Immigration between 1900-1945 shaped Australian society to an immense degree.

An immigration poster with the quote "Still building Australia" positioned below an image of the construction of the Sydney Harbour Bridge.Immigration has always been a vital feature of Australia’s history and identity, however during the period of 1900-1945, never was it so important in shaping Australian society. The nation today is composed not only of its own indigenous people, but also a wide variety of ethnic and cultural groups, conditions which could never have been achieved if it wasn’t for immigration during such period. Before the year of 1900, immigration to Australia was generally uncontrolled and increasing wildly, especially with the discovery of gold and exploitation of cheap labour from Asia. However, it would be the fear of such immigration and other races that would ultimately bring together the continent of Australia in Federation in 1901, leading to almost half a century of the country’s most restricted state of immigration ever, brought about by the notorious Immigration Act legislated the same year. Nonetheless, during such time immigration continued governed by the strict ethnic conditions of such Act, aiding significantly in shaping the country socially, politically and economically. Politically, immigration not only brought about the unification of a nation, even if it was under such negative circumstances, it also caused the public to become critical of the government’s actions and legislation after the racist features of the Immigration Act and “white Australia policy” became clear and unjustified. Socially, immigration brought about racism and hostility towards various ethnic groups, only to transform into a strong urge for multiculturalism and the aiding in the defining of Australia’s own identity; not to mention the creation of a multi-religion society. Immigration did wonders for Australia’s economy too, the increase in population giving it an overall boost, particularly with assisted settlement schemes bolstering the continent’s agricultural industry. Overall, the effects of all of these elements are clear in the prosperous, multicultural society we have today, and thus it is clear that immigration between 1900-1945 shaped Australian society to an immense degree.

Although there were many factors behind the decision to Federate in 1901, such as the negativity surrounding colonial rivalry which incited protectionism and hindered free trade, the growing desire for nationalism, defence capabilities and the growth of the economy, none had more popular backing than the issue of immigration. Before the year 1900, an influx of non-British migrants began flocking to Australia after the discovery of gold in 1851, particularly those from Asian countries such as China. This was the continents first significant encounter with non-British immigrants, and essentially initiated a negative attitude towards them that would last for at least half a century. As competition increased at the goldfields so did conflict between different groups, with the Chinese frequently being denounced by white prospectors and being blamed for unfair competition.1 The Chinese were organized, covered more ground and worked longer hours than the Europeans and therefore collected more gold, creating tensions which peaked in violent protests known as the Lambing Flat Riots in 1860 and 1861. During the 1870’s, this negative view towards immigrants was enhanced when the growth of the sugar industry in Queensland led to a significant increase in the use of cheap foreign labour. This led to a series of trade union protests objecting to use of such labour, arguing that Asians and Chinese took jobs away from white men, worked for "substandard" wages, lowered working conditions and refused unionisation.2 With that being said, by the year 1900, a general fear of other races had been established amongst society; fear that immigrants would become too much of a competition and lower living and working conditions; fear that was exploited and accentuated by politicians in the lead up to and after Federation – a notion clearly shown in Source 1. All political groups in Australia agreed on the need to restrict entry of non-whites to the country, and each of the six colonies already had their own immigration policies in place to do so before 1901. However, the argument for Federation was that with a united government, laws could be passed that would restrict immigration from the entire continent of Australia. Such great emphasis was evident in the build up to federation, with political parties including slogans such as “Australia For Australians” in their campaigns.3 Federation clearly went ahead, with mostly an overwhelming “yes” vote in the continent-wide referendum4 , which clearly indicates that the fear of other races, and in turn immigration, had a significant role in bringing the continent together in unification. With that being said, it is clear the effects of immigration shaped Australian society to an immense degree in this early period, allowing the country to develop into the great, united power it is today. Without the issue of immigration at such time, the colonies may never have identified an issue that was as important that would encourage them to federate at all.

