Australia’s post-war migration was a success, let’s admit it

Migrants were necessary for Australia’s national survival – a purpose that was readily understood. Harrison Webster

Most social scientists in Australian universities are left-leaning in their politics and so they highlight the inequalities and oppressions of Australian society.

When they came to study migrants in modern Australia, they thought they had an easy task. They would show that migrants were marginalised and disadvantaged, which would be another demonstration of the flaws in our society.

I am left-leaning myself on some issues, but I recognise that the task in dealing with the great migration program is to explain its success.

It was easy to describe failure if you accepted the test set by Professor John Western in his textbook Social Inequality in Australian Society (1983).

He thought the Italians and Greeks, the first non-Britishers to arrive in large numbers, had suffered “economic deprivation” because very few had made it into white-collar jobs, and none into the professions and boardrooms. How southern European peasants without English were to get the top jobs in their own lifetimes he did not explain.

This first generation actually did very well, even though they were mostly in manual work. They were more likely to own their own homes and keep their children at school and less likely to be unemployed than old Australians.

Their children and grandchildren have done exceptionally well: they are now spread through the white-collar jobs and the professions in their proper proportions. Professor Western’s equality test has been met – once we avoid the stupidity of applying it to the first generation.

Brunswick East Primary School, 1953. Public Record Office Victoria

The Italians and Greeks are now also integrated socially. They live not in enclaves, as they did on first arrival, but are spread right through the suburbs. They intermarry at a high rate with other migrants and old Australians.

This broadly has been the pattern of all subsequent arrivals, except the Muslim Lebanese. The number of migrants arriving has been so large and intermarriage so common that old Australians have long since ceased to be the largest group in this society. The largest group is the mixture made up from intermarriage between migrants and old Australians.

The Australia-bound S.S. Zuiderkruis in 1951. Yvonne Thompson

Of course, there has been some communal tension and racist hostility; it would be silly to assume there could be none. One way to avoid this is to keep the population homogenous and not have a migration program.

Most countries do not have a migration program. Australia set itself a severe test of its tolerance by running a program which has resulted in its having the highest proportion of its people born outside the country of all nations on earth except Israel.

In 2009, three migration experts, Andrew Markus, James Jupp and Peter McDonald, reported that Australians have a high level of tolerance compared with other peoples.

Only a small proportion of people are actively intolerant towards migrants. There is also only a small proportion at the other end of the spectrum, those who are positively tolerant and want the government to support the maintenance of migrant cultures.

The authors appear to regret the smallness of this last category – to me, it is another indication of social health.

The transformation in Australian society is the more amazing, given how Australians thought of themselves when the migration program began in 1945.

They were a British people – more British than the British – and proud of their racist policy, a White Australia, and extremely watchful of any threat to it.

Twenty years after the program began, the White Australia policy was dropped. After 30 years, the migration program accepted people of all races without discrimination. Australia made these changes confidently because it had found that in the absorption of migrants it was an expert.

Melbourne 2013. Michelle Robinson

Jock Collins is a left-leaning professor who does accept the success of the migration program. In his textbook Migrant Hands in a Distant Land he calls it “one of the most successful migration experiences in history”. But he refuses to give any credit to Australia and Australians for this result.

He rejects the explanation that migrants were better accepted in Australia because it is an egalitarian and classless society. Nonsense, he says. It is as much a class society as any other. The credit must be given to the migrants themselves!

But if the migrants are the key factor, why wasn’t the same success the result everywhere? These social scientists are unhinged by success. Of course, it is in the nature of Australian society that we will begin to find explanations of the success.

An accommodating, relaxed, egalitarian style would work well in assimilating – but only, of course, if it were applied to them. What made Australians who had little experience of non-Britishers and a good deal of hostility towards them accept them into their society?

The short answer is that the government told them they must.

Michelle Robinson

You think that is unlikely, given the anti-authoritarian nature of the Australian people? Actually, Australians are a very compliant people – witness their acceptance of seatbelt wearing, breathalyser tests, helmet wearing, anti-smoking measures and compulsory voting, in all of which Australia was a pioneer.

On compulsory voting, no other English-speaking country wants to follow Australia. I have written on this topic: “Australians are suspicious of persons in authority, but towards impersonal authority they are very obedient.”

The rationale for the migration program was to boost Australia’s population and economy so that it could better defend itself against the “yellow peril” in the next Pacific war. A nation of 7 million had had a very close call in the second world war. It looked at one stage as if it would be invaded.

The Japanese had advanced over the Owen Stanley Ranges to within 40 miles of Port Moresby; they had bombed Darwin, Broome and Townsville; they’d got midget submarines into Sydney Harbour. Only the Americans had saved Australia.

The first federal minister of immigration and the architect of the new policy was Arthur Calwell. He was a ferocious defender of the White Australia policy.

Arthur Calwell. Wikimedia Commons

He deported Asians who had taken refuge in Australia during the war even if they had married Australians. His pitch to the Australian people was that the migration program was needed to protect White Australia.

Australians were proud of being British and white. If you want to stay white, said Calwell, you will have to yield a little on being British. There are whites in Europe; they can come as migrants if not enough Britishers can be found.

