Masaryk University Faculty of Arts Department of English and American Studies

Changes Leading to the Abolition of the White Australia Policy

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1.3. Changes Leading to the Abolition of the White Australia Policy

For more than fifty years, there were no signs of any change that would lead to lifting the immigration limitations set by the White Australia policy, or completely abolishing them. The first change came in 1956, when the Department of Immigration “issued a statement on the conditions of non-European entry, which included the possibility of permanent residence and naturalization for Asians” (Palfreeman 347). Later on the policy started to change, although very slowly. The Revised Migration Act of 1958 “introduced a simpler system of entry permits and abolished the controversial dictation test” (Department of Immigration and Multicultural Affairs 6). The main change came in 1966 when the Government reviewed the non-European migration policy (Department of Immigration and Multicultural Affairs 6). It was only then that it could be said that “the pillars of the sixty-five year old White Australia policy began to be undermined. Now for the first time, non-Europeans were to be officially admitted as settlers” (Palfreeman 347). However, the official end of the White Australia policy was no earlier than 1973 when the Government introduced “new entry policy [grading the applicants on] a broad range of economic, social and personal factors (including occupational skills, knowledge of English, initiative, appearance, personal hygiene, speech and behaviour) and [making] no reference to race or religion” (Palfreeman 349). The White Australia policy is no longer in force and Australia is seen as a multicultural society today, but the aftermath is still seen and several issues with racist subtext refer to the past disapproval of non-European (i.e. non-white) immigration. Racism is legally prohibited, based on the Racial Discrimination Act 1975 that “makes racial discrimination unlawful in Australia. It aims to ensure that human rights and freedoms are enjoyed in full equality irrespective of race, colour, descent, national or ethnic origin, being an immigrant or being a relative or associate of someone of a particular ethnicity or other status” (Lueckenhause). This is in concordance with the UNESCO Declaration on Race and Racial Prejudice of 27 November 1978 which states that all humans are born as part of a single species and therefore are equal in dignity and rights (Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights).

Today, Australia is respected as a country that cherishes the rights of its citizens regardless of their origin. According to the Australian Human Rights Commission, “almost one half of all Australians were either born overseas or had a parent born in another country” (Australian Human Rights Commission). This presents Australia as a multicultural society, however, the White Australia policy fostered the hostility to aliens that took more than half a century to be lawfully abolished, but not forgotten.

1.4. The White Australia Policy and the Aboriginal Population

The White Australia policy accomplished what it was created for by limiting the number of non-European people coming to settle in Australia. But as it might not be clear from the above, the laws enacted during the time of the White Australia policy were not only aimed at the immigrants from Asia, Africa or Pacific Islands, but also affected the Aboriginal people in Australia. This group of people were already on Australian ground so other means of “whitening” the country, apart from restricting immigration, had to be found to disintegrate these people. For example, the Aborigines were “absent from the ceremonies that marked the advent of the Commonwealth. They were eliminated from the art and literature; ... [they] were even deprived of their indigeneity by the members of the Australian Natives Association, who appropriated that term for the locally born Europeans” (Macintyre 144). These are just some examples to show that the Aboriginal people were not counted with the Europeans when the Australian Federation was formed. What is more, the examples mentioned were not just signs of impoliteness but they were based on legal documents. The original Constitution of the Commonwealth of Australia from 1901 made only two references to the Aboriginal people. Section 51 (Part xxvi) gave power over the Aboriginal people to the individual States and not the Federal Government:

The Parliament shall, subject to this Constitution, have power to make laws for the peace, order, and good government of the Commonwealth with respect to: [and the particular part xxvi:] the people of any race, other than the aboriginal race in any State, for whom it is deemed necessary to make special laws. (Attorney-General’s Department 2003)

This shows the Federal Government was not considering dealing with the Aboriginal people as being equal to the white population, because it did not take the power over them from the States. And section 127 of the Constitution denied the Aboriginal inhabitants the right to be included in the national census (Attorney-General’s Department 2003). These two meagre references to the Aboriginal people in the first Constitution of the Commonwealth of Australia clearly stated the stance the Federal Parliament took towards them.

1.4.1. Policies towards the Aboriginal Population

The position of the Federal Parliament becomes clearer when a general overview of the history preceding the actual forming of the Commonwealth is examined. When George Thornton was appointed the first NSW Protector of Aborigines in 1881 (Sydney City Council), a new era of policies towards Aborigines began. This was characterised as the policy of protection but in fact it represented the segregation of Aborigines from the white people. The intentions of European Australians were to move the Aborigines out of their society and allow them to “live their age-old system of life” (Massola). As Massola claims, it was believed that “the only possible way to preserve the native race in its purity would have been to segregate the Aborigines in large reserves” that were created by the Protector of Aborigines’ orders and later by the NSW Aboriginal Protection Board (58). As stated above, “segregation [was] a key part of Aboriginal Protection Policy” (NSWALC), which implies that in fact it were the white people who were “protected” from having to encounter the Aborigines who were regarded as being an inferior race. The Aboriginal Protection Board “administered government policy, dictating where Aborigines could live and work, their freedom of movement, their personal finances and their child rearing practices” (Sydney City Council). These laws of segregation and “protection” encouraged “wanton disregard of Aboriginal culture, hopes and wishes” (Lippmann 15) from which the Aboriginal world has not yet fully recovered.

