The pitfalls of interdisciplinary research

When disciplines come together.

When disciplines come together.

Interdisciplinary research! Universities are apparently all for it and ‘breaking down silos’ is a mantra repeated throughout academia. However the reality is that the major venue for research outputs – peer-reviewed academic journals – are, for the most part, very discipline specific. Many editors and reviewers are often unable to embrace interdisciplinary research because it doesn’t fit the specific remit of the journal.

My work combines history, politics and criminology and I have found it difficult for some of my research to find the right journal for publication, particularly my research that combines archival research with criminological theory or concepts. There are numerous reasons why my research has been rejected by certain journals, but I have received reports back from editors and reviewers on numerous occasions complaining that a certain article is too historical or too criminology-focused; not enough security studies theory or not enough historical context, etc.

The result is that you try to take these criticisms on board and readdress the balance, but then the next journal says you’ve gone too far the other way!

Interdisciplinary research also makes for an extra hurdle in funding, for example in applying for funding with the Australian Research Council. To apply for ARC funding, you need to designate your research proposal with certain discipline codes. This determines who reads the application and who you are competing against. These readers can judge interdisciplinary projects quite harshly, particularly in how the project sits within the wider discipline. An interdisciplinary approach can make a research proposal seem exciting and innovative, but readers may also claim that an interdisciplinary approach means that a research proposal ‘falls between two stalls’ and isn’t grounded in either discipline.

Don’t get me wrong, conducting interdisciplinary research and collaborating with people in other disciplines has been hugely beneficial for me and I try to employ this approach in most of my work. However it is frustrating that many journals seem unwilling to embrace a similar approach. In my (limited) experience, history discipline journals have probably been the most open-minded to interdisciplinary research, but too much theory introduced from other disciplines can off-put some reviewers and editors.

Have others found themselves in a similar situation when undertaking interdisciplinary research? Should we keep going with it, or just stick to our disciplines?

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New journal article: History of suspended sentences in South Australia

This is just a quick post to let people know that the Australian and New Zealand Journal of Criminology has just published an article by myself titled, ‘Modern Diversion or Colonial Hangover? The History and Development of Suspended Sentences in South Australia’. Here is the abstract:

Suspended sentences, although controversial, are used in most jurisdictions across Australia in some form, with most states and territories having introduced this sentencing option in the 1980s and 1990s. However, South Australia’s legislation concerning suspended sentences is much older (having been introduced in 1969) and is also based on sentencing legislation that existed in the Victorian and Edwardian eras. This article will argue that because the legislation concerning suspended sentences in South Australia is much older (and based on even older legislation), the way that this sentencing option operates is much different from other Australian jurisdictions. Based on Victorian probation legislation, suspended sentences have a flexibility in South Australia, which has meant that other forms of alternative sentencing (such as community orders and home detention) are not used in the State.

It is currently behind a paywall, so if anyone wants a copy of the article, please let me know.

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Determining the number of ‘virginity testing’ cases within the UK immigration control system

On this day (February 19) in 1979, Labour MP Jo Richardson led the criticism in the House of Commons of the Home Office and the Home Secretary Merlyn Rees over the gynaecological and physical examinations conducted upon South Asian women migrating to the UK, colloquially known as ‘virginity testing’. During this session of parliament, Rees announced:

a vaginal examination … may have been made only once or twice during the past eight years, according to records which have been looked at.

However a month later, Richardson stated that the Indian government was aware of at least 34 cases. The following post is an excerpt from our book, Race, Gender and the Body in British Immigration Control, which discusses how much we know from the archival records about the number of cases of ‘virginity testing’ there were between 1968 and 1979.

Palgrave cover

We will never know how many women underwent virginity tests, in part because the government pursued a policy of denial and minimisation. Its reconstruction of the facts – and the shielding of evidence – suited its strategy of maintaining ‘good race relations’. For example, on 19 February 1979, Home Office Secretary Rees asserted in Parliament that ‘a vaginal examination … may have been made only once or twice during the past eight years, according to records which have been looked at’.[i] Yet in contrast to this assertion, we know from Amrit Wilson’s visits to immigration detention centres in 1977 that ‘“virginity tests” were routine’[ii], suggesting a completely different picture of what was taking place on British soil. From official and internal documents, we could only establish that the practice was mainly recorded offshore, at the High Commissions on the Indian subcontinent.

