Australian Governments and the Concept of Race: An Historical Perspective


  • Andrew Markus


This article examines the development of racial concepts in Australia dur-ing the nearly 200 years of European occupation as evident in government action, particularly legislation and statistical categorisation. Attention is confined to a relatively limited body of evidence to facilitate comparability over time. The objective is to distinguish broad patterns, a task which is made difficult by the divided legislative authority within the country. 


Confining attention to a limited body of evidence does not, however, dispense with the problem of defining precisely the field of study: how is it to be established that certain actions are based on a 'racial' consciousness while others are not? It is insufficient to rely on a narrow definition to distinguish racial consciousness or perception, for the precise form of con-cepts, categories and terminology can change over time while basic perspectives remain constant. Thus in a period when racial concepts are undeveloped there may be difficulty in establishing a clear and consistent set of categories; at another time concepts may be fully developed, but categorisation may be hidden for political reasons by, for example, an education test. It is necessary to employ a definition which captures the meaning at the core of racial conceptualisation, and which is sufficiently broad to allow for change over time. The definition adopted below incor-porates two elements, the first of which is sufficient to establish a racial consciousness. It entails: (1) perception of physically distinguishable human populations (as distinct from sub-populations, such as divisions bas-ed on gender), whose behavioural traits and capacities are seen to be im-mutable, normally although not necessarily explained in terms of the group's biologiCal characteristics or genetic inheritance; and (2) a belief that as a consequence of the group's immutable characteristics it is inap-propriate for its members to be treated on a basis of equality with other members of society. There are therefore two elements to the definition, one concerned with perception and categorisation of human populations, the other with the ensuing consequences. The two elements may, but do not necessarily, co-exist.