Malcolm Turnbull is surely the most unusual politician of his generation. A Sydney-born conservative whose governing instinct is Melburnian, it would never occur to him to play the race card by questioning the loyalty of an ethnic or religious group in Australia. On the contrary, he wants to talk up the nation’s diversity.
The Turnbull method is a radical and welcome departure from the calculated divisiveness of Tony Abbott and John Howard. But it is not new. In fact, it is a throwback to the old Liberal Party of Robert Menzies and Malcolm Fraser, which, despite its predilection for national security scares, was consistently more welcoming of new arrivals than Labor at the time.
Menzies has the distinction of being the first Australian Opposition leader to be on the receiving end of a race card attack by the government of the day, a detail that would startle many present-day Labor cosmopolitans and the hard white right of the Liberal and National parties. This history is worth recounting as a reminder that the race card began with Labor, before it was appropriated by Howard and Abbott.
In 1949, Menzies had the “temerity” to defend Annie O’Keefe, an Asian wartime refugee from the Dutch East Indies (Indonesia). Labor’s immigration minister, Arthur Calwell, who wanted her deported, pounced.
“Mrs O’Keefe and her children are not important,” Calwell told parliament in February.
“It is the precedent that is important. If we allow these people to stay we shall open the floodgates to any Asiatics who want to come here. Honourable members opposite do not stand for a white Australia; they stand for a black Australia. There are, unfortunately, far too many of their type in Australia today who want to break our laws.”
The response Menzies gave that day was a judicious mix of righteous anger and comedy.
“It is difficult to know exactly where to begin in dealing with it,” the Liberal leader said. “It was a speech which revealed a singularly ill-balanced mind.”
What, Menzies asked, was Calwell’s argument? “[It was] with almost screaming repetition, ‘I hate the Dutch, I hate the Dutch, I hate the Dutch.’”
That election year Calwell cast himself as the victim of an elaborate political, legal and media conspiracy to destroy the White Australia policy.
“Let me give this warning,” the immigration minister said that June. “I am determined that no matter who criticises or who complains; no matter what un-Australian activities the haters of this government and this government’s maintenance of our immigration restriction laws and practices may resort to, those laws and practices will remain, unchanged and unchangeable. They are rooted in the hearts and minds of the Australian people, and any political party that would tamper with them would do so at its peril.”
Menzies did not avoid the issue, arguing it was Calwell who threatened the national interest. During an election campaign speech in November, Menzies stated, “We will continue to maintain Australia’s settled immigration policy, known as the White Australia policy; well justified as it is on grounds of national homogeneity and economic standards. At the same time we believe in humane and commonsense administration. All cases of aliens resident in Australia should be considered, not as if the law allowed no human discretion but in the light of the circumstances of each case. Nothing has done both the Policy and our relations with Asiatic countries more harm than some of the stupid and provocative decisions of the present government.”
Calwell’s race card had no effect at the ballot box, in part because Menzies had a more powerful scare campaign to run against Labor: communism. To be blunt, Menzies was the more nuanced bigot, transferring the nation’s fear of foreign takeover to Red China, while quietly opening the door to a small number of Asian migrants. (Menzies still clung to the White Australia policy until his retirement in 1966, risking the very international censure that he had wished to avoid a decade and a half earlier.)
Australia’s settled history is full of such missed opportunities and mistaken attempts at control. There is an almost wilful forgetting involved in their repetition, which can be explained but not excused by established migrants’ inability to see themselves in the next arrival. When Calwell played his race card, for instance, he used the victim’s defence. He couldn’t be racist because his own people had suffered discrimination in the past: “My Celtic ancestry has given me as tender and as sentimental a heart as the next man. But, unlike the irresponsible newspapers and the addle-headed sentimentalists, I have a stern duty to my country and my countrymen.”
In the first decades after Federation, Labor and the conservatives were in furious agreement about the need to keep Australia white. But Labor ended the bipartisanship in 1928, triggering the nation’s first race-based election over the question of Italian migration.
Although the incumbent Bruce–Page Nationalist/Country coalition government had restricted the number allowed to enter, Labor was not satisfied.
“We must first find employment for our own people, and then if we could bring a couple of hundred thousand of our brothers and sisters from Great Britain and give employment to them we should all welcome them gladly,” declared the then Opposition leader, Labor’s Matthew Charlton, in moving a censure motion against the government.
Labor was “not opposed to the Italians as a race”, said Francis Forde, the member for the northern Queensland electorate of Capricornia, and a future prime minister, albeit for just eight days in 1945. “We admit that they make good settlers, and are useful workers. I recognise, too, that they are white men, and that their country is noted for its art, science and learning.”
