselves, then, the various Australian States passed restrictive legislation, requiring a capitation fee before Chinese could land. The need for some uniform laws for all States was shown when about 14,000 Chinese evaded the Victoria laws by landing in South Australia and walking overland to the gold-fields.

The hostilities of Britain with China about this time added fuel to the fires of race hatred, and hooligan elements among the workers drove the Chinese from the diggings, burning and pillaging their possessions.

Most Chinese in Australia had no intention of settling here, and most returned to China. The only real threat to working conditions was when, in 1878, the Australian Steamship Company attempted to introduce Chinese firemen at £2/15/- a month in place of European firemen who were paid at the rate of £8 a month.

Unique strike

The significance of this strike lies in the fact that it is the only strike in Australian working-class history until Mort’s Dock, in which the employers as a class wholeheartedly supported the strikers.

The workers know from bitter experience that employers do not support strikes against wage-cuts for the love of the workers. What was their reason ? It was that the ruling class of Britain was fully conscious of the role Australia was expected to play as junior partner to to British imperialism in the Pacific.

It is true that there was need for an immigration policy that protected living standards, and prevented Australia from being flooded by immigrants when there were native-born unemployed. Because the workers recognised this need they supported immigration restriction. But because they were at this time still backward, without a scientific theory, they were used by the employers to support a policy of racial “superiority” that was opposed to their real interests.

The racial chauvinism that infiltrated through their ranks made them support the policy of imperialism, the police force of the Pacific. So Australians went to put down the Boer farmers’ uprising. Australians took part in the campaigns on the North-West Frontiers of India. In Fiji and New Guinea and in Australia itself the native populations have been exploited.

Perverted theories

So deep-rooted have become these perverted theories of race superiority that there is antagonism even to white immigrants who are of non-British stock. Insulting nick-names are given to Italians and other Europeans.

Although the development of Australia has taken place largely through the work of British settlers, yet people of non-British stock have contributed much that is important to Australian history.

Rich grazing lands around the Gulf of Carpentaria and in Northern Queensland were opened up as the result of the exploration of a young German, Leichhardt, whose name is also commemorated in a Sydney suburb.

One of the richest districts of Australia – Gippsland – was discovered and named by the Polish explorer Strzelecki, who was also the first to find gold.

The leaders of Eureka included not only the Irish Peter Lalor, but also Raffaello the Italian, and Vern the German.

The war against German and Japanese fascism has brought clearly before many Australians, the unity of purpose that exists among working people of every country.

The White Australia Policy, by creating false barriers between the peoples of different nations, is a menace to Australian security, a violation of the spirit of the Atlantic Charter.

The quota system of immigration, as proposed by the [Communist Party of Australia], would ensure that internally our living standards receive full protection: while in the international sphere, it would protect Australia by removing a grave barrier to co-operation with the other powerful nations of the Pacific.

For fuller information on the Communist attitude to White Australia, read “Immigration and the White Australia Policy” by R Dixon.

This article originally appeared in Tribune July, 1945.

Next article – Prime Minister Whitlam writes to SPA

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