The Demise of the White Australia Policy

The Australian Labor Party
and the Destruction of the White Australia Policy

By the 1960s it was becoming obvious that the long-held institution of the White Australia Policy was under serious attack. A new generation of liberalistic middle-class people had begun to join the ALP, and had commenced to white-ant its support for the Policy. Within the ALP those defending the Policy, the "Old Guard", tried desperately to ensure the survival of the White Australia ideal.

As Sean Brawley relates, "In the early postwar period the emerging, educated middle class had developed grave reservations about White Australia - often this being the product of what some commentators have termed the non-racist university environment of the 1950's and 1960's, where Government aid programs brought large numbers of Asian and African students to Australia. There is no doubt that these individuals are the same "rising group of tertiary-educated professionals" which Andrew Scott claims entered the branches of the ALP at this time"(53).

An extract from the diary of Peter Heydon (who, at the time, had been recently appointed to replace Sir Tasman Heyes as the Secretary of the Department of Immigration) sets the tone of the Old Guard's attempts to defend the White Australia Policy, in a lengthy entry of the occasion in October 1961 (during the years of the Liberal government of Robert Menzies) when Arthur Calwell (then leader of the Parliamentary Leader of the ALP) took him aside at a function to farewell Sir Heyes as the outgoing Immigration Secretary:
    "After the Prime Minister and Ministers had left I was sitting beside Mr. Calwell who submitted me to an unbroken exhortation of about fifteen minutes to the effect that there must be no amendment or change at all in our restricted immigration policy ... Mr. Calwell said that the Immigration policy was under attack by irresponsible people such as the Melbourne Reform Group, Presbyterian long-hairs and the Reverend Downing in W.A. Of course the Universities were full of them. There were even some in his own church. Archbishop Mannix had been induced by Santamaria and his friends to write an article attacking White Australia and it was published in a church paper but disapproved of by a majority of the bishops. Long-hairs in the Department of External Affairs advocated the same policy. (I denied this firmly). There were similar people in the Labour (sic) Party. Altogether they amounted to a real threat ... Mr Calwell seemed to speak under the stress of great emotion ... one or two things Mr. Calwell said could have been a reference to Mr. Whitlam (e.g. "We have such long-hairs even in our own Party"). It also reminded me of a short conversation I had with Mr. Whitlam in March of this year when he learned that I was likely to succeed Sir Tasman Heyes and in offering congratulations praised the government for having the wisdom to appoint someone who could appreciate the significance for our foreign relations of immigration policies, especially our restrictions on the entry of Asians. Mr Whitlam had then gone on to say that he was trying to get the executive of the Labor Party to eliminate reference to the White Australia Policy from its platform. As I remember he tried to do this behind Mr. Calwell's back shortly thereafter and failed"(54).
The middle-class influx into the ALP from the late 1950s (referred to by Sean Brawley as the "New Guard") brought increasing calls from the ALP Branches to drop the White Australia Policy. "The New Guard moved into the branches but their power within the party was limited. Power resided in the hands of the State Executive which remained dominated by the Old Guard. The Union movement dominated the State Executive and was important in blocking the calls for change from the branches ... An attempt to have the term dropped at the 1959 Federal Conference failed and in 1961, a more covert bid by Gough Whitlam and Don Dunstan, alluded to in Heydon's diary entry, was unsuccessful when Calwell was alerted to the scheme"(55).

    "By the early 60's the momentum for change to White Australia was growing and organisations formed in several states to fight for the abolition of the policy. Much of the momentum at this time came from a group of Melbourne University academics and others who had formed the Immigration Reform Group and produced a highly controversial pamphlet called Control or Colour Bar? The pamphlet and later book's success fostered the creation of a number of reform organisations, initially in Victoria and Western Australia but later and for various lengths of time in all mainland states, as well as student groups based in Melbourne and later Brisbane ... These reform movements held within their ranks a disproportionate number of ALP members and ALP sympathisers, including branch and parliamentary members"(56).

