Australia – emergence of a modern nation built on diversity and ‘fair go’

Dr Sev Ozdowski OAM FAICD
Director, Equity and Diversity,
University of Western Sydney

National Mediation Conference 2012
"Emerging dynamics in mediation - new thinking, new practices, new relationships"
Sydney Convention and Exhibition Centre,
11-13 September 2012

Download Word version of speech [DOC, 267.5 KB] (Opens in a new window)


Professor Andrew Markus of Melbourne points out that when asked ‘What is the best policy for dealing with asylum seekers trying to reach Australia by boat?’ only 22% of Australians believe that they should be allowed permanent residency while 35% believe that they should be detained and sent back or should have their boats turned around at sea. Even 10% of Green voters believe that the boats should be turned around.

However, in the same survey, the same group of people were asked whether they felt positively, negatively or neutral about refugees who have been assessed overseas and found to be victims of persecution and in need of help coming to live in Australia and 73% felt positive.

These two sentiments are in direct conflict. On one hand we are opening hands to foreign refugees while on the other we are pushing essentially the same group of people back into the ocean. So what is the difference between these two groups that has Australians so polarised about their fate?

Today’s Australia is a modern nation of enormous diversity. It differs significantly from the Australia of early European settlement and its colonial times and from Australia during the period between the 1901 Federation and Second World War (WWII).

Having said that, I regard contemporary Australia as being a product of its own history. In fact, like with many other nations, it is impossible to understand contemporary Australia without visiting our past and in particular, understanding how our perceived dislocation from Europe and our island nation status have influenced our thinking. This paper examines this journey, and in particular how the Australian notion of ‘fair go’ has travelled over time.

This paper suggests that the contemporary social ethos of ‘fair go’ and Australia’s attitudes to asylum seekers arriving by boats are closely linked to three significant foundations, namely:

  • a progressive social justice ethos developed in early colonial days;
  • a post WWII departure from being a parochial British outpost to a more self-assured and cosmopolitan nation of today; and
  • a government controlled immigration system.

Our historical examination of these foundations would suggest that the Australian ‘fair go’ principle has evolved since the early colonial days and does not always work for those in need.

The history of modern Australia began on the day Captain James Cook arrived at Botany Bay in the HMS Endeavour in 1770 and formally took possession of the east coast of New Holland (as it was then called) for Britain. The continent had already been inhabited at that point for tens of thousands of years by a race steeped in culture and tradition. But that was the day the world and in particular Britain came to Australia.

Cook had secret orders to find the southern land with a view to colonise in order to gain a political advantage over the French in the region. He was looking for a place to establish a penal colony and transplant a little bit of England to the other side of the world.

It was 15 years after Captain James Cook’s annexation before the order to colonise New Holland came and Captain Arthur Philip was put in charge of the transportation fleet and the establishment of a penal colony. The first colony in Australia was established in Sydney Cove in 1788, later to become the city of Sydney.

Let us start our inquiry with the examination of social ethos of early days.

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The Progressive Social Justice Ethos of Early Days

In a voyage of 252 days Captain Arthur Philip guided 11 ships carrying nearly 1,500 people over 24,000 kilometres without the loss of a single ship and with a death rate of only 3% (45 people). ‘Given the rigours of the voyage, the navigational problems, the poor condition and seafaring inexperience of the convicts, the primitive medical knowledge, the lack of precautions against scurvy, the crammed and foul conditions of the ships, poor planning and inadequate equipment, this was a remarkable achievement.’

A large part of Philip’s success in transporting the first convicts to Australia was his insistence that proper food be provided to the convicts and that they be regularly allowed out of the holds and up on deck.

One of Arthur Philip’s earliest decisions as governor was to distribute the food equally amongst the convicts and freeman. He realised almost immediately that food was going to be an issue in the new colony and that any system that distributed it unfairly would result in civil unrest. This was not a decision that his men and officers agreed with, particularly when he had anybody who stole from the stores, convict or freeman, flogged.

