December 22, 2014 For a girl whose family was at the vanguard of an Australian revolution, Gabrielle Wang's childhood memories are remarkably commonplace. Growing up, she neither fully understood where she came from, nor fully grasped where she was or where she might fit in.
"My greatest wish," she says, "was to be white. I would go to sleep crying. There was always that confusion. It's a common story, I think. I just wanted to be Aussie. It was really difficult to find what my place was."
Today, a successful children's book author based in Melbourne, she has embraced her family's story and used it as inspiration for her own books, using fiction to reflect the rich reality of modern Australia.
But things were different when she was a child. Wang's family history in many ways straddles old and new Australia – her maternal great-grandfather a Chinese migrant to the Victorian goldfields in the 1850s; her father a migrant after World War II, when the country officially embarked on its most challenging and transforming nation-building adventure.
This December marks 70 years since Australians first learned of the revolution to come.
In the dying days of 1944 Arthur Calwell, the information minister in the Curtin government, first flagged to a war-weary populace the dramatic policy shift that would come to define Australia in the years ahead. Till then, it had been largely a secret discussion – among politicians and bureaucrats and academics – but Calwell was laying the groundwork to win public acceptance of a change he believed was absolutely necessary, but which never promised to be easy.
Eight months later the man who had just been appointed Australia's first immigration minister declared in a momentous parliamentary speech: "If Australians have learned one lesson from the Pacific War it is surely that we cannot continue to hold our island continent for ourselves and our descendants unless we greatly increase our numbers. We are about 7 million people and we hold 3 million square miles [7.7 million square kilometres] of this Earth surface … much development and settlement have yet to be undertaken. Our need to undertake it is urgent and imperative if we are to survive."
The story of modern Australia begins there, on August 2, 1945. It's an anniversary that demands particular reflection in the Australia of 2014, as debates over migrant numbers, asylum-seeker policy, multiculturalism and the ever-sensitive concept of "assimilation" seem able to roil us with the same fervour of decades past.
As with Scott Morrison today, amid the upheaval of 70 years ago stood an immigration minister whose motives and intentions divided the nation. But Gwenda Tavan, Latrobe University lecturer in politics and author of The Long, Slow Death of White Australia, says what set Calwell apart was his utter determination to explain and "sell" a policy that had no hope of success without public understanding and support.
"It was only when Calwell got involved in very late 1944 that he realised if we're going to do this, it's going to be big, and we're going to really have to engage the Australian people," Dr Tavan says.
"Selling a message to the Australian people would be fundamental. We take it for granted that all these events happened in 1945 but we could have had a very different immigration program if it wasn't for the fact that Calwell ended up taking on the job. We view [the selling] of it cynically but it did help that process of helping the people understand why this program was necessary.
"I find it interesting to contrast it with the present day – we still maintain a high immigration intake but governments spend very little time or energy nowadays talking to us about that program, why it's there, what it entails … the politics that emerge out of that is that people are really kept in the dark."
History has not been kind to Calwell. He is remembered most often as the Labor leader who lost the 1961 election to Robert Menzies by a single seat, and who years later was rolled by Gough Whitlam – as well as for the flip side of his "populate or perish" campaign to transform Australia through immigration: his insistence that this transformation would take place within the bounds of existing policy, the White Australia policy.
For his daughter Mary Elizabeth, this black-and-white depiction of her father remains enough of an injustice that two years ago she wrote a book about his life to remind Australians of the challenges of the times, when proposing any sort of migration policy broader than the traditional white English model was anathema to many.
"We had 7.5 million people then … a lot it was about persuading people that their jobs wouldn't be threatened and that overseas people would become part of society," Calwell says.
"People call him racist but it's irresponsible because it's not understanding the whole situation. It wasn't racist but some people want to make it racist. Some people were very hostile to even European immigration. There was a concern about stability, particularly after the war."
Her father, she says, deserves to be remembered as "the father of multiculturalism. He was the father of immigration and the father of the first major immigration movement in our history."
Dr Tavan agrees Arthur Calwell deserves a more nuanced assessment. "I'm often asked about Calwell and racism and it's a lot more complex than that. He had the views of the time – which were that Australia's prosperity and success as a nation depended on everyone being white and either British or European. I don't think his views were particularly different from anyone else in his government or the people of the time."
She notes that Calwell's public insistence on European migration did not reflect the character of the private man. He was, for instance, an early advocate of Aboriginal land rights. He taught himself Mandarin. And he was a friend to many in Melbourne's Chinese community, among them a young Chinese man sent to Australia as a military liaison officer during the war.
The young soldier, David Wang, roomed in a boarding house in Carlton, where he met and fell and love with a neighbour – the woman who would become Gabrielle Wang's mother. But he wasn't allowed to stay until Calwell intervened, and eventually arranged for him to return on a business visa.
Calwell's faith was justified. In 1965, on Calwell's nomination, David Wang was appointed one of Australia's first two Chinese-Australian justices of the peace. Four years later, he broke new ground with election to the Melbourne City Council.
For Gabrielle Wang, her family's story reflects the extraordinary change in the wider country. Though she despairs at the current debate over asylum seekers – "We take two steps forward and then we take a step backward and we're in a leap backwards now" – she nonetheless celebrates the transformation.
"The place is full of beautiful different faces and different colours now and I love that. I love the way Australia has been accepting of different cultures."
TIMELINE OF CHANGE
1947: 7.5 million
1977: 14 million
2013: 23 million
Percentage of population born overseas:
1947: 10 per cent
1977: 22 per cent
2013: 27.7 per cent
How it unfolded:
August 1945: First Immigration Department established post-war migration program launched.
January 1947: First migrants from Britain arrive.
1947-1954: Australia accepts about 170,000 displaced people from Eastern Europe.
November 1955: Australia's millionth post-war migrant, Barbara Porritt, arrives in Melbourne.
1958: Migration Act reforms, references to race removed, dictation test abolished in major steps away from White Australia policy.
1960: Otto Kampe, the 250,000th refugee, arrives in Melbourne.
1961: Australia's population hits 10.5 million, a 43 per cent increase 1945.
1973: Death of White Australia policy – policy of non-discrimination on the grounds of race, colour or nationality introduced in 1973.
1975: Large resettlement of refugees from Indo-China after Vietnam War; more than 155,000 taken since 1975.
1989: Thousands of Chinese students seek asylum after Tiananmen Square massacre.
1992-93: Labor government introduces mandatory detention, Refugee Review Tribunal in 1993.
August 2001: Tampa stand-off places asylum-seeker policy front and centre as major political issue.
March 2002: Australia welcomes 6 millionth migrant since World War II, Cristina Jurado, from the Philippines.
2014-15: Migration program set at 190,000 places; humanitarian intake 13,750 places.
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