Even though the policy of segregation hindered the Aboriginal people from dignified lives and incorporation into the white society, it did not prevent the intermarriage of white and Aboriginal people. The consequent policy of assimilation is closely associated with the segregationist tendencies. On one hand, the “full-blood” Aboriginal people and children were not wanted in the white society; on the other hand, the “half-caste” children were believed to be able to be raised according to white manners. According to Chesterman, “the removal of Indigenous children was inherently racially motivated. In many ways hierarchies of race were the key factor behind the practice. Certainly this was the case for the more zealous advocates of child removal, whose aim was to breed out a race”8 (5). Given the facts, the goal of this policy was to assimilate the Aboriginal population into the white citizenry, or let those not willing to assimilate become extinct. As Macintyre suggests, “all of this was premised on the elimination of Aboriginality, the abandonment of language, custom and ritual, and the severing of kinship ties so that absorption could be complete” (147). The official proclamation of the assimilation policy from 1951 stated that all Aborigines “shall attain the same manner of living as other Australians, enjoying the same rights and privileges, accepting the same responsibilities, observing the same customs, and being influenced by the same beliefs, hopes and loyalties” (Lippmann 25). That same year the Commonwealth minister for territories expressed this proclamation in other words, leaving no doubt as to what the Government’s stance towards the Aboriginal people was. He said that “assimilation means, in practical terms, that, in the course of time, it is expected that all persons of Aboriginal blood or mixed blood in Australia will live like White Australians do, [even though] that would require many years of slow, patient endeavour” (qtd. in Macintyre 226). Again it is apparent that the Government held the view that “white ways were best and that there was nothing in the Aboriginal culture worth preserving” (Lippmann 26). It seems sensible that the Aboriginal people enjoy “the same rights and privileges [and accept] the same responsibilities” (Lippmann 25) as other Australians. All were living in one country and all should have been the citizens of the country, which indeed was not true until 1967 (Burden 211). The only catch in “observing the same customs, and being influenced by the same beliefs, hopes and loyalties” (Lippmann 25) is that it could be read as that the Government would provide the Aborigines with citizenship and civil rights but only on the condition that the Aboriginal people give their beliefs away, forget their culture and assimilate and conform to white society and its cultural values.

These policies are now “acknowledged as having contributed to the destruction of Aboriginal families and society by separating children from their parents” (Sydney City Council) thus creating the Stolen Generations. This presents one of the greatest issues in regards to the Aboriginal people today. There were many stories of children stolen from their mothers, being sent to state institutions or being fostered by white people in Australia or even abroad. The exact numbers are not traceable but it is believed that “between 1910 and 1970 up to 100,000 Aboriginal children were taken forcibly or under duress from their families by police or welfare officers” (ENIAR). The consequences of the assimilation policy for the “half-caste” children were enormous, children were deprived of being loved, lost their identities and for their whole lives carried the burden of being removed. Sometimes they were physically or sexually abused in the places where they were allocated. The European Network for Indigenous Australian Rights (ENIAR) summarises the results and aftermath of this policy:

Most [children] grew up in a hostile environment without family ties or cultural identity. As adults, many suffered insecurity, lack of self esteem, feelings of worthlessness, depression, suicide, violence, delinquency, abuse of alcohol and drugs and inability to trust. Lacking a parental model, many had difficulty bringing up their own children. The scale of separation also had profound consequences for the whole Aboriginal community - anger, powerlessness and lack of purpose as well as an abiding distrust of Government, police and officials. (ENIAR)

All the issues summarised in this statement are apparent in the Indigenous communities today and will be studied in the plays from contemporary Aboriginal playwrights in the third chapter of this thesis.

The policies that fostered the Stolen Generations could be regarded as racist and influenced not only the children actually stolen but also the following generations and resulted in the erosion of Aboriginal communities. Penny van Toorn draws on Wayne King to analyse the possible causes of racism and hatred towards Aboriginals in Australia. Van Toorn mentions that “King’s analysis suggests that racism in Australia is born out of history and guilt, that it is perhaps an expression of displaced anxiety experienced by members of the group which perpetrated and/or benefited by the wrongs committed against Aboriginal people since 1788” (van Toorn). This goes back to the initial idea of racism being ingrained in the society of European settlers in Australia in the 19th century. All these policies are the explicit evidence of the fact that racism was undoubtedly one of the strongest motivations for keeping Australia “white”. This sounds rather unreasonable for Australia never was originally white. It only became “white”–in the terms of the colour of the skin of the majority of its inhabitants–with the colonisation or occupation by the British settlers in the 18th century.

