Part 2 transcript

Belinda Probert:

Henry Reynolds, who is  the most prominent and widely read historian of the indigenous dispossession in  Australia, known to many as a household name in Australia, especially because  of his books I think, that have been aimed at a general audience who’ve been  very widely read, well outside academia. He currently holds a research chair at  the University of Tasmania. He has many, many publications to his name but  among his most well known are of course The Other Side of the Frontier, Why Weren’t  We Told? And with Marilyn Lake most recently, Drawing the Global Colour Line.  So, nobody better fitted to kick off this discussion than Professor Henry  Reynolds (audience clapping)

Henry Reynolds:

Thank  you very much for that welcome. I will begin by referring to a man called W K  Hancock, Keith Hancock, who was probably the most eminent historian that  Australia produced in the first half of the 20th century and was  very significant between say 1930 and the 1960s. As a young man he produced a  book called ... simply called Australia, 1930, which is still one of the very  best books about ... general books about Australia. But I refer to him in  particular because he had this to say about White Australia. The policy of  White Australia, Hancock said, is the indispensable condition of every other Australian  policy, the indispensable condition of every other Australian policy. Now, I  think that was a correct assessment of the importance of White Australia,  particularly when he was writing, 1930. And particularly for his generation who  lived during the first half of the 20th century. That is White  Australia and all its associated ideas were central to Australian life between  say the late 19th century and the 1960s for more than one third of  the time of White Australia. In other words, White Australia policy is like a  vast mountain range, stretching across the centre of Australian history and  overshadowing almost everything else. Now, Hancock also said about White  Australia, the intention and significance are exceedingly easy to understand  and this was certainly true if you go back to read the reasons for the  introduction of those two importance bits of legislation, the Immigration  Restriction Act and the Pacific Islander’s Labourer’s Act. They were long  debates during which almost everyone in the then free New Federal Parliament  expressed their views.

But perhaps the most interesting from our  point of view is Alfred Deakin, later to become prime minister of course.  Supporting White Australia, or the Immigration Restriction Act, he said the  unity of Australia means nothing if it does not imply a united race, nothing.  Federation was nothing if it didn’t imply a united race. We here find ourselves  touching the profoundest instinct of individual or nation, the instinct of self-preservation,  for it is nothing less than the national manhood, the national character and  the national future that are at stake. Profound instincts, the individual, the  nation, manhood, character and the future, all of these were dependent on  passing those pieces of legislation. Now, there were many other speakers who  were much more overtly racist in the quite literal sense of the word than  Alfred Deacon, and they talked about ... they talked about purity of blood,  they talked about hybrids, they  talked about mongrels, they talked about piebald races. But it’s not just that  White Australia was about immigration, it also reflected an attitude to the  world itself. Australia was still a colony, it had no standing internationally,  it could have no foreign policy, it had no diplomats, but it adopted  immigration policies which implicitly were indeed foreign policy. Let me just  refer to you the views of the defence minister of 1907, a man called Ewing, who  had this to say. Every sane man knows if this country is to remain in the home  of the white man, it must be held, not by the power of Australia alone but the  might of the white man in all parts of the world.

In years to come it will take the white man  all he knows to hold New Zealand and Australia, therefore we must not break the link which binds us to our fellow  countryman in other parts of the world. We must seek to knit together the white  man of this and other lands in preparation for that last deadly conflict which  will assuredly come upon Australia. Surely an extraordinary statement. It assumes,  racial conflict is inevitable, the deadly conflict that is certain to come, it  talks about white men in other countries on the other side of the world, as  being fellow countrymen. In other words race had come to dominate, not just  attitudes to immigrants, but attitudes to the outside world and white  Australia, as Hancock realised 30 years later, in 1930 had become not just an  orthodoxy, more truly it had become an obsession. It was indeed the indispensable  condition of every other Australian policy.

