Italians and the White Australia Policy

Italian family sitting at table

In 1881, census figures recorded fewer than 2000 Italians living in Australia.  As the following tables show, the number of Italian immigrants increased significantly from the end of WWII, to become the second highest country of origin for new immigrants behind England and Ireland, in the 1950s, 60s, 70s and 80s, although the peak was during the 1960s.

Most Australians are aware of the post-WWII wave of Italian immigrants, but how was that possible during the time of the White Australia policy? The bombing of Darwin during WWII drew the attention of Australian leaders to the fact that a population of 7 million was inadequate to defend a land mass of 3 million square miles. In July 1945, Labor leader Arthur Calwell gave a speech to parliament declaring Australia must ‘populate or perish’. Although both Australian parties favoured British and Irish immigrants, followed by other English speaking northern Europeans, thousands of Italians had immigrated since the 1930s. Italy was impoverished thanks to Mussolini, the war and various border disputes and was experiencing massive unemployment