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).