The Demise of the White Australia Policy

Post-War Australia:
Fears, Foreign Policy,
and the Demise of the White Australia Policy

Prior to the Second World War, Australia's position as a nation with a basically homogeneous European population was secure. Under the unofficial title of the White Australia Policy, various policies were in place to ensure this situation: immigration laws were administered strictly to ensure that non-Europeans were not admitted, citizenship requirements were very exacting and well-guarded, and governments of all hues were committed to a White Australia.

However, changing circumstances were set to change Australia's relations with Asia, as H.R. Cowie explained: "Until the fall of Singapore in 1942, Australian concern about relations with Asia was largely tempered by the comforting thought that the major Asian territories to the north were under the guidance and control of friendly European powers. The Netherlands governed what is now Indonesia, the French controlled Indo-China [Cambodia-Kampuchea, Laos, and Vietnam], the Americans were still in the Philippines, and Britain held colonial possessions in Borneo and Malaya and Singapore. Although Australians had been worried about Japan's expansionist activities since her invasion of Manchuria [a region of China] in 1931, they felt safe behind the European protective shield ... Japan's unexpected triumph in conquering the whole of south-east Asia, and the impact of the appeal to Asian nationalism conveyed in her slogan "Asia for the Asians", drastically altered the political situation in the region. After the shock of Japanese air-raids on Australian soil had been partly erased and the threat of Japanese invasion had been removed by the Allied victory, Australians looked upon the Asian peoples in a new perspective."(1)

Following the end of the Second World War in 1945, there arose a number of factors which began to affect Australia's position and her close adherence to the White Australia Policy:

1) Deterioration of military security.

Following the war, the British reduced the size of their armed forces in Asia and the South Pacific. Thus the British Navy, that Australia had so heavily depended upon in the past, could no longer serve to protect Australia's separation from Asia, nor the White Australia Policy that aided that separation(2).

Australia's fears were also heightened by the spectre of Communism sweeping through the countries of the region (apart from the Communists attaining government in China, Communist uprisings occurred in the Philippines, Malaya, and Burma(3); as well as the Communist invasion of South Korea, and the eventually successful internal uprising/external invasion of South Vietnam).

It was thought that "Any possible military threat to the security of Australia was likely to come from Asia, either from a non-communist militarist regime or an expansionist communist regime pursuing the gaol of 'world revolution'. It was therefore important for Australia to maintain its defence capability, to seek membership of defensive alliances, and to contribute to "wars of containment" such as the Korean and Vietnam wars."(4)

2) Pressure from newly independent Asian countries.

The end of the war saw many Asian nations "throwing off the chains of colonialism" that had previously bound them. Whereas such countries were administered by white officials prior to the war, who were likely to be sympathetic to a White Australia, the new native anti-colonialist administrations, who had just won their independence from "white oppressors", were "extremely critical of any policy based on racism". Such criticism was always ready to be voiced in the new post-war international organisation of the United Nations (established October 1945), as well as through direct and indirect diplomatic channels(5).

3) Australia's fears of vulnerability.

Australia now felt isolated from Britain, and began to fear the potential might of Asia: economically, politically, and militarily. The political response to these fears were shown in acts of appeasement to Asia, as well as in a new-found desire for cooperation with those nations.

It was believed that "As an affluent community, Australia had to contribute significantly to aid programmes to help stabilise the economy of new Asian nations and ensure the survival of democracy. A corollary to this belief was the assumption that unstable economic conditions would breed communism, which would in turn produce armed aggression" and that "If trading relations could be established with Asian powers, the condition of interdependence that emerged would greatly contribute to better understanding and good relations."(6)

4) Resulting changes in Australian foreign policy.

As H.I. London stated, "Keeping a balance between collective security based on American strength and directed at Asia, and the simultaneous cultivation of friendly relations with Asian states, became the essence of the new Australian foreign policy ... Australia made a commitment to a "good neighbour policy" with Asia and a reduction of the psychological distance associated with her earlier policies. One fundamental aspect of this change in attitude was the modification of the White Australia policy. Those facets of the policy morally exceptionable to Asians were to be revised"(7).

It was said that, in regards to naturalisation and immigration, "further liberalisation was desirable if the danger were to be avoided of international pressure designed to force the Government of the day to make changes which could very advantageously be made of its own volition"(8), and that "the ill-will engendered in some Asian countries by a rigid and occasionally uncouth application of the policy of 'white Australia', must be considered strategically disadvantageous ... Its immigration policy was an insult to the countries against whose potential hostility that policy was considered to be an insurance"(9).

It was believed that because "Australia, as a large empty continent must have appeared as a tempting area for the resettlement of the Asian masses, it was important that Australia remove possible sources of friction with Asian powers. To this end it was necessary to reduce Asian criticism of the "White Australia" immigration policy and of the Australian administration of Papua New Guinea, through implementing policies of reform."(10)

Thus, the White Australia Policy was to receive several cosmetic changes, so as to soften the racial-discriminatory appearance of Australia's immigration policies.

The Demise of the White Australia Policy