Colonialism and Immigration Restriction Act of 1901

Alan Taylor

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Are Colonialism and the “Immigration Restriction Act of 1901” really dead in Australia?

In this essay I will propose that colonialism and the ‘Immigration Restriction Act aka White Australia policy’,[1] are not dead, not just yet anyway. I will briefly outline some of the tensions in the community which led to the implementation of this policy in 1901. I will also investigate how the media of the day helped this policy along. I will then go on to explain how this policy, which was enacted to stop non Europeans entering Australia, effected the Indigenous population throughout the life of said policy. I will then go on to see if some points from this policy are being revived in today’s political environment, or is it just coincidence that these new legislations seem to align themselves with the ‘White Australia’ policy of yesteryear. Also I will briefly examine if these new policies breach the ‘Human Rights Act’. One in particular, Operation Sovereign Borders,[2] designed to stop refugees entering the country illegally. By the end if this essay I should be able to answer the question posed above.

The Immigration Restriction Act was the main component of a package of legislation acknowledged by the new Federal Parliament in 1901. It was premeditated to exclude all non-European migrants and also the Indigenous population who were deemed as not being Australian. This package also incorporated the ‘Pacific Islander Labourers Act and Section 15 of the 1901 Post and Telegraph Act’,[3] which provided that ships hauling Australian mail, and therefore funded by the Commonwealth, should provide work for white labour only.[4] The attitudes were in line with Australian nationalism of the late 1800s. And was a move to control non-European immigration to most of the Australian colonies dating back to the 1850s.

The beginning of the ‘White Australia’ policy began with the mining boom of the 1850s. The white miners’ anger towards the hard-working Chinese diggers ended in violence in Victoria and New South Wales. These two colonies governments initiated restraints on the immigration of Chinese people. Later, it was the turn of hard-working indentured labourers from the Pacific South Sea Islands known as ‘Kanakas’ in the northern region of Queensland.

The employees of factories in the south became strongly opposed to all forms of immigration which might threaten their employ; predominantly by non-white people who they thought would accept an inferior standard of living and also would work for lower wages. A number of influential Queenslanders felt that they would be expelled from the impending Federation if the ‘Kanaka’ trade did not stop. Leading NSW and Victorian politicians advised that there would be no place for ‘Asiatics’ or ‘coloureds’ in the Australia of the future.

In 1901, the new federal government voted for an Act ending the employment of Pacific Islanders and other non-white people. The Immigration Restriction Act 1901 obtained royal approval on the 23rd December1901. It was depicted as an Act ‘to deliver certain limitations on immigration and for the removal from the Commonwealth of forbidden immigrants’. The Act banned from immigration those considered to be insane, anyone expected to become a burden upon the public or upon any public or charitable institution. This also included any person suffering from an infectious or contagious disease ‘of a loathsome or dangerous character’. Other limitations put in place included a dictation test which was used to eliminate certain aspirants by entailing them to pass a written test. Often these tests were carried out in a language that the aspirant was not familiar with and had been selected by an immigration officer. With these strict measures in place the enactment of the ‘White Australia’ policy was warmly applauded by most sections of the community.

In 1919 the Prime Minister, William Morris Hughes, hailed it as ‘the greatest thing we have achieved’.[5] The Immigration Restriction Act demonstrates Australia’s stance toward immigration from federation until the later part of the 20th century, which preferred applicants from certain countries, most of these applicants were mainly of European nationality. The abolition of this policy occurred over a period of 25 years. After the 1949 election win of the alliance between the Liberal and Country parties, Immigration Minister Harold Holt permitted 800 non-European refugees to stay in Australia and Japanese war brides were allowed to enter Australia. Over succeeding years Australian governments steadily dismantled the policy with the final remnants being removed in 1973 by the new Labor government.

