Source: Self-published pamphlet, August 5, 1999
Transcribed by Steve Painter
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 federal 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 John Howard and Peter 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 past 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 migration.
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 as 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 labour 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 unemployed reserve army of labour to the question of migration.
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 labour.
It is 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 is a kind of crude Luddism (machine-breaking) to think you can stop that process of development. It is worth noting 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 1960s in Australia) have also coincided with a rapid rise in living standards.
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 migration.
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 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 is 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 system.
In migration matters, it is far better, 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 migrant and native born, 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 beginning of white settlement in Australia there was a constant shortage of labour, which slowed 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 labour, 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 workers union.
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 with, and even subtly added to, 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 on 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 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 here.
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 black-and-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 Lawson says:
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 Australia.)
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 antisemitism. Finally, in the 1960s, the magazine was acquired by the Packer family, and became a rather pedestrian business magazine that appears to have shed the racism of the past. Thank heaven for that!
However, even in the 19th century there was 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.
The ASU's 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 did not 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 British-Australia 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 saying:
Much the same analogy can be applied to the argument put forward by Iggy Kim, that the germ of racism was 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 two important currents 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 flock.
Some of the group settlements of Italians in North Queensland were actually organised by the Catholic Church. A bit later on, during the British-Australia hysteria of World War I, 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, 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 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 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. Groups such as the Industrial Workers of the World were explicitly anti-racist from their inception.
The largest and most influential socialist group in Australia before World War I 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 Colleen Burke.
The major debate in the Victorian Socialist Party erupted in 1907. To quote Graeme Osborne:
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, in both the rank and file and 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 Russian Revolution.
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 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 important 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 unionism.
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 in 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 one bit.
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 235-page 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 World War I had a number of complex and conflicting racial overtones. The British-Australia 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 on 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 raged over 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 Union.
One wonders whether Terry Muscat, a 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 German-Australian community during World War I.
This is described thoroughly and graphically in a 400-page book Enemy Aliens by Gerhard Fischer, published by the University of Queensland Press in 1989. The large German-Australian 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 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 Australian community.
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 German-Australians 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, 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 World War I, were interned, so 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 Versailles 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 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 ex-enemy aliens who either accepted the offer of repatriation 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 British-Australian 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 Britain.
The German-Australian 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 World War II 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 German-Australian 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 formally opposed the White Australia Policy and racism, although 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, and 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, such as the bureaucrats of the Australian Workers Union, 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 affiliation, and Bob Ross, who by this time had shifted somewhat to the right, opposing it.
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 tried 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 there in the late 1920s and the early 1930s.
The North Queensland communists, who were initially mostly Anglo-Celtic indigenous North Queensland militant workers, took a strong stand right from the start 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 among 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 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!)
Mass unemployment prevailed for most of the 1920s and all the 1930s, 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, trying to combat the outbreak of chauvinism directed at 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 party for quite a period afterwards.
Another feature of the 1920s and the 1930s in the labour movement was a certain amount of thoughtless antisemitism. 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 NSW premier J.T. Lang, to the “Premiers’ Plan”.
This was particularly pronounced in Catholic circles, where the mild antisemitism 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, much 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 antisemitism 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 of 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” nationally. 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. British-Australian 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 origin, 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” Aborigines, with the rest being Japanese, Filipino, “half-caste” Aboriginal and Timorese.
During World War I there was a complicated industrial struggle by Darwin wharfies, which had the ugly side to it that the Department of Aboriginal Affairs tried to use Aboriginal labour, compulsorily employed at slave rates, to undermine the interests of the unionised wharfies.
Another interesting feature of the Darwin waterfront was that most of the white wharfies were non-British migrants and were scapegoats for the mad British-Australia racism of World War I period. Industrial Workers of the World supporters in Darwin, who were quite numerous, tried 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 said 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 support.
In the 1930s things began to change quite rapidly. The two sources of civilised changes on 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:
Throughout the 1930s the influence of the Communist Party in Darwin, particularly on the waterfront, steadily increased. The Communist Party faction in the North Australian Workers Union moved several times for the admission of qualified members of all races to membership, but were defeated each time, though gathering for this proposition a substantial minority, which steadily increased throughout the 1930s.
However, even the moderates in the union, who were mostly Catholics, and the Labor member for the Northern Territory, Harold Nelson, a former wharfie and also a Catholic, by and large fought to bend the rules of the union to let in mixed-race and Asian workers, despite the formal rules, and these non-racial attitudes gradually strengthened all through the decade.
The mixed-race character of the Catholic community contributed to this change in attitudes. The final defeat of racism in the North Australian Workers Union came later, in the 1950s when all racial exclusions were dropped by the union, ahead of the AWU in Queensland, for instance.
In a very real sense the concrete and complex interaction between objective conditions and the more civilised attitudes of both left-wingers and Catholics contributed to the changes in the Northern Territory, which in a way prefigured the same complex relationship between objective conditions produced by mass migration, and political ideology and religious beliefs, in the eventual overthrow of the White Australia Policy throughout Australia. Maria Martinez’s detailed study of how this developed in the Northern Territory is of the utmost importance for any understanding of the changes in the Australian labour movement in the 20th century. Martinez’s conclusions follow:
The atmosphere in Australia during World War II happily did not become quite as jingoistic as it did during the World War I. At least, anti-fascist Germans and Italians were released from internment relatively quickly, and unlike the viciousness after World War I, at the end of the war, civilian internees were allowed to stay in Australia if they wished, no Australian citizens were interned or deported, and even prisoners of war who were repatriated were often allowed to return as migrants.