In mid-march 1979, more information emerged at the official level about offshore cases. In the House of Commons, Labour MP Jo Richardson, citing the Indian Minister for External Affairs, revealed that ‘at least 34 cases of virginity testing’ had occurred at the British High Commission in New Delhi.[iii] Behind closed doors, stories of these cases and others were already emerging and being shared amongst certain parties at the Home Office. In a letter in early March 1979 from the FCO to 10 Downing Street staff, Private Secretary J. S. Wall stated that ‘[t]he facts, as far as India is concerned, are that since October 1975 … there appear to have been nine cases in Bombay and 73 in New Delhi’.[iv] By January 1980, the FCO had a much clearer picture of the figures, but was reluctant to make them, or the extent of their impact, known. This was evident in a handwritten note to D. W. Partridge from the Migration and Visa Department of the FCO that we identified, which noted that those 73 cases that had occurred at the British High Commission in Delhi since October 1975 were examinations that ‘formed part of the normal medical examination’ and ‘all examinations [of the genitals] had been visual only’.[v] The same note said there had been 10 cases in Bombay, three of which involved internal vaginal examinations, with it unclear whether the other seven examinations were internal or external examinations of the genitals.[vi]

The note to D. W. Partridge also stated that in Islamabad there had been ‘no requests specifically for vaginal examinations made since 1975’, but acknowledged that ‘in some cases ECOs had asked [the] doctor to report “signs of marriage”’, which was a euphemism amongst High Commission staff for scrutiny to be placed upon the applicant’s genitals, breasts and stomach.[vii] It further stated that ‘no record of the number of such cases’ existed but that ‘they may account to a total of under 20 a year in the past two years’.[viii] The note emphasised that in Dacca, where Alex Lyon knew of previous cases of virginity testing occurring in the mid-1970s, ‘[n]o women were ever referred for vaginal examination’, but admitted that ‘one virginity test’ (emphasis in original) was performed in 1978 ‘by purely external examination, not involving examination of [the] vagina’.[ix]

The same note also referred to the Dacca High Commission, where it was much more common for women to be examined for physical evidence that they had borne children, upon the request of an ECO, which involved doctors examining the breasts and stomach for stretch marks. These cases numbered 20 to 30 per year.[x] The note mentioned that on ‘rare occasions’ women were examined ‘to establish whether they were pregnant when they claimed not to be but obviously were’, and ‘whether the applicants had borne children if conflicting evidence from other family members’ was available.[xi] The note concluded that ‘it is not possible for us to quote a precise and accurate figure’, but gave the approximate figures for the number of women given some form of physical examination to determine whether they had borne children or had ever had sexual relations, as requested by ECOs in South Asia:

          Delhi                            73

          Bombay                       10

          Dacca                      40–60 (over 2 years)

          Islamabad                    [unknown]

          Karachi                        [unknown]


          Total                            123–143[xii]

There is no evidence in the file that this note was ever typed up and distributed within the FCO other than to Mr Partridge. We also do not know whether and, if so, how Mr Partridge communicated with others on this matter. However, this is the most detailed document that we have identified in our research that records the number of victims of virginity testing and other forms of physical examination imposed upon South Asian women by the British immigration control system. Even though we have captured these figures, there remains a sense that the total picture is difficult to access. Yet these numbers do help us appreciate that virginity testing was far from an isolated practice.

This handwritten note to D. W. Partridge also attempted to draw a distinction between the examinations that occurred at Heathrow and those that occurred in South Asia. Discussing the examinations carried out in Delhi, the note stated that these ‘formed part of a normal medical examination’, but acknowledged that the gynaecologist ‘had been asked to advise on the marital status of the female applicants’.[xiii] However, even though the gynaecologist later stated that ‘all examinations had been visual only and that she had not carried out any internal examinations’[xiv], the examination of the genitals for administrative immigration control purposes, rather than for a medical purpose, was a violation of the human rights of the women involved. The note confirmed that the 10 cases in Bombay involved examinations of daughter dependants (all over the age of 18), with three definitely involving a vaginal examination, as mentioned previously.[xv] While the FCO claimed that these cases were ‘part of a normal medical examination’, a telegram from the High Commission in Delhi stated that it was ‘the practice at all posts in India not … to refer or encourage wives and children under 18 for settlement to have a routine medical examination’.[xvi] The telegram claimed that in the second half of 1979 no women or children under 18 had been referred for medical examination in India, in contrast to 281 husbands.[xvii] This suggests that the physical examination of women at British High Commissions in India was carried out but was not officially recorded, as were medical examinations for men seeking to migrate to Britain.