One of the first pieces of legislation that passed through the new Federal Parliament was of course the Immigration Act, and alongside it the adoption of the “white Australia policy”. Such policies prevented non-Europeans and other undesirables from permanent entry to Australia, enforced by the Dictation Test which after 1905 could be rigged to deny any migrant entry, as shown in Source 5. Because of such conditions, much needed immigrants could only be sought after from Europe, and due to the governments conservative nature, government assisted immigration schemes were only aimed at the British. Such schemes included those provided by the Commonwealth Immigration Office and the private, but government assisted, Big Brother Movement, as shown in Sources 6 & 7, which operated at their peak during the 1920’s and even the depression years of the 1930’s. These two schemes, and many others, were aimed at bolstering the continents agricultural industry, by assisting settlers, usually young boys, to come to Australia to train and work as farmers.  Such schemes experienced great success, with the Big Brother Movement alone bringing more than 12000 young boys to the continent to work as farmers5 . This success becomes undeniable when we analyse correlations between the peak of such immigration schemes and the expansions and successes of the country’s agricultural industries around the same time. Such correlations are particularly evident in the agricultural industry of Western Australia at the time, where between 1926 and 1934 (a time period within the peak operation of the spoken of immigration schemes), wool production (the state’s primary agricultural export commodity) rapidly expanded, along with a rapid increase in the amount of land being cultivated6 . Because of this, expansions in railway were also seen around this time, with an increase of 5000km in tracks between 1901 and 1931.7 With that being said, it becomes interesting to note that rather than the few million pounds of Gross Domestic Product Australia was outputting in the late 1800’s and early 1900’s, today Australia outputs 24,521 million dollars of agriculture each year (agriculture is only one sector of a country’s GDP), 3.8% of the worlds agricultural production8 - a vast increase from the successes seen at the time of the assisted immigration schemes. With these statistics in mind, it becomes extremely clear that immigration shaped society to an immense degree, as it significantly bolstered the country’s agricultural industry and in turn boosted its economy, in many ways allowing the country to become the agricultural powerhouse it is today.

The agricultural industry was not the only section of the economy to be bolstered. The huge population increase attributed to immigration, saw the economy flourish as a whole too. Between 1901 and 1939, immigration saw the continent’s population grow from just over 3 million people to over seven million9 . Many, if not most of the immigrants who arrived in Australia were not assisted by the government or any other organization; they were generally working class people who were migrating for a better life and to provide better opportunities for their children. Such population increase also meant a vast increase in the working population, where both British and European immigrants usually saw themselves working in factories or the service industry, in mines or on northern plantations. Many also opened and managed their own business enterprises too. Such increase in working population allowed the economy to mature significantly, along with other influences provided by the immigrants such as their consumer spending (food, housing, leisure activities), business expansion to cater for this increase in population and the expansion of government services too (such as health, education and welfare). In addition to this, the new skills and capital introduced by the immigrants, along with their new business developments, contributions to technology and added productive diversity through their knowledge of international markets, also allowed Australia’s economy to expand and mature further too. Such great economic expansion is clearly evident in the rapid increase in the country’s GDP (Gross Domestic Output) between 1901 and 1930 (the same period of increase in population due to immigration discussed in this paragraph). In 1901, Australia’s GDP was measured at approximately 4000 million dollars, and by 1930 it had increased rapidly to a great 6000 million dollars10 . Such an increase had not been seen in the 30 year period before this, with the country’s GDP only increasing by 1000 million dollars between 1870 and 1900.11 With these statistics in mind, it becomes extremely clear that immigration shaped society to an immense degree, as the rapid increase in population attributed to it influenced the Australian economy to flourish, and continue flourishing, at never before seen levels, allowing for economic prosperity never before seen too. Such notion becomes even more significant when we recognize that today, Australia’s GDP stands at 645,300 million dollars, one of the top GDP’s in the world; a feat that probably would not have occurred today if it wasn’t for the increase in population attributed to immigration between 1900-1930.



