The immigration debate in Australia: from federation to World War One

Local government Immigration Australia

This background note presents excerpts of parliamentary speeches relating to Australian immigration policies between 1901 and World War One.

It is the first in a series of Parliamentary Library publications that plan to address major immigration debates in Australian history. The purpose of this paper is to outline the views of senators and members, the vast majority of whom were in favour of a white Australia. It is apparent from Hansard that immigration remained a contentious issue for successive Australian Parliaments.

Immigration policy has been at the forefront of political debate in Australia throughout its entire history as a nation. Prior to federation, colonial governments were responsible for their own immigration policies. One of the first acts of the new Parliament following federation in 1901 was to pass legislation that restricted non-white, non-British immigration. The Immigration Restriction Act 1901 became the cornerstone of a policy aimed at keeping Australia white—what we now refer to as the White Australia policy. While such express racial exclusion may seem shocking now, this focus shaped immigration policy in Australia for seven decades, until the final dismantling of the White Australia policy by the Whitlam and Fraser Governments in the 1970s.

Debates over immigration policy at the time of federation reveal how parliamentarians managed the complex and arguably contradictory task of fostering a national ideology based on racial exclusivity whilst remaining a civilised member of a diverse British Empire. When the colonies came together to form a nation in 1901, the new Parliament was forced to manage the sometimes competing interests of the fledgling ‘independent’ Australia, with those of the British Empire which remained its imperial overlord. The size and reach of the Empire meant that at the time of federation the majority of British subjects were Indian or African. In addition, Britain had important trade and strategic interests in China and Japan. For these reasons, Britain was opposed to overt racial discrimination on the part of Australia. How to build and maintain a white Australia without upsetting the Empire was clearly a matter of concern to the new Parliament.

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