He also very quickly set up an emancipation system whereby convicts could earn their freedom and take land grants in the new colony. By 1790 there was a growing population of emancipated convicts and ex-military establishing private enterprise.

Governor Philip also took steps to entreat the local Eora people, although sometimes in an odd way as exemplified when he first abducted and then befriended an Aboriginal man named Bennelong. Later Arthur Philip survived a spearing incident and did not seek to invoke retribution on the Aboriginal community. Governor Philip’s attitude towards the Eora nation changed when his gamekeeper was fatally wounded and he ordered the culprits be hunted down and executed. In the end, the culprits were never found and there is a lot of evidence to suggest that the gamekeeper had been speared because he had murdered Aboriginal people for sport. Watkin Tench, the marine officer who was ordered to find the Aboriginal people responsible, knew this and never really had his heart in the chase.

Despite numerous uprisings and an inconsistent approach to the local indigenous community, by the time Governor Philip left his commission in 1792 the colony and its social foundation were well established. Considering Philip’s focus on equal access to food for all, his focus on emancipation of convicts and little attention to class barriers, it is not without some cause that we can describe Governor Arthur Philip as the founder of the ‘fair go’ ethos in Australia.

A succession of Governors, some better than others, continued to build a society based on Philip’s foundations. Governor Lachlan Macquarie, for example, much to the chagrin of the free settlers, appointed emancipated convicts to high government office including Francis Greenway as the colonial architect and Dr William Redfern as the colonial surgeon. He even appointed one former convict, Andrew Thompson as a magistrate. In the old world this disregard for class barriers would simply not have been possible.

This notion of a ‘fair go’ and equality of all men continued post federation.

In 1907, Justice Higgins used Australia’s innovative conciliation and arbitrations industrial relations system to bring down the landmark Harvester Decision and established a concept of the living, or basic, wage. This decision lead the world in setting up progressive labour standards and was made long time before the Bolshevik Revolution or establishment of the International Labour Organisation.

Higgins, in a decision determined that an employer was obliged to pay his employees a ‘fair and reasonable wage’ that guaranteed them a standard of living that was reasonable for ‘a human being in a civilised community’, whether or not the employer has the capacity to pay. Another of the Court’s early acts was to set the standard working week at 48 hours.

What it meant was that employers had to factor the cost of a decent standard of living into their operating expenses. The concept of ‘fair go’ was grounded in this interventionist approach into employment relations and in the resulting flat class structure of Australian society.

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It is important to note, however, that the Harvester decision did not guarantee the same conditions of employment to women and Aboriginal Australians. In other words, Harvester decision could be also described as both racist and sexist with neither women nor Aboriginal Australians enjoying the benefits of the basic wage.

In fact, the early Australian concept of the ‘fair go’ was a bit like Athenian concept of democracy in around 500 BC which formally applied to all Athenian citizens, but excluded Athenian women, most likely Athenians with disabilities, ‘barbarians’ – which often meant other Greeks who spoke in a different dialect or with a different accent and slaves.

In particular, the concept Terra Nullius or ‘no man’s land’ was the antithesis of the extension of ‘fair go’ to Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders. In fact, the clash at the frontier between the Indigenous populations and white settlers was often cruel, hateful and has had long lasting consequences for the nation. Aboriginal resistance against the settlers was widespread, and prolonged fighting between 1788 and the 1920s led to the deaths of at least 20,000 Indigenous people and between 2,000 and 2,500 Europeans. Smallpox decimated the local Eora people and debate rages still as to whether it was deliberately introduced to them or not. One may also wonder to what extent the past brutal takeover of Australia is linked to the current prejudices and a past fear of alien invasion.

There is one more element of Australian culture worth mentioning that highlights the history of our ‘fair go’ culture. Australians love to believe that they have an anti-authoritarian streak in them and that they have a healthy disrespect for authority.

The love of the Ned Kelly legend is often quoted as an example of it. As we know, in the late 1880s a bushranger called Ned Kelly murdered and stole and was hanged for his crimes. But contemporary Australians admire him for his courage and willingness to stand for himself. They justify his actions by accepting that he was forced into such behaviour because he was denied a ‘fair go’ as both he and his family received unfair treatment from those in authority.

