Fact check: Did Harold Holt abolish the White Australia policy?

RMIT ABC FactCheck investigates Liberal MP Tim Wilson's claims that former Prime Minister Harold Holt was responsible for abolishing the White Australia policy.

Image sourced from @TimWilsonMP

The claim

Australia's political establishment was quick to denounce the explosive first speech of Katter's Australian Party senator Fraser Anning and his call for a return to immigration policies that would discriminate against non-Europeans and Muslims.

Senator Anning lamented the loss of Australia's cross-party consensus which he said had "recognised the importance of our predominantly European identity", and laid blame for the demise of Australia's European-based immigration program on "the rise of [former prime minister Gough] Whitlam in the Labor party".

But Liberal MP Tim Wilson rebuffed that version of history.

Responding to the senator's speech he instead claimed credit for the Liberal Party, tweeting:

"Fact: Liberal Prime Minister Harold Holt abolished the White Australia Policy over 50 years ago. It is one of our proudest achievements."

Did former prime minister Harold Holt end the White Australia policy? RMIT ABC Fact Check investigates.

The verdict

Mr Wilson's claim is simplistic.

The White Australia policy was dismantled, piece by piece, over decades spanning governments both Liberal and Labor.

Experts told Fact Check the 1966-67 Holt government's reforms were critical steps in the process, constituting a significant break from past practice.

Mr Holt's changes levelled the playing field between Europeans and non-Europeans applying for citizenship, setting a 5-year wait time for both groups, and eased the criteria for non-European migrants seeking permanent residence.

But the process of relaxing Australia's discriminatory immigration policies quietly began before Mr Holt became prime minister — and policies of racial discrimination persisted beyond his term.

So it is a stretch to say the Holt government "abolished" the White Australia policy.

Responsibility for officially ending it fell to Gough Whitlam's Labor government, which in 1973 declared the policy dead.

The Whitlam government then took steps to strip race as a factor from visa assessments and to equalise the criteria by which all people — whether British, European or otherwise — could become Australian citizens.

What was the White Australia policy?

Associate Professor Gwenda Tavan, acting head of La Trobe University's Department of Politics and Philosophy, told Fact Check that White Australia was a euphemism for what was both a national doctrine about the "essential Australian identity" and a general policy of keeping Australia "white and British Australian".

It was, in effect, a set of regulations and laws that severely restricted non-European immigration to Australia and controlled the rights migrants had in relation to work, benefits and citizenship.

Andrew Markus, a research professor with Monash University, said that after World War II there wasn't anything formally called the White Australia policy, and that post-war governments were more likely to refer to Australia's "established immigration policy".


Principal Researcher: David Campbell

For the full story, please visit the RMIT ABC FactCheck website.


06 September 2018


06 September 2018


  • Fact Check
  • Equality, Diversity & Inclusion
  • Government & Politics
  • Society

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