Towards Industrial Democracy: The White Australia Policy [by Vance Palmer, 16 August 1917]

[Editor: In this article, Vance Palmer argues that Australia must develop more “original literary, artistic, scientific, or social achievement”, so as to establish itself as a country with a significant contribution to make to civilisation, and thus provide a justification for the continuance of the White Australia Policy. This was part of Vance Palmer’s series of articles, “Towards Industrial Democracy”. Published in The Worker, 16 August 1917.]

Towards Industrial Democracy.

The White Australia Policy.

[For the Queensland “Worker.”]

(By Vance Palmer.)

In my last article I emphasised the necessity of our policy of a White Australia, and outlined some of the difficulties we would encounter in the near future through our adherence to it. The matter is so important that it needs fuller examination. At present discussion of the policy is evaded, both by its friends and enemies, and in that evasion lies a serious danger.

One instance of this occurred quite recently. The Victorian Labor Council, while tacitly upholding the policy of a White Australia, passed a resolution condemning the principle of compulsory training for home defence. This is typical of the irresponsibility of certain people when the subject comes up for discussion. Our compulsory training laws were passed as an essential corollary to the White Australia policy; and yet the Labor Council evades discussion of the policy while sweeping away the only means by which it can be effectively guarded. Such an attitude betrays a fundamental lack of sincerity.

The enemies of the policy, on the other hand, go to work in a more subtle way. They rarely attack the idea of a White Australia openly, but by insidious means try to throw doubt on its feasibility. The appointment of Dr. Gilruth as Administrator of the Northern Territory, after the detailed and weighty criticism with which his past administration had been riddled from all quarters, looks like the act of men who wish to demonstrate that the North cannot be opened up with white labor. Then there is the suggestion that the war has radically changed the situation. Indians were brought to Gallipoli, it seems; and therefore, for the sake of sentiment, they must be brought to the sugar plantations of Queensland also! Chinamen have worked at Woolwich Arsenal, and therefore they must be allowed access to the mines of Charters Towers! The connections do not look logical; but when sentiment muddles the atmosphere logic can be dispensed with.

The old climatic arguments are being trotted out, also, in the South during the present reign of the C.S.R. It has never been proved what is the ideal climate for civilised men, but everyone believes that the perfect one is that in which he was born and reared. The Englishman is quite convinced that the race deteriorates as soon as it moves south of Beachy Head; while the Greenlander, probably, is certain that it is the cold, bluff weather that makes virile Eskimos. High civilisations have flourished in climates as diverse as Egypt, Greece, Rome, and France; but these considerations do not affect the people who want to fill the North with colored coolies. And, though small in number, they are powerful in influence.

If, then, the White Australia policy has enemies within our gates, how can we expect that it will not have formidable enemies without? Everyone knows that it has such enemies. Before the war Australia was undivided upon the policy, and the unanimity of public opinion allowed it to pass without direct challenge. No Government that was not absolutely loyal to the spirit as well as the letter of the policy could have held office for a day, and the spectacle of a united Australia had an effect on the outside world. But no one who has travelled around the country can truthfully say that public opinion is as sound on the question to-day as it was four years ago. The plain fact is that loyalty to the principle has been seriously undermined.

How, then, can the White Australia policy be preserved? There is no need to assert that, if it is not preserved, everything we call Australian will perish in the space of a few short years. No one who has looked at the question impartially can have any doubt of that. There remains only two alternatives before us:

(1) To defend it, if necessary, by force of arms.

(2) To justify it in the eyes of the civilised world.

As to the first, there is no need for discussion. Australia will not be worth preserving if, when the matter came to a test, there was any division upon that question.

The second is more complex. The war will be ended by a Peace Conference, at which it may be decided that all the belligerents have the right of free access to each other’s countries. Again, it is more than likely that future disputes among the nations will be settled by an International Tribunal, which will have the solo power of dealing with the claims of contending countries. How would such a tribunal be likely to view our White Australia policy?

