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CR: The New Centennial Review 1.3 (2001) 1-35

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Civic Multiculturalism and the Myth of Liberal Consent:
A Comparative Analysis

Brook Thomas
University of California, Irvine


In 1881 Sir Henry Parkes, the premier of New South Wales and later to become one of Australia's founding fathers, called for an intercolonial conference on the Chinese threat to Australasia. His call reached the sympathetic ears of Richard Seddon in New Zealand, who would become premier in 1893 and preside over the country when it was hailed as the most democratic country in the world for granting women and Maori the vote and for developing programs like old-age pensions. Seddon had developed his anti-Chinese sentiments at the gold mines in Victoria, when at 18 he migrated to Australia in 1863 from Lancashire, in England. In 1866 he, with others, including Chinese, sailed across the Tasman Sea to participate in New Zealand's first gold rush on the South Island. In the legislature in 1880 he responded to a colleague's comparison of the Chinese's plight to that of the Irish with: "To compare the Irish with the Chinese was an insult to every Irishman in the colony.... There is as much distinction between a European and a Chinaman as that between a Chinaman and a monkey." 1

If anti-Chinese sentiment was longstanding in Australasia, the reason [End Page 1] for its reappearance in 1881 was a slight increase in Chinese immigration that was attributed to the new 1879 California Constitution that contained anti-Chinese measures harsh enough to encourage Chinese to go to Australia rather than California. Indeed, if for many Chinese California was "The Gold Mountain," Australia, as the result of the 1851 gold rush in Victoria, was known as "The New Gold Mountain." The 1879 constitution not only motivated some Chinese to go to Australia, it forced others to travel to Canada, where the need to build a transcontinental railroad to match the one south of the border required cheap labor. Prime Minister John A. Macdonald admitted, "I very much share the feeling of the people of the United States and the Australian Colonies against a Mongolian or Chinese population in our country as permanent settlers. I believe that it is an alien race in every sense, that would not and could not be expected to assimilate with our Aryan population." Nonetheless, he concluded, "At present it is simply a question of alternatives: either you must have labour or you cannot have the railway" (Huttenback, 126-27). And the railway was needed to unite the country.

In New South Wales Parkes worried that Australasia had not been as forceful as California in acting to manage the Chinese "threat." In the United States, he pointed out, Chinese constituted only one person in 476, whereas in New South Wales the ratio was one in 50. By the end of 1881 most of Australasia had agreed on restrictive measures, thus anticipating the United States's 1882 Chinese Exclusion Act.

Nonetheless, even Parkes pushed his program with traces of a bad conscience. After all, he was a popular politician because he championed the people, embracing, for instance, the egalitarian principle that all citizens should have the same privileges and be able to intermarry freely. The Chinese threatened his adherence to such principles. According to Parkes, "I am willing to admit that legislation of this kind is undesirable. I am as anxious as any can be that we should maintain the boast that whoever steps upon our shore shall find asylum here. I am as anxious as any man can be that this land shall be a refuge for the oppressed, the poor, and the struggling from every part of the world.... Notwithstanding this, I feel that times arise when the law of self-preservation is superior to every other law" (Huttenback, 89). [End Page 2]

This example reminds us—if we need reminding—that people flowed around the globe long before "globalization" became the most overused academic word in the first years of the...


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