The Social Engineering of Australia's Early Immigration Policy

There is little, if any doubt, that Australia's immigration  policy was a socially engineered one.  In order to better understand the implications of this claim, it is firstly important to define socially engineered policies as public policies which are designed to satisfy a specific societal purpose or lead to well-defined social outcomes.  Within the context of this question, socially engineered immigration policy refers to an immigration framework which is designed to satisfy a certain image of society and ensure, or at least try to, a specific demographic and racial composition.  Added to that, if Australia's immigration policy was socially engineered as this research will try to establish, the country was hardly unique in this regard.  Indeed, it would not be an exaggeration to claim that most immigration policies, both past and present, are socially engineered.  With that in mind, this research will engage in a historical overview of Australia's immigration policy, for the purposes of establishing that it was socially engineered.

Australia's earliest immigration policies were inspired by the need for labour and, to this extent, were seemingly economically engineered. As Aboriginals were not a significant source of labor for colonial Australia, labor had to be brought in from overseas, initially from Britain. The original means of Australian settlement and development was "transportation," the shipment of convicts to Australia that began in 1788. The use of 'transportation' served a two-fold purpose: a labor force, as available for the settlement of the new colony, and it provided an outlet for Britain's convict population. The United States' Declaration of Independence effectively eliminated the American colonies as a destination for convicts, as had been the earlier practice.The cessation of 'transportation' of convict labor to Australia in the mid-nineteenth century provoked a shortage of workers in the pastoral industry and raised the idea of replacing convicts with indentured workers or "coolies."It need be noted here that even though the described policy was largely informed by economic imperatives, it was, arguably, socially engineered on both the British and the Australuan sides.  On the British side it was socially engineered in the sense that Britain dictated that policy in an effort to cleanse its own society from criminal elements.  On the Australian side, it was partially socially engineered to the extent that the earlier waves of settlements were white Anglo-Saxons and other races were hardly welcomed as citizens, or settlers.

In further confirmation of the fact that economic imperatives did not distract the Australian public or its policy makers from the social aspect and societal consequences of immigration, reactions to blackbirding are quite informative.   During the 19th  and early 20th  centuries, there was a practice of enslaving, often by kidnapping, natives of Fiji, Samoa, and the South Pacific islands to work on the cotton and sugar plantations of Queensland. This practice of kidnapping and enforced enslavement,  blackbirding, sheds light on the confluence of economic, racial, and political motivations in early Australia. Despite government efforts to control and eliminate the practice, it flourished.  The reasons why it flourished were that the practice satisfied an economic motive.At the same time, it is important to note that there was a public outcry against it, not because of its illegality or blatant disregard for the humanity of others but because the popular and official perception was that blackbirding, which effectively introduced Kanakas into Australian society, threatened its Anglo-Saxon and racial composition.Therefore, even when economic imperatives dictated a specific type of forced immigration, social concerns protested the said policies and led to their elimination.

As indicated in the preceding and as confirmed by Elazar and Medding, the Australian tendency towards the adoption of socially engineered immigration policies manifested itself from the outset.  By the mid to late nineteenth century, Australia had a significant Chinese/Asian population, numbering close to 25,000 in Victoria alone and the Australian public was intolerant of the situation.  It was thus that the government embarked upon the adoption of a discriminatory immigration policy, on the one hand, and legislature which gave the government the right to deport any Kanakas from the country following 1906.It was within the context of the above described environment that Edmund Barton, Australia's first Prime Minister and his government effectively legislated the 'White Australia' policy through three means. First, a dictation test was required for non-British immigrants based on one introduced in Natal, South Africa in 1897; it was normally given in a language not understood by the intending immigrant and was not a test of literacy.Second, non-whites were allowed to enter Australia only on a temporary basis and under special permitThird, shipping companies simply would not issue tickets to non-Europeans who, in any case, were not likely to attempt to settle in the knowledge that it would not be allowed.   However, the Immigration Restriction Act itself was simply a shell. It contained almost no reference to the categories of immigrants the Australian government wished to encourage. There was no requirement that there even be an immigration policy. Moreover, procedural safeguards and appeal rights were absent. Officials were permitted a great deal of discretion to exclude an unwanted immigrant. The White Australia policy had, to all intents and purposes, come into effect and with it, the rigorous social engineering of Australian society.

The "White Australia Policy" effectively excluded Asians and other non-whites and also strictly regulated the admission of non-British Europeans through various legislated and discretionary policies. For example, there were restrictions of specific groups of Southern European immigrants in response to "particular, and at times threatening, political situations."  There was an apparent dual immigration policy: the encouragement of British and the restriction of European and certainly all Asian immigrants. This was enforced through the imposition "of quotas which were not necessarily made public so that their existence was often unknown to immigrants" and through the requirement of landing-money, a rigid requirement "that was well-publicised and designed to deter European immigrants."

