Published Date

October 1, 1944

Resource Type

GI Roundtable Series, Primary Source

From GI Roundtable 44: Australia: Our Neighbor Down Under (1944)

Until Japan came crashing southward, the rest of the world seemed far away from Australia. From the west coast to South Africa lay nearly 5,000 miles of ocean, and Ceylon was 3,000 miles away. From Sydney to London the distance is 12,500 miles round the Cape of Good Hope and 11,500 through the Suez or Panama canals. North America, South America, and South Africa were three weeks away from Australia, and Britain was five to seven’ weeks away, even on the speediest ships available. In the days of sailing ships these times were half as long again. Southward the next-door neighbor was Antarctica. Northward there was little bond of trade or travel. The dreary northern wastes isolated Australia from contact with Asia.

This isolation was partly responsible for the late discovery of the country. It accounted in part for the relatively slow growth of settlement and handicapped the continent in its competition for settlers. When a European decided to emigrate, North America was only an eight- or ten-days journey away by 1900, and it cost only $20 to get there; Australia was six or seven weeks away, and the steerage ticket cost $100. If he came to North America and did not like the place, he could hope to rake together enough money to pay his way back home. If he did not like Australia it would he harder to save enough to return. He had burned his boats.

Hence, even though Australian governments have usually been willing to assist migrants by paying part of the transportation cost, migration southward was usually a mere trickle compared with the broad stream flowing to New York or Montreal. Only after 1900 did the flow become substantial, thanks to vigorous effort by the governments to “sell” their country and to more liberal assistance. Yet even then, in the years 1900–39 the total net immigration was less than 600,000, or less than one year’s addition to our population in the boom days at Ellis Island before 1914.


You can be choosy

Isolation has had its effect on the quality of life as well as on the quantity. If you have no near neighbor, you get the beneficial and also the harmful effects of this loneliness. You can do more or less as you like; work out your own salvation without outside interference or restraint; accept or reject what others have to offer in ideas or experience. In short, you can be “choosy.”

To understand the effect of this, one need only contrast the positions of Canada and Australia. Canada, close to the United States and not far from Britain, feels the strong economic and cultural pull of these two countries. It has not been so simple and easy for her to develop her own distinctive national characteristics or to prevent her young people from migrating southward. The Canadian reads our American columnists, sees our comics, listens to our “commercials.” Like the Australian, he has been his own political master since about 1850; yet many of his political and economic problems have been created or colored by what Britain and the United States were doing. To give one instance out of many: When Congress offered homesteaders 160 acres of land free if they would live on them for five years, Canada had to go one better and offer them 160 acres after only three years’ residence. In his federal “parliament” at Ottawa, one house is called the House of Commons (a British term), the other is called the Senate, a name copied from us.

What did they choose?

The Australian has felt no such persistent pressure on his policies and outlook. From Britain, and in growing measure from North America in recent decades, he can take what he likes or what suits his needs. If he reads much, his library is well stocked with British and American books, but not—until recently—with American popular magazines; and he will have many works by Australian writers. He plays English cricket and American baseball, but his football may be a brand of his own, with eighteen unarmored men on each team—and no substitutes—two tall goal posts, two shorter ones, no crossbar, and a huge oval field.

When the Australian created a federal government he adopted the pattern and even such labels as “House of Representatives” and “Senate” from us, but he rejected our separation of the legislative and executive powers and chose the British cabinet system. He will examine proposals made by Europeans and Americans for the reform of economic or political life. British labor and socialist plans have always received attention; the American ideas of Henry George and of the I.W.W. found adherents; and the revolutionary doctrines of Russian Communism have found favor with some left wingers. But none of these “imported” ideas has been over­powering. The Australian prefers to work out his own ideals and methods, picking and choosing what seems good from abroad, but striving to produce a society and way of life on which he can with much justification stamp the label “Made in Australia.”

What sort of society has he tried to build? The answer can best be given under four headings:

  1. It is homogeneous, white, and “British” rather than a melting pot.
  2. It is democratic.
  3. It is self-contained and self-reliant.
  4. It is radical in its search for social justice and for freedom from the poverty and wide differences of class and income of the Old World.

White and British

The Australian population is 99 per cent of European origin; it is about 98 per cent of British background; and over 86 per cent of it is Australian-born.

Contrast these conditions with those of North America. In Canada about 30 per cent of the people are descendants of the original French settlers, about 50 per cent are of British stock, and the remainder hail from almost every country in Europe or from the United States, with a few from Asia. Our own American population has still more elements, with various European national strains and a large Negro element.

