Memo To Unions: White Australia Was A Bad Idea

Rarely was the relationship between economic nationalism and xenophobia made so clear. The Transport Workers Union’s Tony Sheldon, after complaining about Qantas’s industrial relations tactics, said that his union would ”stand by the workforce, the Australian brand of Qantas and not have it Asianised”.

Asianised? This was not a slip of the tongue. A variant Sheldon has also used is ”Asianisation”. So is Asianisation worse than normal outsourcing?

That’s no dog whistle; there is no subtext. Google ”Asianisation” and the first page of results offers up ”Australian nativists”, manic claims about the Yellow Peril, and warnings about our ”national suicide”. Sure, those hysterics are on the margins of Australian society. But the TWU boss is the chief opponent of the Qantas restructure and of Alan Joyce who, as many people have pointed out, has a thick accent, betraying his foreignness. Sheldon’s easy use of these terms is damning.

Damning, but not damned. Contrast this missing outrage to the handwringing that followed Tony Abbott’s clearly rhetorical ”blood pledge” to repeal the carbon tax. There would have been fury if a conservative leader said anything remotely like what Sheldon did. The ABC’s Q&A would have spent a show debating whether Australia is a racist country. Serious talkback hosts would have spent the week talking about Enoch Powell. None of those things happened.

Opposition to trade, outsourcing and labour migration has always been tightly bound up with xenophobia. In Australian history, racism has usually had an economic context. After all, why should it be a matter of urgent public policy that some jobs be kept within Australian borders? On what moral basis is limiting immigration to protect workers from competition a good thing, as was proposed by unions at the start of the financial crisis.

Protectionism is bad for many reasons. It raises prices and lowers living standards – worrying enough. But its moral core is dark. Surely Australians are no more deserving of jobs than people from China, Japan or Singapore. Economic nationalism implies natives are worth more than foreigners. The far right is explicit about this. The Australian Protectionist Party makes its regressive views (nationalisation, high tariffs, less immigration) part and parcel of its hostility to multiculturalism. One Nation was also sceptical about globalisation.

So given the union movement’s historical culpability for the White Australia policy, you would think someone like Sheldon might be sensitive to the nuances of xenophobia.

Labor-sympathetic historians in recent decades have tried to sheet the White Australia policy home to prejudice. Immigration restriction was, many post-1960s historians have claimed, simply the result of a racist zeitgeist.

But the White Australia policy was led by a union movement trying to eliminate competition in the labour market. This is an awkward truth.

The government’s own fact sheet on the policy mentions how ”hard-working” immigrants were, yet neglects to mention the role played by unions and the Labor Party in kicking them out.

Immigration restrictions were just a part of it. It was the official policy of Labor prime minister Andrew Fisher to grant ”absolute preference” to white unionists in workplaces – and to encourage employers to fire ”coloured” workers. The Australian Socialist League called for the ”exclusion of races whose presence under present competitive conditions might lower the standard of living of Australian workers”.

The only serious opposition to White Australia came from pro-market thinkers – particularly the great free-trade MP Bruce Smith, who described the policy as ”racial prejudice”.

Steven Landsburg, an American professor of economics, asked recently: ”If it’s OK to enrich ourselves by denying foreigners the right to earn a living, why shouldn’t we enrich ourselves by invading peaceful countries and seizing their assets?” Obviously the latter is wrong. The former is just as wrong.

There’s no reason to believe workers made redundant by Qantas will end up on the scrap heap. That sort of theory was barely plausible when the Australian economy was being opened up in the 1980s and 1990s. It is ludicrous now. We’ve had 30 years of globalisation and the unemployment rates are at record lows. International trade is not war. There is no fixed pie of jobs over which protectionist governments must fight for a share. Nor is there any reason to believe basing some Qantas services in Asia will be bad for consumers. Few companies would deliberately make their service less desirable.

All this leaves us with is a union boss attempting to stoke xenophobia in service of his own economic interests. That’s something with which Australian history is sadly familiar.