Dissenting voices: the Immigration restriction Act of 1901

As in most countries in the world here has always been a current of racism and xenophobia in Australia. This can be countered in various ways such as through education, the part played by institutions like Churches that raise a moral conscience, the way media deals with issues and the leadership, if any, shown by Governments. However the last two of these can also play a role in fostering xenophobia for their own ends.

Before Federation most of the colonies had in place their own methods of controlling immigration and especially from China, but one of the key motivations of the Federation Movement was to have a common immigration policy for the whole of the country. This issue dominated debate in the first year of the new Federal Government.

While the aim of most Members of Parliament, reflecting the views of their electorates, was to keep Australia “White” – a position that obviously ignored its Indigenous history - a few people, both inside and outside Parliament spoke out against this. What I want to explore are the arguments these critics used and whether we can draw any lessons that might help us today.

When our new Commonwealth Government first met in 1901, discussion on how to restrict Immigration at the national level dominated the debate. The vast majority, both inside and outside Parliament, wanted to exclude all of what they called ‘coloured’ people, whether they came from Asia, Africa or the Middle East, and to keep Australia “White”.

There were, however a few people who spoke against the racism inherent in such a policy I am going to focus on the arguments put forward of a few of those who opposed racial discrimination.

Background to the ‘Dictation Test’

To understand the form proposed for the Immigration Restriction Act we need to appreciate that at Federation, Australia was not truly independent and wanted to remain as part of the Empire. The Act establishing Federation was itself an Act of the British Parliament.

Appeals from the High Court of Australia could be sent to the British Privy Council. Decisions in Foreign Affairs, which included immigration policies, had to take British concerns into account.

British views on immigration were made clear when in 1897 the Premiers of the Australian Colonies were in London to discuss the form the Constitution for Federation should take. The Colonial Secretary, Joseph Chamberlain was a strong advocate of a Multiracial Empire and, he made it clear that while he sympathised with the need to restrict cheap foreign labour, this should be met ‘without placing a stigma upon any of her Majesty’s subjects on the sole ground of race or colour’ [1]. This meant that there could be no mention of restricting any particular race.

A strategy for restricting immigration without specifying race was first put into practice in the South African colony of Natal. From the 1860 labourers were brought from India to work the sugar plantations. By the end of the nineteenth century the Indian population exceeded that of the whites (although together white and Indians only made 18% of the total population, the remainder being Africans). In 1897, in order to restrict Asian migration, without specifically mentioning race, a dictation test in English was introduced, and this provided the model for the Australian act.


The immigration debate

The first Commonwealth Parliament was made up of three parties. Two of these, despite an apparently opposing economic philosophy, were on the side of Industry and commerce: the Free Traders, based on NSW and led by Edmund Barton and the Protectionists, whose support lay in Victoria, led by Alfred Deakin. These held two of the key positions; Barton as Prime Minister and Minister for External Affairs and Deakin as Attorney General.

Workers interests were represented by the Labor Party, led by John Watson, and they had representatives from all over Australia.

For any Bill to be passed, alliances had to be formed between two of these parties. “What kind of game of cricket could they play’ said Deakin in 1904 ‘if they had three elevens instead of two, with one playing sometimes with one side, sometimes with the other and sometimes for itself [2].

Before Federation most of the Colonies had their own policies to restrict immigration, but during the Australian Convention Debate of 1897-8 Barton argued that the new Commonwealth should have full powers over immigration:

Questions which relate to the whole body of people, to the purity of race, to the preservation of the racial character of the white population are Commonwealth questions and should be so exclusively … the preservation of every inch of the shores of Australia from immigration of the kind indicated, except to a certain limited extent, is one of the most desirable powers to place in the Constitution [3].

There were two main positions in the 1901 debate on how to achieve this. One group wanted to ignore the British prohibition on mentioning ‘race and colour’ and specifically exclude Asians. They claimed that it was hypocrisy to try to avoid stating this clearly by imposing a dictation test.  
This was the position of the Labor Party, but also of others such as Henry Higgins – who later presided over the Harvester Case that established the concept of a Basic Wage [4]. According to Higgins was up to the immigration officer to decide if any immigrant had to actually do the test and therefore any European could be free to enter the country without doing the test; the dictation test would only be used when restrictions were to be imposed.

