Colony and Empire

Section Five

Immigration and Race


Over the span of several years the British Government interfered with the attempts of the Australian colonial governments to institute a colonial White Australia Policy. Also, following the federation of the colonies into the Australian Commonwealth in 1901, the British Government interfered (and made attempts to interfere) with the national Australian Government as regarding immigration policy.

As Bill Murray has noted, Also, Britain did not want to upset the non-European parts of her Empire (especially India), who could be offended by Australia's immigration policies. So, although Australia wanted to establish a clear and unashamed White Australia Policy, she was stopped from doing so by Britain. As so often happened: British interests came first, Australian interests came a poor second.(121)

The Victorian Parliament, in 1855, and the NSW Parliament, in 1861, passed laws to restrict the massive influx of Chinese immigration. These laws were not disallowed by the British Government, although Britain's then Colonial Secretary, Lord Carnarvon, was not pleased - and stated "that exceptional legislation, intended to exclude from any part of Her Majesty's dominions the subjects of a State at peace with Her Majesty, is highly objectionable in principle". Later on, as the influx of Chinese abated, these laws were then found to be unnecessary and were therefore repealed.(122)

In 1876 the Queensland Parliament passed a Bill to amend the Gold Fields Act of 1874 which levied a higher gold licence fee upon Asians - in order to discourage their immigration into Australia. The British-appointed Governor of Queensland reserved the Bill, and the British Government supported his actions - thus the Bill did not become law.(123)

In 1896 an intercolonial conference was held where the question of Chinese immigration was discussed, whereupon the colonies decided that "the further restriction of Chinese immigration is essential to the people of Australasia". Accordingly, during 1896, Coloured Races Restriction Bills were passed in New South Wales, South Australia, and Tasmania (and an Asiatic Restriction Bill in New Zealand). These Bills were reserved, and "did not receive Her Majesty's assent"; hence, they did not become law.(124)

In December 1900, the Queensland parliament passed an amendment to the Sugar Works Guarantee Act 1893 to 1895 which would stop the employment of any "natives of Asia, Africa, or of the Pacific Islands" in any sugar mill subsidised by the Government. This Bill was reserved for the Royal Assent, which the British Government refused to give; and so, the Bill did not become law.(125)

It was known that the Australian people were determined to stop Asiatic immigration, so in 1897 the Japanese Government specially asked that an effort should be made to induce the Australasian Colonies to adopt the same course as the Government of Natal, and thus "in deference to these representations Mr Chamberlain once more brought the question before the Colonies".(126)

Joseph Chamberlain, Britain's Secretary of State for the Colonies, therefore suggested to the Australian colonies that they copy the Immigration Restriction Act of 1897 that had been passed in Natal (South Africa). This law could be used to stop non-European immigration in a "roundabout" fashion, by admitting only those who could pass a dictation test - which could be given to non-Europeans in a foreign language so that they would fail, and therefore could not enter Australia as migrants.(127)

This Natal Act tactic, was opposed by many Australians for being "underhand"; but, faced with Britain's opposition to the specific exclusion of non-Europeans, this was the only course open to the Australian parliaments (unless they were to declare some form of republican independence). Therefore, Natal-like immigration laws were passed by several Australian colonies.


When the Australian colonies federated in 1901, the national parliament also copied the principles of the Natal law as the basis for its Immigration Restriction Act of 1901 (the first major piece of legislation passed by the parliament) - it did so in order to follow Britain's wishes, and so that the Act would not be stopped from becoming law by the British Government. The then prime minister of Australia, Edmund Barton, alluded to the problem in his speech to the parliament: "It is not a desirable thing in our legislation to make racial discriminations which will complicate the foreign relations of the Empire".(128)

Many still opposed this Natal-like method, such as H.B. Higgins (Member of Parliament), who said during the debate over the Immigration Restriction Act of 1901 that "I have no hesitation in expressing my preference for the direct method. I wish to know whether this Federal Parliament is to be dictated to... by any authority outside... we should speak out plainly to the Imperial authorities". Higgins further complained that "One of the difficulties we had in the Victorian Assembly was that we were always told not to pass certain Bills, in a certain form because they would be thrown out in another place" (that is, Britain had made it plain that it would quash any Bills that any Australian parliament might pass against Asian or non-European immigration).(129)

In the debates over the introduction of the Immigration Restriction Act, the Labor Party sought straight-out prohibition, seeking an amendment to exclude "any person who is an aboriginal native of Asia, Africa or of the island's thereof", but when the amendment failed, the Labor Party then supported the overall legislation.(130)

But still the British Government continued to interfere: It is interesting to note that Governor-General Hopetoun considered using his powers of reserving (i.e. stopping) legislation "under section 58 of the Commonwealth Constitution in connection with the Immigration Restriction Act, but eventually decided to assent to the controversial legislation himself, rather than reserve it for the King".(132)

Pressure was being brought to bear upon Britain by non-European countries, especially India and Japan, regarding Australia's laws pertaining to race:

In September 1905 the Secretary of State for India complained about Western Australia's Factories Act which placed heavy limitations upon Asiatics being "the owner or occupier of a factory".(133)

Britain had forged a military and naval alliance with Japan, and the Japanese, seeing themselves as the champion of equality of Asians, objected strongly to "the white settler society in Australia trying to limit or prohibit Asian (predominantly Chinese) immigration". Following such pressure, in November 1905, the Colonial Office in London instructed all Australian State Governors and the Governor-General to reserve for Royal Assent (i.e. for the assent of the British government) any legislation aimed to restrict Asian immigration.(134)

The November 1905 instructions were sent to all colonies, and - upon receiving them - New Zealand's Prime Minister planned to make "a public protest against the circular on the grounds that it was an unacceptable limitation of colonial constitutional independence". The premiers of the Australian states also protested at the Imperial instruction. On top of all this; the Australian Prime Minister, Alfred Deakin, "protested so loudly at this interference in matters seen as domestic and vital that the instruction was withdrawn".(135)

Later on, "the Indian government protested at amendments to Australia's Immigration Restriction Act in March 1906, and requested that the Royal Assent be withheld" - but India was persuaded by Britain "not to press its objection".(136)

The Customs Tariff (British Preference) Bill, which was introduced into the Australian parliament in September 1906, gave tariff preference to goods imported into Australia by British vessels. The Bill was amended to give tariff preference only if such vessels "were manned exclusively by white seamen". Under pressure from Britain, the Australian Prime Minister had to get the Governor-General to reserve assent, and it therefore never became law.(137)


In the 1950s the Cocos Islands were transferred from British rule to Australian rule. This almost didn't happen, because "Australian officials drew particular exception to British demands that Cocos Islanders be given sympathetic consideration for settling in this country". A compromise was drawn up, by giving the Islanders sympathetic consideration "to enter" (not to "settle in") Australia. Once again, the British were attempting to interfere with the White Australia Policy.(138)

Colony and Empire

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