It also appears that Australian’s feeling of ‘fair go’ is particularly offended by those who secure advantage in wealth or in political status and are in front of the pack or in other words display the ‘tall poppy’ syndrome. People who acquired major financial wealth are rarely seen as role models and perhaps attract much more dob-ins to the Australian Taxation Office. This also applies to politicians or other people who acquire political power, as the predominant attitude is: we voted ‘the bastards’ in and we can vote them out. When dealing with ‘toll poppies’, we ordinary Australians would be justified to take all fair measures to ensure that egalitarian status of ‘fair go’ is maintained.

In Graham Davis words: We seem to regard our self as perfectly entitled to tell anyone in authority to ‘get stuffed’, especially if that person is an effwit and violates our inviolable code of ‘fair go’. Australia is the only nation in the world I know that does this.

Interestingly, the former Prime Minister John Howard invoked the ‘fair go’ ethos against the trade unions as a way of justifying his WorkChoices. His goal was to deliver ‘fair go’ protections to employers when he abolished what was left of the conciliation and arbitration system. A ‘fair go’ can cut both ways and has throughout our history.

One of the ways of demonstrating our ‘fair go’ and the egalitarian nature of Australian society is for Australians to address their politicians by their first name. For example when recently the Prime Minister Julia Gillard appeared on ‘Question and Answer’ (Q&A) television program ordinary members of the audience addressed her by the first name.

To give you another example, the Australian Airline Qantas has recently introduced in its departure areas a second queue for Business Class and Premium passengers. I travel much and I have never seen that this rule was followed up by travellers or enforced by Qantas staff. It is simply against our understanding what ‘fair go’ is about. But try to cut in front of a queue to purchase petrol or cinema tickets – you would certainly be put in your place by others. The ‘fair go’ principle requires it.

To explain this national characteristic one would need perhaps to refer again to our egalitarian beginnings and to the assumed right to act, preferably against the authorities, in case of individual injustice.

But to confuse this notion even further, Australians display enormous trust in the government and tend to respect and follow the rules. The Australian governments are seen as the custodians of the ‘fair go’ principle and the key function of governments (especially Labor) is to remove disadvantage, deliver housing, schools and hospitals and tax out of existence tall poppies, as electors will take care of politicians who become too full of themselves.

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From Parochial to Cosmopolitan Australia

Looking back, Europeans did not learn much from Aboriginal inhabitants on how to live in Australia. According to Thomas Crump ‘In every dimension, social, economic or political, {Australian} colonies were not a home grown product, but adaptation of British ways of life to an entirely new environment.’ They imported their animals, crops, technologies, laws, political institutions, religions, prejudices and diseases from Europe and specifically from England.

These took their toll on the land and the people here but in a relatively short time they also took hold and would determine the nature of Australian identity for the next 150 years and its economy to this day.

Over the last 200 years or so Australia has grown enormously as a political entity, as an economy and as a society. The Australian concept of ‘fair go’ also underwent a major transformation as Australia moved from a parochial, isolationist colonial past to a modern cosmopolitan society.

Initially, Australia consisted as a number of individual colonies, with the colony of New South Wales being the first established, administered from Britain. The colonies were highly dependent on mother England for supplies and human capital.

As early as during the rule of Governor Macquarie (1810-1821) NSW started transformation away from a penal colony status and set up a solid foundation for establishment of a free and egalitarian society. He established public works, churches, schools, banks and agriculture and lobbied the British government for more free settlers, especially women to address the gender imbalance.

The free settlers started to arrive in ever greater numbers and, on one hand, embraced egalitarianism and the principle of ‘fair go’, but on the other, continued their dependence both on mother England for supplies and on local authorities for equal distribution for supplies. This could be the root of contemporary Australian aversion to “bludgers”.

