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The beginning of the end of the White Australia policy

1 July 2016

Legal reforms in June 1966 removed much of the discrimination built into Australia’s migration policy, writes Gwenda Tavan

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International symbol: the furore over the deportation in 1965 of five-year-old Nancy Prasad (shown here with her sister and brother-in-law) helped fuel pressure for a shift in Australian immigration policy.

International symbol: the furore over the deportation in 1965 of five-year-old Nancy Prasad (shown here with her sister and brother-in-law) helped fuel pressure for a shift in Australian immigration policy.


When Harold Holt took over as prime minister in January 1966, pressure for changes in Australia’s immigration policy was growing. Attitudes to racial questions were changing within Australia and beyond. Asia’s strategic and economic importance to Australia was growing. International criticism of Australia’s discriminatory immigration policies had intensified. And a generational shift was under way in parliament itself, symbolised by the retirement of long-serving prime minister Robert Menzies. Younger politicians within both major parties now had the opportunity to challenge the more archaic aspects of Australian immigration policy.

By mid-year, the government had introduced legislation significantly increasing the number of non-Europeans who could settle in Australia and lowering the barriers they faced in seeking citizenship. The changes were important, but they didn’t attempt to completely overturn racial discrimination in immigration policy. Nor did they provide the important diplomatic and symbolic signals needed to improve Australia’s international reputation on race issues and to change the domestic political dynamics of the White Australia issue.

The 1966 reforms were an important milestone in the long journey to dismantle the White Australia policy, but it would take another six years, another leader and a different style of politics to finally lay its ghost to rest.


By the early 1960s, the infamous Immigration Restriction Act of 1901, bedrock of the White Australia policy, no longer existed. The most glaring inequities in the treatment of Asian immigrants, including obstacles to citizenship, had been reversed with the passing of a new Migration Act in 1958. In practice, change came gradually and quietly, spearheaded by senior government officials who recognised the diplomatic, political and practical benefits of cautious, limited reform. Prime minister Robert Menzies tolerated the changes, not because he actively supported them but because he believed flexibility and discretion were the best means to protect the fundamental principles of White Australia. By 1962, around 1000 non-Europeans were settling in Australia each year.

But it became increasingly clear that these piecemeal reforms weren’t sufficient to hold off the forces building in opposition to the remaining restrictions. They continued to attract negative media attention in Australia and overseas, and Australian governments continued to find themselves embroiled in disputes with would-be Asian settlers. A series of controversies – including cases involving Malayan pearl divers, Portuguese sailors, and two much-discussed individuals, Nancy Prasad and Aurelio Locsin – became international symbols of the harsh and unjust nature of Australian immigration policy.

Behind closed doors, senior external affairs and immigration officials clashed repeatedly over the policy. The former wanted further reform on the grounds that restrictions were highly damaging to Australia’s regional and international reputation. The latter had their own concerns about the policy, but strongly resisted any interference in their portfolio. Outside government, another battle in the war against White Australia had opened up in 1959 with the formation of the Immigration Reform Group, based at the University of Melbourne, which began to lobby openly for change. It, in turn, inspired student and church-based groups across the country.

Within government circles, two individuals came to play a key role in achieving reform. Peter Heydon replaced Tasman Heyes as secretary of the immigration department in 1961, and Hubert Opperman was appointed immigration minister in 1963. Both men shared grave reservations about aspects of Australia’s immigration policy, particularly its effects on Australia–Asia relations and the inequities and injustices it created for non-Europeans resident in Australia. They believed that substantive policy reform was the only means to curb domestic and international criticism. Despite resistance from some members of the Menzies government and other supporters of the policy, they doggedly pursued immigration reform throughout the early to mid 1960s.

Heydon’s desire to reform White Australia was no doubt fuelled by his own long career in the external affairs department, where he filled a number of important diplomatic roles in Australia and overseas, including a stint as high commissioner to India between 1955 and 1959. These experiences brought him face to face with intense hostility towards Australia in the Asia region and the damage the White Australia policy was doing to the country’s reputation.

