Origin And Development Of The White Australia Policy And Its Impact

The origin and development of the “White Australia Policy” and its impacts on Australian population and society

From the turn of the century there were various laws in Australia that aimed to keep people who were not from a white European background out of the country. The ‘White Australian Policy’ describes Australia’s approach to immigration, since the federation until the latter part of the 20th century, this policy favoured applicants from only certain countries (fact sheet 8, 2007).
The origins and development of the ‘White Australia Policy’ can be traced back to the 1850’s. It began with white miners resenting the hard-working Chinese diggers, which culminated in violence on the Buckland River in Victoria and in Lambing Flat (now Young) in New South Wales (fact sheet 8, 2007). Such events triggered the governments of these two colonies to introduce restrictions on Chinese immigration (fact sheet 8, 2007).
Soon after, it was the turn of hard working labourers from the South Sea Island of the Pacific (kanakas) in Northern Queensland. Factory workers became and felt intensely opposed to all forms of migration which may threaten their jobs, in particular by non white people who they thought would accept a lower standard of living and work for lower wages (fact sheet 8, 2007). Leading NSW and Victorian politicians warned there would be no place for ‘Asiatics’ or ‘coloureds’ in the future of Australia (fact sheet 8, 2007).

Then in 1901, the new federal government passed an Act ending the employment of Pacific Islanders. The Immigration Restriction Act 1901 was acknowledged and brought into place on 23 December 1901 (fact sheet 8, 2007), which was the official starting point of the ‘White Australia Policy’. The Act was described as an Act which would place certain restrictions on immigration and which would provide for the removal of prohibited immigrants from the commonwealth (fact sheet 8, 2007), in fact the policy was aimed at reducing and eventually eliminating non Europeans from Australia, other than temporary visitors (Fei Guo, 2008).
The Act also prohibits immigration of those it considers insane, anyone likely to become a charge upon the public, any person suffering from infectious or contagious disease of a dangerous kind, also prohibits prostitutes, criminals and anyone under contract or agreement to perform manual labour within Australia (fact sheet 8, 2007).
Up until and during the Second World War Australia felt protected and secure because of its larger European population and also because they had larger partner Britain looking over them and protecting Australia. But after the shock of Japanese air-raids on Australian soil, Australians began to look upon the Asian people in a new perception. With this quick invasion Australia realised and now also felt isolated from Britain, and began to fear the potential might of Asia: economically, politically, and militarily (Cowie H.R., 1980).
They realised that maybe it was best that they got along with their neighbouring countries. 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 and drastic measure need to take part (Cowie H.R., 1980).

By 1956 the conditions of mixed race immigrant entry to Australia was relaxed and people of non European background and character began to enter the country. By the 1960’s Australia began to admit people of distinguished Asian background into the country (Fei Guo, 2008).
The “White Australia” policy became an increasing embarrassment as Australia’s relations with Asia developed so by 1966 Harold Holt (liberal party) who was Prime Minister at the time made major changes to that policy. Election of labour party in December 1972 led to the official “death” of the White Australia Policy, they finished off what the liberal party began and Australia began its multiculturalism (Betts. K, 1988 p52)
The ‘White Australia Policy’ had dramatic impacts on the Australian population and its society. The impact on Australian population due to the White Australia Policy was evident prior to the act been put in place in 1901, during the period the policy was in place and after the policy had been abolished. Such impacts that were cause by the White Australia Policy were changes in population size during these periods, change in ethnic composition, changes from assimilation to integration (multiculturalism), divisions of labour force, change in age distribution and sex ratio (Fei Guo, 2007).
At the time of arrival of the first European settlers it was thought that around 300,000 indigenous people lived in Australia, it took 70 years for Australia to reach its first 1 million people in 1858 (Hugo, G. 2001). The population then grew at a rate of 3.7% per Annum to reach its next million in 1877 and at 3.4% per annum to reach total population of 3 million people in 1889 (Hugo, G. 2001). In 1905, just after the introduction of the White Australia Policy the population growth slowed down to 1.8% per annum and continued to stay at a low growth rate due to other contributing factors such as the great depression in 1929 and then world war 2 in 1939 (Hugo, G. 2001). In 1954 growth rates started to increase again, as the white Australian policy round about that time was relaxed and other contributing factor such as the depression and the World War 2 were over (Hugo, G. 2001).
United Kingdom was the largest source country of migrating settlers to Australia up until recently. The remainder of settlers until the late 1960s were from elsewhere in Europe, but then with the dismantling of the White Australia Policy there was a diversification of origins. Australia saw a transformation from an overwhelming Anglo-Celtic, homogeneous population in which 95.2% had been born in Australia, United Kingdom or Ireland, to one of the most multicultural societies by 1996 when 16.2% had been born elsewhere (Hugo, G. 2001). With the dismantling of the White Australia Policy we saw a huge increase of migrants coming to Australia from the Middle East, New Zealand, Pacific and Asia regions (Hugo, G. 2001)
The cultural diversity changed dramatically between 1901 till 1996. In 1901 the main place of birth in Australia was Australia with 77.2% followed by Europe with 20.0% and then UK and Ireland with 18.0%. Other birth places in Australia such as New Zealand, Asia and other countries had very low percentages in Australia, percentages were as low as 0.7%, 1.2% and 2.0%. After the abolishment of the White Australia Policy these percentages quickly changed, in 1996 it was recorded that 12.9% were of European origin and 6.6% were of UK and Ireland birth place. Asian born increased to 5.9%, other to 6.4%, and New Zealand born to 1.7%

In conclusion to this essay it is now evident the origin of the White Australia Policy, it is evident how and why the policy was introduced and what it was put in place for to try achieve. The development of the policy is also evident as there are three main stages to it, the pre-European era, the acknowledgement of the policy and then the abolishment of the policy. The policy contributes to major impacts on the Australian population and society, impacts such as changes in population size during periods, change in ethnic composition, changes from assimilation to integration (multiculturalism), divisions of labour force, change in age distribution and sex ratio could also be observed. Australia now holds strong relationships with the so called countries it had the White Australia Policy put in place for.


• Borrie, W.D. 1994 The European peopling of Australasia, ANU, Canberra. HB2135.B67

• Cowie, H.R. 1980 Asia and Australia in World Affairs, Thomas Nelson, West Melbourne, p. 230.

• Hugo, G. 2001 “A century of population change in Australia”. Yearbook of Australia. ABS: Canberra. ABS Australian historical population statistics (publication number 1301.0)

• Jupp, J (1991) Immigration. OUP: Melbourne. JV9120.J86

• Santow, Gigi et al (editors) 1986 Landmarks in Australia population history. Journal of Australia population association supplement to volume 5. HB853. A8.L35

• Dr Fei Guo 2008 Dem255 week2 and 3 lecture notes

• Website: www.immi.gov.au/media/fact-sheets/08abolition.htm, Australian Government, National Communications Branch, Department of Immigration and Citizenship, Canberra. Date published: 11 October 2007

• Website: www.ozemail.com.au/~natinfo, Australian Nationalism Information Database. Date published: Feb 1998, Chris Anderson.

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