The inauguration of White Australia as government policy is generally taken to be the passage of the Immigration Restriction Act in 1901, one of the first Acts of the new national parliament upon federation, with virtually no parliamentary opposition. The policy was dismantled in stages by successive governments after the conclusion of World War II, with the encouragement of first non-British and later non-white immigration. From 1973 on, the White Australia policy was for all practical purposes defunct, and in 1975 the Australian government passed the Racial Discrimination Act, which made racially-based selection criteria illegal.
This tension eventually led to a series of protests and riots, including the Lambing Flat Riots between 1860 and 1861. Governor Hotham, on 16 November 1854, appointed a Royal Commission on Victorian gold-fields problems and grievances. This led to restrictions being placed on Chinese immigration and residency taxes levied from Chinese residents in Victoria from 1855 with New South Wales following suit in 1861. These restrictions remained in force until the early 1870s.
Objections to immigration restrictions for non-whites came largely from wealthy land owners in rural areas. It was argued that without Asiatics to work in the tropical areas of the Northern Territory and Queensland, the area would have to be abandoned. Despite these objections to restricting immigration, between 1875-1888 all Australian colonies enacted legislation which excluded all further Chinese immigration. Asian immigrants already residing in the Australian colonies were not expelled and retained precisely the same rights as their Anglo and Celtic compatriots insofar as citizenship.
Agreements were made to further increase these restrictions in 1895 following an Inter-colonial Premier's Conference where all colonies agreed to extend entry restrictions to all non-white races. However, in attempting to enact this legislation, the Governors of New South Wales, South Australia and Tasmania reserved the bills, due to a treaty with Japan, and they did not become law. Instead, the Natal Act of 1897 was introduced, restricting "undesirable persons" rather than any specific race.
The British government in London was not pleased with legislation that discriminated against certain subjects of its Empire, but decided not to disallow the laws that were passed. Colonial Secretary Joseph Chamberlain explained in 1897:
[It is] of no use to shut our eyes to the fact that there is a great feeling all over Australia against the introduction of coloured persons. It goes without saying that we do not like to talk about it, but it is so.
The government following Federation in 1901 was formed by the Protectionist Party with the support of the Australian Labor Party. The support of the Labor Party was contingent upon restricting non-white immigration, reflecting the attitudes of the Australian Worker's Union and other labour organisations at the time, upon whose support the Labor Party was founded.
Early drafts of the Act explicitly banned non-Europeans from migrating to Australia but objections from the British government, which feared that such a measure would offend British subjects in India and Britain's allies in Japan, caused the Barton government to remove this wording. Instead, a "dictation test" was introduced as a device for excluding unwanted immigrants. Immigration officials were given the power to exclude any person who failed to pass a 50-word dictation test. At first this was to be in any European language, but was later changed to include any language.
In the British Empire South Africa, Canada, and New Zealand also had racially restrictive immigration policies in the 19th and early 20th centuries. Most Chinese immigration to the U.S. became illegal in 1882.
In 1902 the Australian parliament passed the Pacific Island Labourers Act. The result of this legislation was that 7,500 Pacific Islanders (called "Kanakas") working mostly on plantations in Queensland were deported and entry into Australia by Pacific Islanders after 1904 was prohibited.
Australia was one of few countries which had race as a dominant political ideology at the time. As such, Australian Prime Minister Billy Hughes vehemently opposed Japan's racial equality proposition. Hughes recognised that such a clause would be a threat to White Australia and made it clear to British Prime Minister David Lloyd George that he would leave the conference if the clause was adopted. When the proposal failed, Hughes reported in the Australian parliament:
"The White Australia is yours. You may do with it what you please, but at any rate, the soldiers have achieved the victory and my colleagues and I have brought that great principle back to you from the conference, as safe as it was on the day when it was first adopted."
