The Limits of Discretion: The Role of the Liberal Party in the Dismantling of the White Australia Policy (1)

By Tavan, Gwenda | The Australian Journal of Politics and History, September 2005 | Go to article overview

The Limits of Discretion: The Role of the Liberal Party in the Dismantling of the White Australia Policy (1)


Tavan, Gwenda, The Australian Journal of Politics and History


Which political party ended the White Australia policy? According to Gough Whitlam his government abolished it in 1973 when it "removed the last remaining pieces of legislation which could be described as discriminatory on racial grounds". (2) This claim has been consistently rejected by members of the Liberal Party. According to social commentator and former adviser, Gerard Henderson, the Holt Coalition Government abolished the policy when it initiated policy changes in 1966 that allowed a considerable increase in the number of non-European immigrants. (3) Liberal Party leader, John Howard, offered a similar assessment in his Asialink speech in 1995. (4)

The question of which party ended the policy might seem academic in a period when Australia's relations with Asian nations appear as close as ever. However, further examination reveals that significant interests are at stake. For both Labor and the Liberals, claiming authorship of Australia's Asia policies--including the abolition of White Australia--has been one means of proving their credentials to a group of nations, relationships with whom are integral to Australia's economic and strategic well-being. For the Liberal Party too, in the wake of successive immigration controversies since 1996, asserting ownership and consistency in its policies has been a way of countering criticisms that it is suspect on race issues and has failed to engage adequately with the region. As Foreign Minister Alexander Downer suggested in 2001: "When we came to government, we said we were committed to Asia. After all, modern Australian governments had a long history of involvement in the region, stretching back well over fifty years." (5)

The issue of the dismantling of White Australia is important in other ways. According to Meg Gurry, the ability of governments to deal effectively with contemporary issues necessitates a clear understanding of how the past has shaped present events. An effective regional policy requires particularly that Australian governments acknowledge "the ignorance and prejudice of the past" and "the legacy in Asia of decades of official racial discrimination". (6) The failure of the Howard Coalition Government to acknowledge this heritage has sometimes overshadowed its diplomatic efforts. For example, the prime minister refused to concede that the Pauline Hanson controversy of 1996-98 damaged the nation's interests in Asia because it reinforced popular perceptions in some countries of Australian arrogance and racism. Recent diplomatic coups like the proposed negotiations for a free trade agreement with ASEAN do not disguise the fact that cultural engagement with the region--a fundamental basis for building mutual respect and understanding--has faltered during the last few years. (7)

This article examines the Liberal Party's role in the dismantling of the White Australia Policy in a bid to better understand its overall contribution to Asia diplomacy after the Second World War. It outlines the various policy reforms of coalition governments between 1949 and 1983, and the considerations which underpinned these changes. It identifies both the benefits and the limits of the party's vaunted discretionary approach to non-European immigration, especially in terms of its impact on Australia--Asia relations. It considers the extent to which the ambivalent attitudes of the past still shape the party's attitude to the region.

Policy Liberalisation 1950-58

During the 1949 federal election, the Liberal Party's campaign included a pledge to maintain the White Australia Policy "with humane and commonsense administration in individual cases". (8) While by no means a priority issue, the promise indicated the controversy that had come to surround the policy since 1945. There remained strong popular support for it, centred within pressure groups like the trade union movement and the Returned Services League. However, domestic and international criticism had increased significantly after the war as a result of numerous factors: a growing sense of the immorality of racial discrimination, the decline of the British Empire, the rise of African and Asian nationalist movements, and Australia's growing interaction with Asian nations. …

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