The Australian economy, as it developed, continued its links with Britain. Driscoll & Elphick indicate that in 1820 sheep farms and wool industry were established and by 1834, nearly 2 million kilograms of wool were being exported to Britain from Australia. Discovery of gold in 1851 near Bathurst and subsequent gold rushes elsewhere brought development and economic prosperity. This was fed by British investment and the continued growth of the pastoral and mining industries that lasted until the 1980s. By 1900 Australia’s population reached 3.7 million and was strongly urbanised as almost 1 million lived in Melbourne and Sydney.

By the mid 1850s Australian colonies were ready to manage their own affairs, first NSW, and then the other colonies developed local government systems that were able to govern most of their own affairs while remaining part of the British Empire. The notable exceptions were foreign affairs, defence and international shipping. Australians still looked to mother England for leadership when it came to our relationship with the rest of the world and in particular with our neighbours in Asia-Pacific.

The federation of the colonies in 1901 created the Commonwealth of Australia, but it created Australia as a dominion of the British Empire not an independent state. Although the Australian constitution was voted on by the population of each of the 6 states it only came into being as an act of the British Parliament and is still held in the British archives in London and not at Parliament House in Canberra. Indeed, the British Parliament was still able to override any act of the Australian Parliament and to this day the English monarch is the titular head of Australian government.

What is most interesting is the fact that Australia was reluctant to accept its independence of Britain, especially in foreign affairs and in defence for a long time.

In fact, the Commonwealth was little inclined to bypass Whitehall despite its concern about the influence of China and Japan in the region. Australia went into the First World War as a part of British Empire and after the war moved temporarily into world affairs as a member of the Versailles Peace Conference, managing to upset Japan by insisting that there is no race equality clause in the new League of Nations Charter that was discussed at the Versailles. However, between the wars, the participation of Australia in world affairs was minimal and we showed little interest for capitalising on our enhanced status even when the British passed in 1931 the Statute of Westminster giving Australia and other dominions legislative equality with UK.

Australians wanted to keep their ‘Little Britain’ in Australia. This had had important implications for dealing with our neighbours in Asia-Pacific. We were isolationist and relied on Britain for guidance and security and power, especially military/naval power.

Everything changed when WWII came to Australia and when Australia was nearly invaded by the Japanese who flattened Darwin and attacked Sydney.

The old alliance with Britain was challenged when Australia had to repatriate, despite Churchill’s protest, two Australian divisions which were moved from Egypt to Asia Pacific war theatre. A new alliance was formed with the USA when the US military entered the war in the Pacific and then strengthened when USA decided to continue with their significant military and economic presence in the region.

The net result was that Australia had to embrace its independence and grow as a modern nation in its region.

My key argument is that this rapid growth would not have been possible without extension of egalitarianism and the ‘fair go’ principle to newcomers and other social groups.

First, and I am not speaking here in any order of importance or chronology, the ‘fair go’ principle was extended to include Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people. The long campaigns for the rights of Indigenous Australians of the 1960s resulted first in extension of social welfare and electoral rights and culminated in the 1967 Referendum in which some 90 percent of Australians voted to amend the Australian Constitution to include all Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Australians in the national census and to allow the Federal parliament to legislate on their behalf.

In 1971 Neville Bonner of the Liberal Party of Australia became the first Aboriginal in Federal Parliament. In 1976 the Aboriginal Land Rights Act 1976 was passed. In 1992 the High Court of Australia handed down its decision in the Mabo case declaring the previous legal concept of Terra Nullius to be invalid. In 2008, Prime Minister Kevin Rudd issued a public apology to members of the Stolen Generations on behalf of the Australian Government. And most recently the Expert Panel on Constitutional Recognition of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples recommended recognising the role and importance of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people in the Constitution.

Although much is yet to be achieved, in particular in advancing living standards and opening employment opportunities, one could conclude that in contemporary Australia the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people are the key focus of our aspirations to deliver justice and opportunities for all.

