White Australia Policy and Its Effect on Aboriginals

Subject: Sociology
Pages: 8
Words: 2691
Reading time:
10 min
Study level: PhD

Foucault explained that power is everywhere; it can be seen in social institutions and predominant ideologies too. In this paper, through the power knowledge theory, it will be argued that the White Australia Policy was designed to safeguard the well being of the white community and destroy the indigenous community. This policy very clearly illustrates how policy is ineffective in protecting communities. The people who had power focused on safeguarding their interests while infringing upon the rights of the indigenous population in Australia. They easily carried this out by controlling knowledge and truth.

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Michel Foucault believed that discourse/ knowledge defines society. All people are essentially made up of their experiences or the knowledge that they encounter. If a certain entity has control over the knowledge that is conveyed to others, then that person has great power. Discourse brings together power and knowledge by causing people to casually accept what they are presented with (Taylor, 2011). Sometimes, this can come from the media or one’s learning institution. Therefore, the worldview of the media owners is what gains the greatest circulation. In essence, it is the people who have control over communication that are the perpetuators of knowledge. It is through the knowledge that they disseminate that morality and truth are defined (Oliver, 2010). For example, in a university setting, lecturers are expected to talk throughout the lesson, stand at the front of the lecture hall, and correct students’ answers when they respond to questions. This teaches students a certain set of norms and values. Those who oppose those values or act in contradiction to them are marginalised by the education system (Mills, 2003). Change may occur, but only when a counter-discourse becomes popular among the masses after being communicated to them. This theory therefore allows one to understand why certain people can act very irrationally. According to Foucault, there is no such thing as absolute morality; only those in power determine the things that came to be regarded as truth. The policies that legalised colonisation, slavery and racial discrimination can be easily analysed through this knowledge power theory. Therefore, policy only protects those who determine what truth is; it does not really protect communities.

Prior to analysing the White Australia Policy, it is necessary to understand the definition of policy first. Policy may be understood as a course of action that is taken as a result of the material advantages it creates (McClelland and Smyth, 2009). It is carried out by the government, and causes the latter group to determine the actions, decisions and matters that will benefit society. One may also look at public policy as a principle or a set of interests, values and resources that motivate actions that will take place to solve public issues. These actions are administered through legislations and regulations (McClelland and Smyth, 2009).

The most important thing to remember about public policy is that it ought to reflect the will of the masses or society’s values. One must consider the wishes of the private citizens, the corporations and associations that exist at that time. Since these values are always transient, then public policies must also change. A public policy may be affected by unions, pressure groups, political parties or even lobby groups. However, there is a complex relationship between these entities, and what eventually gets implemented as public policy is an amalgamation of the divergent views (McClelland and Smyth, 2009). If the government fails to listen to these groups, then its representatives could be committing political suicide. This is usually seen when the government passes favourable policies just before elections. On the other hand, the government does not necessarily give these entities exactly what they demand. Some trade unions have asked about certain things, and have been denied. Bessant et al. (2005) explain that sometimes the government can find justifications for making certain public policies that are not in the best interest of the public. These authors cite the example of Western Australia’s mandatory sentencing. This policy has several racist connotations to it; however, the law was still passed because it needed to suit racist sentiments among the electorate. One can understand these actions through Foucault’s power knowledge theory too. Foucault asserted that the person who observes others is the most powerful because he or she acquires knowledge through this act. This enables the person with power to create a new social order (Bessant et al., 2005). The danger in this scheme of things was not in oppression, but in fabrication of people into this standing. People passively accepted that knowledge as true. In Australia, political parties that run government have a lot of power because they determine the issues that should be prioritised. These political entities have the ability to observe society. For instance, they realised that racist sentiments pervaded society. As a result, they chose to pass the mandatory sentencing act in order to appeal to those masses, and thus maintained their positions in politics (Bessant et al., 2005). This continued to give them more power, yet it failed to protect communities.

