Australia as a nation — race, rights and immigration Warning

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Sequence 3—Exploring migrant experiences


Immigration has been a significant influence shaping Australian identity since its beginning as a nation. Since the end of World War II, changes in immigration programs and the end of the White Australia Policy have seen the arrival of migrants and refugees with a wide range of different cultures, traditions and ideas. While some have come because of crises in their home countries, and others for work and for more freedom, they have all arrived expecting a better way of life.

In this teaching and learning sequence students have the opportunity to focus on following topics:

  • ‘Populate or perish’

  • Push and pull factors

  • Post-World War II arrivals

  • Migrant experiences in Australia

Teacher’s note: For this sequence, you will need to provide students with a background on the White Australia Policy. For a short overview of White Australia Policy, view the Australian Department of Immigration and Border Protection’s fact sheet on the policy. Alternatively the Australian Human Rights Commission’s resource for Year 10 History, The Globalising World, provides an in depth exploration of the policy and its origins.


Fact Sheet 8 – Abolition of the 'White Australia' Policy, Australian Department of Immigration and Border Protection

The Globalising World, Australian Human Rights Commission

‘Populate or perish’

World War II marked an important turning point in Australia’s immigration history. The conflict in the Pacific against Japan made the government re-think Australia’s position in the world and their policies towards immigration. In 1945 the Department of Immigration was established. The department began with just 24 officers — six in Canberra, six in Melbourne and 12 in London. Arthur Calwell was Australia’s first Minister for Immigration. It was Arthur Calwell who promoted the concept of ‘populate or perish’.
Source analysis

Read students the following excerpt from a speech made by Minister Calwell and ask students to think about the significance of the slogan ‘Populate or perish’.

‘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 but 7 million people and we hold 3 million square miles of this earth’s surface. Our coastline extends for 12 thousand miles and our density of population is only 2.5 persons per square mile ... While the world yearns for peace and abhors war, no one can guarantee that there will be no more war ... Our first requirement is additional population. We need it for reasons of defence and for the fullest expansion of our economy.’

Source: Excerpt from a speech by Arthur Calwell to Parliament, August 2, 1945, Hansard.

Inquiry questions

  • Why did Minister Calwell and the Federal government believe Australia had a defence problem in 1945?

  • What solution is proposed for the problem?

Moving away from the White Australia Policy

In order to fulfil the catchcry of ‘populate or perish’, Arthur Calwell and the Australian Government set a target of 2 per cent population increase per year, with 1 per cent of that increase coming from migrants — called ‘New Australians’ at the time.

However, up until this point the White Australia Policy - through the Immigration Restriction Act (1901) - had limited migration to Australia, in particular the migration of people from non-Europeans countries. This made Calwell’s decision to expand immigration a significant shift away from the principles of the White Australia Policy.

Looking back, this was the change in thinking and policy which would unintentionally begin the end of the White Australia Policy.

Source analysis

Read students the following excerpt from Calwell’s ‘the days of our isolation are over’ speech. Point out to students that this speech is significant because it gives us insight into what the Australian Government was thinking at that time.
It is my hope that for every foreign migrant there will be ten people from the United Kingdom ... Aliens are and will continue to be admitted only in such numbers and of such classes that they can be readily assimilated. Every precaution is taken to ensure that they are desirable types, and they must satisfy consular or passport officers and security service officers that they are people of good character before their passports are visaed for travel to Australia … the days of our isolation are over.

Source for text above: Commonwealth Parliamentary Debates, House of Representatives, 22 November 1946, Vol. 189

Inquiry questions

  • Identify which foreign migrants are preferred by the Australian government

  • What other word is used in the speech for ‘migrant’? What do you think is meant by the term ‘desirable types’?

  • From this speech, how do you think Calwell and the government at the time viewed migrants who weren’t from the United Kingdom? Was their perception positive?

Push and pull factors

Introduce and explain push and pull factors for migration. The ‘push–pull’ theory of migration suggests there are two main factors causing migration, negative push and positive pull. Push factors are things that are bad about the country that people live in and pull factors are those things that are good about another country that would attract people to that country. Choose an example like family ties or climate to elaborate on your explanation as these could be either push or pull factors.
Investigating Push and Pull factors

Begin this activity by allocating students to small groups and guiding them to identify examples which explain push factors.

Use the Timeline of migration from Global Words as a source for a few examples of push factor events to help start the group work. For example, you could introduce the concepts of ‘forced migration’ and ‘voluntary migration’ by looking at the post-war problems in Europe which ‘pushed’ migrants from Europe to Australia, Canada and the United States.

If appropriate to the class’s learning level, apply the tags ‘economic’, ‘social’ and ‘environmental’ to categorise the different push factors idenitifed by students.

Point out to students that many migrants who have arrived in Australia after World War II have experienced various forms of hardship and discrimination before coming to Australia.

Next, move the group discussions on to a consideration of pull factors. Ask students to discuss in their groups what pull factors Australia possessed which attracted migrants after World War II.

Explain to students that Australia attempted to attract migrants after World War II using recruitment advertisements and promotional schemes that highlighted Australia’s most appealing elements. Refer to tourism advertisements and campaigns as examples that highlight commonly used techniques for attracting visitors. You may wish to provide students with some background on Post-World War II migration schemes, such as the ‘10 Pound Pom’ passages explored later in this sequence.

Conclude this activity by asking students to individually create two mind maps, one for ‘push factors’ and the other for ‘pull factors’. Students should draw on information gathered from their own investigations as well as the teacher-guided discussion.

Students can create their mind maps in their workbooks or online, using a digital mind map tool such as a


Timeline of migration, Global Words website

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