Higgins was also one of the few who took Indigenous Australians into account. For him ‘the native inhabitants of this land’ were an exception in White Australia and he wanted to ensure that the legislators would do ‘anything in their power to see that justice is done to the aborigines of this continent’ [5]

The question of whether there should be should be a specific mention of races or whether a dictation test that satisfied the colonial office should be used instead was resolved towards the end of the September. On September 25 the Labor Leader John Watson moved an amendment:

That the following new paragraph be added after the word “namely,” line 5 (a) “any person who is an aboriginal native of Asia, Africa or of the islands thereof.”[6]

The motion was narrowly lost, with 31 for it and 36 against. Labor voted for the amendment as a bloc, and were supported by 13 Free Traders and 2 Protectionists. Alfred Deakin and Edmund Barton led the case for the No vote and were joined by 8 Free Traders, 2 Independents and the majority of Protectionists.

Labor introduced a similar amendment into the Senate, but again it was narrowly lost. Now the major issue became that of which language or languages should be used for the dictation test; should it just be a test in English, as was originally proposed, or should it be in any European Language

A Mr Thompson asked: ‘Does the right honorable gentleman mean to exclude Scandinavians, Germans and French’[7], while Bruce Smith wanted to know what would happen ‘if the European nations were to reciprocate with Legislation of the same kind? [if so] Not one Australian in a thousand could visit Europe’ [8].


Parliamentary Critics of ‘White Australia’

The great majority of the parliamentarians were strongly in favour of keeping Australia ‘White’ and usually expressed this in what was clearly racist language.. While Alfred Deakin’s arguments were a little more subtle – the American Civil War for example was still fresh in memory and he used this as a reference to bringing in cheap labour, and he also implied that the Japanese should be kept out because they were so advanced – he was in no doubt of the importance of passing the Bill.

However there were members in both the House of Representatives and the Senate who stood opposed to the whole concept of ‘white Australia’ One of these was Bruce Smith(1851-1937).. His Liberalism was that of the Manchester School, which arose out of the campaign against the Corn Laws, but which also came to promote pacifism, anti-slavery and freedom of the press.

Smith was a NSW member of the Free Traders and represented the electorate of Parkes, which was then a Sydney electorate.  According to Martha Rutledge’s entry in the Australian Dictionary of Biography, Smith was:

Seen as a die-hard Tory by Labor, was unreconciled to the new welfare liberalism and deplored ‘meddling legislation’ but at the same time he always supported the women’s movement. [9]

Early in his speech on the Act, he claimed that Australia was being asked where it stood and what moral position it would take:

We are being put to the test, and we should remember this when we speak of the open door, or the equality of man, and of our Christian principles; and when at the very moment we are sending forth our people to preach those Christian principles to others, yet propose to turn round and shut out many of those whom we are seeking to convert to those principles. [10]

There was a lot of support for replacing the sole use of English for the dictation test by one in any European Language, but Bruce Smith thought this was only more insulting. Because by doing so:

… we are significantly differentiating the Japanese from the Europeans. It is recognised that thousands of Japanese already speak the English language which is taught universally in their schools, so that in making the test in English we are not really excluding the educated Japanese at all [11].

He also raised the issue of the racial and linguistic diversity of the Empire. The test could exclude British Citizens: the British in South Africa whose primary language was Dutch or those from Canada or Mauritius who spoke French. Joseph Cook, the member for Parramatta, also acknowledged that it would exclude half the Welsh people [12].

