The ‘R’ word and Australia’s immigration policy

One of South Australia’s worst maritime disasters brought into focus the grim officiousness of the nation’s white Australia policy. More than 100 years later, David Washington asks if modern Australia can learn from the shocking incident.

Jun 04, 2024, updated Jun 04, 2024
Immigration policy has been politicised and bitterly contested for much of this century. Photo: AAP

Immigration policy has been politicised and bitterly contested for much of this century. Photo: AAP

On January 31, 1909, the English-built steamer, Clan Ranald, left Adelaide bound for South Africa.

It had been berthed at Darling’s Mill where it took on a cargo of wheat, flour and coal – the latter used on deck to try and remedy a balance issue.

There were 64 crew on board, 50 of whom were known as “Lascars” – men of Asiatic and Indian origin.

The ship hadn’t left the Gulf before it struck trouble. Near Troubridge Island, off Edithburgh, it suddenly lurched over on a 45 degree angle, smashing two lifeboats. With the rudder out of the water, the ship was exposed to rough seas.

After a terrifying afternoon and evening, the Clan Ranald capsized and sank about 10pm.

Only 24 men survived. Daylight revealed many of the dead strewn along the Yorke Peninsula shoreline.

Of the survivors, 20 were Filipino and Indian. They were in bad shape when transported by boat back to Adelaide.

Despite their horrible ordeal, these 20 men were separated from the four white survivors by Customs agents in Adelaide. They were taken to a basement, handprinted and required to take an English dictation test. Only one man passed. Documents from the day show the officers ordered a second test – in a language the man did not speak. He failed.

The 20 were sent to Melbourne and deported. As the Adelaide Register reported in a detailed account of the tragedy: “…. advocates of the white Australia policy can rest assured that they will be got out of the State as soon as possible”.

Survivors of the Clan Ranald disaster. Photo: Australian Government’s Australasian Underwater Cultural Heritage Database

The white Australia policy is the catch-all name given to three pieces of legislation that were among the first to be passed by the new Commonwealth Government after Federation.

The Act relied on in the case of the Clan Ranald’s survivors was the Immigration Restriction Act. Attorney-General Alfred Deakin made the racist object of the legislation quite clear.

“That end, put in plain and unequivocal terms … means the prohibition of all alien coloured immigration, and more, it means at the earliest time, by reasonable and just means, the deportation or reduction of the number of aliens now in our midst,” he said.

“The two things go hand in hand, and are the necessary complement of a single policy – the policy of securing a ‘white Australia’.”

The dictation requirements were relaxed after World War II but the policy wasn’t dismantled until the Holt Government in 1966. The Whitlam Government ended it in a definitive way in 1975 with policies including the Racial Discrimination Act.

Clan Ranald

Part of a minute produced by the Customs and Excise Office in South Australia about the Clan Ranald survivors. Source: National Archives of Australia

The story of one of South Australia’s worst shipwrecks is shocking for what happened after the disaster as well as the 40 lives lost.

It’s not the only story like this about the white Australia era, but it’s one worth remembering as the nation’s culture warriors again go head to head on the proposition that Australia is “a racist country”.

Of course, the latest debate, if you can call it that, is not really about our explicitly racist past or the state of Australia right now – it’s mostly about the Murdoch press relentlessly trying to damage the ABC.

ABC political correspondent and board member Laura Tingle described Australia as a “racist country” at a Sydney festival, in the context of a discussion about Opposition Leader Peter Dutton’s desire to cut immigration and how he framed this policy. The ABC, in the face of yet another vicious Murdoch attack, “counselled” Tingle – one of the best Canberra political reporters of our era – about the lack of context in her public remarks.

Curiously, anyone who pays attention would understand the context because Tingle herself wrote about it in a piece deemed suitable to publish by the ABC.

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She argued that Dutton had reduced a complex issue to a “populist and misleading piece of political mischief”. The ABC’s headline writers spiced it up even further, saying Dutton was playing “deadly simple but very dangerous politics”.

Beyond the faux debate sparked by Tingle’s later use of the “R” word, Australian policy-makers clearly have some work to do to put immigration policy back on a sensible footing.

Part of that remains trying to unravel the echoes of our past in modern politics.

While many Australians came to see the white Australia policy as a great wrong, not only in retrospect but at the time, no society can turn on the head of a pin – the wounds, psychic, political and otherwise, can’t be healed in a heartbeat, particularly when modern politicians see an advantage in mining a vein of resentment.

There was a brief moment of bipartisanship in the Whitlam-Fraser-Hawke era where the major parties by and large refused to use immigration as a political bludgeon, particularly along the lines of race.

John Howard departed from that as Opposition Leader when, in 1988, he said it would be in the interests of “social cohesion” to slow down Asian immigration, provoking disgust, including from some of the moderates on his own side, including South Australian senator Baden Teague, father of current state politician Josh.

Fast forward a decade, and xenophobia – the very word that caused Pauline Hanson to ask, politely, for an explanation – has become a standard undercurrent in the national political discussion.

You could say it is a return to form.

Modern migration politics is now, safe to say, a complete mess, with both major parties engaged in the game. It seems we’ve forgotten that the policy is about living, breathing, human beings, many of whom, like the crew of the Clan Ranald, are simply seeking safety and warmth.

Under modern policies, we’ve seen people locked up indefinitely or made stateless; we’ve seen highly valued members of our community deported; we’ve become selectively angry about non-citizens who are recidivist offenders, while our own citizens – many of whom will reoffend – are released from jail every day. The fair and universal application of legal principles – surely the underpinning of any democracy – is subject to brute political opportunism. At the same time, our universities are desperate for international students to fill their coffers, while many industries are crying out for workers in the context of almost full employment.

The horrific story of the Clan Ranald’s survivors did not go unremarked, even at the time, with the Ministry of External Affairs insisting it didn’t require the handprinting and testing of the sailors.

Nevertheless, their treatment provoked community outrage, led by a NSW politician who, rarely for the time, opposed the white Australia policy. It wasn’t enough to change migration policy, but the authorities did agree not to apply such treatment to shipwreck victims in the future.

Before they left Adelaide, the mayor gave the Clan Ranald’s survivors a monetary gift and wished them well. We can see, even under an explicitly racist national policy, that there were, at least, conflicted feelings in some of the community and decision-makers.

It’s a bitter truth that, more than a century later, Australia’s migration debate has so often reverted to form – fear first, humanity second.

Notes on Adelaide is a weekly column reflecting on the city, its strengths and its foibles. You can read more Notes on Adelaide in SALIFE’s print editions.

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