Here’s a scoop.
In all the fuss over Section 44 of the Constitution, no one seems to have asked what was behind the framers’ decision to insert a measure that would prevent Australian residents from standing for Parliament if they had the capacity – whether they used it or not – to be a citizen of another country?
The simple answer is that they wanted to ensure that all MPs were loyal to Australia and were not going to advocate for some other nation. But in 1901 when the first Parliament was elected they were all beholden to Britain. In fact, all through the first half of the 20th century they were British subjects and consequently were at least dual citizens.
So, what was really behind it?
The answer, alas, is an echo of the racism that arrived on our shores with the First Fleet and found its legislative expression in the laws passed by that first Parliament to institute a measure that disfigured our foreign policy for the next seventy years and prevented us from developing good relations with our regional neighbours. Yes, it’s the White Australia Policy, our unique contribution to international apartheid. And it was aimed directly at the Chinese-Australians who at the time were developing the Northern Territory and providing the fresh vegetables on grazing properties that allowed us to develop the wool industry that we rode to prosperity for a century or more.
It was part of a hidden history of our relations with China that I have tried to expose in my new book, Dragon and Kangaroo. And I can’t help having a quiet smile about the chaos caused to our current MPs by the actions of their predecessors. It is particularly poignant for the dual British/Australian citizens because it was prideful Britishness that was behind their determination to treat the Chinese migrants as interlopers. Indeed, they even passed a law that they couldn’t marry Indigenous Australians, or even employ them in their various businesses in the Territory.
But the Australia-China story is not all gloom and doom. Far from it, there were some wonderful characters in both countries who became quite influential and much respected. Two Australian journalists, George Morrison and William Donald, were highly influential advisers to Chinese Governments from the first republic in 1912 to the second world war.
And in Australia, Quong Tart, for example, who at only nine years old arrived at Braidwood with his uncle during the gold rush became a beloved figure throughout the country. When his uncle returned to China, Quong Tart was ‘adopted’ by the Forsyths, a Scottish family who ran a general store in the town. And thereafter he spoke with a Scottish accent and as an adult often wore the kilt.
He became a highly successful businssman in Sydney and ran his own fashionable tea rooms in the city. When he died in 1903 from injuries suffered from a violent burglar, more than 1500 people – including an array of the State’s political and business leaders – followed the coffin to Rookwood Cemetery.
It was a constantly astonishing experience to research the book. And I’m not surprised that these latest events have shown just how intertwined our history has become.
Dragon and Kangaroo by Robert Macklin is a fascinating story of the Chinese presence in and influence on this country - our intertwined history from colonial times to today. Chinese 'presence' in Australia extends from well before the time of Captain Cook - trading with northern Australia long before Europeans came here - right through to the present day, with Chinese activities ranging from being the main customer for our iron ore, to their very extensive intelligence operations here. Robert Macklin, has traced a new history of the two nations. Macklin's engrossing narrative reaches from pre-colonial times, to John Macarthur's 'coolie' shepherds, the only Chinese bushranger, Sam Pu, and the multiple atrocities committed against the Chinese in the gold rush; through to the 20th century, where the two Australians - 'Morrison of Peking' and William Donald - played a significant role in the downfall of the last Chinese emperor and the creation of the first republic, before World War II and decades of Cold War brinkmanship; to our current economic bonds and Australia's role in the dangerous geopolitics of the South China Sea.