An Australian Overview

By Mark Uhlmann
Published in The Social Contract
Volume 8, Number 2 (Winter 1997-1998)
Issue theme: "Australia's identity crisis"

Australians generally know little about their history and don't have much of a sense of the country's strategic position. For most, the British hand-over of Hong Kong to China was an exotic foreign news story. It was interesting, but not seen as something of direct relevance to them.

It was clear [during World War II] that invasion by Japan would mean not only enslavement, as our captured soldiers had been enslaved, but the obliteration of our way of life. But the hand-over of Hong Kong formally ends a period of transition which began with the fall of Singapore to the Japanese in February 1942. The fall of Singapore, described as the British Empire's darkest day, was also Australia's most crushing military defeat.

In the Japanese sweep through Southeast Asia a total of 22,000 Australian soldiers were captured and used as slave-laborers. Their treatment was so brutal that one in three of them died in captivity. Singapore's fall underlined the fact that we could no longer rely upon Britain for military support.

The hand-over of Hong Kong sees the final withdrawal of Britain from our area of strategic interest. In one sense, it merely puts the seal on the reality which began with Singapore, but it has important symbolic importance. It represents a time to reflect on how Australia has responded to the need for change since the end of World War II.


Mark Uhlmann is a Canberra-based journalist and writer. He is author, along with Graeme Campbell, of Australia Betrayed (Foundation Press, Victoria Park, Western Australia, 1995). Australia was quite justified in establishing the White Australia policy in 1901, but it was also right to abolish it in the late 1960s. Australia, which had engaged in Vietnam as an ally of the United States and for reasons of forward defense against communism, was quite right to accept some Vietnamese refugees, but it was wrong to allow abuses of our immigration system by non-Europeans to happen as a sort of compensation for the White Australia policy.

Right up until the late 1970s the policies Australian governments had in common - in other words the accepted national parameters - were overwhelmingly supported by the general public. The battleground occurred within those parameters, but from the late 1970s, with the policy of multiculturalism, and the early 1980s with dramatic immi-gration and economic changes the national consensus was broken.

Recent Australian govern-ments have handled the need for change very badly. They have failed to bring the bulk of the population with them and have for the most part arrogantly and insultingly dismissed their concerns. To understand the magnitude of the changes it is necessary to give an overview of some key Australian history.

Australia, which began as a collection of British colonies on a continent at the far flung ends of the earth, had responded to the challenge of being far from Europe and close to the teeming millions of Asia by largely excluding Asians from settlement and encouraging Europeans to take the long voyage south. This strategy worked very successfully while the Asian nations were weak, the British Navy an all powerful shield and our trade overwhelmingly with Britain and the Empire.

But with the fall of Singapore, Australia, with the exception of its Aboriginal population, almost entirely of European stock (and that overwhelmingly British), was for the first time threatened by an Asian invader.

Conquest by Asians was at the time Australia's worst nightmare, a nightmare with roots deeper than just the European settlement of the continent and the establishment of a formal whites-only immigration policy. It is a dread that seems to be part of a European folk memory.

Australians were a free people with a demo-cratic system, something seen as totally at odds with Asian models. It was clear that invasion by Japan would mean not only enslavement, as our captured soldiers had been enslaved, but the obliteration of our way of life.

"In its time, Deakin's White Australia policy was regarded as progressive." The Australian colonies in the 19th Century saw foreign European powers as the main military threats. The threat they saw from Asia was not military invasion, but unwanted immigration. This rose to the fore in the wake of large-scale Chinese immigration during the gold rush. The Chinese were indentured laborers prepared to work for very low wages. Labor organizations were at the forefront of those calling for their exclusion.

The Australian colonies adopted laws excluding the Chinese and one of the first pieces of legislation passed by united Australia after federation in 1901 was the so-called White Australia policy, limiting settlement to Europeans.

At first Australians did not take much notice of Japan as a potential threat. But in 1905 after it defeated Russia in a naval war the alarm bells rang. From that point on, even though Japan was allied to Britain and fought with the allies in World War I, it was seen, by strategic thinkers, such as Alfred Deakin, and Billy Hughes, Australia's Prime Minister in World War I, as the major military threat.

Japan also urged Britain to put pressure on Australia to alter its White Australia policy to make exceptions for Japanese.

Australia resisted the pressure and to underline the displeasure with Britain, then-Prime Minister Alfred Deakin invited Britain's rival, the United States, to send out a fleet on a goodwill mission, though foreign policy was still officially conducted by Britain. The U.S. Great White Fleet, so called for the color of its ships, arrived in 1908 to great acclaim. The British, with the example of losing the American colonies always at the forefront of their minds, got the message.

Over 59,000 Australians died in World War I, mainly on the Western Front, and Hughes, at the Paris peace conference following the war, used the moral authority of that loss to promote Australian security interests.

