Seven key moments in Australia’s multicultural journey

To celebrate the seven decades of AMES Australia’s work supporting newly arrived migrants and refugees to build new lives in Australia, we have selected seven seminal moments that define Australia’s successful journey to becoming a truly multicultural nation.

These points in history have shaped our society and, despite some setbacks along the way, making it one of the most diverse, cohesive and inclusive on the planet.

Arthur Calwell’s ‘populate of perish’ speech

At the end of World War II, Australia’s government determined that the nation’s future security and prosperity could only be guaranteed through having a larger population.

Australia’s first Minister for Immigration Arthur Calwell expounded the need for a larger workforce and people for protection. He estimated that the population needed to increase by 2 per cent, twice as much as could be gained by natural growth. To make up for the shortfall, Calwell calculated that Australia would need 70,000 immigrants per year.

When enough migrants could not be procured from Britain ‘foreign’ migrants, mostly from-war torn Europe were welcomed. Australia had already signed the International Refugee Organisation (IRO) agreement, in which it agreed to accept war refugees or ‘displaced persons’ from all over Europe.

The government's objective was summarised in the slogan "populate or perish".

The end of the white Australia policy

On 23 December 1901, the Immigration Restriction Act came into law. It had been among the first pieces of legislation introduced to the newly formed federal parliament.

The legislation was specifically designed to limit non-British migration to Australia. It represented the formal establishment of the White Australia policy.

In 1966, the Liberal government under Harold Holt effectively dismantled the White Australia policy and increased access to non-European migrants.

After a review of immigration policy in March 1966, Immigration Minister Sir Hubert Opperman announced applications for migration would be accepted from qualified people "on the basis of their suitability as settlers, their ability to integrate readily and their possession of qualifications positively useful to Australia".

At the same time, the government decided to allow foreign non-whites to become permanent residents and citizens after five years (the same as for Europeans), and also removed discriminatory provisions in family reunification rules.

As a result, annual non-European settler arrivals rose from 746 in 1966 to 2,696 in 1971.

In 1973, the Whitlam Government adopted a completely non-discriminatory immigration policy opening the way for increased Asian immigration.

Peter Norman’s 1968 Olympic gesture

At the 1968 Mexico Olympics US athlete, Tommie Smith won the 200-metre final with a then world record time of 19.83 seconds.

In second place was Australian athlete Peter Norman. After the race, Smith, Norman and John Carlos, who came third went to the medal podium together.

Smith and Carlos famously joined in a Black Power salute using gloves. Smith later described it as human rights salute, not a Black Power salute.

Norman wore a badge on the podium in support of the Olympic Project for Human Rights (OPHR). After the final, Carlos and Smith had told Norman what they were planning to do during the ceremony.

They asked Norman if he believed in human rights. He said he did. They asked him if he believed in God. Norman, who came from a Salvation Army background, said he believed strongly in God.

Smith said that the three knew that what they were going to do was far greater than any athletic feat. He said he never forget Norman’s words: 'I'll stand with you'

Norman returned home to Australia a virtual pariah, suffering unofficial sanction and ridicule because of the Black Power salute.

He never ran in the Olympics again. He was not selected for the 1972 Munich Olympics despite recording qualifying times. His 200-metre time is still an Oceania record.

The 1975 Racial Discrimination Act

The Racial Discrimination Act of 1975 effectively made racial discrimination unlawful in Australia, overriding existing state and territory law.

It was passed by the Whitlam Government which also established the Australian Human Rights Commission to oversee the legislation and to act as a watchdog and complaints mechanism on human rights matters.

The Act followed the final dismantling of the White Australia policy in 1973 which removed race as a criterion in Australia’s immigration policies. All immigrants, regardless of their origin, were made eligible for citizenship after they had lived in Australia for three years.

Instructions were made to overseas posts to disregard race entirely as a factor in the selection of immigrants.

The 1975 Act gave legislative effect to the end of ‘White Australia’. In his 2013 Whitlam Oration, Indigenous Leader Noel Pearson said the legislation was ‘akin to the Civil Rights Act 1964 in the US’.

It is the law that secures for all Australians, whatever their racial background, equality before the law.

But it did not enjoy an easy birth. Then Attorney-General in the Whitlam Government, Senator Lionel Murphy had previously tried unsuccessfully to introduce the bill three times: in November 1973, April 1974 and October 1974.

His successor Kep Enderby managed to get the Bill passed in 1975, the final year of the Whitlam Government.

Malcolm Fraser accepts refugees from Indochina

One of former Prime Minister Malcolm Fraser’s major legacies is the fact that he opened the door to thousands of Vietnamese who became refugees in the 1970s as a consequence of the Vietnam War – a conflict in which Australia had participated as an ally of the US.

Following the fall of Saigon in 1974, a first wave of Vietnamese fled their homeland driven by hopes of achieving freedom, liberty and a better life for themselves and their families. Today, they are known as Australia’s first boat people.

It was Fraser who allowed more than 50,000 Vietnamese to start their new lives here in Australia in what was a politically courageous decision at the time.

Fraser, who died in 2015 after becoming a champion of refugee causes, always said his decision was based on compassion and out of a sense of responsibility for Australia’s involvement in the conflict.

But it was also one which showed foresight because many Vietnamese refugee families who then made Australia their home are today making a remarkable contribution to the nation.

The decade-long Vietnam War and its aftermath displaced over half of the Vietnamese population and forced millions of people to flee the region.

While most fled by land to neighbouring countries, thousands also escaped by boat to Thailand, Hong Kong, Singapore, the Philippines and other South-East Asian countries. Only a relatively small number, around 2060 people embarked on the voyage by boat to Australia.

In his response to the crisis, Fraser effectively developed what was Australia’s first refugee policy.

As a result, a Humanitarian Program within the immigration portfolio was introduced and continues to respond to humanitarian crises to this day.

Fraser was also a strong supporter of the concept of multiculturalism which began to emerge as the basis for migrant settlement, welfare and social-cultural policy in Australia during the Whitlam Government in the early 1970s.

In the 1981 inaugural lecture of the Australian Institute of Multicultural Affairs, Fraser outlined his commitment to ‘work together to bring the promise of multiculturalism to fruition’.

Apology to the stolen generation

On February 13, 2008, the then Prime Minister Kevin Rudd made a formal apology to Australia’s Indigenous peoples, particularly to the Stolen Generations whose lives had been blighted by past government policies of forced child removal and Indigenous assimilation.

The journey to national apology began with the Bringing Them Home report – the findings of an inquiry instigated by the Human Rights and Equal Opportunity Commission in 1995.

“We apologise for the laws and policies of successive Parliaments and governments that have inflicted profound grief, suffering and loss on these our fellow Australians. We apologise especially for the removal of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander children from their families, their communities and their country,” Mr Rudd said.

The Western Australian Government was the first state government to act, issuing its apology on 27 May 1997. By 2001 all state and territory governments had issued apologies. Only the Australian Government, until then had, refused.

Accepting displaced Syrians in 2015

In 2015, as the conflict in Syria reached a bloody peak, the then Australian Prime Minister Tony Abbott announced that nation would increase the number of accepted refugees from Syria.

Mr Abbott’s decision to accept an extra 12,000 Syrians came after photos of drowned Syrian toddler Aylan Kurdi on a Turkish beach shocked the world and put a human face to the dangers faced by refugees trying to reach safety.

Under the Abbott and subsequent Labor governments, Australia’s refugee intake rose from 13,750 to 18,750. Under the current government, it has returned to the former number. 

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