In the 1950s, Australia saw a need for more population and more immigration, spurred by its struggle against Japan in World War II and the postwar economic boom. Eventually, the need for more Australian citizens overwhelmed the racism of the country's White Australia policy, and the decade saw a number of progressive reforms that in turn led to big increases in immigration and overall population.
The Influence of World War II
After World War II ended in 1945, Australia was frightened by how close they came to being overrun by Japan, and adopted a philosophy of "populate or perish." While steps were taken to increase immigration in the late '40s, in 1950 the government set a goal of a 1 percent population increase per year.
Assisted Passage Schemes
In an effort to attract more immigrants, Australia signed agreements with many countries that provided free passages and other assistance for people willing to migrate. The first was with Great Britain in 1946. Similar agreements were reached with the Netherlands and Italy in 1951, West Germany in 1952, the U.S., Switzerland, Denmark, Norway, Sweden and Finland in 1954 and Spain in 1958. Australia also accepted refugees from Hungary after the failed 1956 revolt against the Soviet-backed government.
The White Australia Policy
All the countries Australia reached assisted-passage schemes with had majority European populations. That's no accident; in the 1950s, the White Australia policy, codified into law by the Immigration Restriction Act of 1901, was still in effect. During World War II, Prime Minister Curtin reinforced that white preference saying that Australia "shall remain forever ... an outpost of the British race." The most notorious instrument of the White Australia policy was the dictation test, in which a prospective immigrant had to correctly write 50 words dictated to him or her by an immigration officer in any European language of the officer's choosing. This effectively barred non-Europeans from entering the country.
Toward More Inclusion
Despite its institutionalized racism, the country's need for greater immigration led to the first easing of the White Australia policy. In 1949, 800 non-European refugees were allowed to stay in the country. In 1956, non-Europeans were allowed to apply for citizenship, and in 1958, the dictation test was abolished. All in all, the emphasis on immigration worked. The population of Australia rose from 8.2 million in 1950 to 10.2 million in 1960. (Ref. 5) More importantly, the easing of immigration restrictions set the stage for a boom: The population of Australia more than doubled from there, from 10.2 million to 22.3 million people, between 1960 and 2010.
- Australian Government Department of Immigration and Border Protection: Immigration to Australia During the 20th Century
- Australian Government Department of Immigration and Border Protection: Fact Sheet 8 – Abolition of the 'White Australia' Policy
- New South Wales Migration Heritage Center: Australia's Migration History
- New South Wales Migration Heritage Center: 1901 Immigration Restriction Act
- Australian Institute of Health and Welfare: Population Growth
- Australian Institute of Statistics: Population Size and Growth
- Hemera Technologies/AbleStock.com/Getty Images