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What About The White Australia Policy (WAP)

Updated on December 26, 2014

White Australia was Inexcusable

Studying for my matriculation at the Sydney Technical College during the early 1960s introduced me to a side of Australia that had never come into my focus before - The White Australia Policy. This legislation was in force to prevent immigration from 'undesirables' who might taint our pure way of life and upset the code which some individuals considered our right. The reality was that it was only white on top because underneath it was black.

What it really did was to set the stage for the biggest conflict this country would face if it was not removed, and quickly. The question was who was listening? But someone did finally listen when a voice rang out across the Sydney Town Hall and into the headlines of major Sunday newspapers. That voice was mine and the ears that were listening were those of the Prime Minister, Sir Robert Gordon Menzies.

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Politics Provided a Way Back

My brain was able to function again.

Following my car accident early in 1959, discussed here, there was a long period of recuperation and boredom were it not for something else that grabbed my interest - politics. This door opened thanks to my mother who had befriended a local federal politician. He encouraged her to attend a branch meeting and she took me along.

It was fantastic. There is one thing that suits my persona more than anything else and that's being able to express myself. Dad and I had long political discussions almost every night after dinner and as he was staunch Labor he did not approve of us going to a Liberal Party meeting. But, in his way of not interfering, he did not object too much.

The stimulation was amazing. Here were people grossly in tune with what was happening in the country. They were discussing points of view on law and policies that would affect all of us. This was something that touched me deep inside. So much so that I even got up and raised a question of my own, which was received with acclaim. Its not important what the question was and frankly it is not something I remember. After the meeting we had a cup of tea and met some of the members. Wow, I went home and dreamed about it. Of course we had to go to the next meeting and it was me dragging mum along.

It was happening around the time when my second attempt at the matriculation was underway and at the next meeting the Attorney General, Sir Garfield Barwick, was present. Here was my chance to really speak out. recognised by the chair as the next speaker my question was direct and pertinent.

"Sir Garfield", I asked, "why is it that tertiary education is so expensive and that people like me can't get in because we simply can't afford the fees? Do you know how many intelligent and would-be great professionals are being discriminated against in this way?"

The audience applauded and as he rose to his feet it was obvious he had been impacted by the question. He responded in a typical political way but after the meeting asked me what university I wanted to go to and where had my studies got me so far. My mother piped in and told him of my accident and of the struggle I was having with recovering my memory.

A few days later I was contacted by a man who became a lifelong friend, Sir Kevin Ellis. He was a local State politician and lawyer. He organised a meeting between us and as I found out he was on the board of the University of New South Wales. He assured me that when it came to the time to enrol that I should have little problem in getting in. He did not, however, address the question of fees. So even though my new marks were not that great they proved to be no barrier when finally I felt I could manage the fees. It was after the court case and I had a few pounds but not enough to pay for the whole course.

It was Kevin who asked me to start the Liberal Party Branch at the University of New South Wales the following year when my degree started in 1961. Little did I know then how my life would be changed by dabbling into politics and nor did it ever come to my mind that I would not only address speeches to the Prime Minister but that in the years of Liberal Party Association I would come to know one of them as a friend and have association with at least 2 other heads of government.

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parliament House in Canberra
parliament House in Canberra

It Is Australian History Now

Federal politics was my main interest

But there was a catch. After my arrival at the university the Liberal Party Organizer contacted me and asked me to form a branch of the Liberal Party there for Young Liberals. By this time I was already on the committee of the Bondi Branch, where mum and I first attended. Not only that but they had elected me to the State Council where I met and befriended many current and future federal politicians and could debate my heart out. Among them was Bill McMahon who would later become Prime Minister.

It was fantastic and the healing of my brain was also greatly perpetuated. The more I used it the better it became.Before long I was elected president of the Bondi Branch as well.

But it was a busy schedule. University took a lot of my time and running two branches of the party meant lots of meetings and discussions with some pretty high up politicians. On at least two occasions I posed some ticklish questions to Menzies, but can't recall what they were about. But he could see that here was a force to be reckoned with.

State Council was one thing but the Federal Council which I now attended as representative of 2 branches was another. It met only once a year in the lower Sydney Town Hall, which held probably close to a thousands people. At my very first FC meeting sparks flew and the consequences is history.

It was Saturday and the meeting had been underway for a couple of hours. The town hall was packed as Menzies was there and so were a number of reporters. Menzies spoke for some time on the allocation of land, mainly Pine Gap, to the USA for defense bases. This was part of their surveillance of hostile countries. Immediately he finished talking the chair recognised me as the next speaker. There was no prepared speech but the subject was about making New Guinea a State of Australia.