The Immigration Restriction Act 1901 represents the official adoption by Commonwealth of Australia of racist policies that resulted in a form of immigration apartheid that grew out of racist 19th century community attitudes. Up until the middle of the20th century, these types of racist attitudes limited the Indigenous population from realizing the same rights as the white Australians. In the 1950s, many of the Indigenous population were relocated in missions where they had to abide to stringent conditions and to rely on handouts of food. A number were even forced to assimilate into white Australian society after being removed from their family homes as children, these were to become known as the stolen generations. The media throughout this period used cartoon images and headlines such as to put across the Government views on who should be allowed entry into Australia.

While the policy which was enacted in 1901 to restrict the immigration of non Europeans has been dead, since 1973, I fear some components of said Policy are creeping back into today’s Policy making, in an age where we are considered to be in the post colonialism era. The measures undertaken during this period were helped along by the print media of the day, as it is today.

On 21 June 2007, the Australian Government announced a ‘national emergency response to protect Aboriginal children in the Northern Territory’ from sexual abuse and family violence. This has become known as the ‘NT intervention’ or the ‘Emergency Response’.[6] The medium for the actions was the release of ‘Report of the Northern Territory Board of Inquiry into the Protection of Aboriginal Children from Sexual Abuse, titled Ampe Akelyernemane Meke Mekarle: ‘Little Children are Sacred’.’[7]

Some parts of the ‘NT intervention’ policy, was to initiate extensive alcohol restrictions on the Aboriginal lands in the Northern Territory. The enforcing of school attendance by linking income support and family assistance payments to school attendance for all people living on Aboriginal lands and providing meals for children at school at the expense of the parents’. Also the introduction of obligatory health checks for all Aboriginal children to aid in the recognizing and treating of health problems and any causes of abuse.

As part of the urgent response to this emergency, there was an increase in policing levels in prescribed communities, including requesting verbal agreements from other jurisdictions to enhance NT resources, funded by the Australian Government. This was accomplished by improving authority by assigning managers of all government business to agreed communities.[8]

As it stands, there is a need for considerable change for the NT intervention measures to be considered steady with Australia’s international human rights requirements. The Social Justice Report of 2007 outlined ten steps, to which I only mention a few, to modifying the intervention so that it is consistent with these obligations and ensures Indigenous individuals in Aboriginal communities in the NT equal treatment and full human dignity.

In the 1990’s the Australian Government initiated Mandatory detention for Asylum seekers, under mandatory detention, any person who enters the Australian migration zone without a visa is located in a holding facility while health and security checks are carried out. At which time seemed fair. This in turn led to the Pacific Solution: 2001–2007 the Australian government policy of conveying asylum seekers to detention centres on island nations in the Pacific Ocean, while their refugee status was verified. In 2007, the Labor Party under Prime Minister Kevin Rudd discarded the Pacific Solution, by installing a more liberal asylum policy. Rudd’s government guaranteed to resolve all asylum claims within three months and closed the Nauru detention facility.

In November 2012 Australia with the approval of Papua New Guinea opened an offshore processing facility on Manus Island, a remote location 800kms to the north of Papua New Guinea. It then started sending asylum seekers from Christmas Island, an Australian territory south of Java, to the Manus Island facility, over 4,800kms away. In July 2013 Australia then announced that all asylum seekers arriving in its territory by boat would, if they ascertain that these asylum seekers are actual refugees, would be resettled in Papua New Guinea, and not in Australia.

In 2013 Amnesty International Australia released a report entitled ‘This Is Breaking People.’[9] This report looked into the Manus Island detention facility to see if the Labor government was in violation of the asylum seekers human rights. Also in the same year Amnesty International Australia also released another report entitled ‘The truth about Manus Island.’[10] They found that nearly five months into this new policy of sending the asylum seekers to Manus Island, it was clear that the Regional Resettlement Arrangement has resulted in a host of violations to their human rights.