Nevertheless, there were a number of ugly incidents and events. Many Italians and Germans who had no connection with the Nazi or Fascist politics of their homeland were unreasonably interned, including even a number of Jewish refugees from Nazism, who were unfortunate enough to be German citizens, like the quite famous group of very talented migrants to Australia who came on the ship Dunera.
Also, the Communist Party, which, by this time had been thoroughly deformed by Stalinism, was so preoccupied with the international interests of the Soviet Union that it whipped up a quite sickening anti-Japanese hysteria. The otherwise very talented and useful Communist Party journalist, Rupert Lockwood, became, in particular, the effective publicist for a really virulent anti-Japanese rhetoric. In later life he may have come to regret, for instance, his rather bizarre 16-page pamphlet, Japan’s Heart of Wood.
In this pamphlet Lockwood says that as all Japanese cities, both factories and housing, were built of wood, it would be very easy and militarily desirable to burn them to the ground by the use of incendiary bombing, a rather bloodthirsty notion indeed, made a bit redundant later in the case of Japan by the horrifying and devastating use of the atom bomb. (Although incendiary bombing was subsequently used in a dramatic way by the mad British warlord, Bomber Harris, against Dresden, in Germany.)
When the atom bomb was dropped on Japan, the Communist Party newspaper, Tribune was beside itself with delight. On August 16, 1945, a few days after the blast, Tribune published a macabre cartoon, captioned “Jappy ending”, showing the atom bomb going into the middle of a recumbent samurai shield emblazoned with the rising sun.
Several good things happened during World War II on migration and relations with Asia. When the Japanese invaded Timor, many Portuguese, including trade unionists, anarchists and communists, who had been political prisoners of the Portugese government in Timor, were evacuated to Australia.
In Australia, the Portuguese authorities were forced to release them, and some of them were later allowed to settle in Australia. When the Japanese invaded the Netherlands East Indies, the Dutch also evacuated to Australia and brought with them a number of Indonesian nationalist and communist political prisoners, who they kept in a small concentration camp on the north coast of NSW.
These Indonesian prisoners managed to communicate with the wharfies and seamens unions in Sydney, and the left of the labour movement, particularly the Communist Party, conducted a very energetic campaign that resulted in their release from internment.
These Indonesian nationalist and communist refugees in Australia became the centre of the campaign immediately after the end of the war in support of the Indonesian revolution against Dutch colonialism. In the course of this struggle, the maritime unions placed a very effective ban on Dutch shipping, and the Communist Party, in particular, took the initiative in a broad public campaign in support of the Indonesian independence struggle.
This broadened to include the whole labour movement, and the subsequent good relations that Australia had with independent Indonesia stemmed from this totally justified campaign in the labour movement in support of Indonesian independence. Rupert Lockwood’s wonderful book, Black Armada, is an indispensable account of these critical events on Australia’s involvement with Asia.
The eclipse of Imperial British White Australia began at the end of World War II, and the individual agent of that demise was the quite extraordinary transitional figure in this process, Australia’s first immigration minister, Arthur Calwell. Calwell is a figure to whom historians pay far too little attention, and to whom they have been rather unkind.
He was a rather unfashionable Labor leader, he never became prime minister, he courageously led the opposition to the Vietnam War in the early years of the war when it was more popular, and he wasn’t very handsome. Nevertheless, in creating modern Australia, he was an absolutely decisive personality. He was, in his origins, quite representative of the Catholic wing of the Australian labour movement.
His grandfather, actually, was a non-Catholic American migrant to Australia (Calwell is a Welsh name) and Arthur Calwell was a typical product of a mixed marriage, who became active in the Catholic community and the labour movement.
Despite the fact that his father was a sergeant of police, Calwell himself was investigated by military intelligence during World War I for his activities in the Victorian Socialist Party and the ALP in support of Irish independence and against conscription. He was both a Catholic and a socialist, but he was also a quite vehement supporter of White Australia, with vague, essentially racist views about Asians. He therefore embodied all the complex contradictions of the Australian labour movement on migration up to that time.
Calwell had developed a very pronounced labour movement version of the ideology of Australian nation building. He had the very strong view that mass migration was necessary to ensure the security and development of Australia. He persuaded Chifley, the prime minister, to make him the first Australian immigration minister towards the end of World War II.
Immediately after the war he took the lead in launching the largest program of mass migration in Australian history. He began this program using the rhetoric of British Australia.
He said in all his public statements that the Australian government would try to have many British migrants for every non-British migrant. Given his anti-British-imperialist, Irish-Australian antecedents, it is an open question whether his use of this British Australia rhetoric was genuine or cynical. I rather like the quite credible idea that Arthur Calwell was a bit like the determined deserter, the Good Soldier Schweik in Jaroslav Hasek’s novel, who kept proclaiming the patriotic slogan, “Forward to Budejovice”, while resolutely heading in the direction opposite to the front line, away from Budejovice.
Whether Calwell’s initial British-Australia rhetoric was genuine or delightfully cynical, the actual results were entirely different from the overwhelmingly British composition proclaimed as the objective of the immigration program. There weren’t nearly enough British migrants available, and more than half the migrant intake initially, and an increasing proportion thereafter, came from non-British countries.
The vast Italian, Greek, Maltese, German, Dutch, Yugoslav and Baltic contributions to Australian life date from Arthur Calwell’s postwar mass migration program. All through the 1950s, 1960s and 1970s, as different countries in Europe became more affluent, and therefore their inhabitants became less anxious to migrate, the sources of migrants shifted, in the 1970s, to Turkey, the Middle East and Latin America and, finally, in the 1970s and 1980s, to Asia.
Possibly as a belated compensation for the thoughtless mild antisemitism in Catholic and labour movement circles in the pre-war period, Calwell became quite a determined and resourceful sponsor of Jewish immigration in the immediate postwar period. A very widely publicised incident was that Calwell and the government actually connived at chartering several ships specially to transport Jewish migrants, although some other migrants were brought on these ships as a kind of camouflage, in the face of the antisemitic hysteria being whipped up by reactionary Liberal politicians.
Calwell is still held in very high regard in the Jewish community for this. He came under enormous fire for this from backward and hysterically antisemitic forces in Australia, such as the, by now thoroughly anti-Labor, Sydney Bulletin and bizarre representatives of the Melbourne establishment such as H.B. Gullett, the Liberal member for Henty. (Gullett died at a ripe old age last year and it was rather sickening to see the lengthy eulogies to this old scoundrel in the press, which completely failed to mention his vicious and public antisemitism.) It is quite important to remember just how antisemitic the old Melbourne establishment really is, and it’s worth reprinting Gullett (from the Blakeney book).
I believe that this is contrary to the desire of the overwhelming part of the people of this country, and if this policy is continued, we shall bitterly rue the day.
Further from Blakeney:
In the face of this determined effort by the conservative forces in Australia to whip up antisemitism, the Chifley Labor government and Arthur Calwell’s fairly large-scale organisation and encouragement of Jewish refugee immigration in the period from 1945-48, was both courageous and important in widening the sources of Australian migration.
Calwell’s great weakness was his residual anti-Asian racism. In his period as immigration minister, he resisted any weakening of the White Australia Policy. He became notorious for the deportation of several Asian wives of Australian citizens.
One interesting conflict was over the leaders of the Chinese Seamen’s Union in Australia. During World War II, another historical paradox had emerged. The Australian Seamen’s Union, which was once the centre of the strike in 1878 against Chinese seamen on Australian ships, had since the late 1930s, come under the leadership of the Communist Party, the union’s redoubtable general secretary being E.V. Elliott.
During the war the Communist Party leadership of the Seamen’s Union aided and assisted the organisation of a Seamen’s Union covering all the refugee Chinese seamen from Asia, who were based in and shipping out of Australian ports at the time, a rather nice historical recompense for the role of the Seamen’s Union in the racist removal of Chinese seamen from the Australian coast in the 1880s.
After the war ended, as immigration minister, Calwell pushed very hard for the forcible repatriation of these Chinese seamen to Asia, but the Australian Seamen’s Union fought very hard in defence of their right to stay. Nevertheless, despite this opposition most of the seamen were eventually repatriated to Asia.
One of their leaders, Arthur Locke, with the support of the Australian Seamen’s Union, managed to avoid deportation, and became ultimately one of the most respected figures in the Australian Chinese community. The other major leader decided to return, with his Australian Communist wife, to China and his life story is one of the most fascinating human interest stories of the 20th century.
This bloke got into trouble, like many other overseas Chinese Communists, and was imprisoned for some years during the Cultural Revolution. I met his son when he (the son) came back to Australia during the 1960s and this very young bloke who had been a Red Guard in China, a little tense and a little strained after his experiences in China, became active in our youth group, Resistance, and in the campaign against the Vietnam War. I often wondered what happened to this bloke, as I lost contact with him.
Much to my surprise, he walked thorough the door of my bookshop about nine months ago, and filled me in on his family’s history in the past 30 years. This tense young survivor of the Red Guards had been transformed by life into a confident and urbane man of affairs. Because of his Chinese language skills, he had managed to get a job in Foreign Affairs, and was working in the department in Canberra.
He had several tours of duty over the past 15 years as an Australian diplomat in Beijing. His mother and father had separated, but both were still alive and retired in Australia. His father had been “rehabilitated” after the Cultural Revolution and been made mayor of his old village in China.
After a few years of that, he had decided to return to Australia and was allowed in, but didn’t like it here the first time back, and returned to China after a couple of years. However, he didn’t like it too much in China either the third time around, and he had finally come back and settled for good in Australia, in his 80s, and was now living in Glebe, as was his ex-wife, a few streets away, and they were still friends.
I think the saga of this extraordinary family is one of the great Australian migration stories, and I’d like to tape-record the reminiscenses of the whole family. I wonder how many of the Asian migrants who were so unkindly and unfairly sent back to Asia in the Calwell years have managed also to come back to Australia in more recent times. It seems, happily, that this more negative aspect of Calwell’s activity wasn’t really very successful, even in the short term.
Arthur Calwell’s attitude to Asians was fairly representative of his place and time. There is a useful biography of Calwell by Colm Kiernan, but Calwell’s own autobiography, Be Just and Fear Not is the most fascinating insight into his life and times, although, as in all autobiographies, the author is the hero.
He disclaims any personal racism, but he waxes quite strongly against racial mixture, while claiming respect for all races. He obviously regrets, in retrospect, that he seconded the motion to drop the White Australia Policy from the ALP platform in 1967.
Paradoxically, he was the Labor leader most intransigent in his determination and his courageous leadership in opposition to the Vietnam War, and Australian troops’ involvement in that war. The complexities and contradictions in Arthur Calwell’s life are striking and obvious. In my view, however, the role he played in commencing and initially organising the 50-year-long postwar mass migration, with a majority non-British component, makes him the decisive political figure in the ethnic and cultural changes to Australia in the past 50 years.
The wonderful paradox of Arthur Calwell is that, as the major transitional political figure in migration policy, he set in train an inexorable process that broadened and widened the ethnic mix in Australia and ultimately led to the demise of the White Australia Policy, to which he was personally so wedded.
Our wonderful new multi-ethnic mixed-race Australia should build respectful monuments to Arthur Calwell, our first immigration minister, the man who kick-started the whole inexorable process of postwar mass migration despite the subjective contradictions in his attitudes on many matters. As Karl Marx was very fond of saying, “history is whole cloth”.
