Immigration Restriction Act 1901 (commonly known as the White Australia Policy).
The Australian White Australia Policy came into effect in 1901, after Federation, and was created primarily to ensure the predominance of the British and European within Australia.
The main method of the Act was the dictation test, to ensure that a migration applicant knew a European language. This test was ended in 1958.
The White Australia Policy effectively ended in 1975.
The Racial Discrimination Act 1975 stated that: It is unlawful for a person to do any act involving a distinction, exclusion, restriction or preference based on race, colour, descent or national or ethnic origin which has the purpose or effect of nullifying or impairing the recognition, enjoyment or exercise, on an equal footing, of any human right or fundamental freedom in the political, economic, social, cultural or any other field of public life.
The White Australia Policy from the National Archives
Following Federation in 1901, one of the first pieces of Commonwealth legislation passed was the Immigration Restriction Act 1901, based on the earlier colonial legislation. The overall aim of this and other related legislation was to limit non-white immigration to Australia, particularly Asian immigration, and thereby preserve the predominance of the British within Australia. A new feature of the Act was the Dictation Test.
The Dictation Test applied to all non-European people entering Australia between 1901 and 1958. The applicant was required to write out 50 words in any European language (after 1905, any prescribed language) dictated by an immigration officer. As the language used was at the discretion of the officer, it was easy to ensure failure if an applicant was thought to be ‘undesirable’, either because of their country of origin, criminal record, medical history or if they were considered morally unfit. A person who failed the test was deemed a prohibited immigrant and deported.
Certificates of Exemption from the Dictation Test were available to non-European Australian residents wishing to travel overseas temporarily, and to non-European visitors entering Australia temporarily for work, education or to visit family. The Dictation Test was abolished in 1958, signalling the end of the White Australia Policy. It was not until many years later that the Racial Discrimination Act 1975 was passed.
Despite the restrictive legislation, many non-European immigrants, including people from Asia, did enter or continue to reside in Australia during the period of the White Australia Policy. Records in the Archives’ collection show how these people negotiated the restrictions imposed by the Act, the impact it had on their lives, changing community attitudes to the Act, and the negative impact this legislation had on Australia’s relations with Asian neighbours. These records are useful for both understanding the Act and its impact on Australian social and political history, as well as for researching family history.
Further reading on this topic can be seen at
Parliament of Australia Library: The immigration debate in Australia which shows details of Politicians speeches at the time
Speeches shown include ones such as this:
The day will come, and perhaps is not far distant, when the European observer will look round to see the globe girdled with a continuous zone of the black and yellow races … We shall wake to find ourselves elbowed and hustled, and perhaps even thrust aside by peoples whom we looked down upon as servile, and thought of as bound always to minister to our needs … Is that not something to guard against? We are guarding the last part of the world in which the higher races can live and increase freely for the higher civilization.
Commonwealth of Australia (National Archives of Australia) – Immigration Restriction Act 1901
Federal Register of Legislation: Immigration Restriction Act 1901
Federal Register of Legislation: Racial Discrimination Act 1975
Parliament of Australia Library: The immigration debate in Australia
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