Billy Highes - Prime Minister of Australia (1916)





The Advertiser Saturday 14, 2002 page 27

A little known vignette of Australian history,  with some remarkable parallels to recent events, happened way back in 1916.

Setting off in that year in a French mail boat, the Gange, were 214 Maltese  men would-be migrants to Australia. At the time, as citizens of Malta, they were also British subjects. They had every reason to expect that they would be admitted.

However, on arrival in Australia after a boat journey of five weeks, they  found the political climate less than welcoming. The then prime minister, Billy  Hughes, was campaigning in favour of the conscription referendum. He was worried that the arrival of this boatload of migrants would fuel the fears of  anti-conscriptionists, that while fighting a war overseas their jobs would be
taken by such migrants. The Australian Workers Union of the time described the Maltese as "the black menace".

Accordingly, the Australian authorities invoked Section 3(a) of the Immigration (Restriction) Act. That section provided that: "Any person who, when asked to do so by an officer, fails to write out at dictation and sign in the  presence of the officer a passage of 50 words in length in a European language  directed by the officer is a prohibited immigrant.

The Maltese migrants, who were by then detained under armed guard, were 
promptly, given a test in the Dutch language - and failed. They were shipped off to the Pacific Island of Noumea.

The parallel so far with Australia's reaction to the arrival of a fresh wave  of immigrants arriving by boat more than 80 years later suggests little has  changed. But public outcry even during the turmoil of World War I resulted in the eventual return of the Maltese men to Australia.

One of them, Emmanuel Attard, enlisted in two world wars, and like many migrants before and after him contributed to the development of what has become a successful multicultural community.

The migration test provision replaced laws expressly prohibiting by reference  to race, such a migration by refs the Victorian 1855 anti-Chinese laws. Racism  was also entrenched in the Constitution, which once provided that the reckoning of the numbers of the people of the Commonwealth or of a state shouldn't include Aboriginal natives.

Laws in all states and territories, except Tasmania, now prohibit  discrimination on the grounds of race. The most recent report of SA's Equal  noted that there Opportunity Commission were 323 complaints relating to race lodged with the commission a significant decline over previous years.