In the postwar period, the fluctuations in policy on migration of the different labour movement factions are worthy of a little comment. Initially, the Communist Party was completely opposed to mass migration. It was particularly opposed to immigrants from Eastern Europe, and conducted quite racist propaganda against Baltic migrants, who it accused of being fascists.
To quote the book, Mistaken Identity, by Castles, Kalantzis, Cope and Morrissey: “from the left-dominated unions in particular, the refrain of opposition to immigration was constant”.
In 1948 the Federated Ironworkers and the NSW South Coast Labour Council fought vigorously against the building of a migrant hostel in Port Kembla, claiming that “the Balts” who were to occupy it were ex-fascists and that only those who could prove to the Labor Council that they had a clean record should be employed.
In the same year the Miners’ Federation attempted to ban Poles from underground work declaring that plenty of Australians were willing to work in the pits if owners would only carry out improvements in health and safety conditions, which the availability of the Poles provided the opportunity to avoid. (At this time, the Communist Party was very solidly entrenched in the leadership of the South Coast Labor Council, the Ironworkers Union and the Miners Federation.)
On the other hand, at this time, the Catholic Industrial Group forces in the labour movement were quite vehement defenders of mass migration, obviously partly because they looked particularly on the Eastern European migrants as potential political allies.
As mass migration developed, the initial opposition of the Communist Party to it faded away, particularly as many migrants from Italy and Greece turned out to be left-wingers. By the time of the burial of White Australia between 1967 and 1972, for a moment in time, both the extreme right and the extreme left in the labour movement, including several Trotskyist groups and the Communist Party, at one extreme, and the DLP and the National Civic Council at the other, supported abolition of White Australia. This broad spectrum of support in the labour movement for the burial of the old labour movement shame of White Australia was widely commented upon by political observers at the time.
In the 1960s the rapidly changing moral climate produced by such things as the American civil rights movement, and the worldwide and Australian opposition to the war of imperialism on the people of Vietnam, triggered rising opposition to the White Australia Policy. This, combined with pressure from our Asian trading partners, produced a rapid build-up of political agitation for the abolition of the policy.
Initially, some forces in the ALP tried to resist this, even trying to proscribe ALP members from joining the Immigration Reform Group, the main public body pushing for repeal of the White Australia Policy. This opposition in the ALP collapsed rapidly, the 1967 ALP federal conference dropped White Australia from the platform, and the Whitlam government, in 1972, got rid of the remnants of White Australia by regulation and legislation. The speed and relative painlessness of these changes were quite striking, considering the previous 100-year orgy of racism and White Australia.
In May 1975 Saigon finally fell to the National Liberation Front. As my life had been dominated for the previous 10 years by the struggle against the war, and as I believed and still do that the NLF had majority support I, like many other thousands of Australians who had that point of view, celebrated for days when, as I put it on radio, in an interview, the battle-scarred dusty veterans of the NLF marched into Saigon, and immediately renamed it Ho Chi Minh City. My celebration, however, was marred by what I thought at the time was a piece of mindless bastardry.
The constant pleas of the then conservative Australian ambassador to the Saigon regime, the late Richard Price, that the Australians should evacuate all the Vietnamese who were embassy employees, and other Vietnamese who had been involved with the Australian war effort in Vietnam, was rejected out of hand by the Labor Prime Minister Gough Whitlam, and the then Labor government.
As an ALP member all my life, and as an opponent of the Vietnam War from day one, I was ashamed then, and I am still ashamed, of the Whitlam government’s action. Whitlam is reported widely to have said in private conversation that he didn’t want any more Vietnamese Balts in Australia, referring to the fact that many postwar Eastern European migrants had supported the conservative parties because of their dislike of Communism.
My view was, and still is, that while the Vietnamese on the losing side weren’t the majority in the country, it was a genuine civil war and they still had a large amount of support, and they obviously faced a bleak future in the new Vietnam. By our intervention in the war, we had made their likely circumstances even worse, and therefore Australia had a moral obligation to bring out as many as it could from the losing side. The fact that their political views might not agree with my leftist views seemed to me a secondary consideration to the basic question of humanity and human rights involved. Unfortunately, many left-wingers didn’t agree with me, and supported Whitlam’s point of view.
Two or three years later, the problem emerged again, in a spectacular way, when hundreds of thousands of Vietnamese boat people left Vietnam and many of them arrived on our shores seeking asylum. Another dispute erupted then in the Federal ALP caucus, with, unfortunately, a lot of the left repeating Whitlam’s earlier error, with all kinds of crude propaganda about the Vietnamese refugees having “hidden gold bars”, and so on.
To his eternal credit, the then Labor immigration spokesman, the late Mick Young, who was a very direct kind of man, and basically a very compassionate one, took the bull by the horns, flew to Darwin and had a good look at the forlorn refugees for a week or two. He then flew back to Canberra and, at a very notable caucus meeting, completely turned around the situation with a most moving, long speech, in which he described the very desperate human condition of these people, and in a very blunt way, poured ridicule on the “gold bar” theory of history.
The Labor caucus, including most of the left, thankfully, were shamed by Mick Young into adopting a civilised attitude to Vietnamese migration from then on, and a good thing too. One of the interesting ethnic and cultural paradoxes of the story of the Vietnamese in Australia is that, despite their initial bad experiences with the Whitlam government, and the fact that most of them have strongly anti-communist attitudes originating from having been on the side that lost the war, nevertheless, they have almost totally swung around to being solid Labor supporters in electoral politics in Australia because of their proletarian social circumstances here, and because the Australian Tories, in recent years, have been so racist.
