Mussulmen sailors celebrated the festival of Hassan in Sydney town late in March 1806. The exceptional nature of that event makes it representative in the peopling of Australia. That early Islamic presence reminds us that diversity – often suppressed and denied - has been a constant, and was not just the result of abandoning the White Australia Policy from the 1960s.

In 1959, a handful of Melbourne academics formed an Immigration Reform Group to replace the colour bar of White Australia with a quota system for non-European immigrants. Such genteel activism has been bureaucratised into the Research Centres funding the 250 contributors to The Australian People, An Encyclopaedia of the Nation, Its People and Their Origins (Cambridge University Press, $175). Editors now manage grant applications. Intellectual adventure is confined to sniping at one’s rivals. No one asks what all this peopling means in global terms.

To comprehend the peopling of Australia we need to see how links back and forth to the communities of origin operated within a world system of climatic, economic, military and political changes. The present tome marginalises those contexts. Its 940, double-column foolscap pages contain some of the information we need for advancing debate on population policies. Locating those shards is frustrated by 10-pages of haphazard indexing. At the heart of the volume are surveys of the ethnic groupings that have peopled Australia since 1788; these 580-pages should have been a separate volume, if not two.

The shifting sources of immigrants to Australia makes sense only if placed in world contexts. The hundreds of millions on the move at present are continuing centuries of relocation. Those movements in world population do not gyrate around Australia’s border watching from a breech. All we get is the spray or the wake. A drift by Han Chinese into Annam and of Annamites into the southern areas of Indo-China and across to Kampuchea were the backdrop to the boat people of the 1970s.

The second determinant for the re-peopling of Australia since 1788 have been the four phases of globalisation. Mark I saw the start of race-based slavery from Africa to the Americas. Mark II moved convict labour to Botany Bay, followed by free settlers. Mark III adopted a new system of slavery, that is, indentured labour, as in the Pacific Islanders for our cane fields, but also government-sponsored migration to colonial possessions, such as the French to Algeria.

Two of our biggest population movements resulted from wars, which were integral to that world system. The First AIF emigrated 300,000 in four years. The transiting of half-a-million US troops from 1942-4 brought the largest annual influx up to that time.

The historical bases of prejudice similarly move on. For example, the Melbourne and Sydney crowds who refused to allow Chinese to land from the Afghan in 1888 operated in an imperial order remote from the majorities who approved the abduction of the Tampa in 2001. Today’s xenophobia is taking place in a fourth era in the globalising of capital, labour, markets and resources. Hence, nothing much is to be learned from threading together instances of racism across the past two centuries.

From where will the next ripple of settlers come? Few scholarly undertakings in Australia have been more amusing than extrapolations by our demographers. Their rolling errors remind us never to suppose that history can repeat itself. The surest mistake is to project from the recent past. After 150 years of waiting for the Yellow Horde, we still have only 200,000 Vietnamese, whether immigrant or locally born. Looking due north in the late 1970s, the alarmists missed flows from Latin America, Africa the Middle-East. From wherever refugees will be coming ten years hence, it is unlikely to be Iraq or Afghanistan.

Peopling has involved quality control, both by restricting arrivals and by improving the mental, moral and physical capacities of the native-born. These policies were known as negative and positive eugenics, respectively. That concern for a coming national type started with the Anti-Transportation movement in the 1830s to prevent Austral-Britons being infected with the “hated stain” of convictism.

A related anxiety was that Australia’s less temperate climes were sapping the vitality of the British race. “Could White Women breed in the tropics?” was the theme for the 1920 Medical Congress. The answer was yes, if social conditions were improved by public health.

A further eugenic issue were the deaths of 60,000 young males in the First World War, and the maiming of almost as many again. Those casualties had as great an effect on birth rates as the pre-1914 immigrant program. At the time, the negative eugenicists saw the dead as our fittest because they had possessed the courage to volunteer and then to take the risks that cost them their lives.

By the 1920s, with restrictive immigration in place, attention could refocus on affirmative aspects of population policy in campaigns for infant and maternal welfare, linked to advice on family planning, then called Racial Hygiene. The aim was to preserve the best out of the crop, not just to boost the annual yield.

Eugenics was as much a class issue as a racial one. Among policy makers, the eugenic impulse was both a wish to maintain the fantasy that Australia was “98 percent British”, and to boost the respectable component in a classless society. R. G. Menzies absorbed this assumption into his 1943 “Forgotten People” broadcasts when he championed the “middle class” because it “provides more than perhaps any other the intellectual life which marks us off the beast”.

Questions of ethnicity and class merged around the fear that the working-class Irish were out- breeding the middle-class Protestants, whose good social breeding had taught them sexual restraint. These fears transferred to the Italians, for whom medical and political tests were so strict that, in 1951, only 62 out of 8,191 applicants passed muster.

Most peopling has taken place between the sheets. The Post-War Migration Scheme aimed for 2 % annual growth, half from natural increase. The forms of contraception that prevented or paced births before The Pill are one part of our ethnic diversity that the authors are too coy to explore.

