On the forming of the Federation of Australia, on 1 January 1901, one of the first priorities of the new Federal Government was to increase Australia's population. One way was to encourage an increase in the birth rate, which had been falling. A second way was to encourage immigration, not only from Great Britain, but also from other European countries. The main requirement was that immigrants be white skinned. Although this policy became known as the White Australia Policy, the regulations did not actually prohibit people with coloured skin. The prohibition was achieved through regulations requiring each immigrant to pass a dictation test to be given in any European language. If the immigration officials did not want to allow a person to enter the country, they could choose a language that would make it impossible to pass the test.
Although this policy was extremely biased and racist, racial purity was an exceptionally strong feeling in Australia up to the early 1960's. Immigration continued up to the Great War, with substantial English and Irish immigrants settling into Australia. Immigration stopped during the Great War, but resumed afterwards. Totally new schemes were implemented to attract immigrants. The war had taught Australia that it needed to be less dependent on Britain, and that it needed to speed up its economic development. To do this more people were needed. In the 1920s the Empire Settlement Act was introduced, in order to encourage British people to emigrate to Australia and boost the dwindling population.
Immigration has been the major contributor to Australia's population growth since the end of World War 2. At the same time as Australia wanted to increase its population, there were large numbers of people in Europe who wanted to start a new life in a new country. These included the people whose home, jobs or businesses had been destroyed by the war. Along with that, 170 000 migrants were brought to Australia between 1947-1951 by the International Refugee Organisation. One of the immediate effects of post-war immigration was to increase the size of the workforce by approximately 200 000.
The importance of migrant labour was immense, as they made up large numbers in the iron and steel construction industries where goods were in high demand following the war. Other occupations where migrants formed a large part of the workforce were timber getting, sawmilling, railway and road construction. Migrant labour made it possible for projects like the Snowy Mountains scheme, which required the construction of a number of dams, tunnels and power stations. Migrants not only provided the numbers of workers needed, they also provided the skills and expertise required for such a project to be carried out in Australia.
Although most Australians preferred British immigrants, the immigration period after the war brought large numbers from other European countries - people with different cultures, languages and beliefs. One kind of person though was still not accepted, anyone with coloured skin. In spite of this by 1960 some Australians were beginning to question the White Australia Policy, and were arguing for change.
By 1966 most of the regulations restricting immigration of non-white people to Australia had been removed and multiculturalism was adopted. Discrimination on the grounds of race was abolished. Even though the White Australia Policy was abolished, racism was still very strong and many migrants were harassed, especially the people of Asian backgrounds. Racism was widely accepted up till the mid 1980s. Assimilation was generally perceived as the natural process for migrants. Thus it was expected that migrants would adopt the culture of Australian society and abandon their own culture. When this was not achieved, the Australian people shunned the migrants for their difference of culture, religion and beliefs. Later in the mid 1980s, the people started to accept the migrants, turning towards multiculturalism instead of integration.
Migrants have made Australia today a blend of cultures. Four of every ten residents of Australia were born overseas or have at least one overseas born parent. More than half of the twenty-one per cent of our population who were born overseas are from non-English speaking countries. While English is the language of everyday use, more than 300 languages are spoken in Australia today.