The White Australia policy feels like it was centuries and centuries ago. And in the minds of many Australians, it was. Ending in the same year as the Vietnam War and the opening of the Sydney Harbour Bridge, Australia has made many strides since, but that hasn’t stopped this topic from resurfacing.
Senator Fraser Anning recently made it a point of discussion in Australian politics. Anning first came to attention during his parliamentary maiden speech in August of this year. In this speech, he noted that Australia’s cultural diversity was a factor of division in Australian society. Specifically, he called for a ban on Muslim immigration, adding that Australia should hold a plebiscite on whether or not to allow non-English speaking immigrants into Australia. Anning was greatly criticised by many members of Parliament, like Labor frontbencher Tony Burke and Greens leader Richard Di Natale, and while the term “White Australia” was not mentioned, it is obvious that this was his position.
Last week, Anning proposed a bill calling for a national plebiscite to decide whether or not to end non-white immigration. Anning, who belongs to Katter’s Australia Party, was shot down by other members of the Senate.
Di Natale said the Senate was no place to “spout hatred, racism and white suprematism”.
“The quicker the bill is dealt with and consigned to the dust bin of history the better,” he told parliament.
“There is no place to debate such racist, xenophobic, hate-filled bills in this parliament.”
The bill was put to a vote and defeated. And Anning was removed from the Katter party as a result of his racist language.
For migrants like myself, a discussion like this is a shock nonetheless. Living in a multicultural nation, a discussion of White Australia is not a reflection of our society. But the uprising of this debate does beg the question: do migrants feel at home in Australia?
In 2005 my family moved to Australia. I was seven years old and very confused by the no-shoes-at-the-shops policy—which I still find peculiar. According to the Australia Bureau of Statistics, in 2005, 24.2 per cent of Australia’s population were born overseas. Over ten years later, that percentage has risen to over a quarter. But do migrants really consider Australia home? If we are born in a different country, can we feel we belong?
Nursing student, Sharanya Ravindran thinks so: “This is where I’m at, this is where my family’s at, this is where it’s gonna be!”
Moving from Malaysia to Australia at the age of one, she hardly relates to her home country.
“I love going back but it’s weird! People look at us differently … we have our hair and nails done all nice. It’s different,” she says with a thick Aussie accent.
Others still find comfort in their country of birth. Shanahan Murray grew up in New York and misses many of their traditions.
“I’m so annoyed that people here don’t celebrate Christmas and Halloween as much!” he says.
But despite his connection with America, Shanahan still finds comfort in calling Australia home: “I’ve made a lot of friends here … and Perth is a good place to stay with like your mum and dad”.
Similar to Sharanya and Shanahan many overseas-born citizens call Australia home.
Every Australia Day, I watch my Malaysian-Indian father place Australian flags at every entrance of our home. He puts up banners that don red, blue and white. When he is finished, he sits by the pool with a cider and a navy-blue t-shirt that has “AUSTRALIA” scrawled across the front.
But being an immigrant often feels like you’ve got one foot in each country. I’m too Aussie to be a Malaysian and too Malaysian to be an Aussie. It often means that our identity is in crisis mode. In 2016, the ABS found that 49 per cent of Australians were either first or second-generation migrants. Yet many of them may not be sure if or how they identify as Australian.
Joshua Donovan was born in South Korea and adopted into an Australian family from Perth when he was a one year old. Yet he says has always struggled with his Australian identity:
“I remember not caring until my parents were watching the Olympics and they kept cheering for both South Korea and Australia. It bewildered me because I never saw myself as Korean until then … it was like a constant reminder that I wasn’t Australian enough. Even more so by kids in school who told me to go back to my country, and the teachers who would speak down to me assuming English was not my first language.”
The recent discussions on bringing back the White Australia Policy has not helped how Joshua feels about being Australian.
“In many ways it makes me feel that no matter what, difference will always be feared and I will always be considered different. Australia is my home regardless of where I was born. It just continues to sadden me that Australia doesn’t want me,” he says.
Racism is a contributing factor that makes migrants feel like they don’t belong. Professor John Fitzgerald writes in his 2007 book Big White Lie, that “Echoes of White Australia still generate passionate debate in 21st century Australia when the expressions ‘White Canada’ and ‘White New Zealand’ have long been forgotten”.
The recent White Australia policy discussion is not the only instance of prejudice Australia has collectively faced in past years. During the 2015 Wimbledon, after being angered at his behaviour, Australian swimmer Dawn Fraser told Nick Kyrgios to “go back to where his parents came from”. In 2016, a banana was thrown at Indigenous AFL player Eddie Betts while he was in the middle of a football match. Betts, a descendant of Australia’s First Nations people, still faces discrimination from non-Indigenous Australians today, who are descended from the European migrants that arrived over 200 years ago.
As Greens Senator Mehreen Faruqi said in parliament: “We could all be more aware of the sustained abuse that some of us have to weather.”
She also wrote about the consequences of this White Australia discussion: “There is no doubt in my mind that many migrants and especially Muslim-Australians woke up this morning deeply anxious, worried about the license Anning’s speech gives to racist opportunists.”
It is unclear whether migrants have a home in Australia. While it is somewhere we reside, our identity as Australian is ambiguous. Former Prime Minister, Malcolm Turnbull, referred to Australia as “the most successful multicultural society in the world”.
But can Australia boast such a thing when we are entertaining narratives like the White Australia policy?
To see what life was like under the White Australia Policy, check out this interesting historical video from the ABC on Australian’s opinions on the Policy: