Racism and labor movement
Humphrey McQueen, in his influential book A New Britannia emphasises the
racism endemic in the Australian labour movement at the start of its
development in the 1890s. Iggy Kim, of the Green Left Weekly, in his
pamphlet, The Origins of Racism, locates the early Labor Party as the
prime source of racism in Australia and then draws a very long bow to
argue that you should vote in current elections for his small socialist
party, because the Labor Party has these racist roots, and in his view,
is still hopelessly deformed by them.
At the same time, Pauline Hanson accuses Labor of flooding Australia
with unassimilable migrants, so that by the year 2050 we may be governed
by a half-Indian, half-Chinese lesbian cyborg.
Journalist Paul Sheehan accuses the Laborites of stacking safe Labor
seats with Asian migrants, and asserts that the whole migration practice
of the 1982–96 Labor government was an attempt to unacceptably change
the racial character of Australia. The Geoffrey Blainey, Robert Birrell,
Katharine Betts bunch put a similar spin on current Labor attitudes and
practices in migration.
News Weekly, the fortnightly newspaper of the National Civic Council,
founded by Bob Santamaria, also constantly denounces Laborism for
encouraging multiculturalism and «unacceptably high» levels of family
reunion. Finally, the Liberal government of Howard and Costello tip
their hat towards all this perceived opposition to migration by reducing
migration quotas and increasing obstacles to family reunion and to
migrants receiving social welfare, obviously with the hope that they
will gain electoral advantage from this.
This vortex of accusations against the labour movement about migration
has the effect of arousing my latent labour movement patriotism, which
has been mostly submerged during the last few years by my anger at the
seemingly inexorable shift of the ALP to the right. My old instinct to
defend the ALP is stirred up by all these contradictory, but possibly
currently popular, conspiracy theories about the Labor Party and
The main aim of most these attacks on Labor over migration is to damage
Labor’s prospects by appealing to what is perceived by many conservative
pundits to be a latent racism and atavism in Australia. All this tends
to make me feel that the trundling old ALP monolith can’t be quite as
bad as it often appears in other circumstances.
A more important question, ideologically and theoretically, and a very
useful one strategically, is to try to understand what realities are
reflected in these strange, contradictory attacks to equip us for the
future. It is a very important question to ask: how we got from the
labour movement racism of the 1890s to the relatively civilised policies
and practices of the labour movement today.
It is really quite extraordinary that the same political party, the ALP,
which fought extremely hard to entrench the White Australia Policy in
Australian life, should now be denounced by the Hansons and Sheehans for
«being the main agency flooding the country with Asian migrants and
pouring them into safe Labor seats». A serious investigation of how the
labor movement’s attitude to migration, and particularly Asian
migration, was changed, has a very practical bearing on how we can
ensure that the labour movement develops and entrenches a civilised and
realistic policy and practice in migration matters.
Some people interested in Marxist theory raise the question of the
«reserve army of labour» in relation to migration. They say that the
capitalist class encourages migration in order to create a pool of
labour for the development of capitalism and that the capitalists do
this with the intention of maintaining a sufficient surplus of labour to
keep the price of labour down. They thus extend Karl Marx’s discussion
of the unemployment/reserve army of labour issue to the question of
However, Marx never argued against the right of workers to migrate to
other countries because they might then form part of the reserve army of
labour. It is a fact that in whatever they do, including the
encouragement of migration, the capitalist class pursues its own
interests. They certainly wish to take advantage of a reserve army of
It’s worth making the point here that the working class itself has no
intrinsic interest in attempting to prevent the development of
capitalism as a social system. The working class itself develops its
independent consciousness and its organisation as part of the
development of the capitalist system, although in conflict with the
capitalist class over wages, conditions and other workers’ interests.
In Europe, the Americas and Australasia, working-class living standards
in the 19th and 20th centuries could not have risen in the dramatic way
that they did without the expansion and development of capitalism as a
global social system. It’s a kind of crude Luddism (machine-breaking) to
think you can stop that process of development. It’s worth noting the
point that in the United States, Australia, New Zealand, Canada and
Latin America, the sites of European mass migration, all the periods of
mass migration (the 19th century, and the 1950s and the 1960s in
relation to Australia) have also coincided with a rapid rise in living
It is almost a truism of trade union activity that the best time to
press hard for improvement in wages and conditions is during the early
stages of the upswing in the boom-bust cycle endemic to the capitalist
system, and this upswing usually coincides with periods of increased
What actually happens with mass migration is that the capitalist class
always attempts to use the latest cohort of migrants as a source of
cheap labour, to weaken trade unionism and the struggle for living
standards. In most of the cases mentioned, the new migrants, being the
objects of greatest capitalist exploitation, usually wise up pretty
fast, and become involved in trade union and and other struggles for the
economic and social interests of the whole working class.
It was like that in the United States and Australia in the 19th century
and it has been like that in Australia in the 1950s, 1960s and 1970s.