The growth of internal dissent, and branch moves against the Policy, upset the ALP hierarchy. The National Secretary, Joe Chamberlain, convinced the Federal Executive to pass a national ruling banning members of the Immigration Reform Groups from membership in the ALP. This stopped some attempts at open co-operation, but nonetheless there grew within the ALP a "rising class" of New Guard reformers, such as Jim Cairns, Moss Cass, Don Dunstan, Bill Hayden, and Gough Whitlam(57). "In 1963, the "hot potato" of White Australia was once again thrown into the Federal Conference but once more the delegates rejected calls from the Victorian and Western Australian delegates to remove White Australia. The pressure for change had come from the branches but had once again been rejected by the Executive"(58). The Melbourne Age had noted that the "impetus to the Victorian move has come from a group of about 20 members who last May were forced to resign from the Victorian Association for Immigration Reform"(59)

The 1963 ALP Conference was pressured into setting up an Immigration Review Committee, which was dominated by the Old Guard, but which eventually compromised its stance by agreeing to recommend that the ALP drop the name of the White Australia Policy from the ALP Platform; this recommendation later being adopted by the 1965 ALP Conference (the same Conference also lifted the ban on the Immigration Reform Groups). With the name of the White Australia Policy dropped from the Platform, the ALP position became more ambiguous, a situation which was then exploited by the immigration reformers of the ALP's New Guard(60*).

The Union movement held a large power base within the ALP (indeed, it contributed far more monetarily than the branches did; "In NSW in 1960, for example, the ALP received four and a half times more from Unions than Branches in affiliation fees")(61), and it was the Unions which also figured large in the defence of the White Australia Policy, especially the Australian Workers Union (which still "continued to discriminate against Australians of Chinese descent"). However, the Union movement's support of the White Australia Policy later began to wane, which could in part be explained by "the loss of influence which accompanied the AWU's amalgamation with the ACTU - an organisation which was itself being transformed by a new guard of rapidly expanding white collar unions and professional administrators"(62).

A turning point for the immigration reformers came in 1966 with the retirement of the then Liberal Prime Minister, Sir Robert Menzies, as this was soon after followed by immigration liberalisation by the new Liberal Prime Minister, Harold Holt, which the ALP Old Guard reluctantly accepted for political reasons. The New Guard continued to battle the Old Guard for control of the party; Jim Cairns and Bill Hayden even attacked restrictions on Asian immigration in the parliament, causing a furore within the ALP's parliamentary ranks. Gough Whitlam's election to Parliamentary Leader of the ALP in 1967 gave the New Guard a tremendous boost, and the battle continued, until the New Guard won enough power at the ALP's 1971 Conference to create a new liberalistic non-discriminative ALP immigration policy(63).

Despite the ALP's commitment to pull down the safeguards of the White Australia Policy, immigration did not become an issue in the 1972 Federal election for several reasons. "Firstly, Australia was already considering a major immigration downturn and the ALP intimated that the number of Asians who would be allowed entry could actually decline rather than increase ... Secondly, rather than trying to win converts to its position the ALP remained very quiet on the issue for fear its opponents might distort anything the Party said ... The final and most important factor, however, was the return of political bipartisanship on the issue following the comments of Don Chipp [then a Liberal Minister] on the ABC's "Monday Conference" program. Chipp went one step further than the ALP and spoke of a "multi-racial" Australia by the 1980's. Although immediately castigated by Old Guarders such as Calwell and members of his own Party, Chipp escaped further criticism when John Gorton [the previous Liberal Prime Minister], perhaps uncharacteristically, announced "complete support" for Chipp's comments. To many it appeared that Chipp's comments had prevented immigration from becoming a "nasty issue" during the election"(64).

Thus, the December 1972 election was held without immigration becoming a major issue. After the ALP government was elected to power, Prime Minister Gough Whitlam and his Immigration Minister, Al Grassby, set about destroying the White Australia Policy; and began the implementation of the disastrous policy of multiculturalism (which itself encompassed a philosophy of anti-discrimination and anti-restrictive immigration), which the Liberal Party subsequently adopted in order to "win the migrant vote". This was the death knell of the White Australia Policy.(65*)

It should be noted here that the influx of Indo-Chinese refugees (mainly from Vietnam, Laos, and Cambodia-Kampuchea) began during the ALP's term in office, "with the first main wave of Vietnamese immigrants settling in Australian during 1975-76, after the fall of Saigon on 30 April 1975"(66). However, as Whitlam's ALP Government was sacked shortly after the commencement of the influx, it should be noted that it was under the Liberal Government of Malcolm Fraser (11.11.1975 - 11.3.1983) that Australia endured several years of a very high Indo-Chinese refugee intake. The following Labor Governments of Bob Hawke (11.3.1983 - 20.12.1991) and Paul Keating (20.12.1991 - 11.3.1996) continued the practice of bringing in large numbers of Indo-Chinese refugees.(67*)

The Demise of the White Australia Policy