The Demise of the White Australia Policy

The Media;
and Their Use of "Tear-Jerker" Stories
to Change Immigration Policies

Various other liberal-internationalists were opposed to the White Australia Policy; with those in the media spreading their views amongst the general populace, in ideological tandem with the liberals in academia. The media liberals were particularly effective in grabbing "tear-jerker" stories of the "cruel administration" of the Policy, especially during the Policy's administration by Immigration Minister Arthur Calwell who "pursued the 'White Australia' line with unrelenting consistency"(17). Following this tactic, any refusal (following the laid-down Australian immigration laws) to allow a non-European to gain residence in Australia, which had the elements of a tear-jerker "human tragedy story" (such as anything involving a family reunion), was exploited by the media as a "major issue" designed to "pull the heart-strings" and win public sympathy. The result was that on the basis of some tear-jerker cases pumped-up by the media, various aspects of the Policy were changed following the media outcry and ensuing condemnation of Australia by foreign governments.

Under a discretionary policy, which took into account "compassionate grounds and close family relationships", more than 15 000 persons of mixed descent were admitted into Australia in the post-war period. Also, there were a substantial number of non-Europeans who entered within other categories, such as on short-term visas, but who then wished to stay. There were a small number of individual cases of exclusion which were "picked up" and given large-scale attention in the media ("human tragedy stories"), and were used to attack the government's immigration policies, and thus aroused "public controversy". Gordon Greenwood pointed out that "the most publicised were the cases of Willie Wong and Nancy Prasad", and that while "Such cases are probably inevitable in the administration of any restrictive immigration policy ... What gives them a special significance ... is the harm which may be done to Australia's standing in Asian countries if the individuals involved are of Asian origin". While those in government may have felt sympathetic to these individuals, there was a fear that if Australia was to change the rules in order to let these people stay, then thousands more would be able to stay in Australia on the same basis (each one of those thousands had the potential to provide a "human tragedy" story, as the basis for yet another anti-government media campaign). Immigration procedures later changed in relation to such cases, for - as Greenwood remarked in 1968 - "it can be said that in recent years the policy has been administered with greater flexibility, and with a conscious regard to humanitarian and compassionate considerations, as is indeed evident from the revision of the regulations and from the emphasis upon discretionary powers. This is not surprising since in Peter Heydon the Department has as its Secretary a senior diplomat and former High Commissioner to India who is more than aware of the injury that might be done to Australia by an insensitive or over-rigid administration".(18)

H.I. London explained the general background to these circumstances: "During World War II the colored population of Australia swelled with the forced migration of Asians fleeing the Japanese invasion. These migrants were given a sanctuary in Australia with the understanding that they would return when the war ended. But many of the migrants married or just found life in Australia congenial, and refused to accept their obligation. In 1947 the Labor Government tried to deport fourteen Malay seamen, all of whom married Australians and most of whom had families. The Government insisted its position was predicated on assurances that the stays were temporary pending the termination of the war. As soon as the repatriation decision was announced vocal opposition erupted in the press, attacking the policy on moral grounds and later as an expression of "administrative callousness." Mr. Arthur Calwell, Minister for Immigration at the time, refused, after considerable delay, to reconsider his decision. Malayan Seamen's Defence Committees were organized in Sydney, Melbourne, and Brisbane. To satisfy some of the opposition's demands the Government offered to pay for the transportation of the families to Malaya. But the bitterness of the struggle remained and organizational weapons for reform were created. All that was necessary to evoke a more vigorous resentment was another cause celebre. The reformers did not have to wait long.

"In the same year Mrs. Annie O'Keefe, an Indonesian, provided opponents of the White Australia policy with a new cause celebre. Mrs. O'Keefe, whose first husband was killed in an airplane crash during the war, was rescued from the Indonesian jungle with her family of eight children and brought to Australia. It was stipulated at the time of her entry, according to statutory safeguards, that she would leave the country when required to do so. She became one of many war refugees accepted as temporary entrants, subject to the Minister for Immigration's authority. After several years in Australia she received an offer of marriage and applied for permanent residence credentials from the Department of Immigration. She soon learned that marriage to an Australian conferred no privilege of permanent residence for a war refugee accepted as a "prohibited migrant". Mrs. O'Keefe appealed the decision to the High Court (1947), which ruled in a majority decision that Mrs. O'Keefe did not qualify as a prohibited migrant since she had not taken the dictation test (which was used to determine that status), and therefore the Minister for Immigration no longer had authority to deport her.

"The ruling applied not only to Mrs. O'Keefe but to hundreds of other war refugees in the country. In order to deal with this "recalcitrant minority" Calwell introduced several bills designed to restore ministerial control over aliens allowed entry during the war - a control, argued Calwell, that the High Court had preempted in its decision. If implemented, the proposals could have been used against Mrs. O'Keefe and approximately 800 other Asian war refugees. The bills were passed, but before any repatriation action could be taken, a general election was held. A change in government occurred, and a more liberal attitude to these non-European war refugees was adopted. Mrs. O'Keefe was accepted as an Australian citizen.

"'White Australia', despite the O'Keefe case, continued to be prominently displayed in the headlines of most Australian newspapers. No sooner had O'Keefe left the front page than another, more volatile case appeared. Sergeant Gamboa, a United States citizen of Filipino parentage, was refused the right to reenter Australia even though his Australian wife and children lived there. The Immigration Department, under Calwell's leadership, argued that marriage could not be used as a means of entering the country, whatever the personal hardships involved. He offered to pay the fares of Mrs. Gamboa and the children to either the Philippines or the United States, but Gamboa would not accept the offer. Instead he challenged the Department's decision by pointing out directly to Eleanor Roosevelt and several United Nations' delegates that Australia's immigration policy was a violation of the United Nations' Charter, which specifically prohibited racial discrimination. Due in part to the publicity the case received, Calwell's judgment was rescinded by the new Menzies Government in its attempt to reverse what Senator E.B. Maher described as 'the fanatical ... and ... unchristian policy that was applied by the member for Melbourne (Mr.Calwell) ....'

"The 1949 swing to the Liberal-Country Party and the appointment of a new Minister for Immigration, Mr. Harold Holt, changed the climate in which the immigration policy was administered. With the exception of a few minor cases, the 1950's were almost entirely free of incidents related to the White Australia policy. Most Australians, due very largely to Holt's more flexible attitude to the subject and new immigration legislation enacted in 1956 and 1957, believed that the general tenor of the policy was changing."(19)

International, and internal, pressures mounted over such cases; for instance: the Japanese war brides, the fourteen Malayan seamen (1947), the fifty Chinese seamen (1949), Mrs O'Keefe (1949), and Sergeant Gamboa (1949).

The deportation in 1962 of Willie Wong, a Chinese market gardener, back to mainland China gave impetus to yet another storm of protest from the media.(20) But it was the Nancy Prasad case in 1965 that provided the media with what was perhaps its "best ever" cause celebre, especially as it provided more opportunities for "tear-jerker" stories than did the subsequent Locsin case of 1966 (the Filipino university graduate whose application to migrate to Australia was refused).(21)

The Demise of the White Australia Policy