So, it’s my argument that White Australia  sunk extremely deep roots in Australian soil, it was persistent and enduring  and as late as the 1940s when the whole world was changing, it was so different  to the world in 1900, there were people who still strongly upheld the essential  nature of White Australia. Let me just refer to the attorney general in the  then Labor government of the 1940s. He said, we inherited the White Australia  policy from our fathers and grandfathers, it is our responsibility to see that  it is handed down to the great grandchildren of our great grandchildren. It was  going to be there forever and that was, as I say, not just the view of an  important member of the federal government but undoubtedly the view of many,  but by no means all Australians. And yet change was approaching Australia, it  was going to force it to also change. Two things in particular were  significant, one was the rapid decolonisation of the world, so that by 1961,  non-Europeans for the first time had a majority in the General Assembly, and  the other was the cold war, which ... in which the Soviet Union in particular  attacked the western countries, America and Australia for their racial  policies. Now, it’s my view that change in the 1950s was forced on Australia  from outside, there were reform movements, they were important, they were  passionate in their advocacy but above all change was forced on a reluctant  Australia, just as it was later forced on South Africa in a much more dramatic  way. So, Australia slunk quietly away from White Australia but wanted to do it  without causing too much problem domestically.

Well then, the question is also the  persistence of White Australia. My argument is that given the legacy, the  historical legacy of White Australia, it is inevitable that certainly some  people, maybe many people still hold views that were consonant with those of  the people of the early 19th Century. They may be minority views but  they’re minority views of a particular kind, let me suggest some differences  here. There are minority views which we might say are perpetual, that is they  will also always remain minority views as far as we can tell. There are  minority reviews ... views which might be called prospective, that is the views  of the minority may become those of the majority. But what we’re talking about  are minority reviews which are retrospective, that is views which once were  popular and important and powerfully supported, is not surprising that that  many people continue to relate back to those ideas. Indeed someone accused of  racism could simply say, well I’m simply adopting the views of Alfred Deakin.

Well, let’s consider then the question of  persistence. I suppose the argument would be that Australia has retreated  slowly from the racism of the first half of the 20th Century, partly  brought about by outside pressure. But there are important ways, I think where  it is hard to see that there has been a retreat. Let’s take Aboriginal policy  to start with. It would be quite untrue to suppose that there isn’t still a great  deal of racism directed towards Aboriginal people and equally by Aboriginal  people directed at whites, anyone who knows anything about north Australia will  be aware of the perpetuation of those sort of powerful racial passions.

But also in terms of policy, the whole  reconciliation movement seems to me, has become more and more assimilationist  and let me just take four examples. There’s been a complete retreat from legal  pluralism of the very minor kind that Australia had adopted from the 1930s with  the complete rejection of any consideration of traditional law. The outstation  movement of the 1970s and ‘80s is now under threat, where people are being  encouraged to leave their homelands, their small camps on their homelands and  go into larger centres. There is a turn against the use of Aboriginal languages  in education and of course there is the intervention.

Now the intervention, of course is quite a  complex thing, there are many aspects of it, I’ll just touch on a couple. One  is that it treats communities as collectives, that it is collective policy,  collective treatment and above all it is highly paternalistic, it treats  Aboriginal communities and Aboriginal people as though they are children and it  says in effect, we can treat you as children whenever we please. It is dealing  with the problems of powerless by making people feel even more so. They are  polices which even Jo Bjelke-Petersen would have blanched at.

Then there’s the very, very current  question of the boat people, the strange obsession we have and it seems to me  the best way to consider this, is to compare it with what happened in the late  1970s at the end of the Vietnamese War, when there were large numbers of  Vietnamese boat people. Now, you may remember that it was the Fraser government  that agreed to accept them, Australia behaved impeccably, there were ... it was  of course criticism, but in the end we ended taking in 100,000 Vietnamese  migrants. Now, compare that to the present, it is quite extraordinary, quite  extraordinary and yet it would be so ... it would be quite easy. After all the  Tamils, many of them are English speaking as we know, they have been fellow  members of the Empire Commonwealth and there is a large community here that  could receive them, but our behaviour is totally extraordinary.

And then finally there’s the question of  street crime against people of non-European background and I refer to the  comments of a young African in Tasmania recently at a community meeting of the  cabinet, he had this to say. I am of an African background, we are still being  defiled in the streets for the colour of our skins, racism is still there,  discrimination is still there. I am asking the government to educate the wider  community; we would like to see ... we would like to see Australians accepting  all of us. Now it’s my argument that indeed, racism is still there but given  the heritage that Australia has from the early 20th Century, it  would be most surprising if it wasn’t still there, how could it be otherwise?  Thank you (audience clapping).