The sordid history of white Australia

March 25, 1992

Admission Impossible
By Alec Morgan
A Film Australia production in association with the Australian Broadcasting Corporation
Screening on ABC TV Sunday, March 29, 8.30 p.m.
Reviewed by Barry Healy

This short documentary delves into the entire sordid history of the white Australia policy and provides sensational documentary evidence that is certain to kick open debate on past and present immigration policies.

The first act passed by the Australian parliament in 1901 was not designed to protect the weak and the poor; it was the Immigration Restriction Act. It contained the notorious "dictation test" clause, which was used to deport people deemed undesirable by the authorities. Former immigration officials interviewed in the film make it quite clear that desirability was determined by race and politics.

This discrimination was not directed only against Asians. The film also reveals that the government actively discriminated against Jews in the post-World War II displaced persons camps. Immigration officers were given secret instructions to conduct "colour tests" to ensure the "pure Aryan" descent of migrants. Arthur Caldwell secretly ordered that there should be no Jews on the first two boats of migrants to Australia.

Asian refugees who had arrived in Australia during the war and had worked on the war effort were deported under circumstances which will shock viewers. On one occasion the Army violently forced 2000 Japanese ex-POWs and Chinese civilians on board a freighter which had a capacity to hold only 300, and sent it out to sea.

In the Cold War climate of the 1950s, Menzies added another colour to the list of undesirables: red. ASIO agents were secretly sent into the Immigration Department to conduct political vetting. The word of these spooks was final and overrode the authority of genuine immigration officers.

These racist and reactionary policies came under threat only when the anti-Vietnam War movement questioned the pillars of political orthodoxy. The Whitlam government, which rode to power on the back of that movement, moved to abolish the White Australia policy.

But the person assigned to carry out that change, Al Grassby, paid a heavy personal and political price when racists targeted him, threatening his family and unseating him in the 1974 elections. After that, no-one in Whitlam's cabinet would take on the Immigration portfolio, and he had to abolish the department and move its functions in with another ministry.

At the preview of the film on March 18, Grassby told Green Left that Australians would be surprised to see much of what the film contains. "It doesn't preach; the power is in just letting the story be told", he said. "People will be revolted to see that while Australians died in World War II fighting fascism, these officials were using Nazi terminology and practising anti-Semitism immediately afterwards. People should be reminded that it was only 20 years ago d of all this rubbish."

Another remarkable fact exposed in the film is that Australian immigration officials deliberately sank boats used by Vietnamese boat people on the shores of Malaysia to make sure that they did not reach Australia. This is bound to add to the furore over the film Turtle Beach, which shows a fictional, and unfounded, massacre of Vietnamese conducted by Malaysians.

Admission Impossible's writer and director is Alec Morgan, who previously won awards for his film Lousy Little Sixpence, about the NSW Aboriginal Protection Board's forcible removal of Aboriginal children from their parents.

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