White Australia Policy

The Nation Was Split

No one wants to be called racist but Australians were rather tight lipped about the White Australia Policy and it was obvious that most would have wanted it to stay.

But the policy was bad for Australia and as it has turned out we have become a very successful multiracial society.

Malayan friends ar a farewell
Malayan friends ar a farewell

Against the White Australia Policy

Where was the problem?

My days at the technical college had produced a lot of Asian friends. One of these was Lee (center in picture), a superb gentleman who was studying medicine at Sydney university. He had been in Australia from the age of 11 or 12 and had completed secondary studies and now his university course was underway. That meant most of his life had already been lived here but he could not stay, unless he married an Australian. The pic was taken aboard a ship as some were going back to Malaya

The Australian government had a policy of educating Asians but they had to return to their own countries on completion of their courses. The excuse being that their country needed qualified professionals, and that was true as well. Malaya, at that time, was still an English colony and we had to do our bit as good citizens of the Commonwealth. Lee and several other young Malayan students would spend Christmas and other times with us as a family and they loved it. Mum and dad loved them too.

Another great friend, Ming, wanted to see Canberra and my services were asked for. We drove down on Saturday expecting to return that night. It is around a four hour drive from Sydney, less if you speed. Not far out of Goulburn there was a horrendous accident immediately in front of us and bodies were thrown out of the windows as the car rolled. We stopped to give assistance and were there for some time as police needed statements and so on.

On arrival in Canberra the car suddenly started having problems and we were at risk of being stranded. By this time it was getting dark and we were both hungry. We called into a and had a meal and then tried to find a mechanic or a place to stay the night. Everything was booked out, even the university. So friend had an idea. His father was friendly with the Malayan Ambassador so he rang the Embassy and we were invited to spend the night there.

It was sheer luxury. The bed was one you just sunk right down into and when my head hit the pillow I was out like a light. The following morning we had breakfast with the MA and then he drove us into town to redeem our car. The mechanical problem was not all that bad and we were soon on our way back to Sydney. A few months later I was invited to a ball where I met the Malayan Prime Minister who was here on a brief visit. He would later become President of the new Republic of Malaysia, when granted its independence from Britain. There was nothing wrong with these people that was apparent to me.

Over and over complaints about not being allowed to stay here were reaching my ears and this was one of the questions already raised by me with Menzies at a branch meeting. Suddenly and without warning this would go on to new levels.

There was a lot of unrest among young people over the White Australia Policy and it saw massive demonstrations and demands for the it end. But the government was caught. if it lowered the barrier to let some in then it would have to let everyone come and that was a potential flood of people that neither the country nor the governments could handle. It was strictly a case of fear of the unknown.

Was the White Australia Policy in Australia's Interests? - Or was it an outdated racist one?

Would you have voted to keep it

Melanesian People of New Guinea
Melanesian People of New Guinea

The Question was Next On The Paper

Should New Guinea become a state of Australia?

At the Town Hall Convention Menzies had addressed the Assembly for around twenty minutes or so when my hand shot up and was recognised by the chair. Springing to my feet with an impromptu gesture of command my voice was ringing out through the air.

The question was "should New Guinea be declared a state of Australia." My response may have raised a few shackles but it was from the heart of a young person perplexed by the way we were treating out friends.

"How can we expect that New Guinea, a country full of black skinned people, would accept allegiance to Australia as a state when we have the White Australia Policy in place and our own native Australians have no rights?.They are unable to vote, own property or do almost anything else that white people can do and to expect that New Guinea people would accept the same is ludicrous. Would we expect the New Guinea people to be in the same situation?" My passion was raised and I was just getting started.

"Mr Menzies, you speak of the Pine Gap allocation to the United States for a defense base that will help protect Australia should we ever be threatened and yet this White Australia Policy is a threat to us from just about every country and nation around our shores. To the north there is New Guinea, Indonesia, Malaya, China and other 'coloured' nations, to the west is Africa and to the east New Zealand, the Solomons and a myriad of smaller countries and everyone of them have black skinned or colored people who cannot even get visas to travel here, let alone become Australian. What right have we got to insult them in this manner?

"You cannot defend this country with out of date ships, planes and Tommy guns because the defense comes from within." My voice was clear, concise and the message urgent as I went on "It comes through education and acceptance and good policies that welcomes people of all color and types who will soon be banging on our doors in a hostile manner if we don't remove this insidious policy. It doesn't matter how many guns we have or how many USA bases if they want to they will get in and its best that we open the door for them instead of waiting for the inevitable. It is also time that Australian aborigines are granted citizenship. This is, after all, their country, their homeland."