Heydon’s concerns deepened considerably when he entered the immigration department and discovered the disorganised and highly politicised nature of Asian immigration decision-making. His personal diary records a range of concerns: inadequate statistics on Asian immigration; the abuse of temporary visa arrangements by Chinese; the problem of Chinese students in Australia seeking permanent residence; the “pressing” issue of the entry of “mixed bloods” from New Guinea; the fate of Japanese “half-caste” children of Australian servicemen; and the impact of several controversial deportation cases.

Heydon’s reform strategy centred on getting a proper understanding of the nature of the administrative problems in Asian immigration policy, engaging elite opinion in order to change the public discourse on White Australia, and winning the cooperation of his minister for practical policy reform. While he was successful on the first two counts, he found it much more difficult to win immigration minister Alexander Downer’s support.

Fearing undue publicity, and ambivalent about the extent of reform, Downer vetoed Heydon’s request for a full-scale inquiry into the policy and directed him to focus on eliminating “any inhumanities and anomalies.” A draft submission prepared by senior officers was ready by mid September 1963 but had still not been submitted by Downer to cabinet in December. Heydon privately noted his belief that Downer feared he would be criticised for amending legislation, the Migration Act 1958, that he himself had introduced.

Downer’s successor, the highly respected ex-Olympian cycling champion Hubert Opperman, proved to be much more decisive. He encouraged Heydon to prepare a submission arguing for changes to the rules concerning the entry of “mixed bloods” and students, and altering various other aspects of “established policy,” including citizenship laws and regulations controlling the entry of non-Europeans engaged in menial occupations. He was unaware that a submission had already been prepared by immigration officials.

Heydon and Opperman presented their amendments to cabinet in two separate submissions on 1 September 1964. The first proposed to liberalise the admission of “mixed race” immigrants. Opperman reminded his colleagues that the existing policy had been “consistently difficult to administer,” primarily because of “the necessity to question and analyse the racial origin of the applicants, within the ambit ranging between 51 per cent and 99 per cent European.” The difficulties were compounded by “the sensitive field of such enquiries and assessments, and by the necessity on grounds of appearance to treat differently individual members of the one family group.”

The submission recommended that the policy for admission be amended to authorise the minister, “at his discretion and consistent with the need to maintain social homogeneity,” to admit for permanent residence persons of “mixed race” on any of three grounds: humanitarian considerations involving close family relationship or hardship brought about by discrimination; where the applicant had knowledge, experience or qualifications useful to Australia; or where the applicant had the ability to make a contribution to Australia’s economic, social and cultural progress.

The second submission advocated a broad review of non-European immigration. Opperman assured cabinet members that “the fundamental soundness of a policy directed towards social homogeneity [was] not in question.” Immigration policies had not remained static, he said, but some aspects of the policy were now “neither in Australia’s interests nor in the interests of individual non-Europeans who may qualify for admission with temporary residence status.” The purpose of the review was to “remove anomalies” and “enable the policy to be presented with more force and conviction, and reduce the grounds for charges of discrimination based on race and colour.”

Opperman recommended that non-Europeans should be eligible for citizenship after five years, in the same way as Europeans were, and that eligibility for admission should be extended to people “capable of ready integration,” once again having “knowledge, experience, or qualifications useful to Australia” and able “to make a contribution to Australia’s economic, social and cultural progress.”

The recommendations were only partially accepted. Cabinet ultimately agreed to Opperman’s submission regarding the admission of “persons of mixed race,” a pragmatic acknowledgement that the existing rules had become too difficult to administer. But the broader review of non-European policy was rejected. Heydon’s personal records suggest that he believed the rejection reflected a lack of courage among senior ministers, including Holt – still treasurer at this point – in the face of Menzies’s well-known resistance to the proposals. According to Opperman, while the prime minister didn’t speak against the submission, “neither did Harold [Holt] support it.”