An analysis of the ability of a policy to protect community also requires a definition of community. Community is a difficult term to define because it has different meanings to different people. However, one can say that it is a term that denotes the feeling of belonging and solidarity to others (Delanty, 2003). When people live in one community, they feel safe and at peace. They do not have to worry about unusual or disturbing occurrences happening to them. In the agrarian and industrial ages, community was defined along certain lines such as nationality, ethnicity, gender or religion (Delanty, 2003). In modern times, communities are now understood along broader lines. Nonetheless, the older stereotypes have not been completely erased. This can be explained by perceptions of mainstream Australians concerning immigrant populations and ethnic minorities in the country. Bauman (2001) explains that whenever individuals want to reap the benefits of belonging to a community, they must sacrifice certain benefits that emanate from their individuality. For example, one is likely to gain security from a community, but one will loose his or her freedoms. These losses come in the form of obligations, which may require individuals to stop interacting with members of other communities as this may compromise their security. The same may be said about the opinions of white Australians about Indigenous populations. A number of them may operate under the notion of belonging to a community, and might choose to limit their interactions with the latter in order to enjoy the advantages of a community (Bauman, 2001). As Foucault explains, every society (in this case community) has its own understanding of truth. The kinds of discourses that are acknowledged as true will be given greater value. If an understanding of community is defined along racial lines, then that will be the version of the truth that will be accepted. If community is to be understood in a much broader sense, as has been occurring in modern times, then this will continue to be the case. At the end of it all, communities place restrictions upon members concerning what they can or cannot do, and this is done through policies or legislations.

Now that the terms community and policy are understood, it is necessary to look at the history of the White Australia Policy. The 1901 policy was a law that was passed in order to minimise restriction of immigrants into Australia. It was a law that denoted how equality amongst men was not a doctrine that was applicable to all people in the country (Gibbs, 1973). This law involved the passing of a dictation test as a requirement for entry into Australia by all non European immigrants. The test entailed typing fifty words in an unknown language that was dictated to the foreigner by an immigration officer (Gibbs, 1973). Almost all targeted immigrants failed the test, and were returned back. This resulted in a reduction of non-white races in Australia within the coming years. Race was regarded as a predominant from of political ideology in Australia (Jupp & Kabala, 1993). The legislation was seen as an attempt at preservation or protection of the white race. Caucasians wanted to eliminate economic threats to their well being. One of the most prominent supporters of this act was Alfred Deakin. He explained that the greatest risk of allowing alien races to stay in Australia was the possibility of being outcompeted by them (Jupp & Kabala, 1993). They believed that alien races were used to lower wages, and seemed to have inexhaustible energy. They had great levels of endurance, and were willing to accept a lower standard of living in order to survive. This would create competition with white Australians, and might possibly exclude them. This policy was therefore created in order to protect the white population in Australia (Keith, 2004). At the same time, the policy destroyed indigenous populations. White Australians were afraid of the unfamiliar. The Chinese were one of the first non-white immigrants that had entered their country (Keith, 2004). They had difficulties in understanding and relating to the Chinese or Pacific islanders as their cultures were different. Chinese miners worked for very long hours, and were content about meagre pay. White populations were afraid that these workers would replace them. Trade unions asserted that the continued immigration of the Chinese in the later 1800s would lead to lower working standards (Keith, 2004). These racist beliefs continued to grow until they were passed into law. Therefore, white Australians were concerned about their self preservation; they felt that eliminating the Pacific islanders was a sure way to safeguard their well being. As Foucault explains, people in power have the ability to perpetuate ideologies when those ideologies appear to be moral or truthful. The state, in 1901, managed to perpetuate the notion that increasing the population of whites and repressing the population of other races was in the best interest of the masses. This was accepted by many as true because the state had the knowledge of what was most important to the people of Australia (Fletcher, 2009). The policy undermined the interests of minorities, and thus failed to protect them.