There are still great differences between Aboriginal and non-aboriginal Australians in matters such as health issues, life expectancy or the number of people arrested. According to the statistics, “in the 1990s, infant mortality [among the Aboriginal population was] two to four times greater than that found in the total Australian population” and “the life expectancy at birth [was] lower than for most countries in the world with the exception of Central Africa and India” (Burden 199). The data from the Department of Health and Ageing says that “Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Australians born during 1996 to 2001 had life expectancies ... around 17 years lower than the average life expectancies for all male and female Australians born during 1998 to 2000” (Department of Health and Ageing). Crime and justice statistics for Western Australia carried out in 2000 by the Crime Research Centre of the University of Western Australia reads that

in 2000, Aboriginal people were five times more likely to be victims of violence than non-Aboriginal people. Aboriginal arrest rates were ten times the comparable rate for non-Aborigines, adult imprisonment rates were 26 times the comparable rate, and juvenile detention rates were more than 30 times the rate for non-Aboriginals. (Crime Research Centre)

This theme of Aboriginal imprisonment is present in Jack Davis’s play Barungin (Smell the Wind) and is dealt with alongside the analysis of this play in chapter 3 of this thesis.

1.4.2. Policy of Self-determination

The following chapter summarizes the problems of Aboriginal people in the post-colonial era. Jean Fournier summarizes the situation of the Indigenous peoples all around the world:

The majority of Indigenous peoples in the 21st century continue to exist in what can only be described as shameful conditions. Social and economic indicators all point to largely dysfunctional communities characterised by high rates of poverty, unemployment, school dropout, ill-health, family violence, substance abuse, suicide and incarceration. As well, the ability of Indigenous communities to run their own affairs, by comparison with the general population, remains severely restricted and constrained. (Fournier vii)

A question arises why this is so. Today, we are in the era of post-colonialism or as Bradley and Seton call it decolonisation. They claim that “decolonisation refers to moving away from policies of control of Indigenous peoples, developed in the so-called interests of the state, towards policies of self-determination for Indigenous people” (Bradley and Seton 32). The national referendum of 1967, together with the amendment of section 51 (xxvi) of the Constitution marked an era when the Federal Government began to be more involved in Indigenous affairs in Australia. When Gough Whitlam became the Prime Minister in 1972 he introduced the policy of self-determination for the Aboriginal people and also made Aboriginal Affairs a “national cause”. The policy of self-determination made it possible for the Indigenous people of Australia to distinguish their priorities and needs and also to identify the best ways of meeting them. This policy definitely marked the end of the assimilation era (Auguste; Whall 24).

The 1967 referendum was also regarded as an act of conferring citizenship to the Aboriginal people, which made them equal to all other citizens of Australia for the first time. However, the coalition Government failed to legislate for the Aborigines and was rather reluctant to meet their increasing demand for self-determination (Macintyre 234). As such, nothing much was done for the Aboriginal people to help them manage their own affairs. Little effort was made by the Government to help promote self-determination. The Department of Aboriginal Affairs, which was supposed to fulfil the special needs of the Indigenous people, was established together with some other leading organisations, dealing with the Indigenous affairs regarding health, legal services or housing (Whall 24). A breakthrough came with the Mabo decision in 1992, when the High Court rejected the principle of “terra nullius”, under which it was believed that there were no inhabitants in Australia when the British settlers arrived in 1788. The Native Title Act of 1993 followed and enabled the Indigenous people to make claims over their ancestral land (Whall 24).

These formal acts gave hope to the Indigenous people in Australia that they would be able to have homes again. By home I mean not only the ownership of the land itself but also maintaining the spiritual connection to it, which is what makes a home for the Aboriginal people in the first place. There were many displaced from these homes, not only physical dispossession of the children of the Stolen Generations but also the spiritual removal, removal from one’s own culture and traditions. According to Bradley and Seton, “the removal of children is now the best-known dimension of this attempt to turn Aboriginal people into non-Aboriginal people [and] … to destroy Aboriginal identity through education of children in white institutions and foster homes” (38). And even though there are several institutions and enacted Acts that are intended to help the Aboriginal people; their own ability to “make decisions that affect their lives [is] constantly being challenged and subjected to scrutiny by outside forces. Indigenous people are continuously contesting constructions from outside agencies, however, there are on-going tensions that challenge … their ability to retain distinctive cultural identities, lifestyles, values and laws” (Bradley and Seton 42). O’Neill and Handley suggest that it is also the ability of the Aboriginal people to achieve “greater social and economic equality as against the majority of the Australian Community” what is being challenged (qtd. in Bradley and Seton 42). As such, the Indigenous people are still trying to succeed as self-determining peoples and communities and measure up to the majority of the Australian society.

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