Thursday, 7 September 2006
Migration Act 1958: Section 486O
Debate resumed from 17 August, on motion by Senator Stephens:
That the Senate take note of the document.
I rise to speak on this report of the Commonwealth Ombudsman because it reflects on the Migration Act 1958 and, as you would be aware, Mr Acting Deputy President, there has been some discussion in the Senate this week in relation to migration issues. I want to reflect on the contribution that Senator Ian Macdonald made earlier in the week when debating the Migration Amendment (Employer Sanctions) Bill 2006. He suggested that the Menzies era of Australian government was the era when Australia opened its doors and welcomed in migrants from all over the world. He then went on to say, and I am quoting from Hansard:
... you may recall that, when Australia first became a Commonwealth, much to its shame this nation had in place what was loosely referred to as the ‘White Australia policy’, a policy that the Labor Party and no doubt the Greens—had they been around then—and certainly the communists, who were the forerunners to the Greens, would have supported.
… … …
It was the enlightened Menzies government that opened up the doors to immigration.
I find that comment rather strange, because clearly it was not the Menzies government that opened up this country to immigration. While we all deplore the White Australia policy, it was a different era. Of course, it was not just the Labor Party that had that policy; the forerunners to the conservatives on the other side of the chamber and all political parties of the day supported the White Australia policy. The only thing correct in what Senator Ian Macdonald said is that it is to our shame—and we certainly do not support it. But to talk about Menzies as an opponent to the White Australia policy is, quite frankly, a joke; he was Prime Minister for nearly 20 years and, during that time, he did little to change it.
In fact, Menzies was happy not only to see that policy used against Asians but also to use its provisions against his political opponents. For example, as Attorney-General in 1934, Menzies tried to use a major plank of the White Australia policy—the dictation test—to prevent a number of European delegates from attending an anti-war congress in Melbourne. Most notably, he tried to prevent the Czechoslovakian journalist Egon Kisch from landing. Kisch spoke 11 languages, so he presented Menzies with a bit of a problem. Kisch was given a dictation test in Scots Gaelic. He failed that test and was refused entry. He jumped from the vessel at Station Pier and was hospitalised with a broken leg. Menzies suffered the double humiliation of having his denial of entry to Kisch overturned and hearing the judge do so on the basis that Scots Gaelic was not a living language.
Menzies was not only a supporter of the White Australia policy but prepared to use its provisions in the most unscrupulous of ways. So I suspect that, in his contribution, Senator Ian Macdonald was simply being a politician with an eye for the main chance to make a cheap political point and rewrite the history of the White Australia policy and who was responsible for it. Then again, Menzies too was a politician with an eye for the main chance. He showed his true colours at the outbreak of war in 1914. Menzies was an officer in the Melbourne University Rifles but not for long. As Eddie Ward said years later, Menzies had a brilliant military career cut short by the outbreak of war.
I would like to make a comment on the report that Senator Marshall has just addressed. As I understand it, the origins of the White Australia policy were based not so much on blatant racism but on protecting the terms and conditions of Australian workers. The White Australia policy excluded from Australia cheap Asian and Pacific labour—people who might work for far less pay and lesser conditions than Australian workers. In fact, one could perhaps describe it as an industrial policy that came out of the early Australian labour movement. There is no doubt in my mind that, as the century progressed, it became very much a racist policy—and the kinds of remarks that Senator Marshall has just made about the way it was used were definitely racist. But the historic origins of the White Australia policy were more to do with the protection of the wages and conditions of Australian workers. When it comes to ending the White Australia policy, it was, as I understand it, Harold Holt, during his prime ministership, who at a cabinet meeting—it is in the cabinet papers, which have been released for public appraisal—
Yes, it was Harold Holt, not Menzies. It was Harold Holt who felt that perhaps we should relax our ‘immigration restriction policy’, as it came to be known, to permit a small quota of Asians and coloured people. Of course, that has grown into the non-discriminatory immigration policy that we have today.
Question agreed to.