Some of the violations that they found were:

‘Asylum seekers are detained in the absence of any individualized assessment of the need for detention. Contrary to international law, the Regional Resettlement Arrangement with Papua New Guinea discriminates against asylum seekers on the basis of their means and date of arrival, treats as suspect all asylum seekers who arrive by boat, and penalizes them for their manner of arrival.’[11]

One of the recommendations to fix these and other human rights violations was to:

‘Immediately review the Regional Resettlement Arrangement with Papua New Guinea and end offshore processing and the offshore detention of asylum seekers. All asylum seekers held in the Manus Island detention centre must be transferred back to Australian territory and given full access to asylum procedures in Australia.’[12]

Today the Government is turning back the boats as promised with their policy Operation Sovereign Borders.

‘Operation Sovereign Borders is the Abbott government’s military-led plan to combat people smugglers and treat the arrival of asylum seeker boats to Australia as “a national emergency” and a “border protection crisis”’.[13]

In one cartoon from the ‘White Australia’ policy era it depicts an Aboriginal looking menacing towards a landing party from England, the slogan reads ‘Trying to STOP THE BOATS’ these types of images were common under the Immigration Restriction Act. In the lead up to the 2013 Federal election, one of the slogans the then opposition party used for their campaign was ‘STOP THE BOATS’ in reference to asylum seekers arriving in Australia illegally by boat. At the very top of the Immigration Restriction Act of 1901, it states:

‘To place certain restrictions on Immigration and to provide for the removal from the Commonwealth of prohibited Immigrants. [Assented to 23rd December 1901]’[14]

Are these policies influenced by the long dead Immigration Restriction Act, or is it just by coincidence that they appear similar.

In conclusion it seems that the Immigration Restriction Act or ‘White Australia’ policy is creeping back into today’s political and national environment, but I hope that it is just coincidence that it looks that way. We did help write the human rights charter, yet it seems that we have been in violation of this charter for some time. Also with ‘NT intervention’ policy let’s hope it does not lead to another stolen generation. As a nation we should have learnt from previous mistakes made, to strive toward a nation that can be a role model for the global community. Let us not regress to our colonial past where we were perceived as a country of racists, for we as a nation live in a post colonial world. Finally to answer the question, ‘Are Colonialism and the “Immigration Restriction Act of 1901” really dead in Australia?’ Yes I do believe these to be a thing of the past and are dead in Australia. But if the I and the people of Australia cannot be tolerant off other people and their cultures, surely we will regress back to the days of colonialism and the ways of the ‘White Australia’ policy.


Amnesty International Australia, “This Is Breaking People – human rights violations at Australia’s asylum seeker processing centre on Manus Island, Papua New Guinea.” accessed february 20, 2014.

Amnesty International Australia, “The truth about Manus Island: 2013 report.” Accessed February 10, 2014.

(“The truth about Manus Island: 2013 report”)

Australian Human Rights Commission, “The Northern Territory ‘Emergency Response’ intervention – A human rights analysis.” Accessed February 22, 2014.

Australian Human Rights Commission, “Social Justice Report 2007 – Chapter 3: The Northern Territory ‘Emergency Response’ intervention.” Accessed February 22, 2014.

Museum of Australian Democracy, “Immigration Restriction Act 1901 (Cth).” Accessed February 19, 2014.

National Communications Branch, Department of Immigration and Border Protection, Canberra, “Fact Sheet 8 – Abolition of the ‘White Australia’ Policy.” Accessed February 09, 2014.

SBS. “Factbox: Operation Sovereign Borders.” News. (accessed February 10, 2014).

Thompson, Stephen. Migration Heritage Centre, “Objects Through Time.” Last modified 2011. (Accessed February 12, 2014)

Transcript. No. 17 of 1901. No. 17 of 1901. Museum of Australian Democracy at Old Parliament House, 1901. (accessed 10 Feb 2014).

Other “History of racist attitudes and fear, White Australia: Immigration Restriction Act 1901, Australia to 1914, SOSE: History Year 9, NSW | Online Education Home Schooling Skwirk Australia.” 2014. (accessed 11 Feb)