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White Australia policy

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White Australia policy, formally Immigration Restriction Act of 1901, in Australian history, fundamental legislation of the new Commonwealth of Australia that effectively stopped all non-European immigration into the country and that contributed to the development of a racially insulated white society. It reflected a long-standing and unifying sentiment of the various Australian colonies and remained a fundamental government policy into the mid-20th century.

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Australia: White Australia policy

Responding to the influx of Chinese immigrants, the Immigration Restriction Act of 1901 (“White Australia” policy) aimed at excluding all people who were not of British or European descent from entering the country. This law was designed to prevent the diluting of…

The Australian colonies had passed restrictive legislation as early as the 1860s. This was directed specifically at Chinese immigrants, but later a popular cry was raised against the increasingly numerous Japanese—especially after Japan’s victory over China in the 1894–95 Sino-Japanese War —and against South Asians and Kanakas (South Pacific islanders) as well. Fear of military invasion by Japan, the threat to the standard of living that was thought to be presented by the cheap but efficient Asian labourers, and white racism were the principal factors behind the White Australia movement.

anti-immigration cartoon
anti-immigration cartoonAnti-immigration cartoon with Victoria urging the Australian federation to rid itself of the “Chinese pest,” Melbourne Punch, May 1888.National Library of Australia

The desire for a coordinated immigration bar against nonwhites was a spur in the 1890s toward Australian federation. Thus, the act was among the first pieces of commonwealth legislation enacted. In 1901 the Immigration Restriction Act effectively ended all non-European immigration by providing for entrance examinations in European languages. The essential clause of the act, rather than naming particular races or groups for exclusion, provided for a dictation test in a European language to be administered to prospective immigrants. A South Asian with a knowledge of English could be given a test in French, German, or, if need be, Lithuanian. The act practically excluded all “coloured” people. Supplementary legislation in 1901 provided for the deportation by 1906 of the country’s Kanakas .

Popular support for White Australia, always strong, was bolstered at the Paris Peace Conference in 1919–20 when the Australian delegation led the fight to defeat a Japanese-sponsored racial-equality amendment to the League of Nations Covenant . Although the act has never been repealed, the policy became less stringent from about 1950 on, first under Liberal governments and also (more markedly) under Labor from 1972 to 1975. Between 1947 and 1981 the number of persons in Australia of non-European descent more than doubled. By the early 21st century about two-fifths of Australian immigrants were Asian.

Learn More in these related Britannica articles:

  • Australia

    Australia: White Australia policy
    Responding to the influx of Chinese immigrants, the Immigration Restriction Act of 1901 (“White Australia” policy) aimed at excluding all people who were not of British or European descent from entering the country. This law was designed to prevent the diluting of…
  • Australia

    Australia: Growth of the Commonwealth
    …an administrative structure, and the White Australia immigration policy that excluded Asians. They also established the High Court and initiated legislation for a court of conciliation and arbitration. This carried to the highest point in the world the principles of industrial arbitration and judicial imposition of welfare and justice through…
  • Flag of Queensland

    Queensland: Free settlement and separation from New South Wales
    …beginnings of the later anti-immigration White Australia policy may be seen in the discriminatory acts of the British Parliament at that time against Chinese and other Asian miners and speculators. By 1867 the European population of the state had grown to 100,000. Even where the gold failed, as at Canoona,…
  • Australia

    Australia, the smallest continent and one of the largest countries on Earth, lying between the Pacific and Indian oceans in the Southern Hemisphere. Australia’s capital is Canberra, located in the southeast between the larger and more important economic and cultural centres of Sydney and Melbourne.…
  • First Sino-Japanese War

    First Sino-Japanese War
    First Sino-Japanese War, conflict between Japan and China in 1894–95 that marked the emergence of Japan as a major world power and demonstrated the weakness of the Chinese empire. The war grew out of conflict between the two countries for supremacy in Korea. Korea had long been China’s most important…

More About White Australia policy

3 references found in Britannica articles

Assorted References

    • major reference
      • In Australia: White Australia policy
    • Australia
      • In Australia: Growth of the Commonwealth
    • Queensland gold rush
      • In Queensland: Free settlement and separation from New South Wales

    External Websites

    • ABC Splash – Reflections on Ending the White Australia Policy
    • Australian Broadcasting Corporation – End of the White Australia Policy
    • Australian Government – Department of Immigration and Citizenship – Abolition of the ‘White Australia’ Policy
    Britannica Websites
    Articles from Britannica Encyclopedias for elementary and high school students.
    • White Australia Policy – Student Encyclopedia (Ages 11 and up)

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    • 1901 – c. 1950
    key people
    • Alfred Deakin
    major events
    • Immigration Restriction Act
    related topics
    • Asia
    • Australia
    • Human migration

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