Visiting the Neighbours: Australians in Asia
NewSouth, $34.99 pb, 264 pp, 9781742233895
It was timely that halfway through reading this book, I glanced up to see Clive Palmer on Q&A vowing to stand up to ‘the Chinese mongrels’. It was as if a columnist from the Bulletin circa 1895 had risen from the grave to thump a battered tub and warn us about the monster intent on destroying ‘our Australian way of life’. Images like these still lurk in the bedrock of White Australian consciousness, and Palmer’s outburst was a reminder of how readily they can be summoned.
As Agnieszka Sobocinska notes in her introduction, in the absence of a ‘Declaration of Independence’ or a ‘Bill of Rights’ independent Australia’s founding document and expression of its core values took the form of the Immigration Restriction Act of 1901, the first legislation to be passed by the new parliament, which positioned the nation as an enclave of White civilisation adrift in an Asian sea. While the Act was progressively dismantled through the second half of the twentieth century, the nervous world view that spawned it has continued to trouble conceptions of national identity and the nation’s place in the wider region. And, like Palmer’s outburst and his backtracking in the days that followed, the Act, stiffened with resolve about sovereignty, the national economy, wages, and the labour market, was animated by reference to race, the moral superiority of White Australians, and anxieties about the threats allegedly posed by the Asian hordes to our north.