Towards the end of the Whitlam government, the Timor question emerged. There can be no question that Whitlam and the Labor government placed a much higher value on relations with Indonesia than it did on the right of self-determination for the Timorese, and the current argument on the details of this story, involving Whitlam and Laurie Brereton, are absolutely fascinating.
I agree with Brereton’s view that the attitude of the Whitlam government on this question was wrong, and that the labour movement should make some historical acknowledgement of this.
The Indonesian invasion of Timor, of course, led to another quite large refugee migration to Australia. As a result of both these developments in 1975, there are now around 300,000 people of Indochinese background in Australia, and maybe 25,000 people of Timorese background. It’s fascinating how the revolutions and wars of the 20th century have had such enormous impact on Australian demographics.
In the 1960s the British government passed over the two small dependencies, the Cocos and Keeling Islands, and Christmas Island, both in the Indian Ocean, to Australian sovereignty. Both island groups were inhabited by largely Asian communities. Christmas Island, in particular, which had a large fertiliser mine, had some thousands of Asian workers employed at low wages. The saga of the battle of the Christmas Island workers for full Australian citizenship and Australian trade union rights, which was ultimately successful, added another modest but significant stream to the ethnic and cultural mix in Australia.
Early in the Whitlam government Al Grassby became the Minister for Immigration. He pioneered the adoption of the notion of multiculturalism and he took a significant part in the final liquidation of the White Australia Policy. Paradoxically, when the Fraser government was installed in 1975, it carried on the new Labor migration approach in a more or less bipartisan way and, in fact, it even carried the non-racial aspect of migration somewhat further, and the non-racial aspect of Australian migration policy became pretty well institutionalised in the Fraser years, which infuriates patrician opponents of migration like Katharine Betts and the Monash group.
During the Hawke years non-racial migration and multiculturalism as policy continued, and the ALP began to see even significant electoral benefits in it as the newer migrants often voted Labor, and this appreciation of possible electoral advantage served to further entrench a civilised attitude to migration in the ALP.
Paul Sheehan’s madcap notion, however, that it was possible for the Labor government to crudely manipulate migration in terms of individual seats, is obviously a beat-up, a tabloid, urban myth. How can a government influence where migrants are likely to move? It’s nonsense. Why would a Labor government want to move potential Labor votes into safe Labor seats anyway?
Many mass-production unions, such as the metalworkers, the building unions and the textile and clothing union are now overwhelmingly migrant in composition. Others, like the railways union and the Postal and Communication Workers Union also have very large migrant memberships, and even white collar unions have a substantial and increasing migrant component.
For a considerable time during the 1970s and 1980s, nearly half the membership of the very important Melbourne watersiders’ union was made up of one migrant nationality: Maltese. At the leadership level of trade unions, however, it has taken migrants, particularly recent migrants, a fair time to successfully assert themselves.
Nevertheless, in recent times, a scattering of individuals of migrant background has emerged in major leadership positions. Jennie George, an ACTU president, who is of Russian origin, was both the first woman and the first person from such a background to head the ACTU.
Mick Costa, now NSW Police Minister and previously secretary of the Labor Council of NSW, had a fairly meteoric rise within the right wing of the trade union bureaucracy of NSW. He is the son of an unskilled worker who migrated from Cyprus in the 1950s. In the rise of these two people to leadership positions, their ethnicity has neither been a particular advantage nor a particular handicap, so much have things changed in Australia.
In power relations in trade unions, the presence of migrants does not seem to have made any specific difference to who holds power, except in a couple of instances. It’s clear that the presence of many anti-Communist migrants from Eastern Europe in the Ironworkers Union was a factor in the defeat of the Stalinists in the union in 1951.
It is also clear that the fact that Nando Lelli (the main leader of the opposition to the right wing in the later change of leadership back to the left in the important Port Kembla branch of the ironworkers in the early 1970s) was an Italian migrant, gave his ticket a certain advantage with the overwhelmingly Greek, Italian and Macedonian membership of the Port Kembla branch at that time.
The only person of non-Anglo background who is currently a secretary of a major NSW union, Frank Belan, the secretary of the National Union of Workers, the old Storemen and Packers union (a member of the ALP right), appears to take excellent advantage of the circumstances of his ethnicity. His union has an overwhelmingly migrant composition. He, himself, is a 1950s migrant from the Dalmatian coast, the traditionally left-wing part of Croatia.
As he has risen in the union and consolidated his power, he seems to have judiciously stressed his ethnicity and combined it with a no-frills, no-holds-barred industrial militancy looking after his members, and an emphasis on rank-and-file information and activity through institutions such as a quarterly meeting of all the union’s delegates, at which the union provides refreshments afterwards. His ethnicity is obviously only one of the aspects of his power base, although a significant one.
However, one’s ethnicity is no guarantee of support in union elections if other factors intervene. In the recent conflict in the Victorian metalworkers union, which is overwhelmingly migrant in composition, a ticket led by Anglos called Johnson and Fairleigh overwhelmingly defeated a ticket led by someone with the Italian name of Corsetti, because obviously in that union battle the voters, mostly migrants, gave greater weight to the more industrially militant policies of the Johnson team than to the ethnicity of the leader of the opposing team. Taken as a whole, the trade unions are still run largely by Anglo or Catholic officials, and the rise to major positions of many people from the newer waves of migration is still to come.
The one union about which there has been an enormous hullabaloo over migrant participation is the Communication Workers Union. That’s something I know quite a lot about, as I was a member of that union for five years between 1958 and 1963, when I worked as a mail sorter in the enormous metropolitan mail centre that was then concentrated in one location in the GPO in Sydney.