Heydon and Opperman were very disappointed by the result. Opperman told his departmental head that “he never expected to deal with an important matter on which he knew he was right and the present prime minister wrong.” He felt sure the matter was “bound to come up again though in less propitious circumstances for the government and as a result of outside pressures.” Heydon reflected privately, “I am quite convinced that in the matter the government is out of touch with public opinion. It could conveniently to itself and satisfactory to Australia’s interests have made those relatively small changes and will now suffer because the controversy will go on…”

Given their lengthy preparations for reform and the evidence from opinion polls that the Australian public would accept moderate policy changes, their despondency was justified. As both men predicted, the failure to implement reform in 1964 meant that Australia faced strong international criticism over the next couple of years. Yet there was reason for optimism. The decision on mixed-race entry meant that the numbers of such migrants settling permanently continued to rise. Senior officials also took heart from the knowledge that the pressure building on the policy was strong enough to make change inevitable. It was simply a matter of time.


As expected, Menzies’s retirement in January 1966 paved the way for more substantive reform. On becoming prime minister, Holt was keen to distinguish himself from his predecessor in both policy and leadership style. He was also keen to strengthen relations in Asia, given that region’s increasing economic and strategic importance to Australia. Reforming White Australia was an ideal vehicle for achieving both these goals. As Opperman put it some years later, “It happened to be a topical piece of good PR for a new leader endeavouring to develop a new ‘open door’ image towards his party members and a reputation for tolerance in international affairs.”

Holt’s willingness to tackle the issue was undoubtedly bolstered by evidence of shifting attitudes within the Labor Party. Opposition leader Arthur Calwell, a staunch defender of White Australia, had gained notoriety as immigration minister during the 1940s for his hardline opposition to the settlement of Asian wartime refugees. In the early 1960s he had publicly lamented the presence of “longhairs” in his party who wanted to undermine his party’s commitment to the policy.

Around the country, meanwhile, younger Labor Party members were enrolling in immigration reform associations. In the face of this development, the party’s federal executive banned all members from enrolling in what it called “an organisation which actively opposed the party’s platform.” It was a short-term solution, at best, and younger, more progressive members of the party – people like Don Dunstan, Jim Cairns and Gough Whitlam – pledged to work from within to achieve change. The removal of “White Australia” from the party platform in 1965 was a significant victory for the party’s “New Guarders,” as would be Whitlam’s assumption of the party leadership in 1967.

With most of the groundwork already prepared, the reform process itself was fairly smooth. On 14 February 1966, Opperman telephoned Heydon to say Holt was asking if a submission on the fifteen-year rule for citizenship (which applied only to non-Europeans) could be ready for cabinet discussion the next day. Heydon and senior immigration staff responded quickly, and their main proposals closely resembled the changes presented to cabinet in 1964.

Apparently swayed by Opperman’s promise that no fundamental shift in policy was intended, the cabinet agreed to the proposals “in broad terms,” rejecting only three minor recommendations. But it noted that “the basic principles of Australia’s immigration are not in question, and that no reduction of those principles in any policy sense is intended.” The changes, according to the cabinet minutes, appeared to be “largely administrative… without damage to… basic policy.”

Opperman presented the reforms to the House of Representatives on 9 March 1966. They were then debated in two historic sessions on 24 and 29 March – the only major discussion of the White Australia policy since the Immigration Restriction Act was introduced in 1901. The tone and content of the debates was amicable, evidence that a bipartisan view now existed. In turn, that view partly reflected Opperman’s intense negotiations with Labor before the proposals went parliament.


Had the Holt government intended to dismantle the White Australia policy once and for all when it submitted the 1966 bill? It is likely that Opperman, Heydon and other senior officials foresaw a greater increase in non-European numbers than they were prepared to admit to the Australian public or even to government members. Yet there was very little about the changes that could be regarded as radical or new.

