August 2015 marks 50 years since the Labor Party removed the words ‘maintenance of a White Australia’ from the ALP’s Platform. On 2nd and 3rd of August 1965 the ALP Federal Conference met at the Hellenic Club, on Elizabeth St, Sydney, and, after years of fitful debate, unanimously adopted a Committee report that recommended removal of the term.
No change to a Party in Opposition’s Platform would have more far-reaching consequences, but it was enacted with almost no overt conflict at the Conference, with both sides of the debate feeling that they had won. Labor’s change soon had repercussions. Prime Minister Menzies retired in January 1966 and the new Liberal PM Harold Holt could further relax immigration restrictions with less fear of Labor criticism. Over the next ten years, with the succession of Liberal PMs and with Gough Whitlam’s election and subsequent years of lightening-paced change, Australia would become officially anti-racist with the passage of Whitlam’s Racial Discrimination Act in 1975.
None of this was foreseen or anticipated at the 1965 Conference. Yet the decision wasn’t a precipitate change. From the very beginning of the ALP, particularly at the founding Conference of the Victorian branch, there had been those who opposed racial exclusion, on socialist principles of equality and fraternity. Those views were swept aside by a party that surged to success by marrying the two great ideologies born of the 19th century, nationalism and socialism. Australian nationalism was a variety of white British race patriotism which Labor both exploited and created to gain support, and a White Australia was overwhelmingly popular in the labour movement and community generally, but it was not uncontested. In the radical environment of the late 1920s the nascent ACTU adopted an anti-racist stance, but it was quickly reversed as that body was brought more closely into the Establishment fold. The Depression and war against Imperial Japan heightened feelings of racial competition rather than tolerance and the issue was forgotten. The calls for change became louder in the aftermath of World War II. The incongruity of fighting a war against racism, fascism and imperialism only to maintain a racist policy at home became increasingly apparent to returning soldiers, political leaders and activists. Labor’s radical East Sydney MP Eddie Ward felt it necessary to defend the policy as non-racist, ‘Labor support has never been based on any claim of racial superiority…That is a Nazi doctrine’, he said.
Criticism of the policy came from across the political and cultural spectrum, uniting the liberal Bishop Burgmann of Goulburn, conservative Archbishop Mannix, the Presbyterian Assembly and the Communist Party. Liberal, Labor and Country Party MPs began to question the policy, and returned soldiers debated it in the Army magazine Salt. Many of those returned servicemen would go on to lead the Party away from the White Australia policy, including Gough Whitlam, Jim Cairns, Arthur and Ray Gietzelt, Tom Uren, Gordon Bryant and Lance Barnard. Most reformers suggested a US-style system of quotas of migrants from different continents, to preserve Australia’s dominant white characteristics while removing any accusation of racism from a rapidly de-colonising world.Arthur Calwell, Labor’s Immigration Minister reacted swiftly, publishing pamphlets defending White Australia as the basis of higher standards of living and Australian egalitarianism. Between the Labor Government and the anglophile Menzies Opposition, there was to be no change for many years yet.
However, Labor Party grassroots activists did not wait long to agitate for change. At the 1957 Federal Conference, the Queensland Branch forwarded a motion to remove reference to White Australia from the Platform, but in the turmoil of the split between Catholic-corporatist labour and the rest of the labour movement, the issue was deferred. The late 1950s and early 1960s saw cultural attitudes continue to be influenced by transnational trends of decolonisation and anti-racism. On Australia’s northern periphery, Darwin led the way by electing Harry Chan to various local and territory Government positions beginning in 1959. The non-white world beyond Australia was increasingly coming to these shores, as students, businesses, diplomats, sportspeople and celebrities. The latter had a particularly broad impact. In 1960 radical black American singer and actor Paul Robeson toured the country to packed halls, and gave emotion-laden performances at Trades Halls and for the workers building the Opera House. Robeson met with Aborigines and sparked debate on racial attitudes in the labour movement. The 1960-61 West Indies cricket tour was the first to be led by a black captain, Frank Worrell, and the first to be televised nation-wide, and stirred feelings of admiration and affection that were unprecedented. After ticker-tape parades that saw half of Melbourne into the streets to see them off, the Anglican Dean of Melbourne, Dr Babbage, said:
“It is a sobering and humbling thought that the West Indians, whom Australia welcomes as cricketers would not be welcome as citizens. Their skin is the wrong colour. They may play with us, but they may not stay with us. It may be that the game of cricket will pave the way for more generous national policies. If only we could cultivate the spirit of cricket in all our dealings, one with the other. It is not far from the spirit of Christ.”
