1901 Immigration Restriction Act

Era: Cultural background: Collection: Theme:Federation Federation 1901 Government Immigration Restiction Labour Movement Refugees Settlement

Immigration Restriction Act 1901. National Archives of Australia: A1336 3368
Immigration Restriction Act 1901. Courtesy National Archives of Australia

National Archives of Australia, Canberra, Australia.

Object Name
Immigration Act 1901.

Object/Collection Description
An Act to place certain restrictions on Immigration and to provide for the removal from the Commonwealth of prohibited Immigrants (No.17 of 1901). Parchment, cotton and wax. Dimensions: 400mm long x 320mm wide.

Immigration Restriction Act 1901. Courtesy National Archives of Australia, p.1 – 7

Before 1900, there was no actual country called Australia, there were six colonies of New South Wales, South Australia, Victoria, Queensland, and Western Australia that existed on the Australian continent and Tasmania the island colony. While the six colonies were on the same continent they were governed by Britain like six separate countries. Up until the 1880s, there was limited interest in the idea of uniting the colonies into one country and the influential businessmen in the colonies seemed more interested in protecting their own economic interests. Things began to change in the 1890s. There was a severe drought that resulted in violent industrial strikes. By 1888, 70% of people in Australia had been born here and there was a growing nationalist sentiment. Communication had improved and all the colonies were linked to each other and the world by the overland telegraph and submarine telegraph. Germany, France and Russia were expanding in the Pacific and the colonies could better defend themselves with a single army and navy. Thousands of Chinese migrants came to Australia during the gold rush. People wanted to restrict the economic competition of migrants from Asia. The best way to do this was for all the colonies to act together and work out a common immigration policy.

Uniting the six colonies was not easy and there were many fights and walkouts in negotiations along the way. After a series of conferences and meetings, a draft Australian Federal Constitution was drawn up. Then a series of referendums were put to the people, until finally, in 1900, there was a majority agreement for Federation. The Commonwealth of Australia was proclaimed on 1st January 1901 at a grand ceremony in Sydney’s Centennial Park. In 1901 most people in Australia were proud to be Australians. They thought their country was the land of opportunity. But, while Australians elected their own parliament that made Australian laws, they did not control their own foreign policy or defence. Australia did not have its own Navy and it could not make treaties with other nations. The ‘mother country’, Britain controlled these.

Australia was part of the British Empire. In 1907, Australia, Canada, South Africa, and New Zealand became known as Dominions. While Britain arranged conferences to hear the views of the Dominions, Britain kept a firm control over defence and foreign policy.

But Australia was getting ideas of its own. It was especially concerned that Britain did not have strong military bases in the Pacific area and Britain had signed a treaty with Japan who Australia feared. As a result, Australia began to build up its own navy in 1909.

In 1901, 98% of people in Australia were white. Australia wanted to remain a country of white people who lived by British customs. Trade unions were keen to prevent labour competition from Chinese and Pacific Islander migrants who they feared would undercut wages. One of the first pieces of legislation passed in the new Federal Parliament was the Immigration Restriction Act. Now known as the infamous White Australia Policy it made it very difficult for Asians and Pacific Islanders to migrate to Australia. This Act stated that if a person wanted to migrate to Australia they had to be given a dictation test. The dictation test could be in any European language. So a person from China or Japan who wanted to live in Australia could be tested in one or all of French, Italian or English languages. In 1905, the Act was changed so it could be given in any language at all. Of course, most Asians failed the tests and were not allowed to migrate to Australia unless they were able to enter the country under very strict exclusion rules and fortunate enough to have well connected sponsors.

Anti Federation cartoon 1899. SLNSW
New South Wales and her duty to restrict, The Daily Telegraph, June 20 1899. Courtesy State Library of New South Wales

The Immigration Restriction Act was the key part of a package of legislation passed by the new Federal Parliament in 1901, aimed at excluding all non-European migrants. This package included the Pacific Islander Labourers Act and Section 15 of the 1901 Post and Telegraph Act, which provided that ships carrying Australian mails, and hence subsidised by the Commonwealth, should employ only white labour. Its sentiments were in line with Australian nationalism in the late 1880s and 1890s, and moves to restrict non-European immigration to most of the Australian colonies dating back to the 1850s.

The mechanism restricting immigration could not be overtly based on race as this was opposed by Britain and frowned upon by Britain’s ally, Japan. Instead, the basis was literacy, assessed by a Dictation Test. Similar Dictation Tests, based on legislation used in Natal in South Africa, had been introduced in Western Australia, New South Wales and Tasmania in the late 1890s.

The Immigration Restriction Act enabled the government to exclude 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’. The Dictation Test could be administered to any migrant during the first year of residence.

It was initially proposed that the Test would be in English, but it was argued that this could discourage European migration and advantage Japanese people, and Americans of African descent. Instead, any ‘European language’ was specified. In 1905 this was changed to ‘any prescribed language’ to lessen offence to the Japanese. From 1932 the Test could be given during the first five years of residence, and any number of times.

The Dictation Test was administered 805 times in 1902-03 with 46 people passing and 554 times in 1904-09 with only six people successful. After 1909 no person passed the Dictation Test and people who failed were refused entry or deported.

The Act, frequently amended, remained in force until 1958.

This Immigration Restriction Act 1901 has historic value because it has direct links Federation and the drafting of the first Australian Constitution. This document put in place the law that was the cornerstone of Australia’s ‘White Australia’ policy. The Governor-General signed the document two days before Christmas Day 1901, a week after he had signed the Pacific Islander Labourers Act into law. Together with Section 15 of the 1901 Post and Telegraph Act, these formed a powerful set of legal instruments shaping immigration policy at the foundation of the Commonwealth. They continued to guide thinking on immigration for half a century.

TheImmigration Restriction Act 1901 has social value for migrant communities especially Chinese and Pacific Islanders who were largely the target of the racist nature of the Immigration Restriction Act.

The Immigration Restriction Act 1901 was drafted and passed in the House of Representatives in Federal Parliament in 1901. The document is in the National Archives of Australia collection.

The Immigration Restriction Act 1901 is rare as it is one of the few objects directly associated with the drafting of the first Australian Constitution.

The Immigration Restriction Act 1901 represents the formal adoption by Commonwealth of Australia of racist policies that resulted in form immigration apartheid that grew out of racist 19th century community attitudes.

The Immigration Restriction Act 1901 is in excellent condition.

The Immigration Restriction Act 1901 has the potential to interpret the main themes of Federation. This is namely the drafting of the Federal Constitution that governed immigration, customs, defence, trade, taxation and finance and industrial relations and the creation of a new Australian nation in 1901. The document has the potential to interpret the racist attitudes to Asians and Pacific Islanders and the subsequent laws and polices adopted by the Federal government to restrict these groups to migration and work in Australia.


Coupe, S & Andrews, M 1992, Their Ghosts may be heard: Australia to 1900, Longman Cheshire, Sydney.

Coupe, S & Andrews, M 1992, Was it only Yesterday? Australia in the Twentieth Century World, Longman Cheshire, Sydney.

Heritage Office & Dept of Urban Affairs & Planning 1996, Regional Histories of NSW, Sydney.

Heritage Collections Council 2001, Significance: A guide to assessing the significance of cultural heritage objects and collections, Canberra.


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