Last week, before Bob Katter leapt to the defence of Fraser Anning’s ugly call for a return to the immigration selectivity of the White Australia Policy, he might have paused to think about the way that the policy never came easily. After all, it is worth remembering that the White Australia ideology took a lot of effort to maintain, in many little ways, over a long sweep of Australia’s recent history. There was nothing natural about it.
A perfect illustration of such micro-implementation of White Australia took place in the Queensland town of Cloncurry in the year 1933. It proves that Islamic people lived in Australia well before the White Australia Policy was abandoned. (Tough luck Fraser.) It shows an ugly side of our history that some might prefer to forget. And it is a small but telling part of the story of the political dynasty of the family Katter.
It started when a man known locally as Jimmy Khan was employed to clean gutters.
The story was newsworthy by 25 November 1933, when the Cloncurry Advocate ran an article headed “White Australia”. It reads:
“One would have thought, during the week, that the Council had some new method of excavating gutters as persons could be seen walking up and gazing intently at the work going on in the Scarr Street drains. Inquiries elicited the fact that it was no new machine excavator being employed but a full blooded Afghan, who was handling the pick and shovel like any other Asiatic would. With scores, maybe hundreds, of whites, natives of Australia, Britishers, out of work in the Shire, the general public would like to know how this Afghan came to get preference over the white race.”
The story criticised two local Labor politicians for allowing this breach of “the Policy they signed and are supposed to adhere to”. It also offered a strange assessment of the different work ethics of “our race” and those of “Afghans and other foreigners”.
That Jimmy Khan also ran his own camel train, that mercantile lifeblood of the interior, was only mentioned in passing.
A week later there was a letter to the editor of the Cloncurry Advocate referring to this “White Australia” article about Khan’s digging. This letter was signed by the two local politicians to which the article had alluded, G. I. Potter and C. R. Katter. “We have no concern with most of the article,” they wrote, but took “strong exception” to the suggestion that they were in contravention of their race-based employment promises. They then offered a lengthy explanation that the gutter-cleaning position was not their responsibility to fill.
At the next Shire Council meeting, held in early December 1933, the question of race was topical. Some councillors wanted to write to the Department of Labor and Industry and claim “the right to knock off unsuitable labor … and also further protest the against the present selection”. In other words, whiteys on, everyone else out.
Shockingly, especially to modern sensibilities, this deflection of blame came soon after the meeting had been addressed by a local Afghan man, Goolem Resool. He was applying for land for a cemetery on behalf of his community, but took the opportunity to speak out about the question of race and employment. As it was reported,
“Goolem then said he had been two years out of work and was a ratepayer and he should be given work so that he could pay his rates. In the paper it said Afghans should not get work. He came to Cloncurry in 1904 and to Australia in 1882 and before that he was a sergeant in the Indian Army. He maintained he was a British subject and as much entitled to work as anyone else.”
The politicians said they had no authority to employ this veteran, then turned to the business of advocating for getting themselves the right to fire and hire.
This small incident illustrates how the White Australia Policy operated. Political pressure points, racial divides, ideological bombast and political double-speak all combined in an absurd mix. The newspaper and the politicians debated the finer details, scored points, but mostly agreed with a profoundly racist general principle. They were trapped by a political consensus of their own making and maintenance.
That’s the White Australia Policy in action in 1933: an Afghan man cleaning the town’s gutters, and Councillor Katter talking in the chamber. Perhaps next time Bob gets in front of the cameras someone should hand him a shovel. After all, that’s exactly what his forebears wanted, wasn’t it?