At the present time there can be but one answer. To the average European Australia is merely a remote “colony” at the Antipodes, with nothing remarkable about it except its size and its opportunity for development. In spite of our wholesale participation in the war, the conception of Australia as a nation with definite ideals and an individual character has not penetrated to Europe. And while this state of mind exists there will be no sympathy with the White Australia ideal. It will be regarded as merely an attempt by a handful of white men to monopolise a large part of the world’s unsettled territory and shut other races out.

That is the point of view of 99 out of 100 people in Europe to-day — Englishmen as well as Frenchmen or Italians. I say this emphatically from personal experience, after an acquaintance with Europe extending over a dozen years. The capitalist classes see in it a limitation of their opportunities and the Socialists and humanitarians are annoyed at what they call our exclusiveness. No European country is likely to be threatened by an inundation of colored races, and the possibility of such a thing does not enter their imaginations. Even to-day, when there are over 100,000 Chinese coolies working in Europe, as well as African negroes of every shade and color, there is no real criticism of the introduction of such labor. Any danger is regarded as merely economic and temporary, for these countries are too old and settled to have their institutions destroyed and the structure of their national life broken down.

How, then, can we persuade them that the matter is vital to us, and that we are one of the little nations for whose freedom, it is said, the war is being waged? Don’t ask the people who believe that Australia’s sole destiny is to become a successful exporter of beef and wool. They will have nothing to answer. Coolies can help to produce beef and wool just as well as white men; in fact, Australia might be more materially productive if it had ten coolies to the square mile. Any talk of our wonderful natural resources, then, merely provokes the question of whether they would not be more quickly opened up by colored labor.

One justification, and one alone, can be given to the outside world for our policy: that is, that we are not a mere “colony,” but an individual country, with something important to add to the civilisation of the world. Any original literary, artistic, scientific, or social achievement that we can accomplish will stand us in better stead, when our policy comes to be judged by an international tribunal, than all the beef and wool we have over grown. It is the quality of our civilisation alone that constitutes our right to decide our destiny. By that we will stand or fall.

And all this has an important bearing on the idea of industrial democracy. As a pioneer in social reconstruction, we would be of some interest to the world, and could make good our claim to be considered a nation, with a right to control the constituent parts of our future populations. As a mere “colony,” a territory occupied with commercial profiteering and financial exploitation, we would have no status in the world, and no interest for anyone but investors. No one would care if we were swamped by the coloured peoples or not. Industrial Democracy, then, is as necessary to the preservation of a White Australia as the latter policy is to Industrial Democracy.

The Worker (Brisbane, Qld.), 16 August 1917, p. 5

Editor’s notes:
bluff weather = apparently a reference to cold weather, such as may be experienced at a bluff (being a steep cliff, especially one located beside the sea, or a promontory); the phrase “bluff weather” is possibly derived from the bluff on the eastern side of the entrance to Bluff Harbour, on the southern tip of New Zealand’s south island, near to the settlement of Campbelltown, which was a stopping point for boats coming from Melbourne (an article in The Williamstown Chronicle of 17 July 1880 makes reference to “Bluff” weather, and the Bluff was commonly mentioned in weather reports in Australian newspapers
See: 1) “Sketches in New Zealand”, The Williamstown Chronicle (Williamstown, Vic.), 17 July 1880, p. 3
Starting from Melbourne, the run to the Bluff, as the bold, bleak headland protecting the harbour of Campbelltown is called, is usually made in about five days, and the passage, with the exception of a little “Bluff” weather, is usually rather pleasant.
2) “Campbelltown, Bluff Harbour, New Zealand”, The Illustrated Sydney News and New South Wales Agriculturist and Grazier (Sydney, NSW), 7 May 1875, p. 7
3) [search results], Trove Newspapers [the Bluff was commonly mentioned in weather reports in Australian newspapers]
4) “Bluff” (from An Encyclopaedia of New Zealand, edited by A. H. McLintock, originally published in 1966), Te Ara – the Encyclopedia of New Zealand, 22 April 2009
5) [Map]

C.S.R. = Colonial Sugar Refining Company

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