Immigration Restriction Act 1901

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Immigration Restriction Act 1901
Australian Coat of Arms.png
Parliament of Australia
An Act to place certain restrictions on Immigration and to provide for the removal from the Commonwealth of prohibited Immigrants
Date of Royal Assent 23 December 1901
Introduced by Edmund Barton (5 June 1901)
1905, 1908, 1910, 1912, 1920, 1924, 1925, 1930, 1932, 1933, 1935, 1940, 1948, 1949
Related legislation
Migration Act 1958[1]
Status: Repealed

The Immigration Restriction Act 1901 was an Act of the Parliament of Australia which limited immigration to Australia and formed the basis of the White Australia policy. It also provided for illegal immigrants to be deported. It granted immigration officers a wide degree of discretion to prevent individuals from entering Australia. The Act prohibited various classes of people from immigrating, but most importantly it introduced the dictation test, which required a person seeking entry to Australia to write out a passage of fifty words dictated to them in any European language, not necessarily English, at the discretion of an immigration officer. The test was not designed to allow immigration officers to evaluate applicants on the basis of language skills, rather the language chosen was always one known beforehand that the person would fail.

Provisions of the Act[edit]

The initial bill was based on similar legislation in South Africa. The Act specifically prohibited various classes of people from immigrating, including people with infectious diseases, people who had recently been imprisoned, prostitutes or pimps, and "idiots" or "insane" persons. However, the Act also made several exceptions, which automatically allowed certain classes of people to enter Australia. All members of the British Army or the Royal Navy, the captain and crew of any ship visiting an Australian port, any person sent on the business of a foreign government, family members of permitted immigrants, and former residents of Australia were allowed to enter the country. Prospective immigrants were also allowed to apply for a Certificate of Exemption, issued by the Minister for External Affairs (or a representative) which would exempt a person from the provisions of the Act for a specified time.


The Act established a range of federal crimes relating to immigration. Illegal immigrants could be imprisoned for up to six months, and could then be deported. Both the captain and the owners of ships which transported illegal immigrants to Australia could be fined GBP 100 for each immigrant, unless the immigrant was European. The Minister for Foreign Affairs was also able to detain ships which were suspected of carrying illegal immigrants. People who brought ill or insane immigrants into Australia were also liable for the costs of caring for them, on top of other penalties.

The dictation test[edit]

The Act provided that any would-be immigrant could be subjected to a 50 word dictation test: "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 fifty words in length in an European language directed by the officer"[2] would be a "prohibited immigrant" and was to be prevented from landing.[3]

This was similar to tests previously used in Western Australia, New South Wales and Tasmania. It enabled immigration officials to exclude individuals on the basis of race without explicitly saying so. The passage chosen was not important in itself as it was already decided the person could not enter Australia and so failure was inevitable. Although the test could theoretically be given to any person arriving in Australia, in practice it was given selectively on the basis of race.[1]

The dictation test is found wanting[edit]

Jewish political activist Egon Kisch from Czechoslovakia, who was exiled from Germany for opposing Nazism, arrived in Australia in 1934. The Government of Joseph Lyons went to extraordinary lengths to exclude Kisch, including using the Language Test. He was fluent in a number of European languages, and after completing passages in several languages, he finally failed when he was tested in Scottish Gaelic. The officer who tested him had grown up in northern Scotland, and did not have a particularly good grasp of Scottish Gaelic himself. In the High Court case of R v Wilson; ex parte Kisch the court found that Scottish Gaelic was not within the fair meaning of the Act, and overturned Kisch's convictions for being an illegal immigrant. The failure to exclude Kisch brought the dictation test into widespread public ridicule.

The dictation test was again used controversially in 1936 to exclude Mabel Freer, a white British woman born in India. She was twice set the test in Italian, which she failed. In the face of a long press and legal campaign for her admission, the government was unable or unwilling to provide a convincing reason for her exclusion and eventually she was admitted, welcomed by a huge crowd at the quay in Sydney. Interior Minister Thomas Paterson resigned from the Lyons Cabinet following the controversy.

Between 1902 and 1909, only 59 people passed the test out of 1,359 who were given it. This was largely due to early immigration officers not understanding their role in this fraud or being unable to choose a language other than English. No-one was allowed to pass the dictation test after 1909,[2] but the test was not abolished until 1958.

Changes to the Act[edit]

Originally the dictation test could be administered any time within the first year of a person's arrival to Australia, but after 1932, this period was extended to the first five years of residence. Officials were also able to give the test to an individual an unlimited number of times. At first the test had to be given in a European language; however, in 1905, the Act was amended to allow the government to specify any individual language that the test could be given in.

The Immigration Restriction Act was eventually replaced by the Migration Act 1958,[4] which removed the dictation test and many of the other qualifications, although many migrants from southern Europe and Asia were already living in Australia, some of them having arrived as refugees during World War II.


  1. ^ "Migration Act 1958 (Cth)". ComLaw. Retrieved 1 November 2013. 
  2. ^ Immigration Restriction Act 1901 (Cth), s 3(a) as originally enacted; quoted, Kel Robertson with Jessie Hohmann and Iain Stewart, "Dictating to One of 'Us': the Migration of Mrs Freer" (2005) 5 Macquarie Law Journal 241, 243.
  3. ^ Immigration Restriction Act 1901 (Cth), s 14.
  4. ^ "Migration Act 1958 (Cth)". ComLaw. Retrieved 1 November 2013. 


  1. ^ "Immigration Restriction Act 1901". National Archives of Australia: Documenting a Democracy. Retrieved 13 July 2005. 
  2. ^ "Immigration Restriction Act 1901". Parliamentary Education Office. Retrieved 13 July 2005. 
  3. ^ "The Establishment of the Immigration Restriction Act". Australian Broadcasting Corporation: Australia's Centenary of Federation. Retrieved 13 July 2005. 
  4. ^ "The Establishment of the Immigration Restriction Act". Australian Broadcasting Corporation: Australia's Centenary of Federation. Retrieved 13 July 2005. 
  5. ^ "Australia and Refugees, 1901–2002". Parliament of Australia Library. Retrieved 13 July 2005. 
  6. ^ "Immigration Restriction Act 1901". National Archives of Australia: Documenting a Democracy. Retrieved 13 July 2005. 


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