Guardian front page

[i] Hansard, 19 February, 1979, col. 221.

[ii] Wilson, Dreams, Questions, Struggles, p. 78.

[iii] Hansard, 21 March, 1979, col. 672w.

[iv] Letter from J. S. Wall to N. Stephens, 5 March, 1979, PREM 16/2000, National Archives, London (hereafter NA).

[v] ‘[Mrs K]: Claim for Compensation’, 9 January, 1980, p. 1, FCO 50/675, NA.

[vi] ‘[Mrs K]: Claim for Compensation’, 9 January, 1980, p. 1.

[vii] ‘[Mrs K]: Claim for Compensation’, 9 January, 1980, p. 2.

[viii] ‘[Mrs K]: Claim for Compensation’, 9 January, 1980, p. 2.

[ix] ‘[Mrs K]: Claim for Compensation’, 9 January, 1980, p. 2.

[x] ‘[Mrs K]: Claim for Compensation’, 9 January, 1980, p. 2.

[xi] ‘[Mrs K]: Claim for Compensation’, 9 January, 1980, p. 3.

[xii] ‘[Mrs K]: Claim for Compensation’, 9 January, 1980, p. 3.

[xiii] ‘[Mrs K]: Claim for Compensation’, 9 January, 1980, p. 1, FCO 50/675, NA.

[xiv] ‘[Mrs K]: Claim for Compensation’, 9 January, 1980, p. 1.

[xv] ‘[Mrs K]: Claim for Compensation’, 9 January, 1980, pp. 1-2.

[xvi] Telegram from British High Commission in Delhi to FCO, no. 35, 9 January, 1980, FCO 50/676, NA.

[xvii] Telegram from British High Commission in Delhi to FCO, no. 35, 9 January, 1980.


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What does the term ‘black’ mean for historians of Afro-Caribbean & Asian activism in 1970s Britain?

Should historians of Afro-Caribbean and Asian activism in Britain in the 1970s-80s use the term ‘black’ to describe these people and their communities? Or does the term ‘black’ as a political category belong to a by-gone era?


Photo by Phil Maxwell

Photo by Phil Maxwell

From the late 1960s to the mid-1980s, many African-Caribbean and South Asian activists in Britain used the term ‘black’ to denote a political position of Afro-Asian unity in the face of white British racism. Writing in the mid-1980s, authors, such as Peter Fryer and Ron Ramdin, used the term ‘black’ to describe all non-white Britons in their histories of black people in Britain.[i] Paul Gilroy also used the term to highlight opposition to the racism of white British society, which seemed to regard ‘the racial characteristics of both “Paki” and “nigger” as being equally worthy of hatred’.[ii]

In his 1985 work, ‘RAT and the Degradation of Black Struggle’, A. Sivanandan referred to the common experience of nearly all non-white immigrants in Britain, ‘created in the post-war years by a culture of resistance to racism in the factories and the neighbourhoods of the inner cities to which the Afro-Caribbeans and Asians had been condemned to work and live’.[iii] Located in ‘the same ghetto’, Sivanandan stated that African-Caribbeans and Asians had ‘found common cause a racism that denied them their basic needs… and brought them up against racist landlords, racist teachers, racist social workers and racist policemen’.[iv] The common problems and interests of African-Caribbean and Asian people in Britain ‘led to a common culture of resistance’ and what Sivanandan calls ‘a community’ – a black community.[v] Using the language of Sivanandan, it can be argued that these black communities of the 1960s and 1970s were defined by their struggle for political recognition and a political voice, as well as racial and socio-economic oppression by the British state, which was experienced by nearly all black people in post-war Britain.

But it is also important to recognise that there were (and are) many different experiences by different ethnic groups, classes, ages and localities within these wider communities. Since the 1990s, many scholars have been reluctant to use the term ‘black’ to include both African-Caribbeans and Asians as it was believed that the term failed to recognise the differences between the multitude of diaspora communities. It was argued that non-white people in Britain could not amalgamated into one homogenous category.

