From white Australia to what Australia?

May 30, 2021

After living in Australia for 57 years, my memories of the era of the white Australia policy suggest that it might have been a less stressful time than my experiences of what today is called “multicultural Australia”.

I remember the day – 20th May 1964 – when we first arrived in Australia. The “we” consisted of Richard my husband, Ravi our infant son of seven months, and me. We had previously visited Victoria House in London, to organise our papers for travel from London to Melbourne, where Richard was to take up a lectureship at Monash University.

Richard was advised by the Victoria House official that we would have no difficulty entering Australia. How wrong that advice turned out to be! What the official had failed to register was that while Richard was a white UK citizen, I was of Indian origin. On paper, we had identical status; but this was not recognised in “white Australia” at that time.

We arrived at Brisbane Airport which in those days consisted of a huddle of Nissan huts. We had our passports stamped: “Permanent Entry to Australia.” It was then all so easy if you were a white UK citizen. No specified period of residency was required. No questions were asked about employment prospects. However, the immigration officer who stamped our passports had failed to register that I was distinctly not white.

When he realised, he became all flustered and shouted: “There’s been some mistake!”, he kept repeating, directing all his comments at Richard, apparently assuming that I didn’t speak English. “Your wife needs a visa to enter this country, so I will have to send her back. If there was a plane returning to London today I would have to put her on that.”

Unfortunately for him, this was 1964 at Brisbane Airport and the BOAC flight on which we had just arrived was the only London flight that week. I left Richard to handle the situation, muttering under my breath: “I told you so. I didn’t want to come to this country.”

For those of us who grew up in Asia (in my case, in India and Singapore), Australia seemed like a benign version of apartheid South Africa. Admittedly there were no “Passes” to be carried by non-whites and no vicious dogs patrolling black shantytowns here. Nonetheless, the words “White Australia” were writ large in the minds of many Asians. We accepted this fact without too many questions or even concern.

Despite its great cricket team (which I supported in those days), and its great tennis players, Australia for those of us growing up in Southeast Asia at the time was largely irrelevant to our futures. We were aware of its unwelcoming policy towards Asians. We heard the determination, expressed by Australia’s first prime minister Edmund Barton, “to secure the future of our fair country against the tide of inferior and unequal Asians arriving from our north.”

Yet somehow, this didn’t bother us. My view was that Australia had every right to set its own restrictions and it did not owe us anything. On the other hand, the view we had of our British colonial masters was somewhat different. Yes, Britain did owe us, and we felt differently about that relationship.

The Immigration officer’s solution to the dilemma of what to do with me was to stamp a large purple “CANCELLED” over the original stamp of “Permanent Entry into Australia”. He shook his head many times wondering how such a thing could have been allowed to come to pass in the first place. He instructed me to proceed to Melbourne and “wait till you are contacted by an officer from the Department of Immigration”.

For a few strange days, I was an illegal immigrant awaiting my fate. So, there I was, ambivalent in a new country that didn’t want me and which I wasn’t sure I wanted either.

Within a few days of our settling into a house, rented for us by my husband’s employer Monash University, I was contacted by the said official and instructed to attend an interview at the Department of Immigration. What would I be asked at the interview? Would I own up to not wanting to be here? If I didn’t know what to expect and what was required of me to be allowed to stay in this country, the poor Public Servant assigned the task of “handling” this unusual case was in a much more uncertain position.

I was ushered into his office. We looked at each other. He handed me a copy of the St. James bible and asked me to swear allegiance to the Queen, which I did, repeating the words after him. The irony of a UK citizen being required to swear allegiance to the Queen in order to be allowed to stay in Australia was obviously lost on my interlocutor.

What this episode proved to me was that the white Australia policy (though unwritten) was stronger than the stated immigration laws (written) about the status of entry into Australia of UK citizens. In due course, I was grudgingly provided with a “Stay of Expulsion” notice, on the condition that I remained married to a white man.


II

The suburbs around where we lived were well-manicured, genteel and extremely boring. This was the time of “six o’clock closing”. The only signs of nightlife came from the blue glow of black and white TV sets from each house. I was greeted with friendliness by the neighbours and others I met. If I had expected the white Australia policy to spill over into public behaviour towards me, I was wrong.

