Multiculturalism, female liberation and global trade: WW2’s impacts on ‘The Lucky Country’ 75 years on

After WW2, Australia crossed a bridge into becoming the cosmopolitan society that it is today, the rest of the world with it, and there was no turning back.

Pictured above: A patrol of Australian Infantrymen crossing the Brown River in the jungles of Papua New Guinea, using a fallen tree as a bridge, on their way to Menari, a town north-east of Port Moresby, the nation’s capital. (Image source: WWII in Colour)

By Viki Ntafillis | @viki_ntaf

Today is the 75th anniversary of the official end of the Second World War, an event in history that has left its mark on Australia, and the world, forever. 

The most gruesome war to have ever occurred, it saw the death of almost 40,000 Australian soldiers, and a global death toll of around 45 to 60 million.

Dr Peter Brune, military historian, said that while the war was only physically damaging to Australia to a minimal extent, it forever changed our nation’s trade, commerce, defence and culture.  

“The war’s political and social impacts on our nation were intertwined,” Dr Brune said.

“One of the most significant impacts was immigration … after 1945, the world came to us.

“The war redefined what it means to be an Australian … today, we are more multicultural, cosmopolitan and worldly as a society than ever before.

“After the war, Australiansrealised they might have a European culture and we were British in our institutions, but we were ultimately a South-East Asian nation.”

V-J Day: On 15 August 1945, South Australians swarm Rundle Street to celebrate Japan’s surrender, effectively ending the war. (Image source: @AdelaideYesterdayandToday Facebook page, from Richard Sommers’ personal collection)

Australia was forced to increase its numbers after the war if it wanted any hope of surviving as a western country in the east; to do so, however, it had to gradually shed its “insular” mindset, as Dr Brune put it.

“In Australia in the 1940s, the saying was ‘populate or perish’.

“That is, ‘the yellow hordes’, as they referred to the Asians, were there in their millions and, there we were, an outpost of Britain, with only six million people.

“The experts concluded that Australia needed an population increase of two per cent every year … to achieve this, the country had to accept 70,000 immigrants a year,” Dr Brune said.

However, when the sought-after British—the “Ten Pound Poms”—became sparse, Australia was forced to diversify its entrants, the solution being displaced persons from Europe.

By 1955, Australia had accepted a million immigrants and in 1966, 21 years after the war, the White Australia Policy was abolished by the Holt government.

Depiction of Australia on its way to becoming the cultural melting-pot that it is known for today, drawn by famous cartoonist, Oslo Davis. (Image source: https://museumsvictoria.com.au/immigrationmuseum/resources/immigration-to-victoria/)

Today, Australia is home to people from over 300 cultures, and 21 per cent of Australians speaks a language other than English at home, according to the 2016 Census.

More recently, the Australian Bureau of Statistics found that 60.2 per cent of Australia’s annual population growth in 2019 was from overseas migration, while only 39.8 per cent was by natural means.

Dr Brune said the war’s emphasis of our true geographical position reinforced the idea that the ‘mother country’, Britain, no longer formed the crux of our nation’s identity.

“Some say Gallipoli was the birth of our nation, but in my opinion, the turning point for Australia was the Fall of Singapore in 1942.

“It was the biggest capitulation in British military history … it resulted in the surrender of over 100,000 Allied soldiers, 18-20,000 of whom were Australians, to the Japanese.

“Once and for all, it proved to us that Britain was no longer going to protect us. We were.”

Australian troops disembarking at Singapore, 15 August 1941, coincidentally four years before Japanese surrender to the day. (Image source: https://www.nma.gov.au/defining-moments/resources/fall-of-singapore)

In turn, Dr Brune said this motivated us to look to a stronger ally, and therefore stray from Britain even further.

“During the war, the Japanese bombed North Australia and took Papua New Guinea … the argument goes on to this day about whether they would have been successful in invading Australia.”

“We learnt that what was going to happen in Asia would directly affect us much more than anything Britain decided to do.”

“Also, we realised our future lay with a new and more powerful ally, the United States, and we aligned ourselves with them unashamedly.

“You might say that Australia’s involvement in Korea, Vietnam and Afghanistan is us paying our insurance premium to the US.”

Dr Brune said war also greatly contributed to female liberation.

“Women used to be treated as second-class citizens,” he said.

“Even until the 1960s, if a teacher fell pregnant, she was forced to resign from the education department and then, when she returned to work, she had start again on the bottom level pay-scale.

“But the war had brought more women into the workplace. After that, women realised they wanted to work and have careers, so they fought for these rights and more.”

Women march for equal pay on Labour Day in Sydney 1950s-60s. (Image source: https://www.nma.gov.au/defining-moments/resources/equal-pay-for-women)

Dr Brune also said WW2 was also unique in the sense that no one ever questions Australia’s involvement, or the war’s outcome.

“Never was there a more just war … with wars since, the objective has sometimes been unclear, and there is often dissent within the community, such as with Afghanistan, Iran, and Vietnam.

“There was never any question as to whether Australia should have fought in the Second World War, though … Hitler needed to be stopped.”

Hitler many minority groups, including Jews, gypsies, homosexuals and the disabled. Pictured are a group of gypsy prisoners at Bełżec. (Image source: US Holocaust Memorial Museum, courtesy of Archiwum Dokumentacji Mechanicznej https://www.ushmm.org/collections/bibliography/sinti-and-roma-gypsies)

When asked what Australia’s next 75 years will look like, Dr Brune said we will continue to improve and change, but our reliance on globalisation could be detrimental, as COVID-19 has recently shown.

With 25 per cent of our nation’s manufactured imports coming from China, and the fact that China is our largest trading partner for both imports and exports, it is no wonder Australians have been feeling the pinch throughout the pandemic.

“Why are we outsourcing so much of our industry, particularly when it would be needed in wartime? Why are we so reliant on China?” Dr Brune said.

Sir Lankan girls performing in the Australia Day Parade in Adelaide 2019. (Image Source: Henk Graalman)

“We used to have a skilled labour force building submarines at Port Adelaide … where is our skilled labour force if our submarines are being built France?

“We are the lucky country, but sometimes we are a bit lax,” Dr Brune said.

“The next 20-50 years will be the most exciting in our country’s history … we’re just waiting for a good leader, someone with a big vision, and we need to be ready for them to take us there.”

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