The image of Australia is often that of a continent of whites, mostly British, then and now. This is the legacy of the long standing controversial "White Australia" mentality before and after the Federation. A government policy was initiated as a bill to be passed through the Parliament, and was fiercely defended by Alfred Deakin. The bill then became the Immigration Restriction Act 1901. Labour leaders supported the bill as well, many of them having inserted similar clauses in Labour party doctrines before. A prominent Labour Premier of NSW Jack Lang explained these Labour initiatives in his memoir "I Remember" with stern words of justification.
The decision to adopt a "White Australia" policy was a democratic one, given the massive and loud rhetoric in the country at the time. There had been problems during the gold rush and other regional development, where hard working Asians tried to share fortunes found with European settlers. Unions worried about cheap labour from Asian workers and then their weakening power in business and politics. Unions of white workers then took the matter into their own hands and pushed for an exclusion of non-whites from this country.
This national movement was in sync with vast and fast expansion of colonisation in the 19th century, during which a white rule steamrolled many other existing races. It is then hard to imagine that in this antipodean corner of the world people would behave any differently and offer fair deals to races which were subjected to superior white rule everywhere else. Democracy or civil liberty did not provide noticeable protection for particular minority groups; rather these ideas boosted the morale of white campaigners for a drastic, formalised solution to the race issue before the colonies were declared a sovereign nation.
Since Australia had a small population for this huge land, European Caucasian descendants and politicians decided to reserve it for the good of their original motherland, England. To them, this immigration act was not selfish, but an honest one. For an isolated continent of Australia, it would better be kept this way for one acceptable race and skin colour. The purity would guarantee later success and sustain an ideal nation. The process to pass the bill was considered by many a gentleman taking action on some kind of injustice. Great minds of this modern democracy in time of expansion did not intend to hide their straightforward prejudice and discrimination, as words of "colour", "aliens", or "racial purity" were common slurs, because social customs and norms of the era permitted them to do so. This somewhat sarcastic fact resembles the glorious Roman Empire where citizens held all rights and were served by slaves who got none. The support for the act was quite universal within the country. As the legislative arm of the government passed the bill and the motherland issued their consent, all was legal, to be enforced in a systematic and humane way.
The Whitlam Labour government formally dropped the "White Australia" policy, 70 or so years after the act was enacted. Australian whites by then no longer felt threatened by "coloured" people, the population of the country grew several folds, as such the sense of isolation and sparsity under massive waves of Asians waned considerably. Those prevalent feeling of helplessness in Federation years had ceased to make sense. More importantly, a matured civil society has been solidly established in Australia.
By the time I first set foot on Australia's soil in the mid 1980s, things turned out quite differently. The "White Australia" policy had been superseded by multi-culturalism. What a dramatic reversal this was ! This leap of faith was without doubt a gigantic one and must have skipped over the previous insurmountable. It is now difficult to pin point what caused the government and the public to retreat from that formerly steadfastly upheld policy. As there was a higher calling of humanism above lingering colonial mentality, the concrete wall against Asian, non-European immigration came to fall piece by piece in Australia.
During my long stay in Australia, there were growing trends of bi-lingual education and learning under the guidance of multi-culturalism. This was first taken as an additional way to make assimilation less troublesome for non-English speaking people, then it is understood that extra language capabilities could facilitate trade and bring more bonuses to the Australian economy. In particular, of Asian languages offers some helps in communication to smooth out difficulties Australia may face in the Asia Pacific region. By the time of the Sydney Olympics, there were significant progress as the outcome of effort and hard work by Australian people and the government. During the bidding process and around the Games, Australia's promotion pieces highlighted the harmonious coexistence of various races in this country, including many images of Asian and Aborigines in this big family, consciously avoiding giving people an impression of white dominance in the society.
As an Australian citizen of Chinese origin, I in principle agree with this courageous statement made in those years of high spirit, as people can see clearly the endeavours of Labour governments in the past decade. A minor concern is on the future and continuity. There are incidents against this principle of multi-culturalism, and open racism become more visible. This is not just a matter of shifting government policies; it derives from a century long dilemma of coexistence and equal standing. It is vital to uphold this multi-culturalism under government of both parties, despite resistance and loathing of particular social groups.
Old habits die hard. The colour prejudices could easily spring up. It is not an uncommon street scene of Aussie teenagers or adults in their bulky cars or utes, often without mufflers, sitting or bursting out abusive slurs toward Asian passers-by. Even if you are well educated and far from looking like a third world refugee, this encounter of racial abuse often come at unexpected moments and could totally ruin one's good regard of Australian people a a whole in a split of a second. This is a scene you don't encounter in Asian regions towards westerns, slurs not racially based targeting white people. These are scenes almost exclusive in Western countries, deriving from an unease over immersing Asian immigrants and mirroring deep bigotry in seeing an imagined shrinking space for whites.
During my years teaching at a university in Melbourne, white and Chinese Australians clashed occasionally but openly in classroom, arguing the truthfulness of certain events involving Chinese culture or proper racial treatment. Some radical second generation local Chinese students vented their anger in after class chats with me towards a number of "arrogant Aussie" classmates. I declined their invitation to attend their action meetings, on the ground of neutrality of a teachers. A more recent indication was the sudden eruption of sentiments in the racially charged incident at the quiet Cronulla beach of Sydney in 2005, in stark contrast to promoted images of racial harmony during the Sydney Olympics. The government staggered for a while before taking some decisive actions.
Existence of racism can be easily denied by even the participants of this occurring; it is there because many are simply not aware of it, and it is so natural a thing in daily life and in customary heritage that people thought it harmless. As they are not target of racism themselves, it is hard for them to recognise something out there as not quite right. It is perhaps a little too much to ask for a showing of a perfect human nature so that the slightest racism has nowhere to stand. In real life, nasty human nature keeps coming out to play absurd racist tricks with people's good intentions, and the tasks ahead remain as restraining racist currents to a minimum and weeding those elements out in a consistent way.
From an overwhelming all-embracing "White Australia" reality to a transforming multi-culturalism society, it has only been a mere three decades in the century. The leap in faith is remarkably gigantic indeed, while recurring racist tides appear inevitable during this process. The crux of the matter is whether the initial progress of multi-culturalism is truly irreversible and whether there is a risk of tolerance and good will becoming rare commodities, if imperative issues are not handled properly. Te conclusion one can arrive at, based on the path of multi-culturalism and recent racist displays, is that it is extremely hard to eradicate racial discrimination white clean, even in Australia.