Frank national conversations

It’s often assumed that elected politicians with anti-immigrant policies must be ‘pandering’ to crude popular sensibilities, rather than having their own agenda.

This is a tenacious ideological myth (if these are anything to go by): consider the standard historiography on the so-called White Australia policy. The notion that a politically marginal labour movement could dictate immigration policy would have seemed laughable to late-colonial state managers, who by the 1880s had their own internally coherent position on the matter (and already the legislation to back it up). Here’s Andrew Inglis Clark in 1888:

It is consequently certain that if the unnaturalized Chinese should at any time become as numerous, or nearly as numerous, in any colony as the residents of European origin, the result would be either an attempt on the part of the Chinese to establish separate institutions of a character that would trench on the supremacy of the present legislative and administrative authorities, or a tacit acceptance by them of an inferior social and political position which, associated with the avocations that the majority of them would probably follow, would create a combined political and industrial division of society upon the basis of racial distinction. This would inevitably produce in the remainder of the population a degraded estimate of manual labour similar to that which has always existed in those communities where African slavery has been permitted, and thereby call into existence a class similar in habit and character to the “mean whites” of the Southern States of the American Union before the Civil War. Societies so divided produce particular vices in exaggerated proportions, and are doomed to certain deterioration… [The] habits and conceptions of the Chinese immigrants make their amalgamation with the populations of European origin, so as to become constituent portions of a homogeneal community retaining the European type of civilization, an impossibility.

Here’s Samuel Griffith, Premier of a colony (Queensland) with a decidedly weak labour movement:

[In] the opinion of this Government, the insuperable objection to allowing the immigration of Chinese is the fact that they cannot be admitted to an equal share in the political and social institutions of the Colony. The form of civilisation existing in the Chinese Empire, although of a complicated and in many respects marvellous character, is essentially different from the European civilisation which at present prevails in Australia, which I hold it essential to the future welfare of the Australian Continent to preserve.

Here’s Henry Parkes (‘The man does not live who ever heard me pander to the working class’) in a letter to the Secretary of State for Colonies:

There can be no sympathy, and in the future it is to be apprehended that there will be no peace, between the two races [British and Chinese]… The most prevailing determination in all the Australian communities is to preserve the British type in the population… There can be no interchange of ideas of religion or citizenship, nor can there be intermarriage or social communion between the British and the Chinese. It is respectfully submitted that the examination of these principle phases of the question can only lead to one conclusion, namely, that the Chinese must be restricted from emigrating to any part of Australasia.

Here’s Alfred Deakin, speaking a little later:

I cannot dwell on the strongest reasons of all why white men should not only be found in Victoria and New South Wales, but in Queensland and every other part of Australia, and that is our peremptory and absolute need for self defence. We have to realise that it is much cheaper to have white settlers planted on the soil than to maintain a standing army to defend unoccupied territory

Finally here’s Parkes again, addressing the NSW Legislative Assembly on the subject of his Influx-of-Chinese Restriction bill:

I disclaim any possible action on the part of this Government in deference to public agitation out of doors. I am convinced in my conscience that neither have we at any time joined with those who have derided, and, as I think, traduced, the Chinese residents in this country; nor have we at any time yielded to the pressure of popular agitation… For a generation…and at all times I have opposed the introduction of Chinese upon these, as I conceive, national, and to a large extent, philosophical grounds: I maintain that in a country like New South Wales it is our duty to preserve the type of the British nation, and that we ought not, for any consideration whatever, to admit any element that would detract from, or in any appreciable degree lower, that admirable type of nationality… I have maintained at all times that we should not encourage or admit amongst us any class of persons whatever whom we are not prepared to advance to all our franchises, to all our privileges as citizens, and all our social rights, including the right of marriage.

Of course these passages are full of dissimulation and rhetoric, and must be read with care. But they show nonetheless that the late-colonial elite had its own independent, widely-held reasons for immigration restriction. These reasons were expressed in closed, intra-elite communications, behind the backs of electorates, as well as publicly before the mass citizenship.

That’s not to say that popular passions were unimportant. Then as now, the press, the pulpit, the comic papers encouraged division, mistrust, and the identification of scapegoats. Parkes spoke cynically of wives who ‘cherish, encourage, and cultivate a feeling of hostility’ to immigrants who competed with their husbands. ‘Although I may not say anything to encourage it, I can well sympathise with the aversion that grows up in the most influential and most valuable portion of our working-class towards these people.’

In this he foreshadowed, eerily, the words of Australia’s new Prime Minister:

I do understand the anxiety and indeed fears that Australians have when they see boats, they see boats intercepted. It does make people anxious. I can understand that, I really can. And I can understand that Australians therefore say to their government that they want to know what we are doing to manage our borders and what we are doing to manage asylum seeker flows.

This piece has been cross-posted from Churls Gone Wild.

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  1. Nice post.
    There’s a particular kind of argument you sometimes get from those inside the ALP, to the effect that, well, Labor wants to introduce all kinds of tremendously wonderful reforms but can’t do so because the voters are so backward. Gillard doesn’t *want* to attack refugees but she has to do it, otherwise the rednecks out there in the suburbs will toss her out of office and derail her great reform agenda.
    One part of the response is to point out, as this post does, that the narrative of racism bubbling up rather than trickling down is fundamentally dishonest.
    But it’s also worth noting, as I tried to argue in Drum yesterday, that Labor’s quite prepared to stare down public opinion when it suits them. Like, the majority of Australians oppose the war in Afghanistan but there’s no suggestion of panic over that fact in Labor ranks.

  2. Labor’s quite prepared to stare down public opinion when it suits them. Like, the majority of Australians oppose the war in Afghanistan but there’s no suggestion of panic over that fact in Labor ranks.

    Yes, funny how that rarely comes up. When it does, the counter-argument is usually that, you see, Labor can afford to defy popular opinion on the matter of aggressive wars, because nobody really cares that much. But border protection is just too darned important to people, a real vote-changer.

    That myth was helpfully punctured here

  3. Oh Wow. I have just been fabulously educated on past opinions. Good. I got to read that crap AGAIN. Just like high school. Wow.
    Is there any way we can address this differently?
    Ok. Disgust us! Yes! Make us feel like the past is gloriously tragic, pathetic and bullshit.
    But the people know this. They know we have changed. To be sure, to be certain.

    Ms Gillard’s suggestion about the ‘processing’ of potential immiagrants or asylum seekers in their home country is not racist or stupid, but sensible. Ok, ok, no, I am not a hippy. But I did hear that the High Commissioner in Indonesia, as an example, recently resigned, which makes the attempt to find a new way, that is, to make an agreement, even more difficult for Australia. So it is tricky when people are not there for long amounts of time. (Go on! Dedicate your life to the departmwent of foriegn affairs and trade. I dare you) and Australia and Indonesia are very close, no?

    Is it not racist to say applying at home to move to a new country is OK?

    Or do we assume the home country of anyone seeking to migrate or seeking asylum is so inept, so without good process or the capacity to host an Austeralian office of immigration/asylum that they simply CAN’T?

    Let’s not underestimate or assume the capacity of people, anywhere.

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