Economics aside, the public attitude towards immigration underwent an amazing transformation between 1900 and 1945, one that neither the government nor the people would have expected. Initially, the government succeeded in their goal of pushing the “white Australia” idea on to the country’s people; however the consensus on such idea was too broad. While the “white Australia policy” and the Immigration Act greatly restricted immigration to Australia, the flow of immigrants still continued, and due to the government’s conservative nature when it came to its assistance schemes, during the first half of such period, immigration was dominated by the British. Because of this, those that weren’t British were extremely “visible” in Australian society, especially when such ethnic groups congregated in particular localities, as is natural; for example, many Italians and Maltese settled in North Queensland. Because of their obvious differences, the longer established settlers perceived these newer European communities as a threat to the “Australian way of life”, and also to labour market opportunities and working conditions. Such notion incited hostility towards these minority groups, as seen in Source 5, largely dependent on their degree of “whiteness” and their proportion of the immigrant intake as a whole. The racism encouraged by the government towards “coloured people”, as seen in Source 3, was instead being directed at Europeans – the race considered desirable by the government. Such hostilities particularly occurred during times of economic recession, such as 1929, where employment became scarce. However, during the 1930’s, the balance between the British and non- British immigrants was quickly becoming more equal, particularly due to the ceasing of government assisted immigration during most of this time12 . Because of this equality, the ethnic groups that previously stood out and were served hostility now blended in more comfortably, and the country’s people as a whole were now becoming used to having different ethnic groups in their society, easing tensions experienced previously. Such change of attitude is clearly conveyed in Source 7, and in turn pressure was placed on the government by the people to change what were now seen as racist immigration laws, as conveyed in the same source and also Source 8. This community pressure also becomes evident in, and foreshadowed, the relaxation of the Immigration Act between 1947 and 1964, which included allowing non-Europeans to settle in Australia permanently and allowing students from Asian countries to study at Australian universities, before constituting for the abolishment of the “white Australia policy” all together in 1975.13 With that being said, it becomes extremely clear that the change in attitude evoked by immigration between 1900-1945 shaped society to an immense degree; it transformed a racist society into one of acceptance and equality; into a community that would impel the government to open the gateways for multiculturalism to flourish in the future. Without such immigration during this time, the amount of overseas born settlers in 1933 may never have increased from 900,000 to the whopping 4.4 million overseas born settlers that existed in 200614 , and in turn, Australia may never have established itself as the multicultural haven that it is today.

While the transformation in attitudes towards different ethnic groups as a result of immigration between 1900-1945 ultimately had positive repercussions in regards to society, as it allowed multiculturalism to flourish in the future, for the government it was in many ways a disaster. The people of Australia had begun to question its federal government and criticize its actions; essentially, they were losing trust. One of the main foundations the government built itself upon after federation in 1901 was now falling apart at the hands of the people. Such notions are clearly evident in Sources 7 and 8, and further evident in the fact that the Labor party were voted out of office after the “white Australia policy”, which they adopted, was abolished in 197515 ; a clear indication that they were voted out for their “dire mistake”. Rather than ruling the country efficiently and with authority, when the public became critical of the “white Australia policy” in the early 1940’s, the government became busy defending itself to the people, as shown in Source 7, and later as the people became more critical, they had no fear in using the press to attack the government and its policies, as shown in Source 8. No longer could the government rule as it wanted without proper justification, as it clearly does in source 1; a new era of governing was transpiring where the people would be even more picky about who they chose to lead them. With that being said, immigration between 1900-1945 clearly shaped Australian society to an immense degree, as it made the people of Australia wearier of their government and its practices, and encouraged them to openly criticize it. In addition to this, a change in government attitude can also be seen in the sources, as in Source 7 it is clear the government is listening to the people, and the abolishment of the “white Australia policy” in 1975 indicates that the government eventually took the criticism of the people in Source 8 and used it. Such shaping of Australian society during this time has had an extremely significant effect on the political situation of Australia today, where the pickiness developed amongst society of such period in regards to politics has become even more intensified. Just last year, the Australian people voted in a new political party to replace one which brought the country to economic prosperity never before seen and living standards never before so high; an act that would be viewed as unthinkable anywhere else in the world, but in Australia it was somehow justified.

