Slippage number one: Australian monoculturalism

It has recently become popular in government discourses to state that Australia has always been multicultural.[12] These statements strike me as problematic because they risk obscuring or misrepresenting one of the most significant facets of Australian history—that Australia as a nation-state was founded on a principle of racial exclusion and a deliberate policy of monoculturalism. More importantly, this idea was enshrined in legislation that impacted directly on the cultural diversity of the resident population.

Australia’s first act of legislation as a nation-state was the Immigration Restriction Act (1901), which effectively banned all Chinese migration to Australia, including family members of Chinese residents. The legislation precipitated a substantial decline in the Chinese Australian population—from 29,000 in 1901 to 6000 by 1947.[13] It was only after World War II that Chinese immigrants were allowed to become naturalised residents. The early postwar period saw increased migration, mainly from Hong Kong and Malaysia, but it was not until the late 1980s that the Chinese population once again reached the 1861 figure of 3.3 per cent of the total.[14]

Until the late nineteenth century, the Australian colonies held a relatively open stance on immigration in order to supply the open labour market.[15] Hence the presence of Chinese merchants and labourers, Afghan cameleers, Malay and Japanese pearl divers and Pacific Islander plantation workers who are often invoked in the ‘we have always been multicultural’ narrative. However, the opening act of Federation sought the removal of these same people. Within the rhetoric leading up to Federation, these ‘foreign’ labourers were seen as competition for ‘white’ jobs and a threat to age-old (British) customs. The stridency of the clarion call to ‘whiteness’ is aptly summed up by a now famous quote from an 1887 Bulletin editorial, which states that ‘[n]o nigger, no Chinaman, no lascar, no Kanaka, no purveyor of cheap, coloured labour is an Australian’.[16] Their removal was presented as necessary for the creation and constitution of an avowedly monocultural nation.

Historically, Australia as a nation-state was founded on a model of ‘whiteness’, which was actively engineered by immigration legislation. By Federation, the territorial negotiations (sometimes peaceful, sometimes violent) between the British colonists and the original inhabitants had already produced a well-developed set of uniquely ‘Australian’ images and narratives. An existing lexicon of ‘Australian’ identity was already in place—of British subjects out of place, but re-formed and made stronger within the crucible of a new landscape. Many academics writing on Australian history have argued that all narratives of ‘white Australia’ are ultimately about issues of territoriality and anxiety about possession of the land.[17] What these narratives have in common is that they operate to promulgate the idea that it is normative and natural for British settlers and their descendants (Anglo-Australians) to have inalienable rights over the land of Australia—due to their possession of a superior culture, their historical struggles with and dominion over the natural landscape, their quintessentially ‘Australian’ character and so on. This narrative was further bolstered in public and political culture by the idea that there was an ever-present need to defend this natural order against the threat of Asian invasion.[18]

When Australian multiculturalism appeared some 70 years after the White Australia Policy, it did so as an entirely new paradigm. Our current readings of the ‘success’ or ‘failure’ of multiculturalism need to be tempered by an understanding of just how deeply embedded these narratives are. While multiculturalism has been in place for more than 30 years, the White Australia Policy was in place for more than 70, (and the founding myths begin as early as 1778). As cultural historian Ien Ang has written, while

the legal and formal-political structures of the white Australia policy itself are no longer in place, the mentality that nurtured it is still part of the deep structure of Australian culture. Culture, after all, is much more resistant to change than politics and law; culture is the longue duree of history.[19]

[12] This view seems to have acceptance across a wide range of government sectors, including: Comrie, Neil 1995, Policing multicultural Australia, Paper presented by the Chief Police Commissioner of Victoria to Australian Institute of Criminology Crime in Australia First National Outlook Symposium, Canberra, 5 and 6 June, p. 1; Department of Immigration and Citizenship 1997, Multicultural Australia: The way forward, Message from Council Chairman, Government of Australia, Canberra, p. 1; National Archives of Australia, Research Guide—Immigration to Australia, 1901–39 , p. 1.

[13] ‘Explore the Harvest of Endurance Scroll—Politics and racism’.

[14] ‘Explore the Harvest of Endurance Scroll—Australian goldrush’.

[15] Kalantzis, Mary 2001, Recognising Diversity, NSW Centenary of Federation Committee Barton Lectures, no. 3, p. 4.

[16] Bulletin, 2 July 1887.

[17] Despite coming from differing disciplines and focal points, a significant number of Australian academics writing on Australian narratives of ‘whiteness’ have argued that these narratives have their origin in issues of territoriality and anxiety about possession of the land. See, for example: Elder, Catriona 2007, Being Australian, Allen & Unwin, Crows Nest, New South Wales; Hage, White Nation; Moreton Robinson, Aileen (ed.) 2004, Whitening Race: Essays in social and cultural criticism, Aboriginal Studies Press, Canberra; Papastergiadis, Nikos 2004, ‘The invasion complex in Australian political culture’, Thesis Eleven, no. 78, pp. 8–27; White, Richard 1981, Inventing Australia: Images and identity 1688–1980, Allen & Unwin, Sydney.

[18] See, for example, Papastergiadis ‘The invasion complex in Australian political culture’, pp. 8–27; Elder, Being Australian, pp. 122–7.

[19] Ang, Ien 2001, Intertwining histories: heritage and diversity, NSW History Council Lecture, Government House, Sydney, 24 September. Reproduced in full in Australian Humanities Review issue 24, December 2001, viewed 1 May 2009, <>