Western civilisation or social engineering?

 The Ramsay Centre for Western Civilisation is anxious to establish a degree course at an Australian university, to compensate for a perceived lack of attention paid to the foundations of western civilisation. This anxiety reflects concern over the sweeping changes that have taken place in the nature of Australian society.


What exactly are the changes that have engendered so much anxiety?  The social engineering of the Australian population dates back to the arrival of the First Fleet, but it has taken new directions since 1945.

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Before and after federation Australia was part of the British Empire. While Australia has its own national myths such as the loss of young Australian lives in the First World War, its soldiers fought under the slogan ‘for King and Empire’. Australia still retains the British monarch as its own head of state and close relationships still exist with the United Kingdom.

The Australian population was recruited from the United Kingdom almost exclusively until 1945 and it was closed to immigration from neighbouring Asian societies for another 30 years.  British immigrants continued to be sought out and British and Irish selected immigrants had their fares and expenses paid until 1972.

These patterns of recruitment and the government decisions underlying them have profoundly shaped the development of Australia.  The British inheritance shaped the definition of “real Australians” right through to the 1960s. In today’s multicultural society it is no longer so relevant and this has been one source of anxiety.

Writing about the social engineering of this society, as I have just done in An Immigrant Nation Seeks Cohesion, means trying to achieve a balance between the ‘black armband history’ criticised by some and the ‘flag waving history’ criticised by others.  It tells a story about planning the nature of the population, to a greater extent than occurred in any other western country.

Immigrants have been sought who would be useful workers, obedient citizens and preferably English-speaking. Until the 1940s agricultural workers were favoured, with their families. Today preference is given to higher skills and to economic promise.

Understanding the changes since 1945 requires a different lens to that needed for understanding the earlier imperial history.  The Japanese victories during World War 2 radically changed the regional environment by occupying former colonies and bases, including Singapore.  So did the subsequent dissolving of nearly all the remaining European colonies.

The withdrawal of Britain from its Indian empire underlined its lack of willingness to play any major role in the region.  The recovery and steady growth of China under Communist control revived fears of an ideology that had conquered Russia but remained very marginal in Australian life.

After 1945, Australian politicians advanced the slogan ‘populate or perish’, drawing on the dubious proposition that greatly increasing its very small population would make the country easier to defend and more industrially powerful.

As in the past, the preferred intake would be white British and European.  But these were also sought after by Canada and the United States.  One available source was made up of Displaced Persons (DPs) from Eastern Europe seeking escape from war-torn societies.

Immigration from this new source was organised by the Australian government and the arrival from 1947 of the first Estonians, Latvians and Lithuanians began the creation of a new society, still British but increasingly varied. This was the most important single event in post-war history. It was supported on both sides of politics led by a Labor government.

What really changed Australia turned out not to be the First, but the Second, World War. The new immigration program meant settling, educating and employing many thousands of newcomers who (although mainly Christian) were not literate in English or familiar with the British cultural inheritance.

They included Baltic peoples, Poles, Yugoslavs, Greeks and Italians, Turks, Spanish and many others. They were rigorously checked for TB but matters such as their wartime activity tended to be less closely inspected.

Australia was starting to become a multicultural society. But it still favoured and assisted British immigrants, as seen in campaigns like ‘Bring out a Briton’, launched in 1957, and excluded non-Europeans into the 1970s.

Changing a nation from its former definition as British to its new description as ‘multicultural’ was, as one pioneer Malcolm Fraser put it, ‘not meant to be easy’.   It meant the abolition of the century-old tradition of ‘White Australia’.

Eventually, after the ending of White Australia in 1972, immigrants included growing numbers of Vietnamese, Chinese, Arabs and Indians. Among these newcomers were many who were not Christians or former subjects of the British Empire. Between 1987 and 1999, the Anglo-Celtic component of Australia’s population declined from 75 per cent to 70 per cent.

The reduction in the British component of the population took place over a long period  but  conservative elements increasingly  queried the admission of newly created refugees from civil wars in unfamiliar source countries like Vietnam, Lebanon, Sudan, Afghanistan, Syria and others in the Arab World and Africa.

The new sources of refugee intake limited the appeal of multiculturalism, which had survived European immigration but was now eroded by the arrival of those from non-European, non-Christian and unstable and previously unknown countries.

Seventy years after the post-war settlement, Australia is still infected by racism and assimilationism. Public debate, which was modified after the end of White Australia, has now resumed a prejudiced tone. Rather than ‘nation building’, public policy has moved towards ‘border protection’. Former fear of alien newcomers has developed again, now directed towards  Muslims rather than the Chinese.

Prejudices are not always the same as in the past. Jews are more acceptable than in the 1940s, as well as Chinese and Indians and Sri Lankans who are often bilingual in English.  But an oppressive immigration policy has become linked to increasing limitations on post-arrival services, liberties and human rights.  Muslims, Africans and, especially refugees, arouse more hostility than they deserve. Indigenous Australians are still disadvantaged despite any good intentions and changing policies.

Writing about this has been difficult because things have changed so rapidly in response to events outside Australia, such as the rise of China, the civil wars of the Muslim world and the internal problems of former African colonies. Immigration is still often regarded as vital because of the relatively small Australian population of only 25 million. However, there are increasing restrictions, especially for refugees.

I have lived through these changes since first arriving in Australia in 1956, when as a British, but penniless, immigrant I was welcomed with open arms.   I have tried to make sense of it all for my readers by using available texts and sources.

It is a story of the creation of a British and then a multicultural society and then some cold feet about the latter. Little of this story can be understood from the perspective of “Western Civilisation”.   Australian society and its population was planned by government in the light of policy requirements and local opinion.  It was as good or as bad as the democratic system allowed.

James Jupp is an Academic Visitor in the School of Demography, ANU.