Most of the new measures simply amplified arrangements introduced in the 1950s, with a continuing emphasis on admitting non-Europeans who were highly skilled or had exceptional capabilities. Wide disparities remained between non-European and European immigration policies. The Holt government didn’t establish immigration offices in Asian countries or offer assisted passages to non-Europeans. During a period when it was still actively pursuing low-skilled British and European migrants, it would only allow “well-qualified” non-Europeans to migrate.

Nor was there anything in the public or private language of political leaders to indicate a fundamental shift in outlook. There was no explicit renunciation of the “established policy.” Political leaders consistently emphasised the limited nature of the reforms. Cabinet’s approval of the submission was clearly premised on the assumption that the changes would be minimal.

Media responses also demonstrated the assumption that the changes were limited. Many newspapers welcomed them as long overdue though essentially moderate. The Age correctly surmised that “the easing of restrictions… represents no departure from fundamental principles.” The Australian suggested the policy reform “would not allow a large-scale admission of workers from Asia, nor was it a departure from Australia’s primary aim… of producing a generally integrated and primarily homogenous population.” While some Asian newspapers and political leaders commented positively on the changes, others were noticeably quiet. Heydon later admitted that some countries criticised the reforms as “superficial and inadequate.”

But senior immigration officials understood that the practical and political effects of the reforms could not be accurately predicted. Heydon privately referred to them as a form of “controlled experiment,” the implication being that policy-makers were prepared to test both the limits of demand for entry by non-Europeans and the limits of public tolerance.

This perspective is borne out by events the following year. In 1966, about 1920 non-Europeans and 1498 of “mixed descent” were admitted. A year later this figure rose to 3142 and 2449 respectively. Satisfied that the “experiment” was working well, the Holt government introduced further liberalisations, including changes to family reunion criteria for people of “mixed descent” and the capacity of well-qualified people to enter. The 1967 reforms allowed non-European immigration to Australia to increase significantly after that time, rising steadily each year to a total of about 9666 in 1971. Overall, approximately 44,521 non-Europeans and part-Europeans settled in the country between 1966 and 1971. About 27,167 of them entered as part of the “part-European” category.

In May 1971, immigration minister A.J. Forbes presented a generally optimistic report to cabinet on the effects of the 1966 and 1967 reforms. He noted that criticism of non-European immigration was declining and that Australia was “gaining valuable qualified people in numbers which are useful… but represent no contradiction of our aim to preserve an essentially homogeneous society.” Another report at the time suggested that the migrants were settling in “with remarkably little difficulty” and on the whole “had been accepted by the Australian people.”

It was clear, nevertheless, that the reforms had not gone far enough to remove racial discrimination from the immigration statutes. Immigration controversies continued to distract Australian governments and mar Australia’s international reputation. The leaders of Asian nations continued to publicly express concern at Australia’s treatment of their nationals.

Significantly, Australia also found itself increasingly at odds with traditional allies like Great Britain, the United States and New Zealand over its discriminatory treatment of “non-European” nationals from those countries. In 1970 the British Race Relations Board turned its attention to the United Kingdom–Australia Assisted Passage scheme, pointing out that Britain was perpetuating racial discrimination by contributing to a scheme that discriminated against Britons of non-European descent. The issue culminated with Jan Allen, a British citizen of West Indian background, appealing to the board on the grounds that he and his family had been refused assisted passage to Australia because of his skin colour. The ensuing controversy greatly embarrassed Allen and British authorities, and seriously damaged British–Australian relations in the short term.

The limits of the 1966 reforms were clear, as was the capacity of Australia’s Coalition parties to manage the politics of race and immigration during a period of profound social change. It was left to the Labor Party, under Whitlam’s leadership, to finish what Holt had started in 1966. Whitlam won the 1972 federal election on a platform that included the removal of racial discrimination from the immigration statutes and an overt declaration to the world that the White Australia policy was finally dead. More legislation was on its way. •

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