F for Fair Go

If there is one thing that epitomises the Aussie spirit, it is the concept of a “fair go”.  Possibly this dates back to the first white settlers.  Many saw themselves as escaping the class system of England, where not everyone had equal opportunities.  Here they would build a new society: a society where all had a fair go, an equal opportunity to make something of themselves.  Fair dinkum goes hand-in-hand with a fair go: are you fair dinkum, mate?  Traditional virtues are considered to be egalitarianism, classlessness, ‘a fair go’, stoicism and mateship (refer http://www.radioaustralia.net.au/australia/pdf/national_id.pdf).  Australia is a land where mates look out for one another and good honest hard work is rewarded in the land of opportunity. Right?  That is certainly the image we like to present to the world.

Kids at Christmas

Seeking a fair go

Historically, the reality was many got a fairer “go” than others.  It was not until 1967 Aboriginal people were accorded basic citizenship rights and were counted in the national census of the Australian people. Prior to this, the country’s original inhabitants were  not even counted as citizens. It was not until the High Court’s Mabo v Qld decision in 1992, that the legal fiction of ‘terra nullius’ was dealt with.  At that point Australia’s legal system finally acknowledged that Australia was not an empty continent when the Europeans arrived. Prior to this, Aboriginal people simply did not exist within the eyes of the law as a sovereign people. The Australian Constitution still does not recognise the sovereignty of Indigenous Australians. (Adapted from http://www.radioaustralia.net.au/australia/pdf/national_id.pdf)

Let us not forget the White Australia Policy.  Primarily the White Australia Policy was all about keeping Asian and pacific islander workers out of Australia to protect the employment opportunities of European Australians.  Somewhere along the line, even Greeks and Italians from certain parts were considered too “swarthy” to migrate to Australia.  Today Melbourne is the largest Greek city outside Greece and Australians from an Asian background are numerous.

The mechanism restricting immigration could not be overtly based on race as this was opposed by Britain and frowned upon by Britain’s ally, Japan. Instead, the basis was literacy, assessed by a Dictation Test. Similar Dictation Tests, based on legislation used in Natal in South Africa, had been introduced in Western Australia, New South Wales and Tasmania in the late 1890s.

The Immigration Restriction Act enabled the government to exclude any person who ‘when asked to do so by an officer fails to write out at dictation and sign in the presence of the officer, a passage of 50 words in length in a European language directed by the officer’. The Dictation Test could be administered to any immigrant during the first year of residence.

It was initially proposed that the Test would be in English, but it was argued that this could discourage European migration and advantage Japanese people, and Americans of African descent. Instead, any ‘European language’ was specified. In 1905 this was changed to ‘any prescribed language’ to lessen offence to the Japanese. From 1932 the Test could be given during the first five years of residence, and any number of times.

The Dictation Test was administered 805 times in 1902–03 with 46 people passing and 554 times in 1904–09 with only six people successful. After 1909 no person passed the Dictation Test and people who failed were refused entry or deported.

The Act, frequently amended, remained in force until 1958.


Technically, the act was not abolished until 1973, the year before I arrived.  Soldiers returning from World War II with Japanese wives had been a driving force for change, but it took a while coming.

Minister Holt’s decision in 1949 to allow 800 non-European refugees to stay, and Japanese war brides to be admitted, was the first step towards a non-discriminatory immigration policy.


When I first arrived in Australia in 1974, university education was free, part of the ideal of giving everyone a fair go. By the time I was part way through my degree in the late 80s-early 90s, the Higher Education Contribution Scheme had been introduced and students started contributing to their tertiary education.

We have a damn good public health system, but the majority of those who can afford it have private hospital cover.  Rates vary, but I pay about $100 a month for one person, much cheaper than many other country’s private health insurance.   Medical drugs are subsidised by the government, although every now and then there is an argument when one drug or other is not included in the government scheme. 

Eva Cox, Research Fellow Jumbunna IHL UTS at University of Technology, Sydney, wrote and interesting article about the Aussie “fair go”in May last year (2011).  Eva says:

People generally having little idea what others earn and should earn. A survey published in the Daily Telegraph last week showed cuts to the family tax payment is unpopular, with 47% rejecting the idea a family on $150,000 was rich.

The Sun Herald this weekend quoted an ACTU survey that showed most respondents overestimated the income of the poor and underestimated the wealth of the rich, so assumed we were more equal that we are.

