Inside the bureaucracy of White Australia

Invisible Australians is primarily concerned with assembling biographical information about individuals subject to the restrictions of the White Australia Policy. But as we extract their details from a variety of government documents, we will also be documenting the evolution of government policy and the workings of the bureaucracy that implemented it.

With this in mind, I’ve recently started to think about how we might model the internal operations of the White Australia Policy. I’ll be pursuing this further in a paper I’ll be presenting at Digital Humanities Australasia 2012. The outline of my paper is below. More details coming in the new year!


Inside the bureaucracy of White Australia

Abstract for Digital Humanities Australasia 2012.

With the passing of the Immigration Restriction Act in 1901, the new Australian nation put in place a framework to protect its racial purity – what was to become known as the White Australia Policy. While the outlines of this policy are well known, what is less well-recognised is the White Australia Policy was a massive bureaucratic exercise. Administering this system of racial exclusion and control involved the co-operation of federal and state governments and a complex, evolving web of legislation, regulations and guidelines.

Many thousands of people sought to build lives and families within these restrictions. Case files help us to understand some of the interactions between individuals and government, but the scale of the enterprise defies easy analysis. To understand how the White Australia Policy worked, how it affected people’s lives, we need a way of navigating its internal structures, logic and history. This paper will outline a project to reconstruct the bureaucratic machinery of the White Australia Policy by mining and linking data from a variety of sources.

Historical descriptions of government agencies are already available in machine-readable forms from the National Archives of Australia, the State Records Office of NSW and the Public Records Office of Victoria. In addition, descriptions of records created by these agencies can themselves be mined for patterns. These structures can then be combined with information extracted from legislation, newspapers and Hansard to build up a rich model of the policy in practice.

We hope that by exploring this model and relating it to existing case studies, we will be able to plot local variations in administration as well as longer-term structural changes. Most importantly, we hope to be able to visualise the bureaucracy from the point of view of the people it sought to restrict.

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