Laksiri Jayasuriya explores the transformation of White Australia

James Jupp, in  Journal of Population Research, 2013, vol. 30: 387-88 — reviewing Laksiri Jayasuriya: Transforming a ‘White Australia’: Issues of Racism and Immigration, SSS Publications, New Delhi, 2012, 180 pp., ISBN 81-902282-9-3

James-Jupp-web This short study by an eminent Australian scholar covers the entire period from the initiation of the White Australia policy in 1901 until the asylum seeker controversies of John Howard’s government in 2001. It will be of considerable value to those outside Australia who have only a limited knowledge of the radical changes during this century of organised mass immigration.  They include many Asians who still believe that Australia implements a “whites only” admission policy, which is far from being the case. It will also be of value to the many Australians who have only a distorted and populist view of recent developments.

LAKSISIR JAYASURIYA 11However, this is not a text for beginners.  It starts with a detailed account of the various academic debates surrounding terms such as ‘multiculturalism’ and ’racism’.  These are drawn from several sources, not all of them Australian.  Typically of academic texts there is a plethora of references to other scholars, rather than to other situations.   There is an assumption that the dominant ethnicity is “Anglo-Celtic” and the dominant race is “Caucasian”, both very contested terms.  It was not true, as the author maintains, that the initial waves of migration before 1860 were ”made up almost exclusively of British settlers of Protestant origin”(p.31). There were almost as many Catholic Irish as English   in the three largest colonies by the 1880s, creating a social and political rift  which was still apparent into the 1950s.  However Jayasuriya is correct in distinguishing racism against Aborigines from that against immigrants. The former were seen as a dying race, the latter as a threat. He is also correct in locating all forms of racism within those fashionable in Britain. British migrants brought their racism with them, planted it in virgin soil and watered it with imperialist pride.  The greatest surge in hostility to Chinese and other Asians took place in the 1880s, coincidental with the greatest surge in British assisted immigration, especially in Queensland. There it combined with nascent trade unionism to become the banner of the labour movement.

Complexity continues with a discussion of legislation and the development of a ‘new racism’ in recent times, which shifted arguments from ‘race’ to ‘culture’.   On a world scale this shift is most influential in Huntington’s notion of the clash of civilizations (1996). This is not directly mentioned here, but is a major influence on seeing Islam as a greater threat to Australia than are Asians.  Each different forms of xenophobia (the word Pauline Hanson did not understand) is not confined to Australia, but reflects different anxieties in different situations.  As Jayasuriya argues, “the conflation of race, nation and culture is fundamental to understanding the nature of Australian racism.’’(52).  He might have added that the nature of racism varies between districts which are already multicultural  (inner and western metropolitan suburbs) and those which are not (the great outback and some middle class suburbs and country towns).

A substantial and useful part of this book moves away from academic arguments to look at the actual policies pursued by Australian governments in recent years.

Racial discrimination laws are analysed in Chapter Three (54-94). Here also there is much complexity, not least around what constitutes ‘racial’ discrimination.  Australia has followed Britain in adopting a complaints system, which has mainly been used by Aboriginal organisations.  Victoria has adopted legislation  which includes ‘religion’, in response to a campaign from Jewish and Muslim communities (72-75).  But this has led to contested decisions, caused by critics of Islam demanding free speech. Jayasuriya accepts the limitations based on the principle of free speech, while favouring strategies of community education and legal provisions where necessary. This leads him into a debate on ’multicultural citizenship’ based on the extensive work of Canadian academic Will Kymlicka.

The final chapter tackles the question of Australia’s place in the world and especially its location in an Asian environment.  Huntington had already spoken of the risk of being “torn” between Australia’s European (or Judeo-Christian) culture and Asian location  – a dilemma scarcely noticed by many Australians. Jayasuriya treats this as “the celebrated tension between history and geography”.

The challenge is to create effective citizenship in “a diverse and plural society”(121).  This would mean more diverse élites, less emphasis on the monocultural past, acceptance of ethnic communities as rightful citizens and of immigrants as potential nation builders, regardless of origin.  It will mean (and already does) a reorientation of commerce and industry towards Asia.  All of this is happening rather slowly and against resistance from the British-descended majority.  It also begs the question “what is Asia?”.

JAMES JUPP is distinguished scholar at the Australian National University who has specialised in immigration studies, but also has authored Sri Lanka. Third World Democracy, 1978.

This interesting, if sometimes unduly academic, book ends with a very helpful chronology and bibliography.  It should arouse debate within educational systems in Australia and Asia, both of which have often ignored the basic issues

which it raises.

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One response to “Laksiri Jayasuriya explores the transformation of White Australia

  1. David Wei

    More or less accurate but the idea of a Sri lankan devoting time and effort to looking at racism in Australia bears comparison with a 1930s German studying discrimination against lowr caste Indians. As for throwing in Hanson’ name , that is a pathetic attempt to smear all Australians when one could easily find ten thousand worse racists in SL. As for Aussies fearing Islam, why ever not? Don’t people read the newspapers?

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