Immigration Restriction or Deaf Discrimination?
In 1903, Frederick John Rose, a dedicated advocate for the deaf, asked whether the “deaf and dumb” were under the “ban” of the Immigration Restriction Act?
Rose, himself deaf from scarlet fever when young, knew of deaf people prevented from traveling by ship between the states of Australia. Prevented because the shipping companies would not sell them tickets. No tickets, no passage. Under the new Immigration Restriction Act 1901 (Cth), the companies reasoned, any person who was deaf might be classed as a prohibited immigrant. A shipping company carrying a prohibited immigrant meant a big fine. It was a risk they were not willing to take.
So Rose asked Atlee Hunt, the Secretary for the Department of External Affairs, who, along with Prime Minister Edmund Barton, administered the Immigration Restriction Act under the greater White Australia Policy.
Hunt replied that he was quite unsure what Rose meant by his question. The Immigration Restriction Act didn’t apply to those who lived in Australia, only to those entering the country from abroad. To prompt such a question, Hunt continued, Rose must have an example in mind, and if so, he should share it.
Rose did have an example in mind. In fact he had three.
Three Examples of Discrimination
Before writing to Hunt, Rose ventured out with the chief purpose of finding the truth of the matter. In his next letter to Hunt, Rose recounted the discrimination he faced, as a deaf person in Australia faced when trying to travel within Australia.
First stop was the office of a notable, but unnamed, shipping company. Walking up to the booking desk, with the aid of his notebook and pencil, Rose asked:
If I wanted to go to Sydney, or elsewhere, for a trip and pay any passage, would you section me as one of the prohibited immigrant?
The ticketing officer, took up the pencil and replied:
Yes – on presentation of a certificate from the Immigration Agent at the port at which you wish to land. This no doubt can be obtained by writing to him.
Next, Customs House in Melbourne. Of all Departments that should know the answer to this question, it would be them, you see, although Barton and Hunt made the top-level decisions, it was in fact the officers of the Department of Trade and Customs who did all the front line work. They made decisions every day about who could enter Australia – White Australia.
Rose walked up to the front desk and again, with paper and pencil in hand, asked:
Are the deaf and dumb under the ban of prohibited immigrant?
The desk clerk took up the pencil and replied:
In certain cases, perhaps might be considered so, Vide Sec 3 (b) and would only probably apply to new arrivals who have been formerly domiciled in Commonwealth on State Vide Sec 3 (n).
Last, a snippet from a White Star Line shipping company pamphlet. It did not need any explaining.
The Company reserve the right of rejecting any person who may be found when embarking to be … deaf, dumb…., or any person……whose condition is such as to appear likely to involve the owners, master, or agents of the ship in liability for his or her maintenance or support, or otherwise, under or by virtue of any Colonial or other law or regulation.
The evidence was clear and Rose awaited his reply from the Commonwealth.
The Verdict from the Commonwealth
Hunt found no basis at all in the Immigration Restriction Act for the discrimination Rose had faced.
If any restrictions have been imposed on deaf and dumb persons moving from one State to another, they have not been imposed by direction of this Department or under the provisions of the Immigration Restriction Act. It may be a question whether seeing provision in the Constitution which I have quoted, any such restrictions, if imposed, are legal.
Section 92 of the Constitution guaranteed the right of free passage between the States of the Commonwealth. Anyone authority citing the Immigration Restriction Act was acting illegally.
Major shipping companies and the very department responsible for enforcing the Immigration Restriction Act were acting illegally.
Knowing this however, did not help Rose one bit.