Historical Events, Social Attitudes and Racial Beliefs Led to the Introduction of the Immigration Restriction Act of 1901

Published: 2021-09-12 16:00:08
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On 1st January 1901, Australia formally became a united nation. Amongst the most significant reasons for the country's federation was to ensure the creation of a White Australia. Indeed, so strong was the desire to uphold white hegemony, that the first two legislative measures to pass the nation's federal parliament concerned the facilitation of this objective. The second, and indeed most significant, of the two pieces of legislation was the Immigration Restriction Act 1901. The implementation of the act itself was the result of several factors. Relations between Europeans and Aboriginals had been marred by conflict and it was in this context that relations between Europeans and non-European migrants were formed. Indeed, by the time non-European immigration to Australia commenced, racist attitudes were embedded within the Australian creed. As such, relations between whites and non-whites - such as the Chinese, Pacific Islanders and Japanese - were often antagonistic. Such antagonism stemming from these historical events was an important factor in the introduction of the act. Social attitudes that were widespread amongst the populace at the time also served to reinforce the notion that non-white immigration ought to be prohibited. Non-Europeans were viewed as being willing to endure both low wages and low living standards. Accordingly, they were seen as a threat to white employment and conditions. Non-whites were also viewed as being responsible for miscegenation and were considered to have a way of life incompatible with that of Europeans. Amongst the most significant reasons for the introduction of the Immigration Restriction Act 1901 however, were racial and xenophobic beliefs. Often stemming from theories such as Social Darwinism, these views provided a scientific basis by which Europeans could affirm the inferiority of non-Europeans and thus provide justification for the prohibition of non-white immigration.

The Immigration Restriction Act 1901 was the foundation of what became known as the White Australia Policy. It aimed to prevent non-European immigration through the use of a dictation test consisting of fifty words chosen by an examination officer. The test was generally applied to non-Europeans and could be conducted in any European language. Although racially neutral in language, the spirit of the act was unambiguous in its intent to prevent non-European immigration. Indeed, the Australian public were under no uncertain terms as to the intention of the act and it aroused little controversy amongst the populace. On the contrary, the act found overwhelming support and even served to foster a sense of national unity amongst the young nation's European inhabitants.

During the nineteenth century, relations between whites and non-whites were generally antagonistic. There had been a historical legacy of conflict between Indigenous and non-Indigenous Australians. At the centre of this conflict was the issue of land. As Europeans spread throughout the continent, Aboriginals were driven from their traditional lands. However, many Aboriginal people fought to retain their land in the midst of the European seizure. Accordingly, a series of bloody battles ensured, and on the edges of the settlements the reality seemed to resemble that of war.

Historical events creating a climate of antagonism and conflict between Europeans and Aboriginals also constructed the context in which relations between white and non-white migrants developed. It can be argued that the desire to prohibit non-European immigration, and thus introduce the Immigration Restriction Act 1901, was a consequence of the antagonistic relations between whites and non-white migrants, and that these relations were framed within the context of hostile relations between Europeans and Aboriginals. Throughout the nineteenth century, Australia had seen a variety of non-European people migrate to the country. As a result of their relatively large numbers, the Chinese were perhaps the most visible of these non-European migrants. Owing to the gold rushes, the early 1850s saw an influx of Chinese to the goldfields. However, by the middle of the decade gold yields had slumped and relations between Chinese and European diggers were increasingly strained. As such, the first anti-Chinese meetings began to be held on the Victorian goldfields. Hostility grew and protest meetings, petitions and mob violence broke out. The response of the Victorian government was the passage of a series of legislation aimed at restricting Chinese entry. However, the legislation was largely ineffective and as such antagonism was revived, resulting in continued racial hostility and confrontation. The most notable being that which occurred at Lambing Flat. By the end of the nineteenth century, calls to preserve Australia for the white race by excluding the Chinese and other non-whites became increasingly common. Eventually such a desire would be enshrined with the enactment of the Immigration Restriction Act 1901.

However, the Chinese were not the only non-Europeans to migrate to Australia during the nineteenth century. Historical events leading to antagonism between Pacific Islanders and Japanese on the one hand, and Europeans on the other had also been influential in the introduction of the Immigration Restriction Act 1901. As a result of adverse racial stereotyping and the development of steam driven machines which rendered them expendable, the late nineteenth century saw campaigns urging the expulsion of Pacific Islanders from Australia. The fulfillment of such campaigns was achieved with the introduction of the Pacific Islanders Labourer's Act 1901; the act which proceeded the Immigration Restriction Act 1901. Anxiety over Japanese military power also fueled resentment of the presence of Japanese migrants in Northern Australia, and the issues came to dominate debate surrounding coloured immigration in Queensland. Accordingly, this ensured that the state agitated for a hard line to be taken towards Japanese immigration from the outset of federation. The result of which being even greater ardent support for the implementation of the Immigration Restriction Act 1901.

Historical events that led to antagonistic relations between whites and non-whites had a significant degree of influence on the formulation and implementation of the Immigration Restriction Act 1901. However, the social attitudes harboured by Europeans concerning non-Europeans also played an undeniable role in fueling not only antagonism between whites and non-whites, but also the introduction of the act. Social attitudes objecting to non-white immigration had much in common with nationalistic ideals. Indeed, the notion of the need for a white Australia was inseparable from the fervent nationalism surrounding federation. These social attitudes were also intertwined with economic opposition

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