Supporters of the Australian Labor Party will often claim that the ALP under Gough Whitlam ended the White Australia policy. As a student of history, I find that claim exasperating.
The claim that Whitlam ended White Australia revolves around the ratification of the International Convention on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination, which removed a few legal quirks from the original Immigration Restriction Act 1901. Even in this Whitlam piggybacked on over two decades of immigration and racial legislation reform under the Menzies/Holt governments.
Following the conclusion of World War II it was Labor immigration minister Arthur Calwell who despite wide ranging opposition deported 500 non-European wartime refugees, with the Melbourne Sun condemning the “harsh and gratuitously offensive manner” of Calwell during the deportations. Calwell attempted and failed to pass the War-time Refugees Removal Act 1949 that would have granted the government power to ignore potential court challenges for future cases of deportation. Calwell, a long-time supporter of the Australian Natives’ Association that advocated for white-only immigration, stated that White Australia was a policy which: ‘has always been in the forefront of the Labor Party platform.’
By contrast the Menzies/Holt governments introduced many changes to immigration law, ultimately removing race and nationality as factors for assessing potential immigrants. Under the Menzies government, over 180,000 wartime European refugees were resettled in Australia and were sponsored by the International Refugee Organisation. An important legislative change was the Migration Act 1958 which removed both the controversial English language test and the use of race as a factor to assess immigrants to Australia. Prime Minister Holt introduced the Migration Act 1966 that placed all potential migrants on an equal legal footing, judging applications no longer by race or nationality but solely based upon the potential benefit the applicant could bring to Australian society. As a result, non-European settlers rose from 746 in 1966 to 2696 by 1971.
Interestingly the subsequent Whitlam government cut the number of immigrants Australia took compared to Holt, which led to a reduction in the numbers of non-Europeans who immigrated to Australia. By 1975 the number of migrants the government could take had been revised by Whitlam in 1971 from 170,000 to 50,000 which represented the lowest number since the end of the war. When the Fraser government took power in 1975, both the number and percentage of migrants from non-European countries began to increase again. Between 1975 and 1981 around 95,000 Indochinese refugees displaced by the Vietnam War or the Khmer Rouge forces were processed for resettlement in Australia under the Fraser government.
The Liberal Party, unlike the Labor Party, displayed its commitment to engage with Asia through increased two-way trade. Australia under Menzies became the first country to sign a trade agreement with post-war Japan in 1957, and by 1970 Japan had become the largest export country for Australia accounting for 25 per cent of total exports.
Leader of the Labor Party H. V. Evatt condemned the new trade treaty stating, ‘it is against the interests of ordinary people and especially of the employees of Australia.’ Menzies refuted this suggestion by Evatt, saying that it was tradition that, “when you have had a fight you shake hands and have friendly relations.” In 1963-64 Asia as a trade destination received 32.8 per cent of Australian exports, outstripping the UK, which accounted for 23.5 per cent of Australian exports. The largest source of Australian imports in 1963-64 was the UK at 27.8 per cent, the US at 22 per cent, and Asia at 21.5 per cent.
The Liberal Party has always promoted policies which promote prosperity for all Australians. Its role in ending White Australia, equality based immigration reform, and increased two-way trade with Asia find continuity in the skilled immigration program and integration policies of today.
The claim that Whitlam unilaterally ended the White Australia Policy is misleading; indeed, his government decreased immigration. We have a responsibility as supporters of truth and reason to argue against the spurious claims that make up the ALP’s version of Australian history.