I believe generally we do still pride ourselves on the concept of a “fair go”: the question is do we still practice that concept?  Recently there was a really great story in the media where a bus line operator, Ken Grenda, gave $15 million to his staff as a bonus when he sold the operation.   I heard his son interviewed on the radio after the story broke: he sounded like a truly lovely man who certainly did believe in the “fair go” philosophy.  Clearly some of us do.

As a nation, are we giving a “fair go” to asylum seekers?  I, along with many others, suggest not.  I recently wrote Detention Centres Dysfunctional which highlighted some of the views of Australia’s professionals.  Carole, of Piglet in Portugal who roped me into this A – Z Challenge, recently read an old article of mine, Then there is the stuff kept quiet, about Australia making menstruating women queue for sanitary supplies.  Carole commented:

My goodness Robyn making women wait until their period has started and then queue for pads is humiliating. I think this screams of an abuse of their international Human Rights. Australia is not a third World country, so why is it behaving as if it is. Australia is a great country and should be setting an example.

As for basic clothing like knickers – I hope men aren’t running this centre.

Sorry Robyn, I’ve just woken up sitting here with my morning cuppa and I am shouting at my PC screen reading this article, in indignation for these women, at the injustice and how they are treated. Shame on Australia

Carole is right, in my view.  As any regular reader knows, I am biased on asylum seeker issues, so I’ll move on at this point.

Australia has almost iron-clad anti-discrimination legislation.  We’ve gone from the White Australia Policy to almost the complete opposite in a short span of years.  We have federal:

  • Age Discrimination Act 2004
  • Australian Human Rights Commission Act 1986
  • Disability Discrimination Act 1992
  • Racial Discrimination Act 1975
  • Sex Discrimination Act 1984

plus state legislation.  We still do not have a Bill of Rights though.

Australia has again been highlighted as the only developed democracy without national human rights law. Perhaps if we did have such a law, my family and I wouldn’t be in the position we are currently in. It has been interesting, as I discovered neither the Universal Declaration of Human Rights 1948 nor the Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees 1951 are scheduled to or declared under the Australian Human Rights Commission Act. I was not aware of this until last week and I am horrified. I hope all Australians are horrified at such a discovery.


Australia is a young country.  We are learning, I hope.  The European settlers started out with this “fair go” ideal, but is seems it was applied to a very narrow demographic.  Our social support, health and education systems are the envy of many other countries.  We have made changes, many in a very short space of time.  Australia is good: we can be better.

Visit http://myatozchallenge.com to find more countries and articles on the A – Z Challenge.

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16 comments on “F for Fair Go

  1. Sadly a fair go sounds wonderful on the books but is rarely fully practiced in most nations in the world… I will hold my tongue. Naturally, my prayer is that all have a chance in this world of ours, 😦


  2. Good thoughts, Robyn. It’s amazing that aborigines didn’t gain citizenship until 1967. Here’s hoping that ALL get a “fair go” as we move forward.


  3. Powerful stuff, Robyn. Really interesting article – like Carole, I’m shocked at the idea of women having to queue up for sanitary towels. Any woman knows it’s bad enough having to menstruate in the first place without being humiliated in the process.

    But it’s good to hear that Australia is changing its views and its laws. I read quite a lot about the discriminatory nature of its immigration policies when I travelled around the country over ten years ago and there’s a mountain of cruelty and injustice to make up for. It seems things are moving in the right direction but lets hope you soon get the whole deal so everyone gets a ‘fair go’.


    • Asylum seekers are the target at the moment. Well, partner visas can take a bit of a battering too as our journey demonstrates. For the asylum seekers, mandatory detention is just awful. I know of one case that took 7 years.

      We look forward to the finalisation of our journey.

      Thank you for the compliment Julie. I am glad to hear it is well-received. 🙂


  4. This is a great article. I like it heaps. I love our Aussie ‘fair go’ – we all believe in a fair go.

    Regarding the Aborigines, when I first learned this bit of history I was stunned, reminded of how women used to not be able to vote, or walk into pubs and so on. It’s great they rose up.

    I moved to Melbourne with my son mid 2008 (from Perth). I didn’t know that about the Greek population here – wow! That White Australia policy was horrible. I forgot about that…

    Really great article.


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