On a more positive note, immigration during this period brought with it a significant amount of cultural diversity that ultimately aided in some way in establishing Australia’s own national identity. Of course, such cultural diversity only came with non-British settlers, who arrived in Australia from a variety of European locations such as Italy, Greece, Germany, Poland and Malta. With them they brought their locations unique arts, beliefs and institutions, that as such include codes of manners, dress, rituals, behaviour, language and perhaps most evidently, their religion. Before immigration during this period, Australia was a largely Christian/Catholic country as a result of the dominance of the British at the time. However, immigration between 1900 and 1945 saw the introduction of a variety of other religions that challenged the dominance of Christianity, including Islam due to the acceptance of “white” Albanian Muslims, the Baha’i faith, Judaism from Holocaust survivors who arrived in Australia during WW2 and Sikhism.16 However, as Australia gained more and more of its cultural diversity and its own identity, its link with the British Empire grew weaker and weaker. With that being said, it is right to assume that the establishment of such cultural diversity during this time period, along with the events surrounding WW1 and the signing of the Treaty of Versailles, aided significantly in the creation of the Australian Citizenship Act of 1948, where Australian people were finally recognized as “Australian citizens” rather than British subjects, and thus Australia’s own identity was officially formed. Ultimately, because of this it is extremely clear that immigration between 1900 and 1945 shaped Australian society to an immense degree; it established a cultural diversity that helped pave the way for Australia’s own national identity to be formed, and in retrospect formed the serene, multi-religion society that today holds over 53 different faiths with at least 5000 members17 .



With all of this said, it becomes extremely clear that immigration between 1900-1945 changed Australia significantly socially, politically and economically. Politically, immigration not only brought about the unification of a nation, even if it was under such negative circumstances, but also caused the public to become critical of the government’s actions and legislation after the racist features of the Immigration Act and “white Australia policy” became clear and unjustified. Socially, immigration brought about racism and hostility towards various ethnic groups, only to transform into a strong urge for multiculturalism and the aiding in the defining of Australia’s own identity; not to mention the creation of a multi-religion society. Immigration did wonders for Australia’s economy too, the increase in population giving it an overall boost, particularly with assisted settlement schemes bolstering the continent’s agricultural industry. Overall, the effects of all of these elements are clear in the prosperous, multicultural society we have today, and thus it is clear that immigration between 1900-1945 shaped Australian society to an immense degree. Without immigration in such period from ethnicities other than British, it is right to theorise that the “white Australian policy” could have been taken to whole new heights, with racism flourishing in Australian society in place of the accepting and tolerant attitudes that truly developed to allow Australia to become a haven for countless different ethnicities and cultures.

References

1Markey, Raymond (1996-01-01). Race and organized labor in Australia, 1850-1901
< http://www.highbeam.com/doc/1G1-18167215.html>

2 Ibid.

3 Langfield, M. (1999). More People Imperative – Immigration to Australia, 1901-39.

4 Ibid

5 “Big Brother Movement” <http://www.parliament.nsw.gov.au/prod/PARLMENT/hansArt.nsf/V3Key/LA20011106027>

6 Department of Treasury and Finance (2004) An Economic History of Western Australia Since Colonial Settlement.

7 Ibid

8 “List of countries by GDP sector composition” <http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_countries_by_GDP_sector_composition>

9 Langfield, M. Op.Cit

10 Carter, S. Economic Growth In The Age Of Migration. University of California.

11 Ibid.

12 Langfield, M. Op.Cit

13“White Australia Policy” < http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/White_Australia_policy>

14 “Australia: A culturally diverse society “ <http://www.dfat.gov.au/facts/culturally_diverse.html>

15 “Prime Minister of Australia” <http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Prime_Minister_of_Australia>

16 “Religion In Australia” <http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Religion_in_Australia>

17 Ibid.


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