Indeed, restrictions on immigration had several forms at the end of World War I, solidifying the claim that Australia immigration policy was socially engineered.   First, there was specific exclusion of ex-enemy aliens. Germans, Bulgarians, Hungarians, and Turks were prohibited from entering Australia for a period of five years. In addition, in the 1920s the government opposed  the idea of an influx of Jewish refugees from Poland. Polish immigrants were considered undesirable because it was thought that they were poor, uneducated, and would cluster in the poorer urban areas and be exploited "by the enterprising business Jews." British Jews, however, were welcome in any numbers. Although Jewish immigration was being limited, it is important to note that immigration from other parts of Europe (the "non-Aryan" parts, in terms of the prevailing racial typology) was limited as well.

In 1945 a Department of Immigration was created and the country was opened to refugees and other immigrants leaving war-tom Europe. The goal, according to Arthur Calwell, first Minister of Immigration, was to "populate or perish" and "30 million was essential to ensure the country's security from threats from the yellow peril to the north"  This goal had the support of all political parties, a consensus which continued until the early 1970s. Two percent was regarded as the desirable annual level of population growth to which immigration might contribute one percent.

The passage of the 1958 Immigration Act replaced the Immigration Restriction Act 1901. As Chandmsekhar says, "This did not mean that the 'White Australia' policy was abandoned. The exclusion of Asians and other non- whites continues but the method of exclusion is changed. Instead of the 'dictation test.' ministerial discretion is introduced. The new Act was based, instead, almost exclusively on discretion. This discretion gave the Cabinet and the Department of Immigration the capacity to take steps to vary the size of the intake and the nature of the selection procedures without necessarily having to submit these changes to Parliament.The government changed its policy at will, often without informing the public. Immigration officers could enforce these changes with little interference from those people who were affected. The exclusion of Asians was administratively rather than legally enforced, but it was even more effective because of that. "Racial appearance was the important criterion rather than country of origin or culture. and exceptions were made for Asians of  predominantly European heritage and appearance.

The effective exclusion of non-Europeans lasted until 1966. In that year, the Minister for Immigration announced that a few well-qualified immigrants from Asia would be admitted under stringent conditions. This was the first crack in the racist immigration policy which had been zealously applied since 1945 - to the point of denying entry to Asian wives of returning Australian soldiers.This "crack" occurred not because of a legal change, but rather because of the extreme discretion that could be exercised under the 1958 Immigration Act. Downer's third category mentioned in 1959, the distinguished and highly qualified' people noted above, was widened to include practically anyone who had skills that would ensure employment in Australia, and in 1966 the period of temporary residence required before permanent status was granted was lowered to five years. In that same year the government announced that

application for entry by well-qualified people wishing to settle in Australia will be considered on the basis of their suitability as settlers, their ability to integrate readily, and their possession of qualifications which are positively useful to Australia …The number of non-European people entering - though limited relative to our total population - will be somewhat greater than previously, but … the basic aims of preserving a homogeneous population will be maintained.

The exclusion of Asians was not officially repudiated until 1973. The number of Asian immigrants remained at the same level that year as had been since 1970, that is, between 7,000 and 10,000 a year. This number did not increase until the arrival of large numbers of Indochinese refugees in 1977. The 1981 census figures showed the longer range effects of the repudiation of the 'White Australia' policy very clearly, however: between 1976 and 1981 the number of Australian residents born in mainland China, Taiwan and Hong Kong increased by 68 percent from under 29,000 to almost 41,500.

When the Whitlam government abolished the 'White Australia' policy in early 1973, the lack of a coherent policy in immigration selection was addressed. An impetus for reform, in addition to the removal of the racist element, was that changes were occurring in Australia in the area of administrative law. This issue, although not coming to a head until somewhat later in the 1970s, resulted in Australia's Human Rights Commission and the Administrative Review Council conducting inquiries into immigration law. The central concern of these inquiries was to promote legal norms such as fairness and consistency.

As may have been deduced from the foregoing argumentative research, Australia employed discriminatory and exclusionist immigration practices from the mid-nineteenth century to the 1970s, practices enacted for a variety of reasons including eugenics, economics, xenophobia, and nationalism. Over this period of nearly one hundred years, the 'White Australia' policy remained virtually unchallenged. When the 'White Australia' policy finally fell in 1973, the new immigration system scuttled the policy of racial hegemony and removed the opportunity for discretionary action.  Within the context of the stated, it is more than apparent that Australia's immigration policy, at least for the one-hundred years analysed, was socially engineered.


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