As Roger C. Thompson notes in Australian Imperialism in the Pacific, Hughes insisted on Australia's claim to German New Guinea, in the face of opposition from U.S. President Woodrow Wilson, who opposed any annexation of former German colonies. Hughes clashed with Wilson who accused Hughes of a willingness to 'defy the whole civilized world.' The hard-headed Hughes, mocking Wilson's self-regarding idealism, said the president was right, that was precisely what he was prepared to do.

He also defiantly defended the White Australia policy in the face of Japanese diplomatic moves, which at first had the sympathy of Wilson. Hughes, a small man, was depicted in a humorous cartoon of the time as an angry little Horatio at the Bridge, hopping up and down in front of the inscription 'White Australia'.

He also opposed Japanese and American pressure for an open-door policy to New Guinea. He wanted to exclude Japan from the area in immediate proximity to Australia. Hughes also wanted to claim the formerly German north Pacific islands, claimed by Japan. And if Australia could not have them, then neither should Japan, as Australia 'profoundly distrusts' the nation. The islands contain 'many harbors, several of which are capable of holding very large fleets.'

Hughes, as it happens, was precisely right about the Japanese threat. If he had not acted as he did, Japan may well have had a foothold right on Australia's doorstep, making a direct strike against Australia that much more feasible and effective. Hughes was very clear-headed about strategy. The White Australia policy, which he so vigorously defended, also made sense for its time. While this policy is presented as nasty and racist these days, in fact in its time it was regarded as progressive.

Apart from pressure from labor organizations and sympathetic publications such as The Bulletin, it was Deakin who largely fashioned the policy. His strategy was to build up local working conditions by excluding cheap labor, meaning in practice at that time, colored labor. The fear was that business would use an open door to such labor to drive down wages and diminish working conditions.

But if settlement was restricted to Europeans and capital given protection from imports, workers could be paid a decent wage, labor could obtain a dignity instead of being a slave-like toil, workers could feel a part of the life of the nation and the common racial characteristics would bind all classes together in a sense of national unity.

"To the earlier politicians who shaped it, the Australia of today would have been inconceivable." While crude racism was expressed by some, it had no part in the thinking of liberals like Deakin, who saw the American experience with slavery as a caution. As Bob Birrell notes in his book A Nation of Our Own, Deakin stated that excluding cheap colored labor from northern Australia (a region equivalent to the U.S. South) involved economic sacrifices, but 'those sacrifices for the future of Australia are little ... when compared with the compensating freedom from the trials, sufferings and losses that nearly wrecked the Great Republic of the West [the American Civil War].'

There would be no slaves or semi-slaves in the north, sowing the seeds of national division. Where industries existed which had used such labor, such as the Queensland sugar cane fields, employers would be compensated for having to pay higher wages by tariff protection.

With the Japanese sweep though Southeast Asia, Australia's Prime Minister for most of World War II, John Curtin, in an article in the Melbourne Herald on 26 December 1941, which became famous, signaled his intention to turn to the United States. U.S. troops, under the command of General Douglas MacArthur, came in large numbers to Australia, which was used as the major land base in the fight back against Japan.

Welcoming the great ally with relief, Curtin pledged that Australians would also fight to the last. In a radio broadcast in March 1942 Curtin, himself of Irish Catholic descent, said 'Never shall an enemy set forth upon the soil of this country without having arrayed against it the whole of the manhood of this nation; with such strength and quality that this nation will forever remain the home of sons of Britishers, who come in peace in order to establish in the South Seas an outpost of the British race.'

To Curtin and the earlier politicians who shaped Australia, the country of today would have been inconceivable. The attitudes of these men were a reflection of those of their people.

This background is given to underline the fact that early Australian governments had a very clear-headed strategy for the country and were prepared to stand up to pressure in order to achieve their aims. They were prepared to turn to 'great and powerful friends' where necessary, and also knew how to appeal to their people. Their decisions were very valid decisions for their times, but the times were changing.

At war's end, the close shave with Japan led to a belief that Australia had to quickly increase its population, then standing at 7 million, to economically develop the nation and meet any new threat. Not enough migrants were available from the preferred source, Britain, so, for the first time, large numbers were accepted from continental countries, particularly southern Europe. Immigration Minister Arthur Calwell referred to them as new Australians. Australians were promised that this would not upset their existing way of life, but such a dramatic change was bound to have an impact. In the 1970s the changes wrought by this new immigration were used to justify the establishment of the government policy of multiculturalism.

Less than a human lifetime on from the Fall of Singapore, the official Australian attitude toward Asia has changed profoundly. Once the aim was to keep Asia at bay, but, from 1983 the official policy under the Australian Labor Party governments of Prime Ministers Bob Hawke and Paul Keating was to embrace Asia. It was not only to embrace, but, particularly as articulated by Foreign Minister Gareth Evans and a clique of Foreign Affairs bureaucrats, favored academics and journalists, to look forward to the day when Australia was entirely absorbed by Asia, racially and culturally. A self-named 'Asiacrat', leading academic Stephen Fitz

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