Second, the ‘fair go’ principle was extended to women. In fact, Australia had led the world in bringing women's suffrage rights since the late 19th century allowing women to participate in elections. However only after WWII women had joined the legislatures with Edith Cowan being the first woman elected to the West Australian Legislative Assembly in 1921 and Dame Enid Lyons, being the first woman to hold a Cabinet post in 1949. To date, it is only South Australia that has not had a female Premier, Julia Gillard is the Australia's first female Prime Minister, and Quentin Bryce is Australia’s first female Governor General.

The principle of ‘fair go’ had been also extended to women seeking employment and education opportunities. The first breakthrough came between 1939 and 1944, when Australia created a significant female workforce engaged in direct war production. However a major advancement was achieved in 1974 when the Commonwealth Court of Conciliation and Arbitration granted women the full adult wage. The gender pay equity gap is regarded at present as a key outstanding equity issue for Australian women.

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Another group of people who were beneficiaries of the expanding notion of ‘fair go’ are people with disabilities. I will not offer you a historical analysis about how our treatment of people with disabilities has changed over the time, except to mention that Australia has one of the best legislative systems to deal with disability discrimination based on the Disability Discrimination Act 1992 and associated Disability Standards and is currently developing a National Disability Insurance Scheme (NDIS).

The most interesting extension of the ‘fair go’ principle, however, happened when after WWII, Australia gradually moved first from the British oriented White Australia policy to policy of non-discrimination in immigration intake, and then moved away from the policy of assimilation to embrace multiculturalism.

As we know, WWII made it obvious that Australia’s population was too small to defend the continent. In 1945, Minister for Immigration, Arthur Calwell wrote: ‘If the experience of the Pacific War has taught us one thing, it surely is that seven million Australians cannot hold three million square miles of this earth’s surface indefinitely.’

The old cry ‘populate or perish’ won new currency with all major parties and mass migration started. According to the Department of Immigration and Citizenship, some 7.2 million immigrants have arrived between 1945 and 2011 and Australia’s population has increased from about seven million in 1945 to almost twenty three million.

The post WWII migration started with a preference for ten pound British immigrants; however, the numbers of British migrants fell short of what was expected. The authorities turned their attention for the first time to potential non-British European settlers - to the hundreds of thousands of people mainly Central European displaced by the War and then to Southern Europeans. This then changed to global intake based on skills. More recently of total immigration intake of 127,460 between July 2010 and June 2011, 15.5% migrants came from China and 8.3% migrants arrived from India.

The mass migration required changes to immigration and related laws. As many new arrivals were not British subjects, Australian citizenship was created by the Nationality and Citizenship Act 1948. In May 1958, the Menzies Government replaced the arbitrarily applied dictation test with an entry permit system, that reflected economic and skills criteria. Further changes in the 1960s and 1970s effectively ended the White Australia policy.

The globalised intake of migrants that resulted from the changes created modern Australia that is one of the most culturally and linguistically diverse societies in the world. This diversity has had enormous implications on who we are today.

Initially, the expectation was that non-British immigrants would assimilate as fast as possible into Australian lifestyle, abandoning their past national allegiances and cultural ‘baggage’. Continuation of a ‘Little-Britain’ and a mono-cultural Australia was the ideal. New Australians had to speak English, not live in cultural ghettos and wherever possible marry into the Australian-born community.

However upon their arrival non-British migrants did not melt easily into the Anglo-Celtic melting pot, but established their own lively communities with churches, sporting and cultural clubs, associations, schools and welfare. They established them to maintain their culture and to help themselves in the process of settlement.

Today Australia is clearly a multicultural society in the descriptive use of this word. According to the Australian Bureau of Statistics 2011 Australian Census over a quarter (26% or 5.3 million) of Australia's population was born overseas and a further one fifth (20% or 4.1 million) had at least one overseas-born parent. Although historically, the majority of migration had come from Europe, there are increasingly more Australians who were born in Asia and other parts of the world. When we look at cultural heritage, over 300 ancestries were separately identified in the 2011 Census. The most commonly reported were English (36%) and Australian (35%). A further six of the leading ten ancestries reflected the European heritage in Australia with the two remaining ancestries being Chinese (4%) and Indian (2%).