Even 40 years ago, the mail centre was the focus of a great deal of intense trade union activity and intrigue, and I was in the thick of it, and I have tried, from outside, to keep abreast of the affairs of the union ever since. The mail centre, whether in one location or as it now is, in several, has always been a vortex of turbulent trade union activity.
Over the years since I was there, arrivals from every new wave of migration have moved into that job because it is a secure semi-skilled job, better in conditions and wages, say, than factory work. There has always been a broad left-right division in that union, with competing teams, splits within teams, unusual combinations, and sometimes strange alliances.
Control of the union has changed hands between the left and the right several times, and even between different factions and combinations of the right. For quite a period, Fred Richardson, father of Graham Richardson, a prominent figure in the Hawke governments, was the right-wing secretary of the union. Graham Richardson acquired a fair amount of his undoubted political skills at his father’s knee, so to speak, following the complex affairs of the Postal and Communication Workers Union.
In the late 1970s and early 1980s, the predominant migrant group was from Arab countries, but since then there has been a major influx of Vietnamese in the middle 1980s and more recently, other significant ethnic groups such as people from the Philippines, Sri Lanka and Burma, as well as many others. The mail branch is now probably the most multi-ethnic workplace in Australia.
In the 1980s the right wing won back control of the union from the left and this was assisted by the participation in the right-wing faction of two colourful individuals, Joe Kanaan and the late Jalal Natour, both Arabs. Kanaan subsequently fell out with the right, and made fairly widespread and pretty well established allegations about right-wing ballot rigging, of which he had personal knowledge.
Nevertheless, despite these exposures, the right still managed to consolidate its control, mainly in my view because of major errors of judgment by their left-wing opponents. Their opponents, rather than concentrating on the key industrial issues, made the major error of simply concentrating on scandals about the vote-rigging.
In a long court case over allegations by the left that there had been widespread collection of ballot papers among particular ethnic groups, and their filling in by certain right-wing union organisers, the right wing was proved to have engaged in this practice (which is illegal in a union election) on a large scale.
A number of the right-wing organisers refused to allow the court to test their handwriting, which some might think was a kind of admission. This court case went dramatically against the right, and Paul Sheehan’s shock horror about all these matters is largely based on this court case.
The left obviously believed that because of the result of this court case, they were home and hosed for the subsequent union election. They called themselves the Clean Team and concentrated their whole election campaign on scandals about the past collecting of ballot papers by their opponents. The left also made the enormous error of making an informal but very obvious combination for electoral purposes with a Liberal Party team in the union election, led by Quentin Cook. Unfortunately for the left, this campaign rebounded on them.
It was obviously seen by the members of the different ethnic networks that they themselves were being attacked as well as the right-wing union officials. The right wing conducted a very shrewd and rather brutal campaign. The main feature of this campaign was to highlight their support amongst the ethnic networks, combined with a very intelligent emphasis on the industrial issues facing postal workers at the time, which were neglected in the propaganda of the left.
The right-wing how-to-vote ticket, which advocated support for a number of the organisers who had refused to allow their handwriting to be tested, contained endorsements by about 300 elected delegates, including the main personalities in the majority of the ethnic networks. As the ballot was conducted under intense scrutiny, there was very little possibility of vote collection on this occasion, so that ballot, at least, must be regarded as genuine. There was a 60 per cent poll of the members eligible, which is an unprecedently high return in a postal ballot in any union and the right-wing ticket romped in by about five to one.
One feature of the campaign was a barrage of unsigned scurrilous leaflets, mainly from the right, an old tradition in the postal union, which goes back well before my time in the 1950s, into the prehistory of the union. One rather exotic leaflet, obviously from the right, invented a most elaborate meeting alleged to have taken place between a weird and sinister combination of characters, including all the main leftist candidates in the election, and a wonderful cast of other characters including Nick Minchin (representing Peter Reith), the Liberal Quentin Cook and Bob Gould.
I was phoned by a Melbourne industrial journalist who had received this weird and wonderful 15-page document. I said to him it was kind of flattering to be introduced in this context as such a demonic figure, but unfortunately for the story that he was hoping to write, the leaflet and the meeting were a complete invention, in the most bizarre traditions of the postal union.
The moral of this complicated tale, however, is the following: the different migrant groups who work in the post office are doing an entirely normal thing when they assert their rights to be elected as delegates and to exercise their votes in whatever direction they wish in the affairs of the union. Would Paul Sheehan and the Liberals who make the affairs of the postal union into a shock-horror beat-up, wish to deprive them of that basic right?
I don’t like the right-wing bunch who won that election, but that’s not the point. They managed to persuade an overwhelming majority of the members of the union to vote for them, and in that sense they won the election fair and square. They are in charge until the next election. That’s democracy. What’s wrong with that!
The right wing in the postal union have never been my friends, and, as I’ve indicated above, some freelance probably working in their interest even throws me into the pot in weird and wonderful scurrilous propaganda. Nevertheless, I defend strenuously the right of the members of the postal workers union, including the migrant members, to make their own decisions and to elect whoever they like, including people I don’t like.
My advice to the opposition to the right-wing incumbents in the union is to ditch their past electoral accommodation with the Liberal Quentin Cook, indicate strong solidarity with all sections of the union, including the incumbent officials, against the attacks of the Liberal government and the Paul Sheehans of this world, concentrate on developing a serious alternative industrial strategy to the incumbents, and try to win back a serious base amongst the various ethnic groups working in the Post Office, rather than cementing them behind the existing union leaders by ill-considered scandals about their ethnic networks.
To my mind this hullabaloo is rubbish. It is based partly on the fact that the rules of the ALP in Victoria allow for separate ALP branches based on ethnic groups. These ethnic branches tend to operate in areas where the particular group is concentrated.