So the migration program was part of nation-building and national defence. These were not migrants who arrived uninvited or were reluctantly accepted as an obligation of empire, as West Indians and Pakistanis were received into Britain. These migrants were necessary for national survival, which was a purpose readily understood.

The war was a very recent memory. The appeal was not to the benevolence of Australians but to their self-interest, a much more secure basis for policy.

Australians might grumble about migrants but they accepted them more or less and then treated them in the customary way. If they had to be here, they should be given a fair go. Systematic exclusion was not the Australian way — except in regard to Aborigines.

As one Jewish refugee reported:

Jews and refugees were not, in all circles, considered the most desirable and admirable of migrants. Yet Australians disliked making a fuss and being nasty to people more than they disliked Jews and foreigners.

To give Professor Collins his due, he makes the same point: Australians might be opposed to migrants but this attitude was not translated into action.

As old Australians got to know migrants, they found grounds for respecting them. My mother, coming home from the city after selling badges for the Mothers and Babies, said migrants never bought a badge but they did dress their children beautifully.

My French teacher said Australians stop working when it rains, but the migrants put a bag over their head and shoulders and keep working. My aunt and uncle, living in a very good suburb, admired their Italian neighbour, who had made his fortune out of terrazzo.

Calwell knew Australians’ penchant for devising derogatory names for foreigners. He told them that the new migrants had to be called “New Australians”. They were not guest workers but future citizens.

The term is now criticised as assimilationist (the migrants might well not have wanted instantly to be Australians), but it was welcoming and amazingly so.

How many other countries would bestow their name immediately on foreigners? New Japanese? New Germans? New French? New Americans? (The Americans preferred hyphens: Polish-Americans, Irish-Americans, and so on.) New Britons? Maybe if they came from the empire, but if 10,000 Italians landed at Dover they would not be called New English.

In 1954 the 50,000th Dutch migrant arrived in Australia. Wikimedia Commons

Australians had a double identity: they were Australians and Britons. Migrants could not have been labelled New Britons, since they were not of the right breed. Among other things, they did not know the words of Rule Britannia and must be strangers to the feelings it evoked.

But migrants were given half of the double identity, the Australian half, which was the informal, social half: mixing in, being a good bloke, not making a fuss. Paradoxically, the migrant New Australians were invited to be the first pure Australians.

How the new migration program was implemented will disappoint those who want politicians to keep their promises and proper governance procedures to be followed. Calwell himself was relaxed about including non-Britishers in the migrant intake.

He was an admirer of the American “mixing bowl”, which took in people of many nationalities. They had been on show in GI uniforms on the streets of Australia during the war. Calwell, whose grandfather had come from the United States to dig for gold in the 1850s, was very interested in American history.

Yet he proceeded cautiously, promising that for every European in the intake there would be ten Britons.

When Calwell travelled to Europe in 1947 to begin recruiting migrants, he immediately struck difficulties. There was no shipping available to carry British migrants to Australia. He had to look to Europe.

Michelle Robinson

He began with the people of the fairest skins, the Scandinavians, but they were not interested in migration. The people who were interested in migration and for whom the International Refugee Organisation would organise shipping were the Displaced Persons, the people outside their own countries at the end of the war who could not or did not want to return home.

Calwell could get any number of them, but taking them would break his promise of ten Britons for every one European. He decided to break it. He got the all-clear from the prime minister, Ben Chifley.

The matter was not taken to cabinet for the very good reason it would have been defeated. The British did come later, when ships were available, but in the first four years of the program they composed only 40% of the intake.

The rule of the Refugee Organisation was that countries should not discriminate in their choosing of Displaced Persons. Calwell told his immigration agents to ignore this and to choose the young, healthy and fair-skinned.

He then returned to Australia to oversee a public-relations campaign to sell the migration program to the Australian people. This was the first campaign of its kind, run on American lines, targeting key opinion-makers and interest groups as well as radio and newspapers.

The first ship to arrive was a triumph for Calwell’s methods – it was a cargo of Balts (people from the Baltic states), single and fair-skinned, the men handsome, the women beautiful, all photogenic (which could not be said of the minister of immigration who welcomed them).

The Displaced Persons who came to Australia were Latvians and Estonians (the Balts), Poles, Ukrainians, Hungarians, Czechs and Yugoslavs, 170,000 in all, a startlingly new element in British Australia. These victims of war were never depicted as people who had suffered much and needed a new home; they were to be welcomed because they were useful.

Michelle Robinson

Calwell ceased being minister of immigration when the Chifley government lost office in 1949. The Liberal government of Robert Menzies carried on the program, always giving credit to Calwell as its instigator, and it was the Liberals who extended it to include Italians and Greeks, swarthier Europeans, and then Turks.

Calwell became leader of the Labor Party and leader of the opposition in 1960. After losing three elections, he yielded his place to Gough Whitlam in 1967. In his last years, he was mortified by his own party’s decision to abandon the White Australia policy and the extension of the migration scheme to Asians.

He was disappointed never to have been prime minister, but in successfully launching the great migration program, he made himself a man of more consequence in Australian history than most of its prime ministers.

This is an edited extract from Australian History in 7 Questions by John Hirst, published by Black Inc. Books and on-sale today.