Assimilation & Integration in Australia

What does it mean to say that Australia is a settler-colonial society? What impact does the presence of Indigenous as well as non-Indigenous Australians have on the character of social order and social integration in Australia? In this lecture, I’ll try to throw some light on these questions, as a way of expanding on the the way we think about national identity.

I’ll do that by looking briefly at the history of official policies toward Australian Aborigines since the colonisation of the continent by European settlers.

ettler-colonial societies like Australia have a very distinct foundation as nation-states.

They both have to come to a particular kind of on-going relationship with their *Indigenous* populations, and they are also constituted from their origins as made up of migrants.

The co-existence of these two characteristics of settler-colonial countries, produces specific effects in the policy and practice of social integration, which can be helpful in understanding what’s distinctive about their configuration of national identity.

In the Australian setting, there are two distinct but interrelated narratives about social integration: First, that of the Aboriginal population and the question of their assimilation or integration into white Australian society.

Second, that of successive waves of differing types of migrants to Australia, and the tension between assimilation and multiculturalism.

Here I’ll be talking only about the first, and I’ll have leave open the question of its interrelationship with the second.

In relation to the Aboriginal population, the key models of integration have been /assimilation/, /integration/, and /self-determination/.

An important determinant of the ‘model’ used is the dominant conception of the relationship between individual and collective rights.

Approaches are divided between a confinement of the concept of citizenship to one of purely individual rights on the one hand, and a sense that individual rights can only be properly realized in the context of a recognition of collective rights, on the other hand.

The original ambition of the British administrators of the colony of New South Wales was to somehow absorb the Aboriginal population into white society.

They relied heavily on the mechanism of converting them to Christianity.

However, by the late 19th century, this optimistic understanding of how Aborigines could be integrated was accompanied by a more pessimistic conception of the future of the Aborigines in Australia as being a ‘dying race’.

The primary focus of organised attention to them as a population group became to ‘protect’ them in the period of their final decline, to ‘smooth the dying man’s pillow’ (Daisy Bates).

However, as Australian settler-colonialism advanced across the continent over the course of the 19th century, appropriating more and more land, Europeans came into increasing *proximity* to those Indigenous people they did not simply kill.

With proximity comes intimacy, and with intimacy comes sex and babies.

The effect of this sexual contact between Indigenous women and non-Indigenous mean was to radically transform the nature of the relationship between colonisers and colonised.

The European smugness about the inevitable disappearance of the Aboriginal race turned out to be a little premature.

State administrators became increasingly anxious about the menacing ‘half-caste problem’, the growing numbers of ‘the pie-bald specimens we meet roaming about the country at present’.

They became interested in the question of bio-politics, how biological tendencies could be managed and controlled.

The solution to this problem was formulated as the removal of Aboriginal children into institutional or foster care.

This was the basis of what has come to be known as the Stolen Generations, since the 1997 HREOC Bringing Them Home report.

There were two forces driving the policy of Aboriginal child removal.

On the one hand, there was the presumption that whatever constituted a specifically Aboriginal cultural identity was doomed to extinction, indeed it deserved no better fate.

On the other hand, there was the threatening image of ‘the half-caste’ as a representative of a dangerous and disgusting racial hybridity.

The presence of children with European features among Aborigines provided a clear focus for this revulsion.

It also provide an avenue of action to rescue the ‘civilization’ which those children bore in their physical features, from descent into "barbarism" and "moral depravity" For all the Aboriginal Protectors, missionaries, police and patrol officers, it was self-evident that white-skinned, blue-eyed blonde or red-haired part-Aboriginal children were automatically to be removed from life among Aboriginals.

‘It was,’ wrote one Patrol Officer (Long), ‘repugnant to see an almost white child living among the Aboriginals and this was reason enough to remove the child’ Overall there was an ongoing tension between assimilation – the pursuit of a homogenous Australian society in which everyone lived the same way, and integration – a looser conception of what held Australians together as an umbrella for a variety of cultural orientations.

This conceptual opposition, between assimilation and integration, is best captured in the difference of opinion between the politician and administrator Paul Hasluck and the University of Sydney anthropologist A.



Hasluck’s model of integration was the transformation of Aborigines into replicas of white Australians.

He told the 1961 Native Welfare Conference that the policy of assimilation means:.

He thought that ‘the loss of any valid and distinctive aboriginal culture is certain in the course of time’.

He dismissed the argument for a distinctive cultural identity as mere romanticism.

He mocked the idea by comparing it to In contrast, the leading theorist of ‘assimilation as integration’, was A.


Elkin, Professor of Anthropology at the University of Sydney between 1934 and 1951.

He argued that assimilation He denied that Aborigines needed, in order to become citizens, to ‘give up all their kinship customs and their beliefs and rites, or that local groups must no longer think of themselves as closely knit communities’.

Elkin felt that For Elkin the persistence of distinctive cultural identity was no real barrier to a shared national identity.

This argument has never been properly settled, and in many respects it continues to this day.

By the 1970s, the policy emphasis on Aboriginal self-determination and small moves towards recognizing Aboriginal land rights, was more supportive of this concept of distinctive cultural identity within Australian national identity.

By the 1990s, control of land had become a key issue which unfolded in a number of high profile courts cases (the Mabo and Wik High Court decisions in particular) and related legislation such as the Native Title Act.

Related to that development, there was a backlash from the 1990s onwards, with politicians like Prime Minister John Howard clearly returning to Hasluck’s conception of the place of Aboriginality within Australian identity.

The opposition between the two positions continues today with the debate around the possible revision of the Australian Constitution, in particular whether it’s sufficient to acknowledge the original Aboriginal presence on the continent prior to European settlement, or whether Indigenous Australians should have distinctive legal and political rights.

Source: Youtube