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Postwar immigration drive

Defining Moments in Australian History

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Postwar immigration

1945: Australian Government announces postwar immigration drive

1945: Australian Government announces post-war immigration drive

Between 1945 and 1965, two million immigrants arrived in Australia. The decision by the Australian Government to open up the nation in this way was based on the notion of ‘populate or perish’ that emerged in the wake of the Second World War.

Among the new immigrants were the first government-sanctioned non-British migrants.

This massive influx of people transformed Australian society.


More on postwar immigration

Arthur Calwell, Be Just and Fear Not, 1972:

Even in the darkest days of the awful conflict of the Pacific war, the Curtin Government gave much thought to population building. I remember Mr. Curtin telling Cabinet in 1944 that at war’s end there would have to be a Ministry for Immigration. He said we must have more people to develop and defend Australia.
Ship docking with streamers strewn between ship and shore. A banner on the ship reads ‘Hello Sydney!’
Migrant arrivals in Sydney, 1947. National Archives of Australia, 1/1947/4/2A.

‘Populate or perish’

By the end of the Second World War on 2 September 1945, between 50 and 80 million people had died worldwide. This made it the most traumatic event in world history.

The reconstruction task faced by Europe and parts of Asia was huge. Australia, by contrast, suffered little physical damage yet thousands of Australians had died, and the country had come very close to invasion. It showed how vulnerable Australia could be. Arthur Calwell, the first Minister for Immigration, said in Parliament on 2 August 1945 that:

If Australians have learned one lesson from the Pacific war … it is surely that we cannot continue to hold our island continent for ourselves and our descendants unless we greatly increase our numbers … much development and settlement have yet to be undertaken. Our need to undertake it is urgent and imperative if we are to survive.

Calwell’s call for immediate migration was pivotal in the growth of Australia but just as significant were the final sentences of his speech: ‘The door to Australia will always be open within limits of our existing legislation to the people from the various dominions, United States of America and from European continental countries …’.

The minister was stating for the first time that the government was willing to accept immigrants from beyond the British Isles. This was a significant step, given that the public attitudes that underpinned the White Australia Policy were still very prevalent.

Calwell’s immigration policy

This shift in government policy was deeply influenced by Melbourne economist WD Forsyth. In his 1942 book The Myth of Open Spaces, Forsyth argued that immigration and settlement should be linked not to the development of the rural sector, as had been the case after the First World War, but to the development of urban industry.

He further argued that postwar workforce shortages in Great Britain could limit Australia’s ability to attract British migrants but that there would be reserves of labour in eastern and southern Europe. These ideas featured in the papers of the Government’s powerful Inter-departmental Committee on Post War Migration, and in Calwell’s 2 August 1945 speech.

The new immigration policy set a population growth goal of two per cent per annum, of which only half should come from natural increase.

Responses to the call for immigration

Even before the end of the war, Australia had begun negotiating with Britain about a migration scheme. Some politicians, such as Winston Churchill, discouraged Britons from emigration and encouraged them to stay and rebuild their shattered country.

Yet, the assisted migration plan (which would become known as the ‘ten-pound pom’ scheme) proved extremely popular with war-weary Britons. By 1947, more than 400,000 people had registered for the scheme.

Outside photo of young man with folded hands talking to a smiling Prime Minister Chifley. Calwell stands to one side.
First assisted passage migrant from England Tommy Smith meets Prime Minister Ben Chifley and Arthur Calwell, 1947. National Archives of Australia, A12111, 3/1947/4B/1.

First migrants

In addition to British migrants, Calwell sought to meet the migration program targets by selecting suitable migrants from Europe’s burgeoning displaced persons camps. The ‘beautiful Balts’ from Estonia, Lithuania and Latvia, who arrived in 1947, were the first group chosen as they were fair-skinned, and fitted Australian aesthetic ideals.

Australia also accepted Jewish refugees if they had families who had escaped to Australia before the war.

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 Calwells seated with a woman in traditional Lithuanian dress shaking hands with Mrs Calwell.
Arthur Calwell and Mrs Calwell at the New Australian festival (Lithuanian handcraft festival held in Canberra), 1949. National Archives of Australia, A12111, 1/1949/17/5A.

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).

The period 1946–1960 saw the Australian population grow by 2.7% on average per year. This was due largely to a postwar baby boom but migration contributed to more than a third of this growth.

During this period, net overseas migration added 1.2 million people, bringing the Australian population to about 10.28 million by 1960.

However, it would not be until well into the 1960s with the dismantling of the White Australia Policy that Australia would decisively move away from its Anglo-Irish background.

Further reading

More about Arthur Calwell on the Museum of Australian Democracy website

Eric Richards, Destination Australia: Migration to Australia since 1901, UNSW Press, Sydney, 2008.

Gwenda Tavan, The long, slow death of White Australia, Scribe Publications, Melbourne, 2005.

Jerzy Zubrzycki, Arthur Calwell and the Origin of Post-War Immigration Canberra, Bureau of Immigration, Multicultural and Population Research, 1995.

Arthur Calwell, Be Just and Fear Not, Lloyd O’Neil Ptd Ltd and Rigby, Hawthorn, Victoria and Kentish Town, South Australia, 1972.

Inside: Life in children’s institutions and homes

Meet the curator

Mikey Robins discusses with senior curator Michelle Hetherington an armband from Auschwitz worn by a political prisoner Regina Sprada who subsequently emigrated to Australia.

George Megalogenis

Journalist and author George Megalogenis discusses the significance of Australia's post-war immigration drive. 

From our collection

A 23-stringed bamboo instrument handcrafted by a Vietnamese refugee.
Migrant Guna Kinne’s link with her homeland, sewn by hand over 30 years.
John Konrads’ medals and memorabilia from the 1960 Rome and 1956 Melbourne Olympics.
A handmade wall-hanging which illustrates a powerful story of postwar migration.
A treasured toy pig won by a girl on the way to meeting her father after the Second World War.
A suitcase Andrej’s suitcase
Video about a suitcase owned by a Latvian immigrant family, on the Object Stories page.
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Other featured moments from this period

1949: Election of the Menzies government – the longest serving in Australian history
1948: Australia’s first locally made car, the Holden 48-215, launched
1944: Formation of Liberal Party of Australia
1943: First women elected to Australian Parliament
1942: Japanese bomb Darwin but are halted on Kokoda Trail
1945: National introduction of sickness and unemployment benefits

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Topics:CultureMigrationNationhoodPolitics and legislation Places:Australia Curriculum subjects:Civics and CitizenshipGeographyHistory School years:Year 8Year 10