One question that arises from this is what term do historians of the period of ‘black’ activism (from the late 1960s to the mid-1980s) use? In her history of black activism in Britain, Kalbir Shukra wrote:

I retain “black” not to bestow any authority upon it, but because it is the term most commonly preferred by those who were the focus of this project.[vi]

In the past, I have followed Shukra’s reasoning, but am curious to see what other people think.


[i] Peter Fryer, Staying Power: The History of Black People in Britain, Pluto Press, London, 1984; Ron Ramdin, The Making of the Black Working Class in Britain, Gower, Aldershot, 1987

[ii] Paul Gilroy, There Ain’t No Black in the Union Jack: The Cultural Politics of Race and Nation, Routledge, London, 2002, p. 36

[iii] A. Sivanandan, ‘RAT and the Degradation of Black Struggle’, Race & Class, 25/4, 1985, p. 2

[iv] A. Sivanandan, ‘RAT and the Degradation of Black Struggle’, p. 2

[v] A. Sivanandan, ‘RAT and the Degradation of Black Struggle’, p. 2

[vi] Kalbir Shukra, The Changing Pattern of Black Politics in Britain, Pluto Press, London, 1998, p. 125

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British attitudes towards the ‘White Australia Policy’ in the inter-war period

I am currently writing a research article on the British Union of Fascists’ view of Australia and how it fit into the fascist view of empire in the inter-war period. As Paul Stocker has recently written, the fascist view of empire was predominantly an extension of already existing conservative attitudes towards the empire, but was much more protectionist and held up ‘imperial unity’ as paramount to the preservation of the British Empire (and the British ‘race’). In my research, I have found that the BUF’s attitudes towards Australia (and particularly the ‘White Australia Policy’) weren’t that far removed from the attitudes shared by many other British politicians and journalists. Most of the British elite had sympathies for the idea of a ‘White Australia’, but this was tempered by the fact that Australia was deemed to be under-populated and under threat from Japanese (and German) expansionism. The British felt that large scale and rapid migration of people (not necessarily from Britain or even Europe) was probably needed to secure the country as a British possession. This pragmatism was decried by the BUF, who maintained the importance of Australia as a white settler colony.

The section below is part of this research and outlines how the British elite viewed the ‘White Australia Policy’ in the inter-war period, providing the wider context for the fascist view of Australia that was developed by the BUF in the 1930s. This is a new area of research for me, so any feedback, criticisms or tips for further research are most welcome.


The under-population of tropical Australia was a concern for both the Australians and the British, who believed that it may succumb to invasion.

As Marilyn Lake and Henry Reynolds have argued, in the late 1800s and early 1900s, the settler colonies of the British Empire, alongside the United States, established a ‘global colour line’.[i] Australia, Canada, New Zealand and South Africa (and eventually Southern Rhodesia) had a special role in maintaining the boundaries at the edges of the Empire and sought to regulate the dichotomy between the European coloniser and indigenous colonised. Within this imperial hierarchy, certain ethnic groups were imported from other places within the empire to perform certain labour and administrative tasks, but it was always reinforced by the colonial rulers (particularly in the settler colonies) that the British were at the top of this hierarchy. This hierarchy operated more or less in an informal manner across many of the colonies, but in the settler colonies, there were efforts to make this hierarchy more formalised – and in the case of Australia after 1901, efforts were made abolish this hierarchy in favour on an unachievable monocultural society.

For the newly federated Australia, the ability to make sovereign decisions over its racial make-up was central to its push for self-government. As Lake and Reynolds have argued, Australia’s pursuit of self-government sought to confirm ‘their special status as white men in a multi-racial Empire…, even as they continued to subject themselves to the sovereign British Queen.’[ii] In the 1880s and 1890s, the Australian colonies had objected to British treaties which allowed unrestricted Chinese and Japanese migration within the British Empire and sought to implement immigration controls that restricted non-white migration ‘regardless of their standing as powers or status as British subjects’.[iii] First introduced in the colony of New South Wales in 1896, this was reiterated in the 1901 Commonwealth Act, against the protests of the British.

One of the important aspects of the ‘White Australia Policy’ was its protection of the rights of ‘white workers’. Before 1901, certain ethnic minorities (such as the Japanese and Pacific Islanders in Western Australia and Queensland) had specific places within a colonial economy, but after Federation, the majority of employment was reserved for white workers, with several pieces of legislation severely restricting the access of non-white people to jobs. Until the 1960s, the organised labour movement in Australia worked to ensure that white (British and northern European) workers remained at the top of this hierarchy and were firmly attached to the concept of the ‘White Australia Policy’.