There was probably a lot more to the speech, which was totally unprepared, than this but you get the drift.

On sitting down the nerves set in. This was the Prime Minister that had just taken a bashing from me and it was important to get out of here before 'they', being other delegates, turned on me. Getting to my feet they seemed to take off on their own as rushing out the door there were others following at a fast pace. Should I run or stand and fight?

It was hopeless to run so standing my ground about 4 or 5 young men surrounded me. "That was a tremendous speech." One of them said. Then they all started congratulating me and asked me to join the Young Liberals. On explaining that 2 branches of the Liberal Party was enough for me they backed away and after a bit more conversation and introductions they let me go on my way.

The next morning the Sunday paper headlines read "NO DEFENCE WITH OUT OF DATE SHIPS, PLANES AND TOMMY GUNS."

My parents were awestruck when they saw the contents of my speech in the paper with my name associated with it. So was I quite frankly.

Black African Arrival
Black African Arrival

The Ministers Came To Me

It was even more worrying

During the week, around the Wednesday I think, a friend of mine. Kathy, who was helping run the LP committee, found me upstairs in the Union Building where we were allocated a room for that purpose. "Norma" she said. There are 3 men downstairs asking for you. They have come in government cars."

My heart dropped and mad, crazy thoughts ran through my head. Wow, retribution I kept thinking. What am I in for? But composing myself and calmly walking down the huge staircase they were waiting for me by the door.

"Are you Norma?" One of them asked.

"Yes." I said. They were three ministers from the Menzies government who were there to see me on his orders. The Minister assisting the Prime Minister on the White Australia Policy, and the Minister for Foreign Affairs and a lesser minister whose title escapes me. This was a long time ago and much was happening.

We sat down in the coffee shop and they discussed the reasons for their visit. "Mr. Menzies was very impressed with your speech at Federal Council and we came to get your views on how you would end the White Australia Policy."

If the chair was not already under me it was obvious that I would have fallen down. But composing myself for the task ahead this was a great chance to get the government moving on something very close to my heart. The problems were many as a lot of things had to be considered. Firstly, if people were suddenly allowed in so too would their relatives and others who would follow. But we had needs that had to be met by anyone, such as skills, money and ability to support oneself without being a burden on the welfare system.

Putting these things forward my proposal was that we allow only a limited number in for the first four or so years to test the waters. They would require to be of certain types who could perform in the skills required for the benefit of the country. There would have to be restrictions on who could come with them until they proved their value and the country became adjusted to the new policy. After that an increased but controlled flow should follow. Students who had been here for some years and had a desire to stay should be granted citizenship and be allowed to stay without marrying Australians.

They took notes and the conversation went on for some hour or more and then they left. It was exactly the policy that was implemented and which ended the White Australia Policy for good. Months later the first black Africans arrived and on seeing one walking in Pitt Street, Sydney, my enthusiasm was uncontrollable. He looked stunned when this strange lady fronted up to him and started shaking his hand and welcoming him to Australia.

The Labor Party Claimed Credit

Years later the Labor Party altered history and claimed that they had done away with the White Australia Policy.

What they did, in fact, was to throw open the doors to anyone and everyone without proper screening. Consequently we gained Triad gang members from China, the Mafia from Italy and Lebanon, and just about every other type of undesirable migrant, many of whom came in by the back door as illegals and were granted citizenship under an amnesty.

Labor Party Ministers on Maintaining the WAP - The cruelest deeds were done by them

This video demonstrates that under Labor the White Austral Policy was firmly cemented into place. So for later ministers to claim that it removed the WAP was not only a lie of huge proportions but one, that were it not for people like me who remember what happened, they would almost get away with it.

An aboriginal dot painting
An aboriginal dot painting

There was Worse Stuff Going On

It was not publicised

From the policies of the Labor government under such people as Chifley, acclaimed by Labor as its greatest leader, Australian aborigines had been denied everything. It was OK for them to join the army and fight for the country during two World Wars, it was OK for them to work on properties and to do laboring jobs for white man, but they were paid a pittance. Under Labor their children were taken away, a policy which continued through until the mid to late 1960s

Those who served in the wars were paid a fraction of what white men received. On returning to Australia white men received farms and property, were given education benefits and were generally helped to resettle. Aborigine soldiers were simply dismissed and expected to find their own way home. Many, it has lately been discovered, were not allowed back because they were black. It seems that they eventually made their way to Africa to live out their lives.

