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Pessimistic historians

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Two views on history and race appear in this morning’s papers. In The Age leftist historian Marilyn Lake thinks she sees ‘reverberations’ of the White Australia Policy in Sunday’s riots:

There is an odd resonance between the exclusions that marked the first decade of the 20th century and events 100 years on.

This – like remarks earlier in the week – is clutching at analogies. Then, the state was implementing racist policies. Today, parliament is recalled to pass laws to crackdown heavily on racists. Then, racist policy had extremely wide support. Today, racist actions receive strong and widespread condemnation. The ‘racists’ are even apologising and denying that they are racist. One of them has a Japanese wife. Japanese wives caused endless problems for the White Australia Policy after World War II, and played a part in its slow demise.

In her selective account of the White Australia Policy, Lake omits to mention that, especially in the post-WW2 period, supporters of the White Australia Policy wanted to avoid actions like those we saw on Sunday, not to justify or excuse them. They were worried that racial diversity would lead to the racial conflict they saw overseas (the story is in Gwenda Tavan’s The Long, Slow Death of White Australia). That, indirectly, was the theme of Peter Ryan’s op-ed in this morning’s Australian in which he called for an apology to historian Geoffrey Blainey.

As older readers may recall, and Ryan reminds us, back in 1984 Blainey gave a speech in which he warned that bringing in so many Asian migrants, at a time of high unemployment, risked undermining the tolerance that Australia had built up. It caused a huge controversy, and Blainey was eventually forced to resign as Dean of Arts at the University of Melbourne (we can be glad he did; he has spent two productive decades as a freelance author of popular histories). Ryan sees recent events as a vindication of Blainey. After some searching, I found my copy of the book Blainey wrote explaining his position, All for Australia (I can see from the inside cover that I paid $1.50 for it somewhere; clearly not one of his high-demand classics). Indeed, it does contain remarks that might now seem prophetic. In talking about the Lambing Field anti-Chinese riots in the 1860s and the anti-Italian riots in Kalgoorlie in the 1930s Blainey said:

Such riots are rare and dramatic events, and presumably are not very likely in Australia today. They do become more likely if we misuse statistics and misread history in order to console ourselves that the present immigration policy contains no seeds of trouble. (p.72)

Overall, though, Blainey’s 1984 stance seems much too pessimistic. Since 1984, Australia’s Asian population has continued to grow rapidly, without this causing major problems. Opposition to current levels of immigration – running at about two-thirds of the population in 1984 – was down below 30% in 2004. There is no evidence of a long-term increase in racist attitudes. In the SBS 2002 Living Diversity poll, just 6% of Vietnamese and 5% of Filipinos described Australia as ‘intolerant’ (though 18% of Lebanese Muslims and 15% of Lebanese Christians did).

Marilyn Lake and Geoffrey Blainey are divided by ideology. But they, at different times, have been united in thinking that Australian racism is just waiting to be stirred. Occasionally it is – but not for long. Despite intermittent disturbances, on the street or in the opinion pages, the long-term trend has been one way only – toward greater integration and social mixing.


Written by Admin

December 15, 2005 at 9:51 pm

Posted in Uncategorized

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