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Celebrating diversity on Australia Day

  • 23 January 2014

This week began with Australia Day and ends with the Chinese New Year. The juxtaposition suggests pertinent questions about Australian identity, especially the ways in which Australians have alternately included and excluded those seen as outsiders. This is most evident in the relationship between Australian settlers' attitudes to Indigenous Australians, but it is also seen in Australian attitudes to Chinese and other Asian peoples.

Chinese people first came to Australia in considerable numbers during the Gold Rush, and for a time formed up to seven per cent of the population. They came first as miners, and later supported themselves by farming and small business.

From the beginning their position was precarious. The colonies passed laws to exclude Asian immigration; on the gold fields there were anti-Chinese riots. The grounds of hostility lay in their virtues, not their vices: they worked so hard and were so thrifty that others found them difficult to compete with.

After Federation, hostility found expression in the White Australia policy. It was based on the threat posed by cheap imported labour to Australian workers but also reflected the belief that the Chinese and other races were inferior. In speaking to the 1901 immigration restriction bill Edmund Barton, the first Australian prime minister, was explicit on this point:

I do not think (either) that the doctrine of the equality of man was really ever intended to include racial equality. There is no racial equality. There is basic inequality. These races are, in comparison with white races — I think no one wants convincing of this fact — unequal and inferior.

The doctrine of the equality of man was never intended to apply to the equality of the Englishman and the Chinaman. There is deep-set difference, and we see no prospect and no promise of its ever being effaced. Nothing in this world can put these two races upon an equality. Nothing we can do by cultivation, by refinement, or by anything else will make some races equal to others.

British opposition to measures that would inflame its relationship with its colonies deterred the legislators from explicitly excluding immigrants on the grounds of race. But the dictation test provided a genteel mechanism for exclusion, the forerunner of such smarmy devices as the exclusion of the Australian mainland from the immigration zone.

In the 1960s the policy of exclusion changed to one of inclusion as Australians began to realise that their prosperity depended on building good relationships