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End of the White Australia policy

Defining Moments in Australian History

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White Australia policy ends

1966: Holt government effectively dismantles White Australia policy

 	Quilt made from 140 individually designed squares (detail).

The Migration Act 1966 established legal equality between British, European and non-European migrants to Australia.

These changes to immigration policy were some of the most significant steps towards the formation of multicultural Australia.

Under the new legislation, all potential migrants were now subject to the same rules and restrictions surrounding visas, and were eligible to become citizens of Australia after the same waiting period. People were selected based on what they might offer Australian society, rather than their race or nationality.

More on ending the White Australia policy

Sir Keith Cameron Wilson MP, House of Representatives debate, 24 March 1966:

From now on there will not be in any of our laws or in any of our regulations anything that discriminates against migrants on the grounds of colour or race.
Quilt made from 140 individually designed squares
The Australian Citizenship Quilt is made from 140 individually designed squares that represent the many ways Australians understand citizenship, through personal stories of migration and identity. Department of Immigration and Citizenship Australian Citizenship Quilt collection, National Museum of Australia.

Federal restrictions

One of the first pieces of legislation enacted by the parliament of the newly federated Australian nation was the Immigration Restriction Act 1901. This Act, known as the ‘White Australia policy’, aimed to not only restrict numbers of non-white migrants to Australia, but also to deport ‘undesirable’ migrants who were already in the country.

The policy was openly racist, and was designed to support the ideal of Australia as a ‘purely’ white nation, untroubled by the threats non-white populations were thought to pose to the country’s social, political and moral standards.

The Australian government actively enforced the White Australia policy. British migration was favoured and encouraged, and a dictation test – in any language a potential migrant was unable to speak – was administered as a way of stopping migrants from outside the United Kingdom from entering Australia.

As a result, non-white people – including Australia’s Indigenous population – made up only about two per cent of the overall population in the early 1940s.

‘Populate or perish’

After the devastation of the Second World War, Arthur Calwell, the Australian immigration minister, revived the idea that Australia must ‘populate or perish’. British migrants were sought, but government policy in the UK discouraged the emigration of people Britain needed to rebuild its cities and infrastructure.

With insufficient numbers relocating from the UK, Calwell made the controversial decision to circumvent the British bias of the ‘White Australia policy’ and allow the migration of displaced persons from Europe. The ‘beautiful Balts’, who arrived in 1947, were the first group chosen as they were reassuringly fair skinned, and fitted Australian aesthetic ideals.

This was the first step in the gradual move away from the British migration model that had dominated Australian policy.

Gradual changes

In the years after the arrival of the ‘beautiful Balts’, migration policies slowly changed to first allow migrants from southern and eastern Europe, and then (from the late 1940s and early 1950s) carefully selected temporary migration from the Middle East and Asia.

The late 1950s saw more positive changes of attitude towards non-European migrants. In 1957, the Liberal government relaxed restrictions on ongoing temporary visas and made non-European migrants eligible for citizenship after 15 years in the country (as opposed to five years for Europeans).

In the Migration Act 1958, the government introduced legislation that abolished the dictation test as part of a simpler permit migration system.

Photo of eight leaders outside the Congress Building in Manila in 1966
Prime Minister Harold Holt (second from left), with other Southeast Asia Treaty Organization leaders in Manila, the Philippines, in 1966. Photo: Frank Wolfe, White House Photo Office – LBJ Library, image C3638-6.

1966 legislation

A migration review in 1966 led to the most significant step towards the abolition of the White Australia policy.

Under the Migration Act 1966, introduced by the Holt Government and given bipartisan support in Parliament, all potential migrants were subject to the same rules and restrictions with regard to acquiring visas, and were eligible to become Australian citizens after the same waiting period of five years. Migrants to Australia were to be selected for their skills and ability to contribute to Australian society, rather than their race or national affiliation.

The Holt government promoted the introduction of the new Act as a way to further engage with our close geographical neighbours and create trade, tourism and development relationships between Australia and other nations, particularly in Asia.

Multicultural Australia

While the creation of legislative equality for all migrants was a defining moment in the Australian migration story, there was still a way to go to make such equality a reality. The Holt government, despite passing the 1966 Act, did not attempt to establish Australian migration offices in Asian countries or offer assistance for Asian migrants.

In 1973, the Whitlam Labor government definitively renounced the White Australia policy and established in its place a policy of multiculturalism in a nation that is now home to migrants from about 200 different countries.

End of the White Australia policy videos

Further reading

NSW Department of Education & Communities’ online teaching resource: Racism No Way; The “White Australia” Policy

Transforming a 'White Australia': Issues of Racism and Immigration, Laksiri Jayasuriya, SSS Publications, New Delhi, 2012.

The Long, Slow Death of White Australia, Gwenda Tavan, Scribe Publications, Carlton North, 2005.

The Administration of the White Australia Policy, AC Palfreeman, Melbourne University Press, London, 1967.

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Other featured moments from this period

1960: Australian Government lifts restrictions on export of iron ore
1961: Introduction of the oral contraceptive pill
1968: Remains of Mungo Lady found
1966: Switch to decimal currency
1966: Gurindji strike (or Wave Hill Walk-Off) led by Vincent Lingiari
1967: Indigenous referendum

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Topics:MigrationPolitics and legislation Places:Australia Curriculum subjects:History School years:Year 10