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Australia's 'alien' relations then and now

  • 03 August 2016


In 1940, Prime Minister Robert Menzies received a letter from a woman in Western Australia: 'I have heard on the wireless the news that Australia would be willing to receive internees from England. I beg to protest; we have enough of the scum here already, too many in fact.

'I am not a vindictive woman,' she continued, 'these aliens are God's creatures just the same as we are. All the same I sincerely trust that a U-boat gets every one of them.'

The 'scum' she rejected so emphatically were the German and Austrian refugees, predominantly Jewish, soon to travel to Australia as 'enemy alien' prisoners on the Dunera. That they were European, white and, with few exceptions, anti-fascist made no difference: for this woman, and many others, non-British foreigners were aliens in more than just the legal sense.

There is an oft-quoted line from L. P. Hartley's memorable novel, The Go-Between: 'The past is a foreign country: they do things differently there.' Australian society in the 1930s and early 1940s was markedly less heterogeneous than it is now.

The population when WWII began in September 1939 was 7 million. For at least a decade before the war the country suffered what is still called the Great Depression, with a peak of 29 per cent of the working population unemployed in 1932. The people were predominantly of Anglo-Celtic origin, few had travelled overseas, and when they did, they mostly visited 'Home' — the British Isles or Ireland.

Information about the world was available chiefly from local newspapers and radio stations. This was a relatively isolated community, not highly educated, generally unaccustomed to foreigners and uneasy with unfamiliar languages and traditions. The official term 'alien', which applied to those who were not British subjects, carried emotional as well as legal weight.

In the same period, Fascism in Italy, and its even more pernicious variant, Nazism in Germany, moved from brutalising and murdering its internal 'enemies' — parties and people on the left, unionists, religious opponents, Jews, gypsies and homosexuals — to invading neighbouring countries. Tens of thousands of Europeans sought refuge in Australia.

In Asia, Japan's assault on China, begun in 1937, was followed by the bombing of the US naval base at Pearl Harbour in December 1941 and a subsequent powerful military attack on a series of South East Asian countries. Thousands of Chinese — many of them seamen, their ships stranded near Australia by the Pacific war