One of the most persistent arguments for a white Australia – and the phrase ‘white Australia’ was continually being used without any embarrassment – was a concern based on eugenics. The member for South Sydney, G B Evans expressed such an attitude:

We see in the natural world that no good comes from hybridization, because hybrids reproduce the vices of both parents with the virtues of neither, and for this reason I think we should preserve our civilization, intact and uncontaminated. [13]

Bruce Smith also had a counter argument against that of fear of racial mixing. He argued that the Chinese, Indians or Japanese were of far greater racial purity than the British, and it was actually through a mixture of races that the British developed their qualities:

…our ancestors were disporting themselves with painted skins when Julius Caesar invaded Britain, and coming down to later days we know that the bulk of British people were simply serfs under their Norman conquerors. [14]

As to the claim that ‘Asians’ lived in unsanitary conditions, Smith thought ‘it only fair to point to the slums of many of our big cities, and to ask whether many of those of a low type of our own race are living under better conditions than the Chinese[15].’ He went on to say that such problems could be solved by local government laws that could ensure that everyone lived in satisfactory conditions.

However in the end Bruce Smith adopted a pragmatic position. Even though he considered the fear that Asiatic migration was a ‘menace to our national prosperity and national happiness’ was an imaginary one he was ‘perfectly willing to fall in line to some extent with the movement, and to assist, at all events to allay that fear’

He concluded:

I shall certainly favour the proposed amendment which makes the European test the one for admission to Australia. I shall vote against the amendment for the complete prohibition of the Asian, African and Pacific races, and I shall vote … against the purely English test, because I think it would bring down upon us the ridicule of most civilized peoples. [16]


Senator Pulsford 1844-1919

The strongest and most consistent critic of the Immigration Restriction Act was a Senator from NSW, Edward Pulsford. Pulsford was born in Staffordshire, the son of a Baptist Minister, but both he and his father became involved in trade. He moved to Sydney in 1884 and was one of the strongest polemicists for Free Trade. In the 1890s he was also the proprietor of the Armidale Chronicle. Like Bruce Smith, he saw the Bill as a test of the moral standing of the new commonwealth, and therefore:

… we may look for Bills to be inspired by the highest and noblest of motives, and drawn so that they will be free from offence to the hundreds of millions of our fellow subjects who inhabit India, and the hundreds of millions of subjects of friendly nations. [17]

Pulsford noted that in 1897 the Japanese Consul Mr Nakagawa proposed three factors about Japanese migration that should be taken into account in any attempt to restrict immigration:

  1. Japanese then, as now, generally had no desire to live in another country, and this was even more unlikely at the time because Japanese wages were rising quickly and had nearly doubled over three years.
  2. Japan was a major trading partner, and much trade was being carried in Japanese ships.
  3. It was also most offensive in the bill to have paragraph (a) (the dictation test whose purpose was to restrict “Asiatics”) to then link this to those mentioned in the remaining paragraphs (b) to (f): ‘the pauper, the idiot, the diseased, the criminal and the immoral’ [18]


Senator Macfarlane 1844-1914

James Macfarlane was born in Glasgow. He and his brother migrated to Tasmania, took over a shipping business and developed it to be one of the largest in Australia. Macfarlane directly confronted the racism and ignorance inherent in the debate:

The cry that we will shortly be overrun with Asiatics I consider ill founded. It is a parrot cry, which is got up for political purposes, and which appeals to the most gullible of people … I am quite sure that a great deal of our racial hatred and prejudice … is owing to want of knowledge[19]


Critics outside Parliament

There were also some prominent figures not directly involved in politics who opposed the White Australia Policy. These included Edward William Cole, of Cole’s Book Arcade fame and Edward William Foxall, a businessman.


E W Cole 1832-1918

Cole was born in Kent and came to Melbourne, after spent some time in South Africa, in 1852. After a brief time on the goldfields and a variety of activities in Victoria he opened a second hand bookstall in 1865. Between 1882 and 1904 he established and extended Coles Book Arcade until it became what was reputedly one of the largest bookshops in the world.