It is necessary that we should determine what are the ideals towards which every Australian would desire to strive. I think those ideals might well be stated as being to secure our national safety, and to ensure the maintenance of our White Australia Policy to continue as an integral portion of the British Empire. We intend to keep this country white and not allow its peoples to be faced with the problems that at present are practically insoluble in many parts of the world."|||Prime Minister Stanley Bruce during his 1925 election campaign speech
However, by the end of World War II, Australia's vulnerability during the war in the Pacific and small population led to policies summarised by the slogan, "Populate or Perish." During the war, many non-white refugees, including Malays, Indonesians, and Filipinos, had settled in Australia, but Immigration Minister Arthur Calwell controversially sought to have them all deported. However in 1948, Iranian Bahá'ís seeking to emigrate to Australia were classified as "Asiatic" by the policy, and were denied entry and the policy largely remained in place until the 1960s and was lifted in 1973. In 1949, Calwell's successor Harold Holt allowed the remaining 800 non-white refugees to apply for residency, and also allowed Japanese "war brides" to settle in Australia.
After a review of the European policy in March 1966, Immigration Minister Hubert Opperman announced applications for migration would be accepted from well-qualified people on the basis of their suitability as settlers, their ability to integrate readily and their possession of qualifications positively useful to Australia. At the same time, the Holt Liberal government decided a number of "temporary resident" non-Europeans, who were not required to leave Australia, could become permanent residents and citizens after five years (the same as for Europeans).
As a result, annual non-European settler arrivals rose from 746 in 1966 to 2,696 in 1971, while annual part-European settler arrivals rose from 1,498 to 6,054.
The 1975 Racial Discrimination Act made the use of racial criteria for any official purpose illegal.
It was not until the Fraser Liberal government's review of immigration law in 1978 that all selection of prospective migrants based on country of origin was entirely removed from official policy. Currently, a large number of Australia's immigrants are from countries such as China and India, though the United Kingdom and New Zealand respectively remain the two largest single sources of immigrants.
In 1981 the Minister for Immigration announced a Special Humanitarian Assistance (SHP) Program for Iranians to seek refuge in Australia and by 1988 some 2500 Bahá'ís and many more others had arrived in Australia through either SHP or Refugee Programs. See Iranian Australian and Bahá'í Faith in Australia. The last selective immigration policy, offering relocation assistance to British nationals, was finally removed in 1982.
15% of the population now speaks a language other than English at home. The most commonly spoken languages are Italian, Greek, Cantonese and Arabic.
I'm not in favour of going back to a White Australia policy. I do believe that if it is -- in the eyes of some in the community -- that it's too great, it would be in our immediate-term interest and supporting of social cohesion if it (Asian immigration) were slowed down a little, so the capacity of the community to absorb it was greater.|||John Howard speaking on ABC Radio PM, 1 August, 1988
At their peak, Pauline Hanson's One Nation party received 9% of the national election vote. Pauline Hanson was widely accused of taking Australia back to the days of the White Australia Policy, particularly through reference to Arthur Calwell, one of the policy's strongest supporters:
I and most Australians want our immigration policy radically reviewed and that of multiculturalism abolished. I believe we are in danger of being swamped by Asians. Between 1984 and 1995, 40 per cent of all migrants coming into this country were of Asian origin. They have their own culture and religion, form ghettos and do not assimilate.|||Pauline Hanson in her maiden speech to parliament
On 24 May, 2007, Pauline Hanson, with her new Pauline's United Australia Party, continues her call for a freeze on immigration and provided comments about African migrants carrying disease into Australia. Topics related to racism and immigration in Australia are still regularly connected by the media to the White Australia Policy. Some examples of issues and events where this connection has been made include: reconciliation with Aborigines; mandatory detention and the "Pacific Solution"; the 2005 Cronulla riots. Former opposition Labor party leader Mark Latham, in his book The Latham Diaries, described the ANZUS alliance as a legacy of the White Australia policy.
In 2007, the Howard Government introduced a citizenship test to include a tougher English language test, and a test on "Australian" values. The actual questions of such citizenship test have not been publicly released, and its future is in question given the ALP victory in the 2007 election.
Though the White Australia policy, which had segregated Aborigines, no longer exists, their poor socio-economic conditions typically leave them segregated from the rest of Australian society. Many non-Aboriginal people also suffer from poor socio-economic conditions, despite the provision of state schooling and health care. The situation in 1997 led one activist to suggest that the country could be led "back to apartheid". In fact, Australian government policy from earlier years is viewed by some as the original impetus for the Apartheid system in South Africa.