Today Australians speak more than 200 languages – this includes some 40 Aboriginal languages. Apart from English the most commonly used are Chinese (largely Mandarin and Cantonese), Italian, Greek, Arabic, Vietnamese languages. There is also enormous religious diversity with some 61% reporting affiliation to Christianity in 2011 Census and 7.2% reporting an affiliation to non-Christian religions, and 22% reporting ‘No Religion’.

To manage this diversity and to respond to the growth in wealth and political influence of non-British settlers, successive governments commenced to developed multicultural policies since the early seventies. These policies moved to extend the coverage of Australian egalitarianism and the ‘fair go’ ethos further to include cultural, linguistic and religious differences.

Although there were some important differences between multicultural policies of Whitlam, Fraser, Hawke/Keating, Howard and Rudd/Gillard governments, their key focus was constant.

The aim of Multicultural Australia was for all to participate on equal terms, to access opportunities and focus on nation building without need for ethnic ghettos or separateness from the community at large. In fact, the government lead change towards greater inclusion and respect of cultural difference has become more and more visible between the early seventies and now.

Under multiculturalism, migrants were expected to join the broader Australian society and its political and cultural institutions at their own pace. This policy aims at integration with ‘human face’ and dignity. It allows for preservation and transfer to the next generation of minority cultural and linguistic heritage that did not conflict with the Australian core values. It was also about ‘productive diversity’ and participation in the globalised economy. It is, however, expected that newcomers upon arrival in Australia will give up their foreign loyalties and in particular involvement with the country of origin conflicts and ethnic or religious hatreds.

In other words, contemporary Australian multiculturalism must be seen as a compact or two way street between the Australian society and newcomers which requires both give and take. As recently the Australian Prime Minister Julia Gillard, introducing the Australian Multicultural Council Lecture at Parliament House, stated: ‘Multiculturalism is not only just the ability to maintain our diverse backgrounds and cultures. It is the meeting place of rights and responsibilities. Where the right to maintain one’s customs, language and religion is balanced by an equal responsibility to learn English, find work, respect our culture and heritage, and accept women as full equals’.

Leader of the Opposition Tony Abbott agreed saying the ‘Newcomers to this country are not expected to surrender their heritage but they are expected to surrender their hatreds’.

These multicultural policies were expressed in a range of government manifestos like the Prime Minister Hawke’s ‘National Policy for a Multicultural Australia’, in practical measures like the establishment of Special Broadcasting Service by the Fraser government or the establishment of a range of implementation and consultative bodies and in many legislative and educational measures, the most prominent being measures to combat race discrimination and prejudice. Starting with Federal Racial Discrimination Act 1975 and appointment of Al Grassby as the first federal Commissioner for Community Relations, Australia developed an effective tolerance infrastructure able to welcome and empower the new comers including those from minority racial, cultural or religious backgrounds. In addition, especially those arriving as refugees, were extended a generous raft of free government benefits, such as healthcare, unemployment and income support payments, English language education, etc.

Multiculturalism, as a public policy, works well in Australia and is supported both by the established communities and by recent arrivals. For example, recent Mind & Mood report on New Australians, based on extensive interviews with Chinese, Indian, Vietnamese and Somali migrants indicated that they see Australia as peaceful and a fair nation and were more optimistic about their future in the ‘lucky country’ than the local-born middle class.

The occasional difficulties shown more recently by some radicalised elements of Muslim community in adapting their ways to secular Australia, are in my view temporary and do not reflect the views held by the vast majority of Muslim Australians or their leadership.

Most recently Australians are warming up to extend the principle of ‘fair go’ to gay and lesbian people fighting for marriage equality. This is a particularly important breakthrough as not that long ago homosexuality was criminalised.

There may be still many holes and exemptions in these ‘fair go’ legislative changes, notably our recent application of ‘fair go’ ethos to asylum seekers arriving on boats, but the evolution of the term ‘fair go’ over the last two hundred years suggest that our contemporary understanding of this term is likely to change in the future.

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Government Controlled Immigration System

Finally let us examine the government controls over immigration to Australia.