It was the general belief that the Aboriginals were inferior to whites. Since they did not farm their land, worship the same God, or do things in a similar fashion to the British settlers who entered Australia, then they were generally regarded as primitive (Keith, 2004). These racist sentiments continued to operate when the Australian constitution was first passed in 1901, and the white Australia policy was instated. Throughout the first half of the twentieth century, Aboriginals were denied citizenship and other civil liberties. They could not get educated, and had minimal access to basic services like healthcare (Fletcher, 2009). Foucault believed that power was everywhere. He also added that it was not the top-down coercion that carried the day, but the notion of acceptance and truth which was most important. At the time when the white Australian policy was being passed, the most important principle that existed at that time was doing something in the ‘best interests’ of the mainstream white population (Jupp and Kabala, 1993). Therefore, those entities that did not fall in line with these interests were expected to be left alone or to die out. Racism became a way of allowing inhumane acts to go on against another population; i.e. the Aboriginals without necessarily thinking about the negative consequences. The White Australian policy safeguarded the interests of the Caucasian population while allowing the Aboriginals to be destroyed. This policy would essentially increase the members of one race while allowing the members of the Aboriginal race to die out.

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In the situation of the White Australia policy, the race that had an upper hand was the one that had the ability to replicate its own knowledge, and thus proclaim it as being truer than opposing knowledge. It was the whites who had more power in this regard. They decided that the people who deviated from the norm, needed to be secluded. Therefore, their version of truth was engrained in social institutions by starting with legislations, and by other social avenues available to them. Indeed, it may be argued that the power knowledge theory allows one to understand how certain power relations can be used as methods of domination (Rabinow, 1991). The feelings about the Aboriginal race stemmed from Darwinian legacies and scientific principles that existed at the time. People believed that certain sub-species were inferior to others. This state meant that the ‘unfit’ population should be allowed to die out. The level of unfitness in the human species can be determined by physical traits as well as certain behavioural or cultural traits. A certain population has the right to defend itself against threats posed by another race in order to survive. This kind of thinking was used as a tool of domination by members of the white race, and thus granted them more power (Kelly, 2004).

This policy still has several implications today; The Aboriginals have been treated as a sub race (Fletcher, 2009). They are perceived as inferior, and this has continued to be witnessed even in modern times. Their health outcomes have been poor, and so have their mortality and morbidity rates (Fletcher, 2009). Foucault explains that when the state, as an entity with power, perpetuates racism, it does this in a manner that seems acceptable to the mainstream population (Foucault, 2003). It carries out a metaphorical war against the inferior race in order to let it die out, so at to ‘protect’ the perceived superior race. The Aboriginals have not been considered in many health investments within the country. It can be argued that these sentiments stemmed from the understanding of community that began when the White Australia policy was passed, and how it continued to be implemented in the subsequent decades. The Commonwealth of Australia (2006) reports that the Aboriginals endure 300% worse healthcare today than the rest of the population. It is ironic that the indigenous community represents less than three percent of the total Australian population, but their health challenges have not being fixed. The perpetual neglect of the needs of this population have stemmed from the ideological racism that is accurately described by Foucault (2003). In today’s society, this ideological racism is implemented through focus on the best interest of the population. The discourse is such that it excludes the Aboriginals as part of this population, albeit indirectly.

It should be noted that a lot has been achieved in terms of Aboriginal empowerment (The Australian Government, 2011). In fact, recently the government introduced Shared responsibility agreements (SRAs) as a way of empowering the Aboriginals. It was assumed that if the natives and the government have mutual obligations, then this will create better relations. However, the SRAs still denote racist sentiments. Some Aboriginals have argued that this is a new level of government paternalism, because the government is trying to show that it knows what is best for them (Mc Clausland and Levy, 2006). This can be perceived as another way of domination by people who have power-the government. However, their domination has been approved by the rest of the white population through several policies.

State racism continues to be a problem today because notions of white supremacy still exist even among multiculturalists. The only difference between what goes on now and what happened in the early1900s during the White Australia Policy is that most individuals want other people to do the exclusion for them. They prefer employing things such as immigration policy in order to assert their fantasies of white superiority (Hage, 1998).

In conclusion, The White Australian policy did not keep the Aboriginal community safe. It was used as a weapon of racial domination by the Caucasian population at that time. They had the ability to control knowledge and could therefore determine what was right. Foucault explains that people with power are always the ones who can control knowledge. In this case, the preservation of whites was more important than that of the Torres Strait Islanders, and those realities still exist today.


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