House of Representatives
I rise this evening to grieve for the Chinese community in Greenway and the wider Chinese community in Australia, who have been harshly and unfairly treated at various stages throughout our history, something that I believe we have failed to acknowledge properly as a national parliament over a very long time. We have seen this treatment take a variety of forms over a long period, from racist language to specific discriminatory legislation and of course the shameful Immigration Restriction Act 1901.
The Chinese have been in Australia for over 150 years, with the earliest known significant presence during the gold rush period in the 1800s. Since then, we have seen the Chinese population treated unjustly through racist actions to racist policies. We had the Lambing Flat riots in 1861, when European gold-diggers drove the Chinese from the goldfields. In 1855, Victoria was the first colonial government to enact specific anti-Chinese legislation; South Australia followed in 1857; and then New South Wales in 1861. We saw similar laws in the United States with the passing of Chinese exclusion laws in 1870 which explicitly discriminated against persons of Chinese descent.
Anti-Chinese sentiment back home in the goldfields was rife. As reported in 1857 in the Ovens and Murray Advertiser, a northern Victorian newspaper, it was proposed by a Mr S Fraser and seconded by Mr H Purley:
That the Buckland miners form themselves into an association, to be called the Buckland Miners’ Anti-Chinese League, for freeing this colony from the daily increasing evils under which it is now labouring, in consequence of the increased numbers of Chinese congregating upon the goldfields of Victoria.
As we moved into the 20th century and celebrated Federation, one of the first acts of the new federal government was the infamous Immigration Restriction Act 1901, commonly known as the White Australia policy between 1901 and 1973, which targeted all people of ‘colour’. These laws were unjust and the complete antithesis of today’s multicultural Australia. They affected the lives of Australians ‘of colour’ for several generations and represented a shameful chapter in our nation’s history. As remarked by the Taipei Times in 2011:
Ships docking in British colonies were only allowed to carry a certain quota of Chinese, and Australia was the first country to use a head tax to try and limit their numbers, a move soon adopted by Canada and New Zealand.
Punishing immigration laws known as the White Australia policy followed, with impossible literacy tests used to ban foreigners, and requirements that saw Chinese men welcomed as cheap labour but their families excluded. Some children were split from their fathers for decades, and those Chinese who made it to Australia, lured by the promise of the 1850s gold rush, endured vilification, abuse and violent race riots.
Despite these early difficulties, Chinese Australians and others affected by the White Australia policy have made an enormous contribution to all facets of Australian life. But these were the invisible Australians. They celebrated Federation, they fought at Gallipoli, they struggled through the depression and they battled for freedom in the Pacific. Australia defined itself as the white man’s country, yet the reality was something extremely different. The invisible Australians were men, women and children who, because of the colour of their skin and the homelands of their forbears, found themselves at odds with the nation’s claim to be white and as a result faced discriminatory laws and policies designed to deny them a place as an Australian.
Over the 20th century we have seen great change in the situation for Chinese people in Australia but also flickers of past discrimination and injustice, from the post-1950s Australian education of Asian students to the 1970s recognition of the People’s Republic of China and the abolition of the White Australia policy in law and in practice. We saw Bob Hawke’s granting of permanent residency status to 42,000 Chinese students in the 1990s, and the disgraceful chapter that was Hansonism. It is true that great change has occurred, but one thing remains for people of Chinese descent, as eloquently summed up by Mr Arthur Chang in The Sydney Morning Herald in 2011:
‘An apology would bring a lot of relief to people my age who for so long had to tell our children, grandchildren and great grandchildren [that] it was not the good old days, it was the bad old days.’
In my electorate of Greenway I am privileged to represent an extremely diverse part of Australia, and the Chinese community comprises a significant portion of this. A big part of this falls in Blacktown City, a city that shares sister city status with Liaocheng in China and boasts the beautiful Chang Lai Yuan Chinese Gardens, located in Nurragingy Reserve.
According to the 2011 census, there are 6,811 people in Greenway with Chinese ancestry. It is a community that is both very young and very old. It is a community with a distinct sense of history and a community that would desperately like to see the wrongs of the past made right. As occurred in Australia, New Zealand, Canada and the United States enacted and used anti-Chinese legislation throughout their respective histories. Those of Chinese descent in New Zealand, Canada and the US whose families had been affected by such legislation sought recognition and redress from their governments. The New Zealand, Canadian and USA governments have all apologised or issued statements of regret. The Australian government, to date, has not.
A statement by the Australian government of acknowledgement, recognition and regret for past discrimination and injustice would, I believe, not only be appreciated and bring some closure to the affected families but would also announce to the world that such policies are no longer part of today’s multicultural Australia. As remarked by the president of the Chinese Heritage Association of Australia, Daphne Lowe Kelley, in 2011:
The time has come for a number of Chinese-Australians to get rid of the last vestiges of white superiority. We want to be recognised for all our contributions.
It is my belief that the 44th Parliament must recognise the injustices of the past and acknowledge the discriminatory treatment of Chinese people in Australia throughout our history. This is something I am determined to pursue.
This government has made China a major focus, both socially and economically. This is evident in the new strategic partnership with Beijing and the Asian century white paper. The strategic partnership, which involves annual face-to-face meetings between Australia’s and China’s leaders, regular economic talks and deeper defence ties, highlights this government’s commitment to the Asian region and will make sure we are in the best position possible to capitalise on the ongoing huge growth in China. Rory Medcalf, director of the Lowy Institute’s International Security Program, has commented:
We’re not shifting our loyalties somehow to China but we are overcoming some of the coolness in the relationship.
As we now look to the future and attempt to grasp the opportunities of the Asian century, I believe—and I know many people share my belief—that we must first acknowledge the mistakes of the past.