Despite the media focus on immigration in the past twenty years, it is appropriate to ask how much “debate” there has been since the 1960s. For a long time, bi-partisanship kept controversial issues out of sight. When Geoffrey Blainey raised his doubts in 1984, the outcome was an outpouring of pent-up resentment, not even a good argument.  “Conversation” is in fashion today but it often means talking without disagreeing about the divisive issues. National identity is a topic on which rationality is difficult, so that small-l liberals are victims of their own assumptions about logic check-mating emotion.

Hansonism on talk-back radio is not a debate along the lines of those in the 1960s over White Australia and Aboriginal rights. Those protracted discussions aimed at specific and limited changes, whether to establish a tiny quota of non-European immigrants, or to delete 34 words from the Constitution. Since then, population policy has become hydra-headed. Bi-partisanship in Conference-ville could never keep pace with the sprouting of new problems and possibilities in the suburbs.

To judge the success of the 1960s conversion we need to recognise what had been overcome. By 1920, the phrase “White Australia” had become ideological shorthand for far more than a restrictive immigration policy. “White Australia” invoked democracy, trade unionism, a welfare system built on a basic-wage, protection for manufacturers, and national development exemplified by the 1920s slogan of “Men, Money and Markets”. Multi-culturalism has yet to attach itself to a comparable shared ideal beyond its own belief in the value of diversity. The switch from lauding a single type to praising a multitude of ways of living suggests that a return to unanimity is excluded by definition.

By tracking fifty years of opinion polls, Murray Goot shows that that the securing of a majority in favour of softening the White Australia Policy was tardy and tenuous. The emergence of a majority for a single tactical change did not bring any comparable agreement on a replacement strategy. We continue to grapple with the consequences of that partial achievement. After 1970, policy-makers proceeded as if the fracturing of the old consensus was a warrant to erect multi-cultural mansions on the ruins of the White Australia Policy. The architects of these edifices were as concerned to win bureaucratic tussles between themselves as to keep the public engaged.

Then, as now, Australians were being invited to adapt because of what the rest of the world would think of us. The point surely is to work out what we think of each other, and of ourselves. Disapproval from the United Nations is worth no more than its reiterated resolutions on peace-keeping.

Discussion of the economic consequences of immigration lingers but is tied to concerns about the environment. NSW premier, Bob Carr, for instance, bemoans that too many newcomers head for Sydney. No socially or legally acceptable way has been devised to stop people moving there, unless the Howard government excises Sydney from Australia’s immigration zone.

In the early-1960s, the Menzies government planned to moved the entire population of Nauru to Curtis island, off Rockhampton. Canberra would not grant the Nauruans the autonomy to maintain their culture. The islanders instead secured the independence that has led them beyond a trade in birdshit and on o money laundering and the processing of current victims of Australia’s Assimilationist ideal.

From 1947 to 1966, the official policy was that “New Australians” would clone themselves into Austral-Britons, also known as Assimilation. By the 1960s, rising rates of return among every category of arrival provoked a reconsideration, which the editor of The Australian People, James Jupp, documented in Arrivals and Departures (1966). Debate about the efficacy of Assimilation arose because its failure in practice, not out of any conceptual or ethical flaws. The reality was that a “Balt” could never become an Anglo-Celtic Australian, and was not allowed to be a Baltic one. After 1966, the government replaced Assimilation with Integration, in which the goal would be unity, rather than the imposition of uniformity. Jupp observed that the ending of Victoria’s six o’clock closing in 1966 was the most effective, if unintended, assimilationist move in the policy’s 18-year history.

Integration gave way to multi-culturalism before its worth could be tested. As a label, multi-culturalism came via Canada. Attributing the policy to Whitlam’s Immigration Minister, Al Grassby, is misleading since he had promoted “the family of the nation”, and found himself delivering a multi-cultural manifesto in August 1973, largely because the Immigration Department had chosen one of its rare multi-culturalists as his speechwriter, “for his ability to meet a deadline”. Whitlam remembered the majority of the Department’s personnel as racists. The Coalition endorsed multiculturalism at the 1974 election, whereas Whitlam brushed past it in his 1985 opus on his government.

Anglo-Celts have benefited from criticising our prejudices. Other communities spurn such self-criticism as an attack on their heritage. For instance, on SBS-TV, an advertisement for a Greek bank, begins by confronting a customer with a run of different coloured banks before the colour of the customer and the bank coincide. The voice-over then announces: “Why not bank with some one like yourself?” Imagine the outrage if the Commonwealth Bank were to market itself as being like “Anglo-Saxons”, down to the same colour.

History is an analysis of the interplay of movement and immobility, opportunities and obstacles, of dynamics within structures. Sensitivity towards those contrary forces requires more than the citing of precedents, or the drawing of analogies. However, should you feel in need of a stray fact from Australia’s past to light you through the dismal present, the response of the crowd watching the devotees of Hassan in 1806 may serve. When a couple of old lags “presumed by impudent interference to insult their prejudices”, the disrupters were “properly treated by other inhabitants and compelled to leave the place”.