Cole was also a prolific pamphleteer promoting his theories of the unity of all mankind and the unity of all religions. One of his earliest publications was ‘The Real Place in History of Jesus and Paul’ in which he focussed on the ethical teaching of the New Testament and dismissing the mythical. This was a prelude to find a common ethical thread in all religions. He also looked forward to “The Greater Federation”:

There are many influences at work towards, and many indications of the approaching of the unity of man; the various and growing concerts of “the Powers”, the international peace, industrial, commercial, postal and other conferences and tribunals; the unity of Germany, of Italy, of the United States of America, of Canada, of Australia etc. are so many indications of, and onward steps towards, the Greater Federation of the Whole World [20].

In 1899 Edward Cole produced a pamphlet ‘White Australia Impossible, and for various reasons undesirable’ While most of Cole’s arguments were on humanitarian grounds- Jesus, for example would be rejected because of his dark skin - he did believe it was ‘impossible’ on biological grounds. He believed that people became darker the closer they lived to the equator, and therefore because much of Australia was in the tropics or sub-tropics over time Australians would become black anyway. He lacked the knowledge that fair skin was actually the ‘aberration’ for people living in more temperate climates.

The Bulletin was always ready to attack critics of White Australia and when in 1905 Cole suggested that if he was ‘King of Australia” he would abolish racial distinctions, the Bulletin replied:

If you were King of a mongrel horde-nine million piebald souls
-And I were your subject, gracious Lord, I'd look for the blackened COLES.
I'd look for a Black Man's Book Arcade, and expect to find you there
Aye, driving a roaring Tamil trade, with the cow-grease in your hair!
I'd look for a turbaned, trudging COLE, with his books upon his back;
And I'd point with a long, derisive pole at the Man Who Made Things Black. [21]


Edward Foxall (1857-1926)

Foxall was involved in both literary and business circles .In 1886 he compiled and edited a book of poems by Hector Stuart titled South Sea Dreamer[22] and in 1894 wrote The claims of capital :involving an enquiry into the subjects of currency and banking. In 1900 he was the English Secretary to the Japanese Consul in Sydney and this informed his understanding and knowledge of the changes that were taking place in Japan.

In 1903, under the pseudonym Gizen-No-Teki he wrote a devastating critique of the White Australia position in a book Colorphobia: An exposure of the White Australia Fallacy which was subsidised by Foxall’s friend, the Parliamentarian Bruce Smith. Foxall believed that the Immigration Restriction Act was a violation of Liberal Principles, and had only been achieved through an unholy alliance between the two Liberal parties: the Free Traders and Protectionist, and Labor.

Foxall began by saying that while it was true there were 45 millions of Japanese, there were also 40 million, 130 millions of Russians and 55 millions of Germans and all of these were very fond of their own country and few had any intention of coming to Australia. In fact at the time of the debate numbers of Japanese had actually decreased and, outside of Queensland, there were only about 900 in all of Australia[23]

Foxall goes on to criticise all the party leaders. He accused the Prime Minister Edmund Barton of a lack of courage in the face of Labor support for restrictions, but was even more scathing of Sir William McMillan, the acting leader of the Opposition (The NSW Free Traders).

McMillan’s speech, said Foxall, was interesting:

as an evidence of the manner in which a public man may sometimes show what a tremendous amount of knowledge he does not possess upon a given subject, yet in a congenial atmosphere, run no risk of exposure [24]

Foxall took particular objection to McMillan claiming that the millions living in the north are of an alien and ‘servile’ nature. This certainly did not apply to the proudly independent people ofJapan, but could apply to the English. According to Foxall, British history showed that despite Britons ‘boastfully and rythmically (sic) asserting that they “never, never, never will be slaves”’

… they have been conquered and enslaved in turn by Saxon, Dane, Norman and what not; and when there was no foreign foe to subjugate, there were ruling classes and hierarchies in the nation itself to enslave and degrade its own people. Nor has this loud lip-worship of liberty prevented Britons from doing their best (or worst) to enslave the people of other nations [25].(pp 80-81)

Foxall also made one of the few references in the debate to Indigenous Australians, even including the term ‘dispossessed’:

The advocacy of a “White Australia,” however is not only absurd to the last degree; it is diabolical. It is an assertion of the right of men of one color to take a country away from people of another color, and then refuse admission, on the grounds of their color only, to people of the same color as those who were dispossessed [26].



