a multicultural History of Australia

Making multicultural Australia

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Commentary on: Combating racism in Queensland »

Prof Andrew Jakubowicz.

Text Commentary

The settlement of northern Australia was part of an expanding drive by white Europeans to invade and take control of lands that had belonged to Indigenous peoples for millenia. There were many rationales advanced to defend this activity, including the claim that more “advanced” civilisations carried the responsibility to “protect” those that were supposedly more “primitive” – but it was not until the 1880s that a scientific racialism came to dominate public ideas.

In Queensland racialised power took many forms. It was expressed in its relations with Indigenous people, who over a number of decades before Federation were often hunted by the Native Police if they resisted exile from their traditional country. It justified the importing of Indian, Chinese and Pacific Island workers under harsh conditions, and for low wages. It was later found in newspapers that condemned non-White workers as akin to vermin and called for their expulsion. It was seen in cartoons that represented non-whites as cruel, deviant and dangerous.

Most crucially ideas of racial power found expression in the Immigration Restriction Act of 1901, one of the first pieces of Commonwealth legislation. This Act – aimed at creating a White Australia – would dominate national political life for the next seventy years, and remain part of the national discourse for many more. Race relations remain a central concern of Australians, while racism has regularly reappeared as a political issue.

Queensland was an innovator in racialist legislation. This is exemplified through an interlocking network of state and Federal legislative discipline, from the banning of Chinese voting in 1881, and the extension of the ban to “aboriginals” of Australia, India, China or the South Seas in 1885, to the forced registration of non-British ethnic minorities through the Alien Registration Act (1920), the Naturalisation Act (1920) and their successive regulations.

There were sporadic outbursts against other non-British groups throughout the twentieth century, including hostility to the Japanese, to Kanakas and to southern Europeans (Italians, Maltese and Greeks). Various of these national groups were either denied entry or limited by tight quotas throughout the 1920s and into the 1930s.

During World War 2 black American servicemen based in Brisbane were involved in “race riots” with white Australian men, ostensibly over issues associated with inter-racial dating.

Post-war non-British immigrants felt strongly the pressures to assimilate – which some were willing to do. Others resisted the demands that they abandon their own cultural heritages – sometimes to the point of departing Australia.

With the end of official White Australia in the 1970s, the arrival of Asian refugees and immigrants triggered the growth of white nationalist and neo-Nazi groups. By the mid-1980s these groups were mobilised against multiculturalism in the wake of the 1984 Warrnambool (Victoria) speech by history professor Geoffrey Blainey. A decade later the One Nation Party, with an anti-immigrant, anti-multiculturalism and anti-Indigenous rights platform, emerged from the political campaign of independent politician from Ipswich, Pauline Hanson. Hanson secured a federal seat in 1996, and her party was instrumental in removing the National and Liberal Party government from state power in Queensland in1998.

Despite this history, anti-racism has been a strong part of the Queensland story since the outset. Voices of humanitarian concern have contested racial power, but have really only gained effectiveness over the past generation. Artists and writers have engaged with Queensland’s past, while academic researchers have recovered many lost elements of history. The advent of multiculturalism as a policy has brought to the fore the contribution of ethnic and cultural minorities, a contribution that was hidden under the homogenising mantle of white Australia.

Governments have become increasingly aware of the importance of social recognition of diversity, as an economic resource and as the basis for a cohesive and creative society. Anti-discrimination laws prohibit people from persecuting individuals because of their ethnic or racial background. In the Blainey and Hanson periods citizen groups campaigned for human rights and against racism. The education system has built anti-racism into curricula, including through the website “Racism No Way”.

Racism remains an issue – very significantly for the Indigenous people of Queensland, but also for many immigrant and refugee groups. In recent years anti-Muslim hostility and campaigns attacking the settlement of people from Africa have demonstrated that racism can emerge wherever there is social tension and cultural difference. Societies need strong leadership and a good education system, to defend themselves against the damage that racism can cause.