The Victorian ALP has maybe 16,000 members, of whom perhaps 4000 are in these ethnic branches, which isn’t a particularly high proportion when you consider the number of migrants in Victoria, particularly in Melbourne, where the overwhelming majority of all ALP members are concentrated.
The political allegiances of these ethnic branches are as widespread as the complex spread of Victorian ALP factions, which are themselves a bit like the Byzantine court. In a rough breakdown, the Turks tend to support the Victorian right, some of the Greeks support the Theophanus faction of the left, but most of the Greeks support the mainstream Socialist Left.
The Latin Americans are in a loose alliance with the Leftist Pledge Group, the Vietnamese and Cambodians support the right, and the Kurds are said to be in a loose alliance with the Pledge. There are a number of ethnic Italian branches, and their loyalties are divided between the Socialist Left, the Pledge and the Right, and there are a number of parliamentarians and union officials of Italian background. The votes and shifting allegiances of these ethnic groups are quite significant in internal ALP affairs, but they are by no means decisive and they tend to replicate the general factional shifts and changing alliances and combinations in the ALP at large.
The allegiance of the ethnic branches to factions is diverse and not homogeneous, but the one thing that they do tend to do is eventually lay claim to a few parliamentary or local government positions for members of their own ethnic group, and what is wrong with that? Surely ethnic groups are entitled to reasonable representation in the ALP and in elected positions of public office.
In reality, recent migrants are rather under-represented in all political parties and public office, and a bit of organised activity by ethnic groups to redress this situation is to be expected and entirely reasonable.
The other state where ethnic groups have asserted themselves in the ALP is NSW, where Arabs, Turks, Kurds, Latin Americans and Macedonians have joined the ALP in large numbers in different areas and become major players in some rank-and-file preselection ballots. Once again, they have been anything but homogenous in their factional allegiances, and among the Arabs there are different groups anyway, particularly Muslims and Maronite Catholics.
Frequently, groups of people from ethnic backgrounds who have joined the ALP in support of one parliamentary aspirant or faction leader have subsequently split or have changed their allegiance holus bolus to some other aspirant or faction leader.
That’s often the way the ALP works. If the ethnic influx is too large or too dramatic, or otherwise over the top, the Administrative Committee sometimes intervenes to control it, as it did in the widely publicised conflicts in Marrickville and Enmore a few years ago, and in a factional battle involving mainly Arabs, which took place in the Lakemba area. Most of these collisions, the Lakemba one of which involved a conflict within the ruling ALP right-wing faction, were ultimately resolved by arrangements and deals about the seats in contention, rather than by a preselection ballot. In the event, in all those cases, the impact of the influx of migrants was significant to the outcome but not decisive.
Sporadic intervention of groups of people from migrant backgrounds in the ALP in NSW, in areas where there are lots of migrants, has become just another of the normal, healthy hazards of political life. What’s wrong with any of that? Should organised groups of migrants be prohibited from political participation? What about the influence of such institutions as the Masonic Lodge in the conservative parties? What about the longstanding and very effective influence of Catholics of Irish background in the ALP?
These things are all part of political life. I find the hullabaloo about ethnic groups asserting themselves in Labor politics utterly repellant. Different groups of migrants have exactly the same reasonable rights to assert themselves as my Irish Catholic ancestors and contemporaries did, and do, in Labor politics, and no amount of tabloid shock-horror is likely to stop this inevitable social process.
If you are active in Labor politics these days, it’s smart and wise to make sure that you give some care to the interests and concerns of whatever ethnic groups are demographically significant in your area. If you don’t, you may go to the wall, and it will probably be your own fault!
An interesting feature of the NSW ALP is the role of ethnicity in some of the factions. For a number of years, in the early 1990s, the right-wing general secretary of the ALP was John Della Bosca, of Italian extraction, and the left wing assistant general secretary, the most significant leader of the dominant faction in the Socialist Left, was Anthony Albanese, also of partly Italian background.
A prominent member of the sub-faction of the soft left, sparring with Albanese’s faction in the Socialist Left, is inner-city member of parliament, Sandra Nori, also of Italian background. In a recent, hotly contested pre-selection ballot for the seat of Sydney, which has the largest number of ALP members of any seat in the whole of Australia, the two front-running candidates were competent and presentable young professional women, both on the left, and both of second-generation migrant background, one Greek and the other Slovene.
Despite the fact that there were more Greeks who had pre-selection votes, the woman of Slovene background, Tanya Plibersek, won the ballot convincingly because of an effective network of local alliances. One idiosyncracy of this preselection ballot was that probably the only other family in the ALP in NSW with a Slovene component, was the family of Dierdrie Grusovin, MLC, Laurie Brereton’s sister.
The significant Brereton family machine in the area supported Plibersek, and the fact that Dierdrie’s husband is a Slovene may well have helped in this, although there were also other factors in play to do with complex local alliances and rivalries.
Another interesting feature of the NSW ALP concerning ethnicity is a recent changing of the guard in the dominant NSW right-wing faction. The NSW ALP right has always been a kind of pyramid, with power coming distinctively downwards from a very tight apex at the top. In recent years there has been some effort to make the right a membership group with occasional meetings, but the political reality is that the apex of the right-wing pyramid has overwhelming weight in that faction.
Traditionally, the apex has consisted of the ALP secretary and assistant secretary, the Labor Council secretary, the premier or leader of the opposition and the dominant figure in the right faction in the federal caucus. These five usually, between them, make the major decisions, which are then conveyed downwards pretty ruthlessly through the pyramid. This apex used to be pretty much a Catholic preserve.