I chose to explore this 1901 debate to see if it could throw light on our current responses to situation, but in some ways the situation today is more depressing.

On the surface we are today a far more multicultural country. Government bodies and Local Councils produce documents in a large variety of languages; Harmony Days are organised; ‘Acknowledgement of Country” takes place at public gatherings. But how deep is this? Perhaps the majority of Australians just put up with these rituals and then return to their own communities

There are those who are genuinely concerned about the plight of asylum seekers in indefinite detention or in combatting Islamophobia but there are also many whose prejudices can be called upon by politicians in a struggle for power.

It is only through a strong moral leadership that the rights of all Australian citizens can be safeguarded, and it is this that seems to be lacking today.

The men I have referred to (and only men – women could not vote or be elected for Parliament until the 1902 Commonwealth Franchise Act and the first women elected was Dame Enid Lyons in 1943 [27]) believed that words and principles mattered.

Perhaps a significant aspect of this was that except for the Labor Party there was no formal Party Structure and you had to actually convince other individuals of your case, as was the situation above when Watson proposed to spell out the restriction on race rather than rely on a dictation test. There was also among some a sense of responsibility that they were laying the foundations of a new nation and these had to be strong.

What the politicians who spoke out against ‘White Australia’ had in common was a classical Liberalism that united a belief in economic freedom with a belief in human equality. The use of slave labour might appear profitable in the short term but because ti was immoral there would be a long term cost to pay.

Of course the landscape in which Liberalism operates has changed dramatically in the last hundred years but how many in either of our major parties, or in the micro parties in the Senate have been shown to have moral authority in balancing freedom and equality? This inability is shown most clearly in our current treatment of asylum seekers.

[1] Ollivier M (ed) The Colonial and Imperial Conferences from 1887-1937 Ottawa 1954 Vol 1, p 139, Quoted in Irving H To Constitute a Nation Cup Cambridge UK 199 p

[2] Quoted in Walker, J What were they thinking? The Politics of Ideas in Australia, UNSW 2010 p 115

[3] Official Record of the Debates of the Australasian Federal Convention Vols I-V, Sydney, 1891, Adelaide Sydney Melbourne 1897-1898, Sydney: Legal Books, 1986 Quoted in Irving H p 116

[4] Hansard p 5158

[5] Quoted in Rickard J H B Higgins: the Rebel as Judge, Allen and Unwin, Australia 1984

[6] Hansard 1901 p 5180

[7] Hansard, 1901 p 3504

[8] Hansard 1901 p 3505

[9] http://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/smith-arthur-bruce-8462 Accessed 28/08/2016

[10] Hansard, p 5154

[11] Hansard p 5155

[12] Hansard p 5159

[13] Hansard p 5141

[14] Hansard p 5163

[15] Hansard p 5157

[16] Hansard p 5167

[17] Hansard p 7152

[16] Hansard p 5157

[18] Hansard p 7155

[19] Hansard p 7185

[20] Cole E W “Humanity” No 1 (self published) Melbourne no date ( (1898?)

[21] Walker, David and Collins, Kane 2008,’ Other voices, other traditions : Swimming against the mainstream in Australian history’. In D'Cruz, J.V., Neville, Bernie, Goonewardene, Devika and Darby, Phillip (ed), As others see us : the values debate in Australia, Australian Scholarly Publishing, North Melbourne, p 12

[22] Kemp D ‘Edward Foxall: A classical liberal in a racist age’, Policy Vol 27 No 3 (Spring 2011) p 35

[23] Gizen-No-Teki (Foxall, E) Colorphobia: an exposure of the “White Australia” Fallacy. R T Kelly, Sydney 1903 pp 66-7

[24] Colorphobia p 70

[25] Colorphobia p 79-80

[26] Colorphobia p 233

[27]AEC: ‘Electoral Milestones for Women’ accessed 2 November 2016.

Andrew Keese

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