At the dawn of the twentieth century Australia was a social laboratory. A great experiment was underway to make this new country the most progressive and egalitarian nation in the world.
The country was busy initiating radical reforms, born of noble ideals, that enshrined basic political freedoms and the rights of fairness and opportunity for all. At Federation in 1901, Australia seemed to stand as a beacon to the world – a new nation with a utopian vision. Or so it thought …
In fact, at the heart of this great, bright experiment lay a dark paradox – the belief that to create a country of such cutting-edge social ideals the population had to be exclusively white. It was a fundamental contradiction that would take almost a century of extraordinary evolution to try to resolve.
Immigration Nation: The Secret History of Us (Renegade Films, 2010) is a three-part documentary on the history of the White Australia Policy – from its incipience in 1901 to the 1980s – and its place in the history of today's multicultural Australia.
The series of three 54-minute episodes charts how the dream soon became a nightmare for some. The insecurities of those at the helm meant that at the start of the twentieth century immigration policy was driven by fear and racism, as well as by a vision of being a 'British' Australia. As the White Australia Policy was developed and enforced, many of the non-white residents were deported and barred from entry. Vibrant communities were fractured and the Chinese population dwindled dramatically.
Reflecting its British heritage, Australia isolated itself from the Asian region. The bombing of Darwin by the Japanese in 1942 highlighted the vulnerability of this vast and sparsely populated land, and the film argues that the White Australia Policy contributed to the Japanese aggression.
As the nation reeled from World War Two, the great experiment that started at Federation was about to enter its next crucial phase. A Department of Immigration was created and its inaugural minister, Arthur Calwell, had a clear message for the Australian people: 'We must fill this country or lose it.'
Fearful for its future and security, Australia embarked on a dramatic immigration program. Migrants from war-torn Europe arrived en masse. It was social engineering on the grandest of scales. The country would be fundamentally transformed forever. But the gatekeepers to the nation's borders had to take Australia and its people with them on this radical journey of change. The new arrivals had to be white, and the dream was kept alive through stealth and propaganda. The message was clear: 'You're welcome but on our terms and only if you adopt this country as your own.' It was the age of assimilation.
But the world changed and the 1960s brought with it civil rights movements and activism in the United States and beyond. The idea of an exclusively white Australia was questioned from without and within. This was a time when the influence of the immigrant population grew and those in the corridors of power raged against the system and transformed a nation once again.
In 1975 Australia's fears of 'invasion' from the north seemed to be finally realised with the arrival of Asian 'boat people'. But the newcomers were migrants and refugees from war-ravaged Vietnam. Testing Australia's deep-rooted insecurities to their limits, it was this humanitarian crisis that finally forced open the borders to Asian immigration and crushed the White Australia Policy forever.
Immigration Nation: The Secret History of Us tells the story of a country coming full circle. It is the story of how Australia dared to dream of what it could become. The story of a nation forced to confront its fears; the story of a vast land that has ultimately succeeded in living out the dreams of its founding fathers, not by closing its borders but by opening them.