Controversy has recently raged in Australia over the mistreatment of our indigenous people. Successive governments have let them down, turned their backs on atrocities committed against them and even neglected them as people. A referendum conducted by the Liberal Prime Minister, Harold Holt, in 1966 (or there about), following the retirement of Menzies, asked for the rights of aborigines to be improved and that they be given the right to vote. It passed with a huge majority.

In later years a guy named Eddy Mabo would sue the commonwealth on his own and without backing for the right for aborigines to own their land and to have hunting and fishing rights returned to them. He won an astounding victory and in the Supreme Court of Australia the judges decided that Australia was not 'Terra Nullus' (empty land) as claimed by the British government, but that where there was continuing occupation of land by tribal groups then that land was rightfully theirs.

That upset the applecart. Aborigines were suddenly wealthy land owners and now they have ranches or grazing properties, they run successful tourist ventures at places like Ularu (Ayers Rock) and Arnhem Land and they have developed huge markets for their craft work, like bark paintings, aborigine baskets and other stuff and their music is now world famous.

The people that the Brits thought were nothing but animals had a highly sophisticated culture which we have now come to know and love and to be proud of. They can and do teach us their ways and they are assimilating with many highly qualified professionals among them. One, Professor Mick Dodson, was awarded the title Australian of the Year. Others have become qualified doctors, dentists, lawyers and judges. Now they are reaching their potential as decent citizens that the rest of the country can be proud of.

Last year, 2009, the Labor Prime Minister, Kevin Rudd, apologized to what are now referred to as the stolen generation. It was one of the most moving speeches I have heard from a Prime Minister. The healing from the White Australia Policy is now gaining momentum and many have probably forgotten all about it.

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    • GardenerDon profile image

      Gardener Don 

      6 years ago

      A great read. Being born in your neighbouring NZ, where I grew up pretty much integrated with our Maori people, this was always a policy I couldn't get my head around.

      You have helped me while away a couple of pleasant hours on a snowy Canadian Sunday morning with your len's. Thanks!

    • Gypzeerose profile image

      Rose Jones 

      7 years ago

      Excellent lens - I applaud you for taking on such a difficult topic by using such great research. Pinned to my Social Justice as well as my Racial Issues boards.

    • profile image


      8 years ago

      Very inspiring and powerful writing. This explains the latest events, violence and segregation for the foreign students who bargain their lives for a better tomorrow and come to Australia for higher studies.

    • jmsp206 profile image

      Julia M S Pearce 

      8 years ago from Melbourne, Australia

      The white australian policy is a quiet reminder of just how racist this country really is!

    • profile image


      8 years ago

      I had not been aware of such things in Australia. Although, I believe it is prevalent among all societies in various fashions. Personally, I believe that legislation is only a temporary aide and that the problem lies within

    • BuckHawkcenter profile image


      8 years ago

      You put forth quite an interesting part of Australian history that I did not know about. It is a lesson for the world to see and openly discuss.

    • SidneyMorgan LM profile image

      SidneyMorgan LM 

      8 years ago

      A very important and little known part of Australian history that should be talked about and looked at more, not just in Australia but also throughout the world for what it can teach people about politics and country wide policies. Great lens and one I will recommend to others much like I recommend the original.

    • profile image


      8 years ago

      Very interesting piece of history - and you must be so proud of your part in it. I had no idea that aboriginals were unable to vote till 1966. Surely that was against English common law (on which Australian law is supposed to be based)?

      FWIW in the mother country, there has always been freedom and mixing. Our first mixed race Prime Minister was the Earl of Liverpool in 1812 (his grandmother was Gujurati), our first Jewish Prime Minister was Disraeli in 1868. The first Indian-born Member of Parliament was elected in 1892 as the member for Finsbury Park. Britain's first black mayor was elected in 1913 (mayor of Battersea). And of course the House of Lords ruled that slavery was incompatible with English Common Law back in 1772 (the case was one of the triggers for the American war of independence, as they wanted to keep slavery).

      I always wonder why the colonies (USA, Australia, South Africa) acted so racist, when the mother country was so clearly open. Did we somehow export all our racists?

    • justholidays profile image


      9 years ago

      I don't really understand the purpose of the University module; is it connected to the subject of your lens... ??? Otherwise the lens is interesting.

    • JenOfChicago LM profile image

      JenOfChicago LM 

      9 years ago

      Great story - and proof that one person can make a difference!

    • joanhall profile image

      Joan Hall 

      9 years ago from Los Angeles

      This was a fascinating read! 5*

      It would also be of great interest if you made reference here and there to what year it was when some of these events happened in your life. That would help people put it in perspective in comparison to what was happening in civil rights movements in America and other places.


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