In Britain, there was sympathy for the ‘White Australia Policy’ and acknowledged that this was central to the Australian political system at the time. National Democratic Party MP, Charles Jesson, stated in the House of Commons in 1920 that ‘the workers have decided that they will have a white Australia, and we have no right to interfere.’[iv] In 1925, Labour MP Hugh Dalton described the ‘White Australia Policy’ as ‘an absolutely inevitable policy’ and declared that ‘every State has, under international law, complete control over its own immigration – whom it will admit and whom it will not admit.’[v]

But there was also concern that the newly federated country was placing racial purity above the broader military/security concerns of the British Empire. Expressed in Parliament and in the mainstream press, many were anxious about the security of northern Australia, which was seen as under-populated and as attractive territory for rival powers, particularly Germany and Japan. In the House of Lords, Lord Denman reminded the House that Australia, along with New Zealand, occupied an ‘isolated position in the Southern Seas’, but was still only ‘within a few days steaming of great Asiatic countries’ and that this threat was exacerbated by the under-population of the country.[vi] Dalton said that the need for settlers was felt across all of the Dominions, but stated ‘I think there is no case as urgent as that of Australia’, claiming that the ‘White Australia Policy’ was ‘barring their way to the great empty spaces of the Australian continent.’[vii] Dalton concluded his address by declaring his support for the ‘White Australia Policy’ but declared that ‘it can only be maintained and justified in the eyes of the world if Australia can achieve a great increase in her population and render her new unoccupied territory fertile and productive.’[viii]

Developing the empire was a great concern in the inter-war period and the Empire Settlement Act 1922 was part of a broader attempt to shore up the empire through migration, with assisted migration for skilled Britons to the Dominions to maintain the strength of the empire in the peripheries. The Australian-born Conservative MP, Sir Newton Moore, described his concern that the country was ‘surrounded by teeming millions of Asiatics whom she does not propose to admit’ and this was a threat to the Australia’s northern ‘territory of a million square miles with only something like 350,000 people’.[ix] This concern continued through the 1930s, and was raised with the rise of Germany, Italy and Japan. After Germany and Japan signed the Anti-Comintern Pact in late 1936, Conservative MP Somerset de Chair lamented the peripheral position of Australia and described the ‘White Australia Policy’ as a bulwark against Asian expansionism:

They know that they stand isolated from the rest of the Empire and that between them and us are the teeming millions of Asia. They have adopted a “White Australia” policy because they realise that if they once opened the door to coloured immigration, above all to the immigration of the Chinese, they would be completely swamped. They have recognised that the “White Australia” policy is the only alternative, to racial extinction.[x]

But de Chair also recognised that upholding this policy of racial purity came at a strategic cost and with a population of ‘only 6,500,000’, Australia had to ‘realise that that is bound to be dangerous’.[xi] The crux of the predicament faced by the Australian government was,

They want the country populated, and they know that the natural proess of the increasing birthrate will not be sufficient to fill the country in time. At the same time, they are reluctant to consider an immediate influx of immigrants.[xii]

The juxtaposing concerns of maintaining the health of the British ‘race’ across the empire and ensuring the security of the peripheries of the empire can also be seen in the mainstream press in the inter-war period. In 1919, an editorial in The Times opined about the under-population of the northern part of Australia and the concerns this raised for the elite in London, stating that the ‘danger of leaving this immense area permanently unpeopled has an Imperial aspect, because empty lands are an abiding temptation.’[xiii] While many in the Australian government promoted the idea that ‘white’ Britons would eventually settle these northern areas, the newspaper was much more sceptical, writing that ‘we are unable to believe that millions of whites will ever be established in the northern areas of Australia’.[xiv] But still feared that ‘the more temperate regions of Australia have a boundless future’ for ‘other races’.[xv]

When the British negotiated the Anglo-Japanese Alliance in 1920 to prevent imperial conflict in Asia, the British press saw the ‘White Australia Policy’ as a barrier to this arrangement that ensured the security of the British Empire’s Asian colonies in the short-term. In The Times, it was recognised that the ‘determination of Australia and New Zealand to prevent Asiatic immigration is set and unalterable’, yet hoped that the determination of Australian Prime Minister Billy Hughes to maintain this policy would not derail the Alliance, declaring that the English-speaking world ‘cannot face the prospect of renewed competition in naval armaments without the certainty of financial and… moral bankruptcy.’[xvi]