From day one governments controlled tightly who was either required or allowed to settle in Australia. First it was government of Great Britain sending predominantly British and Irish convicts together with accompanying officials and military. As early as 1790, Governor Arthur Phillip wrote to England seeking British authorities to send skilled migrants to assist with the economic development. Thus one could call Governor Phillip as the first one who advocated for skilled migration to Australia.

First free settlers arrived in 1793, but numerically significant free migration started in 1820s and first scheme of assisted emigration to NSW and Tasmania established by the British government in 1831. Then a range of different assisted migration schemes and selection procedures were developed over time by different colonies to bring the most desirable migrants needed for economic development. In 1936 the colony of South Australia was established for free settlers from Great Britain, with notable German language settlement. Skilled tradesmen and wealthy individuals were often the target of the early migration schemes.

Governments temporarily lost control over immigration between 1851 and 1860 after the discovery of gold. During this time the level of overseas immigration to colonial Australia was unrestricted and reached its peak as the population of Australia had grown from 437,655 to 1,151,947 and the population of Victoria from 77,000 to 540,000. Also the ethnicity mix of migrants was not controlled by the authorities. Although the vast majority of newcomers emigrated from the British Isles, there were some Chinese, Americans, Canadians, Germans, French, Scandinavians, Italians and the Poles arriving in this period. The Chinese constituted the largest non-British group numbering about 34,000 people in 1858 and accounting for about 20% of mining population in Victoria.

The conflict between Australian and European miners and Chinese miners soon flared. According to John Knott: ‘There were allegations that the Chinese were immoral, that their methods of mining were wasteful, that they were unwilling to prospect for new fields, that they spread disease, that they would marry white women and that their weight of numbers would eventually swamp British character of the colony’.

What was particularity resented was that Chinese were very industrious, hardworking and were able to earn income from claims abandoned by white settlers. Or in other words, Chinese were accused amongst other of unfair labour competition because of working too hard. Their work practices were clearly seen by white miners as undermining what they understood to be the ‘fair go’ principles and no equal two way interaction was established between the Chinese and European miners.

The Chinese became the object of white violence and discrimination and, first, the Victorian government legislated in 1855 to restrict the entry of Chinese into the colony, and then other colonies followed the suite resulting in significant drop of the Chinese population.

Since 1856 Australian colonies, except Western Australia, became self-governing and took over the management of migration issues, including controls over the levels of immigration, selection of migrants and management of various forms of assistance. This enabled the colonies to adjust immigration intake to changing economic circumstances and labour conditions. Particular attention was paid the legislators to political pressures to ensure that labour competition between settled colonialist and newcomers is minimalised.

During the latter half of the nineteenth century several colonies continued funding passage assistance of skilled immigrants mainly from Great Britain but also from Europe and the British government paid for the passage of convicts, paupers, the military and civil servants. From 1880 Australia adopted the White Australia Policy, the policy of excluding all non-European people from immigrating into Australia.

The Federation movement of the 1890s was firmly driven by our anti-Asian prejudice and fear of foreign invasion. One of the motives for creating a federated Australia was the need for a common immigration policy to stop immigration of cheap labour mainly from China and of indentured workers from New Caledonia to work in the Queensland sugar industry.

That Australian constitution was created without a US-style Bill of Rights was not an oversight on behalf of the drafters, but a conscious reflection of the policies and feelings of the day. Australia being a predominantly white British nation on the periphery of Asia with a fear of being demographically overwhelmed by the heavily populated Asian neighbours did not want to legislate for the equality of people of different races.

The evidence for this is seen in first act of our newly created Federal Parliament, the Immigration Restriction Act of 1901, which adopted a White Australia Policy and a dictation test. Our second Act sent the Pacific Islanders working in the Queensland sugar cane fields back home. Afterwards came The Naturalisation Act 1903, which denied Asians and other non-Europeans right to apply for naturalisation. Apart from exclusion of Asians, the immigration numbers and categories of preferred migrants were determined by economic conditions of the day.