Australia’s whiteness is the result of timing and of policy. Slavery had been abolished in the British Empire before Australia really began to grow. During the gold rush 50,000 Chinese came to work on the ranches or diggings. Many went back home later, but some remained to work in mines, truck gardens, furniture factories, and other enterprises. Later, when sugar plantations were developed on the tropical coast of Queensland, some natives were brought in from the Pacific islands.

Yet even in the gold-rush days’ many miners and wage earners felt that Asiatic immigration would endanger and depress living standards. Consequently one of the earliest policies advocated by labor unions was the limitation or prohibition of nonwhite immigration. To this economic fear of damage to material standards, others—political, moral, and cultural—were added. Our experience in the United States, and that of South Africans faced with a large native problem, suggested to the Australians that it would be good for nonwhite people and white settlers alike if the continent could be spared one vexing problem.

Various restrictive laws were passed by the states, and in 1901 the first federal Parliament decreed that any person who failed to pass a dictation test of fifty words in a European language could be excluded as illiterate. In practice Europeans were not subjected to the test, at least until after 1920; but if a nonwhite person sought entry as a permanent settler he was given the test—in some language which it was certain he did not know.

The empty spaces

In this way “White Australia” became the national policy, or rather the national dogma, like our Monroe Doctrine. No party would dare to question it, few individuals would care to criticize it, and every Australian would fight to defend this determination to keep Australia a white man’s continent. Whether he can develop it adequately with only white labor is obviously a crucial question. Outside the tropics he has had no difficulty in doing that job. But he would readily admit he has achieved very little in the north, and he was greatly relieved when the geographers informed him that much of the north is unfit for settlement by anybody. That news justified his preference for living in the greater physical comfort and wider economic opportunities of the south.

Given peace and security from external attack, there was no reason why he should settle the inhospitable north. If the area had been much good for settlement, the natives of Asia or of the Pacific islands would probably have gone there long before the white man knew there was a Pacific Ocean. But if war threatens and security vanishes, an empty north may be a serious menace. Steps were therefore taken just before 1939 to strengthen one or two northern outposts, and since Pearl Harbor, much of the region has been opened up by construction of roads, airfields, supply centers, and other military facilities. Some of this work may have permanent effects in increasing settlement. Air conditioning, improved medical methods, and better living conditions may make life less unbearable up north; but if the economic resources are scanty, no more people will wish to live there than did in the past.

From the mother country

The Britishness—98 per cent—of the population is not the result of any closed-door policy. Continental Europeans have been as free to enter as were British subjects, but they usually chose North America for their new home. When Australian governments tried to get settlers by assisting them to buy their tickets, they began and usually ended with appeals to inhabitants of the mother country. The largest Continental European group in Australia is Italian.

After World War I, when the United States almost closed its doors to immigration, more Europeans turned their eyes to Australia. Italians, for example, began to pour out there and made their way to the sugar plantations. This new influx threatened to disturb the country’s balance and traditions, and the immigration rules were therefore made stiffer. Without going as far as we did with our quota system, Australia sought to control the size and composition of its population. In the 1933 census, 80 per cent of the people born overseas had come from the British Isles, 7 per cent from the other white-faced parts of the Empire, 11 per cent from Continental Europe, 2 per cent from Asia, and a mere handful—about 6,000—from the United States.

Is “Britishness” good or bad?

This Britishness has had its virtues and its defects. The newcomers spoke the language of the country of their adoption, and did not need to attend classes to learn English. They were used to handling pounds, shillings, and pence, to driving on the left side of the road, and to tea drinking. They were accustomed to the ideas, codes of conduct, law observance, economic system, form of government, and social standards that they found “down under.” They knew about voting, political parties, labor unions, factory acts, Saturday afternoon holidays, and Sundays on which nobody worked—not even entertainers and drugstore clerks. They did not need to be subjected to anything comparable to our efforts in Americanization. They had no division of loyalties. If Australia became their first love, the British Isles was their second, and even native-born Australians would often refer to those Isles as “home.”

The defects are less easily assessed or described. They consist chiefly, perhaps, of a certain monotony of approach to problems, of attitudes—and of menus. Perhaps a more mixed population would have been less disposed to take some things for granted, would have wanted to discuss whether the British way was the best way of doing things, and might have instilled a greater liking for the land, for music, for varied dishes, for wine instead of whisky or beer, and even for bullfighting as well as horse racing. Our experience in the United States can help us to decide what price Australia has paid for her homogeneity; and since the Aussie will probably insist that the price was well worth paying, a good argument can be expected—and a long one—for there is probably no standard or measure by which it can be settled.

Next section: Self-rule and How It Grew