As the wider culture changed, students and grassroots Labor activists began to form the Associations for Immigration Reform (AIRs), and Student Action took up the cause. Labor Party members in local branches and delegates to State bodies began passing more motions calling for change. These motions were brought to the 1961 ALP Federal Conference, where Don Dunstan and Whitlam proposed the reforms. Dunstan moved a motion originating from Western Australia to review the policy, but lost 27-7. A separate Victorian motion to have the immigration platform re-written was ‘discharged’ along with all others and a policy statement was issued, which bore all the hallmarks of Calwell’s arguments from his time as Immigration Minister in the 1940s: “Maintenance of a White Australia shall provide the basis for immigration policy. This basis does not represent a racial prejudice or carry any suggestion of racial superiority. The policy rejects the ‘Asian quota system’ on the grounds it would make no material impact on overpopulated Asian countries, and would be harsher and more discriminating than the current regulations governing the entry of Asians into Australia for the purpose of trade and education…” This loss only led to more determined activism, both within the Labor Party and, increasingly, the wider community. Student groups held ‘speakouts’ at the 8 Hour Day Monument in Melbourne and recruited senior ALP figures to their cause. The Associations for Immigration Reform continued to lobby the Menzies Government, but much of their energy was spent on the ALP, as the alternative, potentially more progressive Government This lobbying effort led to conflict within the ALP, as the incumbent office holders began to see it as a challenge to their power and authority, as well as their long-held beliefs about the policy. Threats of expulsion were issued three separate times to anyone consorting with the AIRs. Reverend Keith Dowding, the Vice President of the Party in Western Australia, and another veteran of the war in the Pacific, was expelled in 1962 for advocating a position that was contrary to the Party Platform. This threat was effective for a while in silencing Labor involvement in the public campaign, as Gough Whitlam explained: “Many in Labor’s Parliamentary ranks, such as Dunstan, Cairns and I, thought it ideologically intolerable and morally indefensible that a socialist party should espouse a policy of racial discrimination. We were silenced in public, however, by the threat of expulsion.”
Despite this, Labor Party reformers persisted with the internal push for change. Three motions from Western Australia, Queensland and Victoria regarding the term ‘White Australia’ were brought to the 1963 Federal Conference, seeking respectively to remove it, clarify it, or have it investigated by a committee. In the Conference’s foreign policy debate, a unanimously supported motion condemning South Africa’s trusteeship of South West Africa stated that ‘Conference declares its opposition to any form of segregation or discrimination on the grounds of colour, race or creed’. The following day, the West Australian motion to remove the term ‘White Australia’ was debated. The motion included a clause that immigration policy ‘be directed to maintaining the basic British characteristics of the Australian nation’, but it still went down 29 votes to 6. All three motions were discharged, as a compromise motion setting up a special committee was passed unanimously. This Committee consisted mostly of men who had previously shown support for keeping the intent, if not the wording, of the White Australia policy, with the exception of Don Dunstan. The Committee did not meet for twelve months, but its job was clear; to remove this source of contention by forging a compromise between Labor’s democratic socialist principles and the Party’s grounding as a contestant for national power and therefore a movement that had to have policies on borders and immigration that were both pragmatic and reasonably popular. The Party, perhaps unconsciously, was dealing with one of the great challenges of progressive movements since the French Revolution, that is, how to govern a nation, with its limits and borders, its in- and out-groups, while espousing universalist principles like equality and fraternity. Fifty years on, two of the most vexed questions of our time, the transnational problems of refugees and climate change, also defy national, and so far at least, inter-national solutions. When the Committee did finally meet in 1964, it refused to hear in person from activists in the AIRs. Undeterred, the AIRs in Victoria and NSW wrote detailed submissions answering all the arguments for retaining the policy. They also sent individual committee members copies of their publication Immigration: Control or Colour Bar? The title summed up the movement’s views. Australia could do away with ‘the colour bar’, as an out-dated form of discrimination, and replace it with control and restrictions that would ensure Australia did not change substantially. The Associations advocated barring migrants on lower incomes, to ensure Asians did not end up working as an underclass and threatening Australian workers’ wages. When pressed they proposed only low numbers of potential Asian migrants, 1500 a year, a mostly arbitrary figure. They disavowed support for a quota system that had been fashionable amongst some in the immediate post-war period. They refuted the arguments of Labor’s Fred Daly and Calwell about Britain, Fiji and South Africa, examples of inter-racial strife, with examples of Brazil and Hawaii, where different races lived together successfully. Above all they emphasised control and restriction and were solicitous toward Labor’s concerns, saying: “The Association agrees that there was at one time substance in Labor’s opposition to coloured immigration. The use of cheap labour on the goldfields and in industry in Sydney and Melbourne did appear to threaten living standards. But in 1964 controlled coloured migration need be no threat to living standards. An experienced Immigration Department and a strong legal structure, which fixes minimum wages and conditions, ensures that migration intake will not adversely affect the position of citizens already here. The continued success of the European migration scheme introduced by the Chifley Government is proof that migration does not reduce living standards. Here it should be stressed that Reform spokesmen are not urging any increase in the number of migrants coming into the country. All they urge is a more flexible attitude to the racial content.” These arguments were designed to allay the concerns of those who remained opposed to change by emphasising the continuity with the Australian national project that racially blind immigration would entail. The fear was that Australia would experience ‘racial strife’, and Daly and Calwell would later cite riots in Notting Hill, Little Rock and Sharpeville as proof that different races could not coexist in peace. Britain’s experience of mostly Afro-Caribbean migration was confirmation for the ALP’s older generation that racially different groups could not live together without the one dominating the other, resulting in hatred. They thought the best way to avoid such trouble was to forestall the creation of ‘ghettoes’ by prohibiting any migration of people who could not assimilate due to their visible differences.