The capitalist class wants a «reserve army of labour», but what mass
migration produces is a proletariat with real class interests, which
always poses in real life the question of working-class organisation.
It is always wrong and unprincipled, from a socialist point of view, to
try to stop migration. It is unethical to do so from the point of view
of the working-class ethics at the core of Marxism. It’s impossible to
stop anyway, because of the powerful dynamism of the so far not
expropriated capitalist system, a dynamism that continues to operate in
the same framework as the equally pronounced tendency of the capitalist
system to devastating and periodic crisis, which is also inherent in the
In migration matters, it is far better, both from the point of view of
socialist ethics and practical politics, to accept the reality of
migration under capitalism and to turn all energies towards uniting the
working class, both migrants and those already here, in common struggle
for their economic and social interests. In my long experience of the
labour movement, left talk about the reserve army of labour in relation
to migration has usually disguised an essentially anti-migration, and
often racist content.
From the commencement of white settlement in Australia there was a
constant shortage of labour, which slowed down capitalist development
and led the representatives of the different capitalist interests to
explore different sources of migrants for the Australian colonies. A
number of assisted migration schemes were organised from the British
Isles by the British and colonial governments and they satisfied the
labour demand to some degree, although one constant idiosyncracy was
that the assisted migrants included far too many rebellious Irish to
make the British Australian ruling class feel comfortable.
From the 1840s gold rushes on, the constant shortage of labor, combined
with the development of embryonic but reasonably effective trade
unionism in the Australian colonies, forced the price of labour quite
high, particularly from the 1860s through to 1890. This caused
considerable comment throughout the capitalist world. Australia became
quite famous for the high cost of labour, which the capitalist class
resented and the working class celebrated.
Because of this perceived high cost of labour, various sections of the
squatting elite toyed with the idea of importing large numbers of Indian
and Chinese coolies to keep wages down. They also kidnapped
(«blackbirded» in the racist language of the time) a lot of Kanaks
(usually referred to in those times as Kanakas) from the South Sea
Islands, with the same intention.
The ship owners tried to run coastal shipping in Australia with cheap
Chinese crews. What they found very early on was that even the Chinese
«coolies» and «Kanakas», once they landed in the Australian environment,
started to get themselves organised. Kanaks in Queensland organised
embryonic trade unions and had strikes. The Chinese started to organise
a seamen’s union, and Chinese in Melbourne organised a Chinese furniture
Despite the incipient development of trade unionism among the Kanaks and
Chinese, the main response of the existing white colonial proletariat
was to feel strongly threatened by «cheaper coolie labour». Such a
response meshed in with, and even subtly expanded and extended, the
prevailing racist ideology of the British empire, and it was a more
simple although cruder response than the notion of working-class
internationalism put forward by a small minority of progressives in the
labour movement, and some other liberal-minded people.
In 1878 a major flashpoint was the engagement on a number of ships of
Chinese labour at rates of pay much lower than the prevailing rate. This
produced a bitter strike of white seamen, which was basically
successful, and ultimately the Chinese seamen were removed. The sole
Labor representative in parliament of that time, Angus Cameron, was an
energetic and vocal leader in this anti-Chinese agitation.
This attempt of a section of the capitalist class, spearheaded by the
shipowners, to import cheaper Asian labour for their own economic
interests, was totally overwhelmed by the explosion of racist
opposition, which gained such powerful force from the whole ethos of
«British Australia», the ethos that had been so assiduously cultivated
by the British Colonial Office and the Protestant churches for the
previous 70 years.
As a direct result of the success of the anti-Chinese agitation, the
White Australia line of least resistance in the labour movement became
quite institutionalised by the use of the rhetoric of British racism to
oppose migration from non-British areas. In times of economic downturn,
it even became a very popular thing in the labour movement to oppose all
migration, including British migration.
The Sydney Labor Council actually employed a young John Norton
(paradoxically, a British migrant himself) the same man who later became
famous as the pioneer of tabloid journalism, the lineal business
ancestor of Rupert Murdoch, who founded one of the tabloid titles that
Murdoch now owns. The Labor Council sent Norton to London as its
official delegate to publicise and campaign there for the viewpoint that
migrants shouldn’t come to Australia because there was unemployment
At this time the Labor Council frequently passed motions against the
assisted migration schemes and any further immigration. All this is
recounted in Cyril Pearl’s wonderful, scabrous biography of Norton, Wild
Men of Sydney. This book so infuriated the Norton family that they used
their considerable newspaper influence to persuade the right-wing Labor
government of Joe Cahill in NSW to push through the parliament a bill
making it possible to take defamation actions on behalf of the dead.
Happily the legislation was never used.
By far the best book about The Bulletin is The Archibald Paradox, by
Sylvia Lawson, published by Penguin in 1983. Lawson describes how the
unusual and inventive editor, J.F. Archibald founded and developed The
Bulletin in the 1880s and 1890s. This newspaper, with its carnival
parade of styles in writing and blackand-white art, opened its pages to
many thousands of contributors, among them Henry Lawson and Banjo
Paterson, who were first published there. In her introduction, Sylvia
The Archibald paradox is simply the paradox of being colonial…. The
Bulletin’s republicanism and nationalism flowered out of the paradox.
The republicanism worked as inspiriting argument for a time; but
nationalism supervened. It was expressed strongly, through the late
1880s especially, as viciously chauvinistic racism – directed
especially, but not only, against the Chinese. In this the editor, with
all his compassionate, world-ranging perspectives, was not alone; but he
was responsible. The Bulletin would have seemed at the time simply to be
playing out the stern logic of its economnic realism, and standing in
necessary opposition to the laissez-faire tolerance of the pontifical
daily press. The old world was murderously oppressive; the new must be
just and free, untainted not only by poverty and caste but also by
strangeness. Thus the paradox worked: the dominant culture, which in one
breath The Bulletin lampooned and disavowed, was upheld vigorously in
the next. The prospective Utopia, the dream of «Australia» – federated,
republican, democratic – was landscaped for white men only. The
internationalist humanism, enacted so brilliantly in the journal’s range
of reference and its open-pages policy, was denied in the racist
argument; it was also undermined and disfigured perennially in much of
the Bulletin’s discourse on women.
The Bulletin unquestionably left a considerable imprint on Australia,
particularly on the labour movement. A general republican sentiment and
opposition to the pretensions of the ruling class can be traced back to
The Bulletin but, unfortunately, so can the generalised anti-Asian
racism that came to dominate the early years of the new century.
The strong editor, Archibald, had a veritable preoccupation with the
Chinese. (The Bulletin always referred to them as «the Chows», and this
unpleasant obsession unhappily had a considerable cultural influence on
After Archibald’s death, The Bulletin was acquired by other owners who
swung over to the Tory side of politics while retaining all the exotic
racism of the founder, and all through the 1920s, 1930s 1940s and 1950s,
The Bulletin was both viciously anti-Labor and rabidly racist, adding to
Archibald’s anti-Asian racism a vicious anti-semitism. Finally, in the
1960s, the magazine was acquired by the Packer family, and is now a
rather pedestrian business magazine and appears to have shed the racism
of the past. Thank heaven for that!
However, even in the 19th century there was a significant amount of
opposition to racism in the trade unions. The following exerpt is from a
chapter by Mick Armstrong in Class and Class Conflict in Australia
edited by Rick Kuhn and Tom O’Lincoln.
Consider the early Amalgamated Shearers’ Union (ASU), notorious for its
exclusion of Asians. There is no doubting the racism of the ASU
leadership, which became more pronounced as a conservative bureaucracy
strengthened its control, after defeats in the Great Strikes of the
1890s weakened the position of militants. Yet the union members were
more open to ideas of inter-racial unity than most historians contend.
In 1889 Robert Stevenson, a militant organiser, won the support of the
Bourke branch for allowing Chinese shearers to retain their membership.
The Bourke members, predominantly landless labourers, were more open to
ideas of working-class unity than members nearer the coast, where small
The ASU (shearers’ union) paper, The Hummer, in 1891 exposed the
terrible conditions of Aborigines, and they were exempt from the racist
exclusion clause. Indeed at the 1891 ASU conference the Adelaide branch
moved to admit Aborigines for half the normal fee. A compromise was
reached: Aborigines received full benefits by payment of an annual
contribution, without the entrance fee.
It was not only militants who supported this measure. The more
conservative general secretary David Temple thought it would be a
«graceful act to those from whom the country had been taken», and that
it would be good for the union’s image.
Nevertheless, by the time of federation, labour movement opposition to
migration had become solidly entrenched and the White Australia Policy
had become an almost unchallengeable orthodoxy in the labour movement.
The labour movement didn’t produce the White Australia Policy. It was
initiated by the British ruling class, emanating from the Colonial
Office in London, and it oozed out of the general fabric of
BritishAustralia imperialist bourgeois ideology. Nevertheless, despite
its ruling-class origins, this unfortunate attitude became extremely
entrenched in the labour movement.
The heroic member of the Left Opposition in Russia, Victor Serge,
towards the end of his life, was challenged by theoreticians who
completely opposed the Russian Revolution. He responded to this by
It is often said that the germ of all Stalinism was in Bolshevism at its
beginning. Well, I have no objection. Only, Bolshevism also contained
many other germs – a mass of other germs – and those who lived through
the enthusiasm of the first years of the first victorious revolution
ought not to forget it. To judge the living man by the death germs which
the autopsy reveals in a corpse – and which he may have carried in him
since his birth – is this very sensible?.
Much the same analogy can be applied to the argument put forward by Iggy
Kim, that the germ of racism was absolutely dominant in the formation of
the Australian Labor Party. That may have an element of truth, but there
were many other germs present in the early years of the Australian
labour movement and the ALP. While the racism was dominant, it was
contested by significant and vocal minorities in and around the labour
movement. My investigations have led me to the conclusion that there
were two significant currents that dissented from the prevailing racism.
One location of opposition was the hierarchy of the Catholic Church,
which was an international outfit, the boss of which was an Italian in
the Vatican in Rome, and it had a largely Irish flock in Australia,
thoroughly alienated from the rhetoric of British Australia.
There were also quite a few Catholics who weren’t British. Cardinal
Moran defended the Chinese. Moran also, on a number of occasions,
articulately exposed the imperialist activities of Protestant
missionaries in the South Pacific. Caroline Chisholm defended Asian
migration to Australia. Archbishop Duhig, the long-time and politically
very right-wing Archbishop of Brisbane, nevertheless stood up
strenuously in opposition to racism against Italians and Maltese in
North Queensland, obviously partly because they were part of his own
Some of the group settlements of Italians in North Queensland were
actually organised by the Catholic Church. A bit later on, during the
BritishAustralia hysteria of the First World War, Archbishop Mannix
strenuously defended German and Austrian Lutherans and Catholics against
the prevailing madness.
While it wouldn’t be accurate to idealise the racial attitudes of
ordinary Catholics, who no doubt shared, to some degree, the prevailing
racism of Australian society at that time, their Irish origins made
their racism more equivocal than that of the majority. In addition to
this, the international connections of the Catholic Church, and
particularly the Catholic hierarchy, brought an international influence
into play that implicitly contradicted the local racism.
Even the fact that some Catholic priests went overseas to Rome or
Louvain to train, had a rather internationalising effect on the Catholic
Church. The fact that the overwhelming majority of Catholics supported,
and many were active in the labour movement, brought this influence to
bear in the labour movement.
The other major site of opposition to racism was in the socialist,
Marxist and secular groups and sects in or around the labour movement.
Quite a few early socialists and left-wingers in Australia were
themselves non-British migrants. Such groups as the Industrial Workers
of the World (IWW) were explicitly anti-racist from their inception.
The largest and most influential socialist group in Australia before the
First World War was the Victorian Socialist Party. It was well
entrenched in the ALP, and was, through linked socialist organisations
in other states, influential all over Australia.
The VSP was repeatedly convulsed by debates and arguments over the White
Australia Policy and the race question. There are three important
sources on this debate. One is These Things Shall Be, an objective but
filial biography of his father, Bob Ross, by Edgar Ross; the chapter, A
Socialist Dilemma: Racism and Internationalism in the Victorian
Socialist Party 1905–21 by Graeme Osborne, in the book Who Are Our
Enemies? Racism and the Australian Working Class, edited by Ann Curthoys
and Andrew Markus; International Socialism and Australian Labor by Frank
Farrell; and Doherty’s Corner, the biography of Marie E.J. Pitt, by
The major debate in the Victorian Socialist Party erupted in 1907. To
quote Graeme Osborne:
The case for socialist brotherhood was put initially by a non-Party
member, a remarkable Victorian public servant – Miss Amelia Lambrick –
who wrote first under the pseudonym Hypatia. She launched the debate by
urging socialists to recognise that they had not yet grasped the full
meaning of socialism in Australia. When they did they would see as its
unique essence an insistence on brotherhood which demanded freedom and
equality for all peoples. Unfortunately Australian socialists who though
quick to recognise the nature and beauty of brotherhood… are often slow
to realise what it involves. We generalise loudly but particularise
softly. We shout «Brotherhood» in the major and «White Australia» in the
minor and seem quite unconscious of the discord…
Both «reason and righteousness» compelled socialists to recognise the
antagonism between socialism and the White Australia Policy, and the
inconsistency involved when «we repudiate the rights of a privileged
class, and uphold the rights of a privileged race». Accordingly
Australia’s socialists must seek to open her abundance to her crowded
Within the Party her principal support came from the poet Bernard
O’Dowd. He acknowledged the delicacy of the issue when he wrote of
Hypatia’s «courage» and congratulated Tom Mann as editor of The
Socialist for running «this dangerous, but necessary discussion». Though
conceding that immigration restrictions might be necessary on occasions
to protect workers against unfair competition, he attacked the racist
assumptions that frequently underlay such a view. European cultures were
not necessarily superior, nor was it evident that interracial unions and
their progeny were in any way inferior. Further, if such unions were
undesirable it was not a matter for males alone to decide. For O’Dowd
socialism meant democracy. To realise democracy it was necessary to
absolutely eliminate… colour from all State and social policy, unless
you would justify… caste, wealth, rank, birth and education, as giving
title to privileged treatment…
Some in the Party, however, when discussing the immigration question,
saw very definite reasons for limiting the application of the principles
of democracy and socialist brotherhood. In advocating restricted
immigration, they began by stressing the need to defend the economic
position of workers, but nearly always eventually revealed a range of
racial assumptions. Prominent in these assumptions were the
inevitability of racial incompatibility, the dangers of pollution and
contamination, and the horrors associated with sexual encounters across
racial boundaries. W.J. Baxter and Mrs M.E.J. Pitt were the leading
protagonists of such views…
Baxter’s heroic depiction of woman’s role as defender of the race and
his sexual chivalry won the approval of Mrs Pitt, one of the first Party
members to voice doubts openly over coloured immigration. Mrs Pitt found
the prospects of sexual encounters across racial boundaries «repulsive»
and under normal conditions «impossible». In her view «perfect
brotherhood» would be quite as perfect «without any blending of the
white and coloured races». She concluded:
«As a woman… I cannot allow the occasion to pass without very sincerely
thanking Mr Baxter for his treatment of his subject as affecting the
woman, and particularly for his able and singularly luminous expression
of the instinct in the woman of any race which makes for racial purity –
an instinct… as dear… as life itself, and… being so, should be equally
dear to the nation to which she belongs.» Clearly, in Mrs Pitt’s view
the connection between racial purity and nationalism was indissoluble.
