The Demise of the White Australia Policy

The Liberal Party and the
Dismantling of the White Australia Policy

As Bruce Grant has pointed out, "By the time government changed hands in 1949 [from Labor to Liberal], immigration was in full flow", but the set of circumstances that "made the original decision easier to uphold" was that the 1950s were years of prosperity, and that many immigrants were Cold War refugees (thus would be considered anti-communist, and therefore likely to become Liberal Party supporters); but more important to the Liberal Party was the perceived "economic advantage of a labour force for the expanding manufacturing sector". Considered of less importance to the Liberals was the defence-related belief to "populate or perish", especially since that "It was to the American alliance, not to a self-reliant Australia, that they looked for security."(39)

However, "The "White Australia" policy became an increasing embarrassment as Australia's relations with Asia developed. Hence modifications to this policy were almost certainly made with an eye to foreign affairs. However, they were not intended to allow a large, unrestricted inflow."(40)

In 1947, under Chifley's Labor government, "it was announced that non-Europeans admitted temporarily for business reasons and who had lived in Australia continuously for 15 years could remain without the need to renew their permits periodically". "In effect, such people achieved resident status".(41)

However, it was under the Liberal governments of Robert Menzies (Prime Minister 19.12.1949 - 26.1.1966) and Harold Holt (Minister for Immigration 19.12.1949 - 24.10.1956, Prime Minister 26.1.66 - 19.12.67) that the first major cracks began to appear in the protective walls of the White Australia Policy:

In 1952 Japanese wives of Australian servicemen were allowed to be admitted, under permits valid initially for five years.(42)

In 1956 various rules were modified regarding non-Europeans:
  • Those allowed to remain without getting periodic extensions of their permits became eligible for citizenship.
  • Distinguished and highly qualified non-Europeans were permitted to come to Australia and remain indefinitely.
  • Easier conditions applied to the admission of people of mixed descent.
  • Certain non-Europeans already in Australia on a temporary basis, who normally would have been expected to leave, were allowed to remain for humanitarian reasons (thus the Liberal Government avoided the problems caused by the media's immigration-related "human tragedy" campaigns that had so plagued the Labor Government).(43)
Further changes were made in 1956 and 1957 with respect to citizenship: In 1956, although admitted only for temporary residence, non-European spouses of Australian citizens became eligible to apply for citizenship, on the same basis as European spouses, irrespective of their period of residence in Australia. And in 1957, other non-Europeans admitted to Australia for temporary residence were able to apply for citizenship, after completing 15 years residence.(44)

These changes meant that "a radical transformation had occurred in the practice of naturalisation of non-Europeans, a change illustrated by the fact that, whereas in 1956-57 only seventeen were granted naturalisation, in 1959-60 the number had risen to 826". Naturalisation of Asians 1961-65 was as follows, 1961: 734; 1962: 643; 1963: 537; 1964: 396; 1965: 420. The numbers remained substantial, though a drop in numbers occurred "presumably because long-term Asian residents seeking naturalisation did so in the main shortly after the changes were introduced".(45)

The controversial dictation test was abolished under the 1958 Migration Act (which came into force on 1 June 1959), and a simpler scheme of entry permits was introduced.(46)

In 1959 "it was decided that Australian citizens normally domiciled in Australia could introduce for residence their non-European spouses and unmarried minor children, who would then be eligible to apply for citizenship. In 1960 this provision was extended to the non-European spouses and unmarried minor children of British subjects already with residence status in Australia or about to attain it". "In 1964, conditions for the entry of people of mixed descent were further relaxed".(47)

In September 1965, "all the former temporary resident categories were replaced by two broad classifications granting admission with limited temporary resident status ... This simplification of the rules represented a departure from a practice which had existed virtually since federation". Basically, the two new categories allowed executive and specialist staff to enter Australia for up to two or four years, even allowing wives and children to accompany them (previously not permitted, except for those with Australian citizenship)(48).

Harold Holt became Prime Minister in January 1966. As Arthur Calwell has said: "Significantly, Mr Holt's first action as Prime Minister was to announce liberalization of our immigration regulations regarding Asians ... Those changes can yet be disastrous for Australia"(49).

In March 1966 a major policy change was made, which meant that "qualified non-Europeans were admitted as a matter of policy, rather than as an occasional indulgence, and those who lived in Australia for five years (rather than for fifteen years) were allowed to bring in dependants. This was the beginning of the end of the "White Australia" policy" (emphasis added).(50)

"In March 1966, following a comprehensive policy review, the Government announced that non-Europeans could be considered for settlement in Australia on the basis of their general suitability, their ability to integrate readily and their possession of qualifications positively useful to Australia ... In 1966 changes also meant that non-Europeans who initially had been admitted as temporary residents but authorised to remain indefinitely could become permanent residents and citizens after five years' stay instead of fifteen years as previously required"(51). The 1966 immigration changes were the signal for a steady increase in the numbers of immigrants from Asia.

As Katharine Betts stated, "The White Australia Policy had almost been eliminated by the late 1960s in a series of changes during the latter years of Liberal/Country Party rule. Public resistance had been circumvented by the use of administrative procedures and secrecy rather than open debate".(52)

The election of the Australian Labor Party (ALP) in December 1972 led to the official "death" of the White Australia Policy; finishing off what the Liberal Party had begun with its various "stabbings" of the Policy over the years, culminating in its "fatal wounding" in 1966.

The Demise of the White Australia Policy