They were boosted by a submission to the Committee from the ‘Institute of International Studies’ that reinforced fears of a racial dystopia arising from non-white immigration. Singled out particularly was the prospect of Chinese communities that would undercut Australian small businesses and Australian workers by working longer hours for lower wages and smaller profits, and by doing business only with other Chinese. AIR accepted that these concerns needed refutation rather than rejecting them as racist, stereotypical or inapplicable. The Victorian AIR said in its submission to the Committee that: “A small intake of non-Europeans would not cause friction if they satisfied the normal requirements as regards health, criminal record etc and if they were so chosen that they come to jobs at all levels in the occupational scale. It would be important that they should not concentrate in jobs at the bottom of the economic ladder.” Such arguments were persuasive because they reflected Labor’s belief, indeed the Australian’s people’s belief, in continued white, European-Australian control of the polity and the nation. There was no conception or consideration that Australia would do other than remain as an English-speaking, liberal democratic, western nation retaining what many referred to as the Australian ‘way of life’. The Committee’s recommendations to the Federal Executive, drafted as a resolution, resulted in the 1965 Conference removing the words ‘White Australia’ from the Platform. The change was not intended to be a serious break from the past and the language of the motion ‘made it quite clear that it would not open the floodgates to Asian immigration’ as the ALP News put it in its Federal Conference report edition. The language was measured and the intent remained similar to the previous Conference’s motion: the maintenance of the economic, political and cultural standards and norms to which the citizens of Australia had been accustomed. After an amendment from Western Australia to remove part D) was defeated, the following was unanimously supported, and the ALP dropped the term ‘maintenance of White Australia’ from its official Federal Policy document for the first time since it had formulated a Federal Platform, stating: “After close examination of the existing Platform, the Committee unanimously endorsed the following recommendation: That Clause XXI Immigration of the Platform be deleted and the following inserted- “Convinced that increased population is vital to the future development of Australia, the Australian Labor Party will support and uphold a vigorous and expanding Immigration programme administered with sympathy, understanding and tolerance. The basis of the policy will be:
- A) Australia’s national and economic security
- B) The welfare and integration of all its citizens
- C) The preservation of our democratic system and balanced development of our nation; and
- D) The avoidance of the difficult social and economic problems which may follow from an influx of peoples having different standards of living, traditions and cultures.”
In the judgement of some of those listening, Calwell, as he seconded the motion spoke ‘as if his mouth was full of ashes’. This may overstate the importance of the change to Calwell, who repeatedly claimed at the time and afterwards that the change to wording would not change the Australian culture to one which accepted a multi-racial society. Nevertheless, Labor had reworded its policy after nearly a decade of attempts. The change was barely remarked upon by Labor’s union affiliates, they had other, more immediate, concerns about wages and jobs. The general membership of the Party was similarly preoccupied with more controversial matters, with the reform motions coming from a relatively small number of Branches. Whitlam and Dunstan drove the change at the top level, but even there it was an important, symbolic, but third-ranked priority, issue. This relative apathy was a reflection of the fact that a deal had been done which both sides could live with, each believing their point of view would prevail eventually with or without the words ‘White Australia’ in the Platform. It also showed that the reformers were not at the time advocating a radical change, and were not in power, and had not been for many years, to effect any changes anyway. In this they were mistaken. Whitlam’s star was rising and Calwell and Daly were soon out of the picture. Change came quickly between 1965 and 1975 when Whitlam enacted the Racial Discrimination Act and did away with any semblance of racialism as official doctrine. That decade was filled with its own contortions over the appropriateness of integration, assimilation, multiculturalism and nationalism, but Labor never again tried to ‘maintain a White Australia’. For further reading and references see my thesis on this topic at Sydney Uni.