Remembering the ‘old’ Department of Immigration’s nation-building traditions

The increasing obsession with ‘border security’ has conspired to erode the nation-building objectives of Australian immigration policy. AAP/Lukas Coch

In a recent lecture, Immigration and Border Protection secretary Michael Pezzullo outlined several changes to the department’s functions and organisation. These culminated in its merger with Customs and Border Protection Services on July 1. Pezzullo pulled no punches in declaring how significant a shift this is:

The Department of Immigration of our collective memory and imagination will be no more, after 70 long years of service.

Given the enormous contribution that the old department made to the successful selection and settlement of immigrants during the past 70 years – and its key role in shaping modern Australian society – the public is entitled to ask what sort of changes are envisioned and whether they are a good thing.

Based on decades of immigration research, the changes are profoundly troubling. They represent what is perhaps the final nail in the coffin for the department’s nation-building traditions. They herald a new era in immigration policy and administration focused primarily on border protection, control and compliance. There are significant risks for new settlers and the body politic.

The department’s origins

The Chifley Labor government created the original department in 1945 on the basis that its ambitious postwar immigration program would require a sophisticated administrative structure to support it.

While immigration planning was partly motivated by wartime fears about Australia’s defence capacities, more positive values and ideas were apparent. These were centred on optimistic images of postwar reconstruction and population growth.

Fired by Keynesian, nation-building and liberal-internationalist ideals, a new generation of bureaucrats, politicians, academics and community leaders put their faith in the capacity of specialist expertise, co-operative administration and popular and civic engagement to resolve the big challenges. Among these were the Australian population’s decline and what to do about the millions of refugees and potential immigrants scattered across Europe.

Planning was conducted during a two-year period between 1943 and 1945. It was led by a group of bureaucrats representing those portfolios with a direct stake in the issue: postwar reconstruction, external affairs, treasury, interior and information. Some of those officials are well known – H.C. “Nugget” Coombs and W.D. Forsyth. Forsyth warned that an Australian population increase would require much more immigration, most of it likely to come from Southern Europe.

Other contributors are less celebrated, but no less important. L.F. Giblin, chair of the powerful wartime Finance and Economic Committee, devised the 2% population increase target – 1% of which would come from natural growth and 1% from migration. This was the basis for Immigration Minister Arthur Calwell’s “scientifically planned” immigration program announced in 1945.

The visionary work of these men reveals a fascinating story of bureaucratic activism – one which is still barely acknowledged in our national history.

The department’s early successes and problems

The new department’s success was measurable in four ways:

  • the rapid growth of postwar immigration after 1945 despite considerable practical challenges;

  • the rapid breakdown of the racial-cultural hierarchy that had traditionally shaped immigration planning;

  • the relatively successful integration of millions of new settlers within three decades; and

  • the growth of the department itself.

The details regarding the first three points are well known. The latter is hardly recognised at all. From very humble beginnings in 1945 with only 24 staff members, the department grew to have hundreds of staff members by 1949. They were positioned in offices all around Australia and overseas, including in Britain, Germany, Italy and the US.

The department quickly developed an unprecedented range of responsibilities. These included migrant selection, entry, travel, settlement, integration and citizenship, publicity and passport control.

There were problems. The department’s nation-building objectives were always in tension with control and compliance functions. Most of these centred upon the racial restrictions and political biases embedded in the Immigration Restriction Act.

Over the next few decades, officers would find themselves repeatedly mired in controversies involving their harsh treatment of individuals deemed to be at odds with Australian immigration policy. Public accusations of racism, secrecy, harshness, brutality and unaccountability were frequent. By the early 1970s, the list of criticisms directed at the department included bureaucratic inertia and empire-building at the expense of the national interest.

How we’ve arrived at today’s department

History is generally on the side of the old department. For all its faults and weaknesses, its role was fundamental to the postwar immigration program’s success.

Its wide-ranging activities reflected a complete approach to immigration. New settlers – including refugees – were viewed as potential citizens and contributors to the common wealth, not just workers, “leaners” or consumers of public goods. Linked to this was a strong commitment – at least in the early days – to keeping the Australian people on side with immigration.

The department’s propaganda arm was often clunky, patronising and misleading. But it did presume at least that it owed the public a certain level of accountability.

Its considerable faults notwithstanding, officials did eventually heed the tide of history, especially in regard to non-discrimination, the failures of assimilation and the need to deal positively with the reality of cultural diversity. The much-vaunted “success” of Australia’s postwar immigration was not an accident of history or a reflection of the innate tolerance of its citizens. It was due in large part to the planning that surrounded it, especially in regard to migrant entry and settlement.

This historical context is vital to understanding the changes that have undermined the department’s traditional functions in recent decades. Neoliberalism, political interests and the increasing obsession with border security have all conspired to erode the nation-building objectives of Australian immigration policy since the early 1990s.

The department’s power and complexity have grown dramatically. However, its efficiency and reputation have not. Critics continue to slam its hardline approach to unauthorised maritime arrivals, especially its mandatory detention and deportation powers. Successive independent inquiries have criticised its culture and operations, citing strong evidence of “risk aversion” and biases towards control and compliance.

Names like Cornelia Rau, Vivian Solon, Mohamed Haneef, Reza Berati and baby Asha have become by-words for bureaucratic secrecy, unaccountability and cruelty.

This recent history alerts us to various problems with the Abbott government’s changes. The hiving off of the department’s integration and multicultural functions, the merging of Immigration with Customs and Border Protection, the introduction of the Australian Border Force Act, proposed changes to citizenship laws and increases of the immigration minister’s discretionary powers all point to the intensification of immigration securitisation at the expense of nation-building and social capital investment.

Working on the assumption that social cohesion, equality of opportunity and rights, and accountability still matter, Australians are obliged to ask why the government wants to overturn initiatives that have worked so well in the past.


This is the first in a series of three articles looking at how the Department of Immigration has changed as it marks 70 years since its creation.