In conclusion one could suggest, that although undoubtfuly the White Australia policy was driven by racial prejudice and xenophobia, the ‘fair go’ considerations were an integral part of the consideration as there was a concern about cheap Asian labour undermining working conditions of Australians.

The abolition of White Australia Policy and the resulting globalisation of immigration intake led to a significant increase in immigration from Asian and other non-European countries. But the focus on skilled migrants and immigration intake reflecting current market needs continued to be focus of the Australia’s immigration program. In addition to the skilled intake there is a refugee intake program that was recently increased form some 13,000 to 20,000 per annum. Refugees are selected because of their circumstances not skills.

The current large immigration and refugee intakes have been supported by the Australians providing it is orderly in fashion and reflects Australia’s economic needs. The immigration controls continue to be a very strong feature of Australia’s laws. The Minister for Immigration is a member of Federal Cabinet and his portfolio attracted almost 3 billion dollar budget in 2012-13 and employs 3,424 people in Canberra alone, in addition to 4,929 in other states and 1,194 abroad.

The unauthorised boat arrivals of early 2000s were seen by the majority of Australians as undermining both the controlled nature of Australia’s immigration intake and the principle of ‘fair go’ and became an electoral matter. For example, Prime Minister John Howard's campaigning on issues of ‘border protection’ at the 2001 federal election was widely seen as a successful effort to win One Nation voters back to the Liberal and National parties. His statement that ‘We will decide who come to this country’ still resonates with many Australians.

Today the issue of asylum seekers arriving on unauthorised boats from Indonesia and Sri Lanka constitutes one of the most intensely contested political issues in Australia.

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In conclusion, our contemporary attitudes and values reflect our history and most likely will shape our national identity into the future. The extension of ‘fair go’ ethos (both as participation in an equal, two way interaction and as an access to government administered ‘goodies’) since the colonial days to include new categories of people must be seen as an extension of Australian democracy and economic inclusion; in particular Australian multiculturalism extended liberty, equality and economic wealth to waves of migrants joining the Australian society and offered them a sense of belonging, unparalleled opportunities and integration into democratic institutions.

Although the Australian progressive social justice ethos focussing on ‘fair go’ has benefitted many in Australia’s history, the ‘fair go’ ethos at times may disadvantage some of the people. For example, the current public debate on our asylum seekers arriving by boats suggests that the notion of ‘fair go’ is proving to be a mixed blessing for them.

On the one hand, many Australians would see them as queue jumpers or ‘bludgers’ and ‘toll poppies’ paying significant money to people smugglers to take away places that would be otherwise available to a much larger pool of world ‘genuine’ refugees. This adds to the fact that many Australians see asylum seekers from Afghanistan, Iran and Iraq as not being in immediate danger in Malaysia or Indonesia, and that asylum seekers from Sri Lanka are often perceived as economic refugees. The net outcome is that in response to these public perceptions the Australian government has deployed a range of measures, such as the Pacific Solution, aiming at deterring asylum seekers from arriving in Australia by boat.

This negative attitude towards the boat people is also linked to our history of controlled immigration intake with focus on skills and labour market needs. Although contemporary Australians are no longer afraid of an ‘alien invasion’, they are used to and trust government run migration processes. Many feel that government should be able to act as an independent and fair arbiter in deciding overall immigration intake levels and who should be allowed to settle in Australia. As a result Australians object to government authority being undermined by unauthorised arrivals.

On the other, however, some dimensions of ‘fair go’ ethos would work for the benefit boat people. In particular, changes resulting from the move from the isolationist, Britain oriented past to a confident Australia with worldwide interests appear to be working in the interest of boat people.

They work, because xenophobia and racism of the past has been removed from the immigration equation, as Australians no longer aim to build a ‘Little England’ at the Antipodes and see their economic future as increasingly linked with the Asia-Pacific region. They work because Australia is one of few nations in the region that is signatory to the Refugee Convention and has orderly refugee intake. And finally they work because of the multicultural nature of contemporary Australia that welcomes new migrants and their diversity.

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