In The New Statesman, Independent National MP from the Australian House of Representatives, Frederic Eggleston, wrote that the ‘chief factor in the healthy growth of the Australian democracy has undoubtedly been the purity of the Anglo-Saxon base’ and declared that ‘Australia is more purely Anglo-Saxon than any other dominion, more so than some parts of Great Britain.’[xvii] But Eggleston also realised that Australia’s ‘sparsely settled territory’ was tenuously held and ‘it would not take much to swamp the Anglo-Saxon holding party.’[xviii] For this Australian politician, the ‘White Australia Policy’ was paramount to assuring the security of the British Empire in the Australasian region, arguing, ‘[u]nrestricted immigration of Asiatic races means the disappearance of Australia as an Anglo-Saxon democracy.’[xix]

Eggleston and other supporters of the ‘White Australia Policy’ promoted further migration of British settlers to Australia to secure the country and stave off the perceived threat of Asian invasion. For example, a Daily Mail editorial from 1927 claimed that the only way that Australia could maintain the ‘empty lands of a continent where there are only six million people to nearly three million square miles’ was through the ‘vigorous immigration of the best white stock’.[xx] Although as The Times editorial above suggested, many in Britain were sceptical of this occurring and pragmatically believed that non-British migration would be a suitable solution. A 1934 Times editorial stated, ‘A White Australia policy… cannot be safe so long as it implies or seems to imply an empty Australia’, suggesting that ‘a well-organized scheme of migration’ was needed to ensure the security of Australia and the wider British Empire.[xxi]

The opinions expressed by various British politicians and journalists show that the idea of a racially ‘pure’ Australia as a paragon of the settler colonial society was widespread throughout British elite and that concerns about maintaining this ‘purity’ were not the desires of the far right in Britain, but shared by a much broader strata. However this desire for maintaining the ‘purity’ of the British ‘race’ in Australia had to be gauged against the desire by the British to maintain the country as part of the British Empire/Commonwealth (in the face of threats from Japan and Germany). This concern about the nation’s security meant that the British favoured large-scale migration of non-British (and possibly non-European) migrants into the northern territories of Australia to prevent this ‘empty land’ from being invaded.


[i] Marilyn Lake & Henry Reynolds Drawing the Global Colour Line: White Men’s Countries and the Question of Racial Equality (Melbourne: Melbourne University Press, 2008) p. 5.

[ii] Lake & Reynolds Drawing the Global Colour Line, p. 143.

[iii] Lake & Reynolds Drawing the Global Colour Line, p. 144.

[iv] House of Commons, Hansard, 26 April, 1920, col. 948.

[v] House of Commons, Hansard, 24 March, 1925, col. 368-369.

[vi] House of Lords, Hansard, 29 May, 1922, col. 850.

[vii] House of Lords, Hansard, 29 May, 1922, col. 850.

[viii] House of Lords, Hansard, 29 May, 1922, col. 850.

[ix] House of Commons, Hansard, 2 April, 1925, col. 1615.

[x] House of Commons, Hansard, 25 January, 1937, col. 677-678.

[xi] House of Commons, Hansard, 25 January, 1937, col. 678.

[xii] House of Commons, Hansard, 25 January, 1937, col. 678.

[xiii] ‘The Future of Tropical Australia’, The Times, 12 August, 1919, p. 11.

[xiv] ‘The Future of Tropical Australia’, The Times, 12 August, 1919, p. 11.

[xv] ‘The Future of Tropical Australia’, The Times, 12 August, 1919, p. 11.

[xvi] ‘Empire Policy’, The Times, 8 April, 1921, p. 11.

[xvii] Frederic W. Eggleston, ‘The White Australia Policy’, New Statesman, 10 July, 1920, p. 386.

[xviii] Eggleston, ‘The White Australia Policy’, p. 386.

[xix] Eggleston, ‘The White Australia Policy’, p. 386.

[xx] ‘Advance, Australia!’, Daily Mail, 9 May, 1927, p. 10.

[xxi] ‘Empty Spaces of the Empire’, The Times, 1 February, 1934, p. 15.

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CFP for new volume on British far left


Evan Smith (Flinders University) and Matthew Worley (University of Reading) are considering chapter proposals for a second edited volume on the British far left in the post-war era (1945 to the present).