Labor’s concern, Forde said, was that the Italians “do not understand our arbitration laws and industrial conditions”. Business hoped “to induce them to work for less than the award rate, and thus break down the conditions of employment operating in Australia”.
Ben Chifley, then the Labor candidate for the Blue Mountains electorate of Macquarie, simply accused Prime Minister Stanley Bruce of giving preference to “dagoes” not “heroes”. Chifley said the government “had allowed so many dagoes and aliens in Australia that today they are all over the country taking work which rightly belonged to Australians”. He won the seat, but Labor lost the election.
In a very Australian quirk of history, it was Chifley as prime minister, with Calwell as his immigration minister, who opened the door to the Italians after World War Two.
Labor did not invent the race card as a political tactic in Australia, however. That honour belongs to the grand old man of Federation, Henry Parkes, who is also probably the luckiest Australian on history’s page, given how few people today know this side of his character.
Parkes assured the people that he wasn’t a racist. This English migrant said that in slowing the Irish intake he was merely protecting the British character of the New South Wales colony.
“I would advance every opposition in my power to the bringing here of a majority of people from Ireland,” the premier told the NSW parliament in 1881. “I hope I may be able to express this opinion boldly and without reserve, without being charged with bigotry or with a dislike to the Irish people.”
He made the same protest of innocence during the infamous incident in 1888 when he refused to allow a boatload of lawful Chinese migrants to disembark in Sydney.
“I disclaim any aversion to the Chinese people settled in this country,” the premier told parliament, as he moved legislation to halt the arrival of any more.
“I have for 30 years, at many times and often, borne testimony to their law-abiding, industrious, thrifty, and peaceable character, and I have never for a single moment joined with those who have held them up as in many respects more disreputable than a similar number of English subjects.”
His opposition to their continued migration was aimed, once again, at maintaining the British character of the colony. He also explained that the working class had a legitimate grievance against the Chinese, even though he had “not said anything to encourage it”.
“We have a working class in this country great by its talents and undeniable virtues … Can it be surprising to any of us that the mothers of these families, suffering from the depression that we have passed through in this country of late, should look with something like aversion towards the Chinaman who is the direct competitor with the husband and the father of the household?”
Parkes the free trader predicted the formula that John Howard used exactly a century later in 1988 to appeal to the working class while arguing for an open economy. Howard said he wanted to slow Asian migration in the interests of “social cohesion”. Although he was removed as Opposition leader in 1989, he returned in 1995 to a nation that had grown weary of Labor’s pro-market, pro-migration policies.
In revisionist accounts that followed the 1996 election, Howard had won because he played the race card against Keating. It was more complicated than that; Howard had actually run a joint ticket with Keating as a supporter of mass Asian migration. He continued the program in office, and by the time of his own defeat, in 2007, the Asian-born were about to overtake the British-born in Australia.
In 2001, Howard did play the race card, when he told voters that “we will decide who comes to this country”. The language was universal, but its application was subtly different.
By targeting asylum seekers, the prime minister was not reflecting on people already here. He offshored the race card. Howard had understood the lesson of his own past when his anti-Asian comments were read as an attack on Asian-Australians.
The 2001 “Tampa election” was the only example where the race card worked at the ballot box. Faced with a classic security scare, Kim Beazley’s Labor Party lacked the imagination of a Menzies to defend the rights of those being scapegoated.
In its most recent iteration, under Tony Abbott, the race card was electoral poison for the Coalition, mainly because Abbott behaved like a 21st-century Calwell. He yelled what he thought were motherhood statements, and whinged when the government’s polling refused to rise in tribute to his patriotism. “Stop the boats.” “Death cult.” “Team Australia.” With each repetition, he sounded – to borrow from Menzies – just that little more “ill-balanced”. Although Abbott had no Labor opponent to call his bluff, his own colleagues could estimate the cost of his slogans in both old and new Australia, from safe Liberal seats in Melbourne’s wealth belt to the old Hanson heartland in Queensland.
It would be naive to think that Abbott’s demise marks the dawn of a perpetual age of tolerance in politics. But it does hopefully close a cranky chapter in our recent history.
The Turnbull approach returns government to the pro-market, pro-migration model last fully embraced by Keating.
The irony now is the race card could tempt its traditional owner, the party of the working man, to counter the government’s industrial-relations agenda. The spectre of migrants taking Australian jobs has already featured in the union campaign against the Chinese free trade agreement. Labor should resist the temptation to pick it up, if for no other reason than most evidence shows it does not work.
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