Stuck in the Past? The White Australia Policy and 2020.
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Quietly hidden in the budget papers that were handed down in October 2020 was an uncomfortable reminder of Australia’s inability to leave its racist past. For a nation which prides itself on its multiculturalism, we seem to have a hard time letting go of the idea of a homogeneous Australian society. This was clear when the government snuck an announcement for the introduction of English language requirements for those applying for permanent partner visas into the budget. The change has reminded many aware of their history of the infamous dictation test – a hallmark feature of the White Australia Policy. 

A brief history of the White Australia Policy

What is now known as the White Australia Policy was a series of policies first implemented shortly after Federation in 1901, further restrictions added right up until World War 2.  One of the first, and most well-remembered, pieces of legislation passed by the newly formed Australian Parliament was the Immigration Restriction Act (1901) which allowed the government to “place certain restrictions on immigration and… for the removal… of prohibited immigrants.” The Act never mentioned race yet the intention was clear – the purpose of the Immigration Restriction Act was to ensure Australia maintained its majority white and Anglo-Saxon population. Australia’s first Prime Minister Edmund Barton was open in his belief in white superiority, stating: “There is no racial equality. There is that basic inequality. These races are, in comparison with the white race – I think no one wants convincing of this fact – unequal and inferior.” 

The dictation test, which was the hallmark feature of the White Australia Policy, meant that immigration officials could bar any person who failed a dictation test from entering Australia. The dictation test was deliberately designed to be almost impossible to pass as it could be conducted in any language chosen by the immigration officer –A Polish man was stopped from entering Australia when he failed to recite the Lord’s Prayer in Scottish Gaelic. The White Australia Policy had support from across both sides of the aisle, some parties supporting it for supposedly economic reasons and others for outwardly racist ones. It was only after the Second World War that Australia began to ease its restrictions on immigration under the slogan of ‘Populate or Perish’. These immigrants were often European refugees whose lives had been turned upside down by the war, who didn’t necessarily speak English well, or at all. From World War 2 onwards the White Australia Policy was gradually dismantled by successive governments until the passage of the Racial Discrimination Act by the Whitlam Government which formally ended the White Australia Policy in 1975. Since the White Australia Policy ended in 1975 Australia has embraced multiculturalism and stopped discriminating against immigrants based on their country of origin.

The government has said that immigrants who do not speak fluent English cannot fully participate in Australian society – undermining the achievements of Australia’s many immigrants.

What the changes mean for Immigrants

In the 2020 Budget, handed down in October, changes to English language requirements for those applying for permanent partner visas were introduced. Acting Immigration Minister Alan Tudge stated that the language requirements could be met by attending 500 hours of English language classes – more than five times the amount of driving practise needed to receive a driver’s licence in Australia. The government has said that immigrants who do not speak fluent English cannot fully participate in Australian society – undermining the achievements of Australia’s many immigrants. For example, many of the workers on the Snowy River Scheme -which was the largest ever public works engineering scheme conducted in Australia – spoke little or no English. 

The government has argued that the new English requirements will help protect women in domestic violence situations or abusive relationships as it will assist women in being able to access services that can help them, however, experts have claimed the changes will do more harm than good. Associate Professor Marie Seagrave told The Guardian that that change could force women onto visitor or temporary visas without support, stating, ‘It needs to be very clear that visa status is used a leverage by perpetrators, all the time, and locking women out of the partner visa actually just enables perpetrators to continue to have control”.  

Not only is are the language requirements that were introduced in the 2020 Budget reminiscent of the White Australia Policy as they discriminate against those from countries where English is not commonly spoken (often non-white countries), but also puts women at risk of being stuck in abusive relationships. The changes to language requirements for the permanent partner visa represent beliefs that Australia should have left behind long ago – that most Australian’s thought had been left behind. This attempt to revive a policy that no longer represents the values Australia holds or those Australia wants to put forward on the world stage should be left where it should belong– in the past.