This debate continued in the Victorian Socialist Party for the next 10
years, with both anti-racist and pro-racist views having quite
widespread support, both among the rank and file and the leadership of
the party. The debate was still unresolved as the Victorian Socialist
Party gradually declined in the 1920s after many of its supporters and
members crossed over to the newly formed Communist Party following the
One very significant generally left-wing figure in the VSP was
R.S. Ross, who through his own socialist magazine, Ross’s Monthly,
widely popularised the Russian Revolution. Despite this, Ross remained a
defender of the White Australia Policy, and this is discussed carefully
and intelligently, but quite critically, in veteran Communist Edgar
Ross’s very useful biography of his father, Bob Ross.
A rather interesting sidelight on this debate is the personal story of
the poet Marie Pitt and the poet Bernard O’Dowd, who clashed so sharply
on opposite sides in this debate. As far as one can tell from the
records, their views didn’t change, but they got together personally and
became quite a well-known couple in Melbourne intellectual circles. This
was complicated by the fact that O’Dowd was married to a Catholic woman
who would not give him a divorce, and so O’Dowd and Marie Pitt became
quite a notorious item in the rather moralistic atmosphere of Melbourne
in the 1920s, and remained together into old age, until Marie Pitt died.
In their own way, they struck a considerable blow for civilised, modern
living arrangements. This is all described rather nicely in Colleen
Burke’s book about Marie Pitt’s life, which also contains an excellent
selection of Pitt’s poetry.
One significant opponent of White Australia at its inception was the
quirky, independent-minded Melbourne bookseller, E.W. Cole. He published
a number of pamphlets and articles at his own expense, opposing the
White Australia Policy, which was quite a courageous line of action,
considering that his large Melbourne retail business might have been, on
one reading of the situation, affected by his public stand on White
Australia. It did not seem to be, as his business went from strength to
strength in the early years of the new century.
The most important bourgeois opponent of White Australia was Bruce
Smith, the Free Trade MP for Parkes in NSW. He was a very significant
figure in the capitalist class. He was the principal of Howard Smiths,
the shipowners, and he was a fairly determined opponent of trade
He was obviously partly motivated by his antagonism to George Reid, the
Free Trade leader, who had formed several Free Trade governments in NSW
by getting Labor support at the price of enacting a lot of progressive
pro-Labor legislation. Smith had been his main opponent within the Free
Trade party of this parliamentary line-up.
Smith’s lengthy and intelligent speech against all aspects of the bill
embodying White Australia in the newly established federal parliament,
was the only one against it, and he was attacked by his fellow
politicians on all sides for his stand, which didn’t seem to overawe him
He even subsidised the publication of a hardback book opposing White
Australia, a large part of which consists of a reprint and discussion of
his speech in the parliament.
This 235page book, printed in Rowe Street, Sydney, by R.T. Kelly and
Sons, in 1903, a copy of which I own, is called Colorphobia. An Exposure
of the White Australia Fallacy, by Gizen-No-Teki (obviously a pseudonym)
concentrates its criticism of White Australia on Smith’s fellow Free
Traders, particularly Reid, who supported White Australia, and on the
labour movement advocates of White Australia. A curious feature of this
book is that it is written from the point of view of the advocates of
Henry George’s single tax on land. Maybe Bruce Smith was a Single Taxer.
The conflict over conscription during the First World War had a number
of complex and conflicting racial overtones. The BritishAustralia racism
of William Morris Hughes and the ruling class was used to whip up wild
jingoistic hostility to Germans and Turks in Australia, and to the
«disloyal» Irish Catholics.
Unfortunately the anti-conscription side resorted to a certain racism of
its own, with accusations that the ruling class intended to flood the
country with cheap labour from unacceptable places. This conflict came
to focus around an unfortunate shipload of 214 Maltese migrants, who had
the bad luck to arrive in Australia on a French ship, the Gange, in the
middle of the first conscription referendum campaign in 1916.
