If Julia Gillard’s speech on asylum seekers has proved one thing, it is this — through war and peace, through cycles of economic bust and boom, there exists an eternal and unshakeable fear within the Australian populace of those who come here from elsewhere seeking a better life.

Scoff if you will, but fears surrounding migration were one of several driving forces behind the rise of the labour movement, the development of Australian print media and Australian Federation itself. Having settled here, we just don’t seem to want to share the place.

Rather than the Afghans, Iraqis and Sri Lankans who populate the fears of many Australians, it was the Chinese who were more likely to terrify their great-great-great-grandparents and set them quaking in their crinolines. While there had been small numbers of Chinese migrants making a home in places such as Sydney and Melbourne in the early decades of the 19th century, Chinese migrants first became a common sight in the colonies during the goldrushes of the 1850s and 1860s.

With little English and significant cultural differences between themselves and many of the other arrivals on the goldfields, many opted to live and work together in camps away from the main concentration of tent. This tendency to live and work together, coupled with what could perhaps be described as more experience of the kind of hard manual labour that is involved with extracting gold from the earth, often led to divisions between the Chinese and other miners.

These divisions mostly led to low-level resentment but there were occasions when tensions reached critical mass. The most prominent example of these outbreaks of violence towards the Chinese was the Lambing Flat Riot of July 1861. A group of miners, Australian and from a variety of other nations, became incensed when they learned that a contingent of Chinese was heading to the goldfield near present-day Young in New South Wales. They marched on the diggings behind a banner and proceeded to gravely injure 250 Chinese while destroying much of their property.

In response, troops were sent to prevent further violence, but the resentment lingered, eventually finding expression in the NSW Chinese Immigration Act of 1861. This was not the first anti-Chinese legislation passed in Australia, however. That honour belonged to Victoria, who passed their  Chinese Immigration Act of 1855, that imposed stiff penalties of ship’s captains landing more Chinese than there were tonnage aboard the vessel.

Fear of the Chinese refused to go away during the 1870s and 1880s. If anything, it bought a house, raised some kids, made an extension to the patio. The sentiment towards the Chinese that had been sparked on the goldfields worked its way throughout the colonies. Fears of the Chinese at this time were generally conformed to the trifecta of “stealing” jobs, land and women fears.

In many of the periodicals that sprung up during these two decades, cartoons and short stories appeared — such as the exceptionally lurid and purple “Mr & Mrs Sin Fat“– that cast the Chinese as degenerates, business cheats and leader of Australian women into disrepute. Figures such as William Lane, who published The Boomerang and poet Henry Lawson linked the arrival of Chinese to declines in working conditions for white Australians as part of their nationalist and labour-focused campaigns.  It worked gangbusters. The Chinese were seen to be a threat to every Australian man, woman and child for the best part of half a century.

Fear towards the Chinese reached a high point in the early 1880s when a smallpox epidemic broke out in Sydney. The epidemic was suspected of originating within the Chinese community after a small Chinese child was found to be carrying the disease. While the true source of the disease was never found — although later suspected to be a European nanny with a weak form of the disease — the local Chinese were shunned and excluded while legislation was drawn up to restrict further arrivals. There was one small hitch for the authorities, however — they couldn’t fully legislate to restrict Chinese arrivals into Australia.

You see, the Australian colonies were governed by the terms of the pesky little Treaty of Nanking, that was signed in 1842 between China and the United Kingdom. Part of this treaty outlined the right of the Chinese to travel and live within the United Kingdom and her territories, without restriction. If the colonies wanted to restrict the influx of Chinese coming in, they would have to band together to gain more bargaining power Thus, it was that anti-Chinese sentiment became a driving force behind Federation.

In 1888 an Inter-Colonial conference in Sydney was held to address the question of Chinese immigration. At this conference delegates agreed to impose restrictions on the Chinese of comparative severity. This coming together of representatives of each of the colonies would set the tone for the further conferences that would take place and drive the momentum towards Federation.

Once a nation, the Australian government didn’t waste a second of time. The very first piece of legislation passed by the Federal Parliament was the Immigration Restriction Act of 1901. This Act laid out the guidelines by which prospective immigrants would be assessed — they would be asked to write 50 words dictated to them by an official. Now, this may seem somewhat harsh, but not impossible if the prospective immigrant had been learning English.

However, the wording of the Act allowed the test to be given in any language, effectively rendering it a tool by which the Australian government could bar anyone they didn’t like from entering and settling in the country. This piece of legislation would form part of a package of legislation known as the “White Australia Policy”, which would only finally be dismantled in its entirety in the early 1970s.

So, fear of those from outside is nothing new within Australian society. Indeed, it formed part of the very bedrock our nation was founded upon. Granted, in the intervening decades we have made amazing strides towards becoming a more open and tolerant society, yet the question of whether we should keep our borders open remains a very prominent, throbbing pimple on the adolescent face of the nation. Will we ever pop it, or wipe it away with a little soap? We’re not likely to ever really find out. All we can hope for is that we remain “going forward”, in the words of our PM, in becoming a compassionate, tolerant nation, open to those who need a hand.

Mike Stuchbery is a Melbourne author and teacher. You can read more of his stuff here or follow him on twitter (@mikestuchbery)

Peter Fray

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Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey