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A study of administrative policy and practice : immigration issues in Tasmania, 1919-36

Version 2 2023-08-11, 04:22
Version 1 2023-05-26, 23:04
posted on 2023-08-11, 04:22 authored by M. Ellison

The Tasmanian immigration story is best understood within the context of Britain's postwar conditions and Imperial ambitions. The experience of World War I strengthened British Imperialism. More than ever the Dominions were seen as an integral part of the British Empire. Common origins and destinies were intertwined. Andrew Bona Law spoke of the Empire being "one in Spirit and in action" and W.H. Long of the Empire ''still one and indivisible.'' Defence concerns sharpened the focus on Empire. Sparsely populated Dominions sporting empty fertile land were a liability. In a united Empire resources needed to be evenly distributed and the empty spaces filled with 'the largest possible British population at the earliest possible moment.' Settlement of British people on agricultural land throughout the Dominions would provide yeomen-farmer defenders of the Empire. Tasmanian Agent-General Sir John McCall was in tune with Imperialist thinking. In his 1918 report to Tasmanian Parliament he wrote of the unique opportunity to 'settle Tasmania properly' with British and Tasmanian ex-servicemen. He regretted the sale of first-class land in Tasmania. He was anxious to people the State and suggested the Government resume any good quality land not being properly used. There was urgency and challenge in his report.

The sense of urgency was a response to postwar conditions in Britain. Turmoil and turbulence prevailed. Demobilisation procedures were a source of extreme discontent amongst ex-servicemen and women. Economic difficulties reflected in high unemployment and many were dissatisfied with postwar employment options. Many found it impossible to settle to routine jobs after prolonged war service. McCall claimed that up to sixty percent of British ex-servicemen wanted to try outdoor work for the first time. An important postwar challenge concerned the role of women formerly engaged in war work. Appropriate employment had to be found. A reassessment of attitudes and long-term goals was imperative. Over population and a shortage of housing added to the general turbulence of the period. The Russian Revolution was a salient reminder that satisfactory solutions were urgently needed.

Migration to the Dominions had been for some years an attractive notion in the minds of some British politicians. It was the obvious expression of Imperialist philosophy and ambitions. As well migration appeared to be a convenient and appropriate solution to apparently insuperable social and economic problems post-War. The peopling of the Dominions would shore up the defence of the Empire. As primary producers the yeomen farmers would supply the British market thereby boosting the flagging British economy. The urgent social questions concerning ex-servicemen and women would be shared with or transferred to the Dominions. A migration scheme for ex-servicemen and women would also serve as due reward for those who had fought for the Empire. Thus Britain set the agenda for postwar immigration. Imperialist designs and ambitions sparked discussion in the Dominions. In Australia nationalist sentiment was in evidence but the Empire notion was strong. The Dominions would serve the needs of Mother England. Britain's campaign to woo the Dominions lacked subtlety and abounded in rhetoric the real issues of migration were often obscured. British politicians promoted the view that Britain was sacrificing 'the strongest and the best' to the Dominions. Migration was promulgated as a gesture of maternal largesse. More to the point the policy was aggressive and vigorous well serving Britain's needs.

Tasmania's response indicated awareness of the Imperial agenda. However that awareness did not result necessarily in policies or outcomes expected by Britain or the Tasmanian Agent-General or indeed by the Commonwealth Government. In general British and Commonwealth Schemes were remote from Tasmania's needs. Reluctant and minimal responses to migration initiatives became the set pattern. Local public and Press complaints throughout the 1920's that Tasmania had no immigration policy were well founded. Nevertheless the Tasmanian migration story unfolded within the context of the Imperial agenda and an interpretation within that context is appropriate.

Just as Britain's migration policy was a direct response to postwar issues and conditions so the Dominions responded to British policy in accordance with their own issues and priorities. Tasmanian and British priorities were in direct competition. Tasmania experienced difficulties in repatriating its ex-servicemen. There was a shortage of land and housing. Unemployment was high. Prolonged postwar depression reflected in extreme poverty especially in country areas. There was acknowledgement of the need to build up the industrial base of the economy. While effectively addressing Britain's problems ex-service migration served to highlight and exacerbate economic difficulties in Tasmania. The experiences of unsuccessful British migrants attested to the reality of unemployment and prolonged depression. Many migrants were very much worse off than in Britain. Some considered they'd been seriously misled about Tasmanian conditions. The lucky few were repatriated.

Conducted as it was at a time of high unemployment the Immigration programme attracted public criticism and social conflict as Tasmanians and British competed for jobs. Reversion to a policy of nomination where nominators were responsible for finding local employment for their nominees was a sensible Government decision. However the Tasmanian Agent-General and British officials found the decision regrettable and hoped it was temporary. While Nomination relieved the Government of responsibility jobs had still to be found. Britain held the view that Tasmanian and British job seekers should be considered equally. Tasmanian Immigration Officials and Trade Unionists disagreed maintaining that where ever possible local labour should be used in preference to British. In practice this caused discontent.

Press comment and public debate reflected the wider social issues of immigration. Lively debate highlighted social divisions which were first in evidence during the First World War. The Conscription campaign and Referendum gave expression to both Imperial loyalty and growing Nationalist sentiment. While the British Government and migrants themselves were aware of criticism there was no evidence to suggest they understood it in terms of a strongly held anti-loyalist bias. The critical stance adapted by the Trade Union Movement had its origins here as well. In broad terms this was the context of the Immigration story in the twenties and early thirties. With Commonwealth involvement the issues became more complex as Commonwealth policies overlaid the Imperial agenda. In general the Commonwealth espoused Imperial views attempting to maximise opportunities to attract capital through British migration. Study of the development of Tasmanian Immigration policy and practice reflects the importance of Imperial and Commonwealth priorities and issues relative to Tasmanian concerns during the twenties and early thirties. Bureaucratic response to migration issues is a measure of that importance.



  • Master's Thesis


121 pages


Dept. of History


University of Tasmania

Publication status

  • Unpublished

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