As the propaganda of the anti-conscription side against the government
about Maltese migration was obviously damaging the government in the
referendum, Hughes ditched the interests of the Maltese migrants, whom
he had previously encouraged.
The unfortunate Maltese were first of all interned for some weeks in New
Caledonia, and then they were detained for a further long period like
convicts on a dilapidated old hulk at Berry’s Bay in Sydney Harbour. A
mad and virulent controversy ranged around the heads of these
unfortunate immigrants for nine months.
They were defended by a courageous and redoubtable Maltese priest,
Father Bonnet. After being thus interned for such a long time, they were
finally allowed to land in Australia in March 1917, well after the first
conscription referendum. Predictably, the most vehement advocates of
deporting the Maltese were the bureaucracy of the Australian Workers
One wonders whether Terry Muscat, the Maltese migrant, who was recently
elected National Secretary of the AWU, may even have had the odd
relative on the Gange. The shameful incident of the internment of the
Maltese, is described in detail in Barry York’s very fine book, Empire
and Race. The Maltese in Australia 1881–1949.
The greatest atrocity perpetrated by British Australia against any
cultural group after the enormous atrocities committed against
indigenous Australians, the Chinese, and the Kanaks, was the ruthless
cultural destruction of the GermanAustralian community during the First
This is described thoroughly and graphically in a 400page book Enemy
Aliens by Gerhard Fischer, published by University of Queensland Press
in 1989. The large GermanAustralian community was assaulted by
anti-Boche hysteria in every possible way. All the German-language
schools in South Australia and Queensland were closed down. Many
Lutheran churches were locked up. Even the German names of villages of
German settlement (like Hahndorf in South Australia) were changed. An
arbitrary and brutal policy of internment was inflicted on the German
Not everybody was interned. That would have been impossible, as there
were about 70,000 people of some German ancestry. But all the
significant leaders of the German community, and many others besides,
were interned in a completely arbitrary way. They included Edmund Resch,
the brewer, interned at the age of 71, a large number of Lutheran
ministers, a Catholic priest, Australia’s foremost orthopaedic surgeon,
a number of musicians, a waiter in a German club who happened also to be
a member of the IWW, the secretary of the Sydney Motor Chauffers Trade
Union, who had committed the unpardonable sin of leading a successful
strike of his members in time of war, a second-generation German
Australian leader of the wharfies’ union, and even a second-generation
farmer in the Riverina who was interned just a week after his eldest
son, a volunteer in the AIF, had been invalided back from France.
Many of the GermanAustralians interned were Australian citizens and many
had even been born in Australia. No evidence was ever produced of
political activities on behalf of the German war effort.
The citizens of other belligerent countries on the other side in the war
were also interned extremely arbitrarily, including Bulgarians,
Austrians, Turks, and even some Afghans who were classed as sympathetic
to Turkey because of their Muslim religion.
In Western Australia the then racist mineworkers union played an
unpleasant role, succeeding in provoking the internment of 300 southern
Slavs, Croatians and Slovenes, who were classed as enemy aliens because
they were citizens of Austria-Hungary. These were mainly mineworkers at
Kalgoorlie, who the racist union had been trying to exclude from the
mines for years.
Even some Serbs, who were actually British allies in the First World
War, were interned, so viciously confused was the attitude of authority.
Later, a number of Russians, also ostensible allies, were interned,
really because of their trade union and labour movement activity. Most
of these people were locked up in an enormous concentration camp at
Holsworthy near Liverpool, in NSW.
When the war ended, these prisoners, who by then numbered about 6000,
were kept interned until after the signing of the Versaille Treaty in
1919, when the overwhelming majority of them were ruthlessly deported to
their countries of origin. A few, like the brewer Resch, managed to stay
in Australia after mounting an extensive and costly legal campaign,
which he had the resources to fund. The overwhelming majority of the
Germans were not so favoured by circumstances.
Many of the deportees were back-loaded on empty troop ships. A large and
significant number of those deported were Australian citizens, and many
were Australian-born. So much for «citizenship» in British Australia.
According to Fischer’s book, hundreds of migrants who weren’t enemy
aliens, but who were politically and industrially active on the left,
were deported in the same sweep.
To quote Fischer: «The total number of deportees, based on the shipping
lists of the nine transports, comes to 6150. Of these, 5414 had been
interned, the remainder were family members and uninterned exenemy
aliens who either accepted the offer to be repatriated or were ordered
to leave the country.» The major Australian figure who publicly opposed
this atrocious witch-hunt was His Eminence Archbishop Mannix.
The intrinsic cruelty of all this is almost unimaginable. Six thousand
people uprooted and implacably deported from this country where they had
built their lives, and had lived for many years, to the chaotic and
miserable Europe of the 1920s. The main instrument carrying out all this
brutality was BritishAustralian military intelligence, particularly one
Major Piesse, whose name will be remembered in infamy for generations.