I have since compared my friendly reception in Melbourne at that time to that with which  Indian students have been met in the last few years. Maybe my “exotic” identity explained the welcome I received – there weren’t many of us around then.

Whilst waiting for our furniture and other possessions to arrive by sea from Singapore, we made some small purchases of inexpensive items, including some items of furniture. I noticed that each of these was stamped with the statementThis furniture has been made entirely by European labour”. Looking at the fairly shoddy workmanship and poor finish of the furniture, I thought bitterly to myself, but with some satisfaction, that no self-respecting Asian would own up to making this furniture.

Richard had his work at Monash University to go off to. My big adventure for the day was a trip to a row of shops in Railway Parade (long since gone). I got to know Mr Lockie, who ran an excellent butcher’s shop in the strip. He had his customers well-trained. He was not open on Saturday because he went either to the races or the footie in the season. He was only open on Monday, Tuesday, Thursday and Friday. On Wednesday, he was only open in the mornings, because there was always a race meeting somewhere in the afternoons. He talked to me about Aussie rules and tried to inspire me to become interested. One day he told me that he had borrowed a book from the library about India and he had read about my garment, the sari, and he knew why I had a dot on my forehead. I was touched and impressed. I have thought often about how welcoming Mr Lockie was and how irrelevant the “White Australia Policy” was in the context of our daily human contact.

The quiet, almost surly gentleman who ran the Delicatessen in the same row of shops was a totally different proposition. We hardly exchanged any conversation, apart from knowing that he, like me, was a migrant to this country. We had little contact until when, one day, in the middle of my order, he thrust a folded piece of paper into my hand with the instructions uttered with some urgency: “You must ring.”

There were two telephone numbers on the paper. The first one was the University of Melbourne Student Union and the other was the number for the Indian High Commission in Melbourne. I looked at him with surprise as he hesitantly explained that he understood what I was experiencing. He remembered how painfully lonely it was to come to a new country and have no friends and relatives in your new land. Hence the two telephone numbers.

The Student Union at Melbourne University because I was young. Our suburb was decidedly “senior” in its demographics then. He felt I needed to make contact with people close to my age. And the Indian High Commission was because I needed to make contact with other Indians who were also noticeably lacking from the suburban landscape. His actions in searching out those particular numbers for me were prompted by such kindness that the recollection of them still brings a lump to my throat.

The following year, I re-enrolled at university and through the heady years of Monash in the mid-to-late sixties, had no shortage of young people in my life! With hindsight, I now wish I had informed my concerned fellow immigrant of this fact. Not long after being issued my ‘Stay of Expulsion’ notice, I received in the mail the information about my entitlement to be on the Australian Electoral Roll. The short document was partly inviting and partly punitive in tone. I was told that I was now “entitled” to be on the Electoral Roll. But I was also instructed that “failure to enrol will be met with a fine or a jail sentence”. I thought long and hard about my position. I had been rejected entry to this country.

Now I was being told I had no choice but to get on the Electoral Roll. I did nothing about enrolling as a voter. I was sent a reminder a few weeks later and then another one. Finally, I received a summons. I had to front up in court if I kept refusing the invitation to participate in the democratic process. I succumbed and enrolled. I was amazed a few years later, in 1967, when Australia had a referendum about whether the Indigenous Australians should be counted in the census! I couldn’t help but remember my churlish response to the invitation to be on the electoral roll. As a dark-skinned UK citizen, I was being compelled to join the electoral register, whereas the dark-skinned Indigenous Australians were only just being recognised as a part of the population of Australia.

III

For some reason, most officials, especially Immigration officials, given the choice of addressing a white male or addressing a coloured female seem to choose the former, even if the matter being discussed is about her, not him. This was certainly the case at Sydney International Airport where we about to board a flight to Singapore.

He explained that I needed a re-entry permit to come back to Australia. Richard asked why the same requirement did not apply to him given that we were travelling on the same category of passports. After a moment’s consideration, the answer he gave was “Because of your wife’s colour, sir”. We were surprised, but the honesty of his answer was so refreshing that Richard shook his hand and told him that it was the first time in Australia anybody in officialdom who had had the courage to mention the unmentionable. The officer went on to advise that whilst we were away, we should just visit the closest Australian High Commission and explain what had happened and request a re-entry permit there. He assured us that there would be no problem. Our first visit to the Australian High Commission in Kuala Lumpur was a frustrating one.

We were addressed in an incredibly patronising manner by a consular official who assumed we were trying to emigrate to Australia. (Prime Minister Billy McMahon had brought in legislation by then which allowed limited Asian immigration of skilled migrants with professional qualifications.) We pointed out that we actually lived in Australia and were only in Singapore and Malaysia on holiday. She explained in painfully slow and loud English that “it was all a question of assimilation” and they did not know if I would assimilate adequately.

It took half a dozen visits to the Australian High Commission to get me back to Australia! After several visits, I had to leave Richard at home because he was ready to jump over the counter and punch someone. We tried over and over again, patiently, to explain our predicament.

In the end, the only solution the consular officers could find to deal with me was to give me an application form for emigration to Australia. I duly filled in the form. In it, I gave our address in Clayton Victoria as our “permanent address”. I don’t know what Immigration officials made of that. That year, I had just been awarded first-class honours in Second Year English and a Monash University prize.

I was pleased to be able to put this down in reply to the question that asked about “Level of proficiency in English?” We returned to Australia and got on with life and thought nothing further about our status till the next time we were to travel overseas again a few years later. “If You Want an Asian for a Neighbour, Vote Labor!” This slogan appeared on posters at the time of the “It’s Time” campaign in the months before the election of the Whitlam Government. I was walking home one day from the University.

As I came closer to home I noticed that I was being filmed. I discovered later that someone from the ABC program, “This Day Tonight” (the forerunner to the 7:30 Report) had phoned home and spoken to Richard who assured them I would be happy to give my views about the slogan. During the interview, I explained that in my personal affairs I had only been met with friendliness (including from my neighbours) and that I had always been struck by the difference between the official policy – which was unwelcoming ­– and the reality of my experiences which, to that point, had always been welcoming.

That was all 40 years ago. There have been occasions since when the welcome has been decidedly unfriendly, even hostile. My first experience of this was after I had been living in Australia for over thirty years and a decade after I’d become an Australian citizen. It was soon after Pauline Hanson hit the headlines.

One pleasant afternoon I was dressed in a sari and crossing Victoria Street towards Carlton. A young cyclist pulled up beside me at the pedestrian crossing by the traffic lights. He bent towards me. I naively assumed that he was going to ask me a question or proffer a greeting. Instead, he spat vehemently at me covering my eyes and face with spit. He then casually rode off. It was a horrible shock.

I got to the other side of the crossing upset and surprised. (I would love to know what the motorists thought who were stopped at the lights and who witnessed the incident.) A few years later (after the Nine-Eleven bombings in the US) I was again spat upon by a man in his forties at a crowded tram stop near Parliament Station and Parliament House. The man swaggered off. No one said anything – maybe we were all in shock.

After a while, a kind woman comforted me with a very welcome arm around my shoulder. Was this the same Australia that I had come to call home and in which I felt so comfortable? After another incident in Collins Street which involved a spit and shirt-front, from another middle-aged white male, it did sink in that I was not welcome by all Australians and for the first time in Australia I began to feel uncertain and wondered “Why?” I realised that I was wearing a sari on each occasion when I had been spat upon. Was this what drew attention to my difference? I have determined in my own mind that this is almost certainly a factor. I remembered reading that Sikhs in the US were attacked as Muslims after the twin towers attack.

Niceties about differences of culture, religion and dress styles don’t enter into consideration when there is a need to identify and vilify an “enemy.” As a result, I don’t wear saris anymore in public and certainly not when I travel on public transport.

Most recently, I was with Richard on the train when a man started to abuse me with talk about minorities, etc. He then started on at Richard about his age. We moved away from him which gave rise to a torrent of vile swearing. Then, as he got off to leave the train, he walked quite a long way towards us and spat at Richard. He stood on the platform and waved gleefully as the train we were on left his station. Whatever is happening in “multicultural Australia”?

 

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