In 1878 a major flashpoint was the engagement on a number of ships of Chinese labour at rates of pay much lower than the prevailing rate. This produced a bitter strike of white seamen, which was basically successful, and ultimately the Chinese seamen were removed. The sole Labor representative in parliament of that time, Angus Cameron, was an energetic and vocal leader in this anti-Chinese agitation.
This attempt of a section of the capitalist class, spearheaded by the shipowners, to import cheaper Asian labour for their own economic interests, was totally overwhelmed by the explosion of racist opposition, which gained such powerful force from the whole ethos of «British Australia», the ethos that had been so assiduously cultivated by the British Colonial Office and the Protestant churches for the previous 70 years.
As a direct result of the success of the anti-Chinese agitation, the White Australia line of least resistance in the labour movement became quite institutionalised by the use of the rhetoric of British racism to oppose migration from non-British areas. In times of economic downturn, it even became a very popular thing in the labour movement to oppose all migration, including British migration.
The Sydney Labor Council actually employed a young John Norton (paradoxically, a British migrant himself) the same man who later became famous as the pioneer of tabloid journalism, the lineal business ancestor of Rupert Murdoch, who founded one of the tabloid titles that Murdoch now owns. The Labor Council sent Norton to London as its official delegate to publicise and campaign there for the viewpoint that migrants shouldn't come to Australia because there was unemployment here.
At this time the Labor Council frequently passed motions against the assisted migration schemes and any further immigration. All this is recounted in Cyril Pearl's wonderful, scabrous biography of Norton, Wild Men of Sydney. This book so infuriated the Norton family that they used their considerable newspaper influence to persuade the right-wing Labor government of Joe Cahill in NSW to push through the parliament a bill making it possible to take defamation actions on behalf of the dead. Happily the legislation was never used.
By far the best book about The Bulletin is The Archibald Paradox, by Sylvia Lawson, published by Penguin in 1983. Lawson describes how the unusual and inventive editor, J.F. Archibald founded and developed The Bulletin in the 1880s and 1890s. This newspaper, with its carnival parade of styles in writing and blackand-white art, opened its pages to many thousands of contributors, among them Henry Lawson and Banjo Paterson, who were first published there. In her introduction, Sylvia Lawson says:
The Archibald paradox is simply the paradox of being colonial…. The Bulletin's republicanism and nationalism flowered out of the paradox. The republicanism worked as inspiriting argument for a time; but nationalism supervened. It was expressed strongly, through the late 1880s especially, as viciously chauvinistic racism directed especially, but not only, against the Chinese. In this the editor, with all his compassionate, world-ranging perspectives, was not alone; but he was responsible. The Bulletin would have seemed at the time simply to be playing out the stern logic of its economnic realism, and standing in necessary opposition to the laissez-faire tolerance of the pontifical daily press. The old world was murderously oppressive; the new must be just and free, untainted not only by poverty and caste but also by strangeness. Thus the paradox worked: the dominant culture, which in one breath The Bulletin lampooned and disavowed, was upheld vigorously in the next. The prospective Utopia, the dream of «Australia» federated, republican, democratic was landscaped for white men only. The internationalist humanism, enacted so brilliantly in the journal's range of reference and its open-pages policy, was denied in the racist argument; it was also undermined and disfigured perennially in much of the Bulletin's discourse on women.
The Bulletin unquestionably left a considerable imprint on Australia, particularly on the labour movement. A general republican sentiment and opposition to the pretensions of the ruling class can be traced back to The Bulletin but, unfortunately, so can the generalised anti-Asian racism that came to dominate the early years of the new century.
The strong editor, Archibald, had a veritable preoccupation with the Chinese. (The Bulletin always referred to them as «the Chows», and this unpleasant obsession unhappily had a considerable cultural influence on Australia.)
After Archibald's death, The Bulletin was acquired by other owners who swung over to the Tory side of politics while retaining all the exotic racism of the founder, and all through the 1920s, 1930s 1940s and 1950s, The Bulletin was both viciously anti-Labor and rabidly racist, adding to Archibald's anti-Asian racism a vicious anti-semitism. Finally, in the 1960s, the magazine was acquired by the Packer family, and is now a rather pedestrian business magazine and appears to have shed the racism of the past. Thank heaven for that!
However, even in the 19th century there was a significant amount of opposition to racism in the trade unions. The following exerpt is from a chapter by Mick Armstrong in Class and Class Conflict in Australia edited by Rick Kuhn and Tom O'Lincoln.
Consider the early Amalgamated Shearers' Union (ASU), notorious for its exclusion of Asians. There is no doubting the racism of the ASU leadership, which became more pronounced as a conservative bureaucracy strengthened its control, after defeats in the Great Strikes of the 1890s weakened the position of militants. Yet the union members were more open to ideas of inter-racial unity than most historians contend. In 1889 Robert Stevenson, a militant organiser, won the support of the Bourke branch for allowing Chinese shearers to retain their membership. The Bourke members, predominantly landless labourers, were more open to ideas of working-class unity than members nearer the coast, where small farmers predominated.
The ASU (shearers' union) paper, The Hummer, in 1891 exposed the terrible conditions of Aborigines, and they were exempt from the racist exclusion clause. Indeed at the 1891 ASU conference the Adelaide branch moved to admit Aborigines for half the normal fee. A compromise was reached: Aborigines received full benefits by payment of an annual contribution, without the entrance fee.
It was not only militants who supported this measure. The more conservative general secretary David Temple thought it would be a «graceful act to those from whom the country had been taken», and that it would be good for the union's image.
Nevertheless, by the time of federation, labour movement opposition to migration had become solidly entrenched and the White Australia Policy had become an almost unchallengeable orthodoxy in the labour movement. The labour movement didn't produce the White Australia Policy. It was initiated by the British ruling class, emanating from the Colonial Office in London, and it oozed out of the general fabric of BritishAustralia imperialist bourgeois ideology. Nevertheless, despite its ruling-class origins, this unfortunate attitude became extremely entrenched in the labour movement.
The heroic member of the Left Opposition in Russia, Victor Serge, towards the end of his life, was challenged by theoreticians who completely opposed the Russian Revolution. He responded to this by saying:
It is often said that the germ of all Stalinism was in Bolshevism at its beginning. Well, I have no objection. Only, Bolshevism also contained many other germs a mass of other germs and those who lived through the enthusiasm of the first years of the first victorious revolution ought not to forget it. To judge the living man by the death germs which the autopsy reveals in a corpse and which he may have carried in him since his birth is this very sensible?.
Much the same analogy can be applied to the argument put forward by Iggy Kim, that the germ of racism was absolutely dominant in the formation of the Australian Labor Party. That may have an element of truth, but there were many other germs present in the early years of the Australian labour movement and the ALP. While the racism was dominant, it was contested by significant and vocal minorities in and around the labour movement. My investigations have led me to the conclusion that there were two significant currents that dissented from the prevailing racism.
One location of opposition was the hierarchy of the Catholic Church, which was an international outfit, the boss of which was an Italian in the Vatican in Rome, and it had a largely Irish flock in Australia, thoroughly alienated from the rhetoric of British Australia.
There were also quite a few Catholics who weren't British. Cardinal Moran defended the Chinese. Moran also, on a number of occasions, articulately exposed the imperialist activities of Protestant missionaries in the South Pacific. Caroline Chisholm defended Asian migration to Australia. Archbishop Duhig, the long-time and politically very right-wing Archbishop of Brisbane, nevertheles