An examination of the written records of military intelligence suggests
that all this cruelty was motivated by a kind of mad, but in a way
logical, notion that the crisis of the war gave the British economic
interests the chance to settle accounts with German business activity in
Australia and the Pacific, which was seen as a major competitor with
The GermanAustralian cultural community was cowed and crushed by this,
and the old centres of German community settlement have never really
regained their German multicultural aspect, which is a great pity for
the cultural richness of Australian society.
Nevertheless, one of the ironies of all this is that after the Second
World War substantial German migration to Australia recommenced, and
when you refer to the redoubtable Charles Price and his computer
breakdowns of Australian ethnicity, he presents convincing evidence that
the German ethnic component in Australia is still the largest after the
English, Irish and Scottish, and ahead of the Italian and Greek, at
about 4 per cent of the mix. The current best-known GermanAustralian is,
of course, Tim Fischer, the leader of the National Party.
The foundation of the Australian Communist Party, as a section of the
Communist International, in 1920, had considerable repercussions, over
time, on the labour movement’s attitude to the White Australia policy
and racism. From its inception, the Communist Party had a formal
opposition to the White Australia policy and racism, though many of its
members were quite naturally still influenced by the prevailing racist
mood of the labour movement as a whole.
Nevertheless, even the left-wing union bureaucrats, the ‘Trades Hall
Reds’, led by Jock Garden, the Secretary of the Sydney labor Council,
took, for that time, quite a courageous stand against racism. They
affiliated the Sydney Labor Council to the Pan Pacific Trade Union
Secretariat, which had its headquarters in Vladivostok, which included
unions in a number of Asian countries.
This gave rise to a hysterical clamour from the establishment and
right-wingers in the labour movement, like the bureaucrats of the
Australian Workers Union (AWU), who accused the Sydney Labor Council of
thereby undermining the White Australia Policy, which was in fact true,
and completely laudable.
At the ACTU Conference in 1930 there was quite a complex battle over
affiliation to the Pan Pacific Trade Union Secretariat, with the
conference evenly split over the issue, the Sydney Labor Council and
Garden in favour of the affiliation, and Bob Ross, who by this time had
shifted somewhat to the right, opposing the affiliation.
The Australian Workers Union leadership became an entrenched force
defending racism in the trade union movement. Throughout the 1920s they
induced successive AWU conventions to oppose all migration and they even
persuaded a couple of conventions to carry resolutions against the
«southern European menace».
The Queensland AWU even attempted to prevent Italians and Maltese
joining the union, and joined the extraordinary and unpleasant racist
mobilisation against Italian and Maltese cane farmers and farm workers
in North Queensland. North Queensland had also, however, a tradition of
industrial militancy and the Communist Party grew rapidly in the late
1920s and the early 1930s in North Queensland.
The North Queensland communists, who were initially mostly Anglo-Celtic
indigenous North Queensland militant workers, took a strong stand right
from the commencement of their independent political activity, against
the prevailing North Queensland racism. In the middle 1930s they led
major industrial struggles, particularly the very effective strike in
favour of burning the cane to prevent Weils disease, led by the notable
communist militant Jim Henderson.
This struggle, despite the bitter opposition of the AWU leadership, was
spectacularly successful, and Henderson and the other North Queensland
communists were able to draw the Italian and Maltese cane cutters and
cane farmers into the struggle, thereby largely defeating and pushing
aside the racism.
Many North Queensland Italians and Maltese joined the Communist Party,
and by the time the Communist Party was declared illegal in 1940, its
influence in North Queensland was enormous, including a very
considerable influence among the Italians, Maltese and Spanish immigrant
farmers and workers. Fred Paterson, the Rhodes Scholar Communist, who
was elected as the only Communist member of Parliament ever in
Australia, for the seat of Bowen in the 1940s, got an enormous vote
amongst the Italian, Maltese and Spanish migrants in the area.
All these developments in North Queensland are described in detail in
Dianne Menghetti’s excellent book, «The Red North». (It is one of the
wonderful ironies of trade union history that in 1997 a bitterly fought
election took place in the Australian Workers Union. Two teams were in
conflict, one a coalition of some right-wingers and some left-wingers,
and the other one the traditional leadership of the Queensland AWU. The
left-right combination defeated the Queensland group, and even got 46
per cent of the vote in the large Queensland AWU branch.
The successful candidates of this team were Graham Roberts for
President, a left-winger from Port Kembla, and a right winger, Terry
Muscat, for AWU General Secretary, who also happens to be a Maltese from
Melbourne. The Queensland AWU has come a long way in 60 years!)
Most of the 1920s and all the 1930s were a period of mass unemployment,
and the labour movement tended to oppose all migration throughout the
period. Also, the conditions of mass unemployment and some bitterly
fought strikes at the onset of the Depression created an environment in
which the use of some migrants as scabs in industrial disputes led to an
explosion of chauvinism.
The most unfortunate examples of this were the waterfront strike in
Melbourne, in which Italians were taken straight off the ship, so to
speak, and used as scabs. This gave rise to many ugly incidents. There
were also extensive race riots on the Western Australian gold fields in
the early 1930s, directed at Yugoslavs and Italians.
During the race riots in Kalgoorlie the Communist Party played a heroic
role, attempting to combat the outbreak of chauvinism directed at the
Italian and Yugoslav miners, who were accused of competing with
Australians for a declining number of jobs. This vigorous defence of
migrant miners by the Communist Party led many Yugoslav and Italian
migrants to support the Communist Party for quite a period afterwards.
Another feature of the 1920s and the 1930s in the labour movement was a
certain amount of thoughtless anti-semitism. The notorious architect of
the Premiers’ Plan sent out by the Bank of England to put Australia
«under orders», so to speak, was one Otto Niemeyer.
He was actually descended from Prussian bankers, «pure» Germans, who had
come over to Britain with the «German Georges», who became kings of
England. Nevertheless, the persistent urban myth grew up that he was
Jewish, and this gave rise to a long lived and widespread popular
propaganda about «Jewish bankers» which, unfortunately, became mixed up
with the completely righteous opposition, in the labour movement, led by
J.T. Lang, to the «Premiers’ Plan».
This was particularly pronounced in Catholic circles, where the mild
anti-semitism of G.K. Chesterton and Hilaire Belloc, which was mixed
with their anti-capitalist radicalism, had considerable influence. In
the late 1930s, when Jewish refugees from Hitler began to knock on the
Australian door, so to speak, the labour movement confusion between
Jewishness and capitalist banking, gave rise to a certain unfortunate
resistance to Jewish migration in some labour movement circles.
This is all documented in «Australia and the Jewish Refugees 1933–1948»,
by Michael Blakeney. Once again, a significant part of the left,
particularly the Communist Party, were a notable and honourable
exception to this anti-Semitism, and defended the right of the Jewish
refugees to enter Australia. An example of this agitation was a couple
of excellent Communist Party pamphlets by Len Fox debunking
anti-semitism and defending the right of Jews to come here.
Julia Martinez, of Wollongong University, has been doing her PhD on the
above topic. She published a most informative article, a preliminary
part of her thesis, in «Labour History» magazine for May 1999. The
picture that emerges from Martinez’s pioneering research underlines the
social dynamics in both Australian society and the labour movement, in
the very special but culturally significant circumstances of the
Northern Territory, that eventually undermined «White Australia» on an
Australian national scale. Martinez’s investigation shows the evolution
of trade union and labour movement attitudes in the Northern Territory.
In 1901, when White Australia was adopted, Port Darwin, the main town in
the Territory, had a small population of mixed origins and initially the
White Australia Policy was supported by the trade union movement.
However, special objective circumstances prevailed because the workforce
was actually of very mixed racial origins, including many people of
mixed white, Asian, and Aboriginal origin and many non-British European
migrants. BritishAustralian racism was, in practice, very hard to
enforce in the frontier conditions of the Northern Territory.
The tiny trade union movement paid strong verbal allegiance to the White
Australia Policy, but even at the start a number of exceptions were made
for people of mixed racial origins, both for practical reasons and for
the more ethical reasons of basic human solidarity. Martinez describes a
variety of arguments in the emerging Northern Territory trade union
movement about these questions.
The 1911 census gave Darwin’s population as 1387, including 442 Chinese,
374 Europeans, 247 «full-blood» Aboriginals, with the rest being
Japanese, Filipino, «half-caste» Aboriginal and Timorese.
During the First World War there was a complicated industrial struggle
by Darwin wharfies, which had the ugly side to it that the Department of
Aboriginal Affairs attempted to use Aboriginal labour, compulsorily
employed at slave rates, to undermine the interests of the unionised
Another interesting feature of the Darwin waterfront was that most of
the white wharfies were non-British migrants and were significant
scapegoats for the mad BritishAustralia racism of the First World War
period. Industrial Workers of the World (IWW) supporters in Darwin, who
were quite numerous, attempted to organise all workers on an
internationalist basis, but the endemic racism was more powerful at this
period and non-racist internationalism remained a minority current,
although it surfaced from time to time.
In one strike of white wharfies the leader of the strike said that their
only friends were the Chinese and in another strike, the Japanese Pearl
Divers Association, who were not allowed to join the North Australian
Workers Union because of White Australia, gave money to the union in
In the 1930s things began to change quite rapidly. The two sources of
civilised changes in relation to racism, were the two significant
recurrent forces in the Australian labour movement, the socialist stream
expressed in the Communist Party, pushed on by the Comintern’s
anti-racist policy, and the Catholic current.
To quote Martinez about Darwin in 1937:
If we look some 20 years ahead, to 1937, the social make-up of Darwin
has altered and the unionists have formed themselves into a
working-class community with close ties to the coloured population. This
next section, considers the character of Darwin society in 1937 and
three positive influences on Darwin unionism which had a tempering
effect on White Australia. Those were the growing influence of communist
internationalism; closer connections with Asian labour movements; and
most importantly, a sense of community which included «coloured»
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