It seems some countries (and political parties) evolve slower than
others – Andrew Robb’s call for immigrants to be made to sit an
English literacy test, along with a test on Australian customs and
values is actually nothing new. On 23 December 1901, Australia passed
its first ever major Act of Parliament, ­ the Immigration Restriction
Act aka the White Australia policy.

The idea behind the legislation was to keep the coloured folk out.
Prime Minister Edmund Barton explained it best when he told parliament:
“The doctrine of the equality of man was never intended to apply to the
equality of the Englishman and Chinaman. There is a deep-set
difference, and we see no prospect and no promise of its ever being
effaced. Nothing in this world can put these two races upon an
equality. Nothing we can do by cultivation, by refinement, or by
anything else will make some races equal to others.”

One of the requirements of Barton’s new legislation was that immigrants
had to undergo and pass a 50-word dictation test. If they failed, they
weren’t allowed in. And if they were already here and failed, they were
jailed.

Is it any wonder Australians forget the name of our first Prime Minister? Let’s just hope Andrew Robb fares a little better.

Peter Fray

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Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey

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