David C. Atkinson is an associate professor of history at Purdue University.
On Friday, terrorist attacks at two mosques in Christchurch, New Zealand, left 49 dead and scores more wounded. The attack, reportedly by an Australian shooter, has cast a spotlight on the global scope of white supremacist rhetoric and violence. The shooter left behind a manifesto riddled with the language of modern white nationalism, and wrote that he chose to commit this horror in New Zealand to show that “nowhere in the world is safe.”
As news continues to emerge about the attacker, many have focused on how the shooter may have been inspired by white nationalist rhetoric from other countries, including the United States. Others have questioned how such an attack could take place in New Zealand. But, in truth, New Zealand and Australia have a long history of white supremacist policy and discourse — both of which they have yet to fully confront.
Ever since Australia and New Zealand became outposts of British imperial rule in the Pacific, white Australians and New Zealanders have struggled to reconcile a colonial history defined by white supremacy with a modern commitment to multiethnic democracy. Though indigenous Australians and New Zealanders initially bore the brunt of this ideology, it also manifested itself in exclusionary immigration policies designed to keep nonwhite immigrants from their shores.
After enacting broad legislation to exclude Chinese immigrants in the 1880s, New Zealand adopted the “White New Zealand” policy in 1899, while Australia adopted the “White Australia” policy in 1901. In fact, immigration restriction was a major reason for the establishment of the Australian federation in 1901, since it provided an opportunity to streamline the different immigration policies of the six Australian colonies into one continent-wide policy.
According to the Sydney Morning Herald, Australia’s 1901 Immigration Restriction Act was designed to create “a stone wall against the danger of race pollution.” Though many legislators in the new Parliament wanted to exclude explicitly all nonwhite immigrants, the British government — which was in the process of negotiating an unprecedented alliance with Japan — insisted they find another solution. The cornerstone of the White Australia Policy, therefore, became a literacy test administered to all prospective immigrants. New Zealanders implemented the same ruse in 1899, again after the British government prevailed against a more overtly racist law favored by Prime Minister Richard Seddon.
In Australia, it finds voice in the shocking claims of Fraser Anning, a far-right independent senator from Queensland, who immediately labeled Muslims as “perpetrators” following Friday’s attack. It is reflected in the activities of the Australia First Party, which celebrates the White Australia Policy, decries the negative influence of “liberal-globalist-capitalism” and seeks the abolition of multiculturalism. And it is reflected in the mainstream political success of Pauline Hanson’s One Nation political party, a vehicle for nationalist and populist policies that include strict immigration restriction and that currently boasts two senators in the federal parliament and additional members in state legislatures.
In New Zealand, this history resounds in contemporary mainstream discussions about restrictions on Asian immigration. In November 2006, for example, New Zealand’s prominent North & South magazine drew complaints when it published an article entitled “Asian Angst: Is it Time to Send Some Back?” Based on a flawed use of statistics, the article blamed Asian immigrants for rising crime rates in New Zealand. Similar claims fueled a 2013 speech by current Deputy Prime Minister and Minister of Foreign Affairs Winston Peters, who suggested that Chinese immigration had turned Auckland into a “supercity of sin.”
Of course, this history of white supremacy does not make Friday’s attack any less shocking, nor has it been directly linked to the attacker’s motives. Nevertheless, it is important to contextualize the hate that is never far from the surface in societies founded on the very principles espoused by the murderer. Coming to terms with that history is an essential part of overcoming that history.
The White Australia and White New Zealand policies reflected the pervasive sense of racial anxiety that saturated white colonial society from the outset. Friday’s attack demonstrates that such anxieties are not far from the forefront in New Zealand and Australian life. Unconscionable acts of violence are the inevitable result of relentless anti-immigrant invective — invective that lives in both the past and the present.