With the recent changes in personnel in the right, that has changed completely. The surviving Catholic is Leo MacLeay, from the federal caucus. The others are: the Labor Council secretary, Mick Costa, an agnostic of Cypriot Greek ethnic background; Bob Carr, the premier, a Protestant, who is married to a Malaysian migrant; Eric Roozendal, the ALP general secretary, who is Jewish; and Mark Abib, the new ALP assistant secretary, whose father was a Muslim from Libya and whose mother was Italian.
This change at the apex is a pretty dramatic development in the NSW right any way you look at it, and it will be fascinating to see how it all works out. Whether you like the NSW right or not, and they aren’t traditionally my best friends, to say the least, this new line-up says something quite healthy about the evolution of the labour movement in NSW.
In Victoria the Labor leader, Steve Bracks, from the right-wing Labor Unity faction, was elected towards the end of last year, by the Parliamentary ALP. In the subsequent snap election, Labor won by a whisker and Steve Bracks is now the premier of Victoria. He is the first-ever premier of Victoria of non-English-speaking ethnic origin.
He is a Catholic who was born, raised and educated in Ballarat from a family of Maronite Catholic Lebanese Arabs, of the older cohort of Australian migration, who came to Victoria in the 1890s. The ALP and Victoria have come a long way since 1890!
Australia is now, demographically, ethnically and culturally, a new country. Our 19 million people break down roughly as follows:
The first 10.5 million, in combination with the secular working-class and middle-class section of the 8.5 million, are now a clear and increasing cultural majority in Australia.
Cultural diversity and inter-group mixing and extended social relations are increasingly the norm in Australian life. Intermarriage between Australians of different racial and cultural backgrounds is exploding in all social classes, and is fuelled in particular by the enormous cultural diversity in schools and universities.
In extended family networks of European origin in Australia, the family network that does not have at least one member married to someone of non-European background is increasingly becoming the exception, not the rule. (An interesting sidelight emerged during the Milosevich government frame-up of the Australian aid workers in Kosovo. This cynical frame-up was justified by supporters of Milosevich by pointing to the military and conservative political background of Steve Pratt. Even an Anglo conservative like Pratt has, in the course of his life, ended up in a second marriage to a fellow aid worker from Yemen. The television coverage of the aid workers’ predicament focused in part on the worried brother of the other aid worker, Peter Wallace, in Mackay, who quite obviously on the television, had an Asian wife. This suggests that diversity and multiculturalism are galloping ahead in all social groups, even the most conservative groups in Queensland provincial towns.)
This vast and irreversible change in Australian objective conditions is the material background to all realistic considerations of political strategy in the labour movement in relation to questions of migration and multiculturalism.
Paradoxically, the mainstream of the labour movement, and even a large part of the federal ALP parliamentary frontbench, is now a good deal more civilised on migration matters than some of the right and a lot of the left. For both moral reasons and quite rational electoral reasons, there is a significant consensus in a part of the parliamentary leadership around defence of multiculturalism and a reasonably high migration target. Frontbench figures in the ALP associated with such an approach are Nick Bolkus, Con Sciacca and Andrew Theophanous.
Left-wing parliamentary frontbenchers Lindsay Tanner and Martin Ferguson have also spoken up in support of reasonably high migration targets. On the ALP right, there is a lobby against further migration, which includes Mark Latham, and the NSW Premier, Bob Carr, which is a bit of a paradox, considering his wife, Helena, is an Asian migrant.
Carr is opposed to further migration on currently fashionable ecological grounds. Even more bizarrely, the newspaper News Weekly, founded by B.A. Santamaria, which so strenuously defended mass migration in the postwar period, now appears to be opposed, and conducts an absolutely unrelenting campaign against what it calls the “multicultural lobby”. On the left, a similar story prevails.
Quite a few figures associated with the traditional left have drifted back into the backwardness that used to prevail in the labour movement about migration in the early years of the century. On the left, the fashionable grounds for opposing further migration are the arguments used by the rather unctuously titled “Australians for an Ecologically Sustainable Population”.
People like Tom Uren, and Frank Stilwell, the notable Sydney University political economy lecturer, are prominent in this group. Stilwell was even a keynote speaker at a conference held recently in Sydney by the above AESP to oppose migration. It’s a curious paradox in labour movement politics when a lot of the Labor parliamentary leadership are more civilised on a major question like migration than leading left-wing figures like Uren and Stilwell.
For my part, anyway, I take a certain amount of pride, as a critical Laborite, that the trundling old ALP-trade union caravan, which started off with such an unfortunate baggage of racism in the 19th century, has now become the subject of such tabloid and cynical Tory political propaganda, such as the Paul Sheehan humbug about ethnic branch stacking in the ALP and ethnic networks in trade unions.
Taken as a whole, the labour movement has come a long way on migration since the 1890s. The ALP and the labour movement, for the past 50 years, have been initiators of the changes that have brought this new Australia about, which is sensible and initially reasonable compensation for the unfortunate racism of the labour movement’s first 60 years.
However, the essentially right-wing pressure to go back to opposition to migration, which is represented in different ways by Paul Sheehan, Mark Latham, Bob Carr, Tom Uren and Frank Stilwell, has still to be decisively defeated.
We can’t avoid a big public debate on these matters in the immediate future and, in fact, we should wholeheartedly initiate such a debate in the labour movement, with a view to nailing down for all time a policy of non-discriminatory migration, support for multiculturalism and a highish migration program, with a considerable amount of family reunion, to maintain a real possibility of access to Australia for those who wish to come here for a better life.
The announcement by Con Sciacca of a draft ALP federal parliamentary statement on migration, embodying a high migration objective, is the obvious starting point for this discussion. After all, all our ancestors were ultimately migrants to this continent, including the intrepid and ingenious humans who first crossed the Wallace Line from Asia into Sahul-Australasia, on tiny rafts or in tiny canoes, about 60,000 years ago.