We are currently seeking chapter proposals on the following topics:

  • The new (and non-aligned) left
  • Feminism, the women’s movement and the left
  • The left and the politics of sex/sexuality
  • The role of the left in the trade union movement
  • The changing attitudes towards class by the far left
  • Militant/Socialist Party (and the politics of entryism)
  • The left and devolution
  • The Healyite groups – The Club, Socialist Labour League, Workers Revolutionary Party
  • Anti-revisionism/Maoism in Britain
  • The left and electoral politics (Socialist Alliance, RESPECT, TUSC, etc)
  • Anti-War/Peace movements and the left
  • The role of intellectuals on the left (such as Stuart Hall, E.P. Thompson, Perry Anderson, etc)
  • The left’s internationalism in the Cold War era
  • The role of migrants and ethnic minorities on the left
  • Or any other aspect of the British far left if suitably interesting.

We welcome proposals from both scholars and activists, but emphasise that chapters must be presented in an academic format, written ‘objectively’ and with references to primary source materials.

300 word abstracts and a short bio should be sent to: or

Please email either editor with any further questions.


Details of the first volume, Against the Grain: The British Far Left from 1956 (Manchester University Press, 2014), can be seen here.

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How the Aboriginal Tent Embassy challenged the government’s protest laws

Tomorrow is the 43rd anniversary of the establishment of the Aboriginal Tent Embassy outside (Old) Parliament House in Canberra. This post is about how the Tent Embassy challenged the protest laws enacted by the McMahon government the previous year, which sought to quash dissent outside the house of Federal Parliament. The McMahon government believed it had the necessary powers to deal with the protest movement that had developed since the late 1960s, but the Tent Embassy demonstrated that political protest was a much more fluid concept and one that puzzled the Liberal-Country government.

Part of this post will be in a forthcoming article on the Public Order Act 1971 and the policing of protest in Canberra in the 1970s (which should be available later this year).

Tent Embassy

In May 1971, the McMahon government introduced the Public Order (Protection of Persons and Property) Act 1971 (Cth) to police the growing protest movement in the nation’s capital and to prevent ‘violent’ demonstrations outside (Old) Parliament House, as well as outside the US, South Vietnamese and South African embassies. A week after the Act was introduced, it was used against an Anti-Apartheid and an anti-Vietnam War demonstration, and then in July 1971, when people protested against the Springbok rugby tour coming to Manuka Oval. At these three demonstrations, hundreds of people were arrested for violating the new Act. Despite this seemingly successful application of the Public Order Act in 1971, the McMahon Government soon found that itself debating whether it had the necessary legislation to combat other forms of protest.

On Australia Day 1972, a group of Aboriginal activists, having travelled from Redfern in Sydney to Canberra, erected a camping site on the lawns outside (Old) Parliament House and established the Aboriginal Tent Embassy. The purpose of the Aboriginal Tent Embassy was to advocate for land rights against the limited measures introduced by the Liberals since the 1967 referendum[i] and to protest against remarks made by the Prime Minister concerning the ‘assimilation’ of Australia’s Aboriginal people on Australia Day.[ii] As Scott Robinson wrote, the Embassy protestors ‘demanded retraction of the Australia Day statement [by McMahon] and compensation for stolen lands, and warned the government that the embassy would stay until these demands were met.’[iii] As the Embassy gained attention from the media, other protest groups and even the diplomatic staff on some Soviet Bloc and non-aligned countries, the Government debated over what action to take to remove the protestors from their site.

On 23 February, 1972, former Prime Minister John Gorton asked the Minister for the Interior, Ralph Hunt, what the Government intended to do with the Embassy protest, to which Hunt replied,

I am, of course, well aware that a number of tents have been pitched outside the national Parliament in Parliament Place. The people concerned are Aborigines who are demonstrating in a peaceful way for a case in which they believe. I must say that they have been quiet and they have behaved and cooperated with the police extremely well… But I think that in the future we will have to look at an ordinance to ensure that Parliament Place is reserved for its purpose – a place for orderly and peaceful demonstration, but not a place upon which people can camp indefinitely thereby perhaps preventing other people from using it from day to day… The Australian Capital Territory police have been in constant contact with them. They have observed every request that the police have made of them, and up to date they have not disobeyed any request. But the question of reserving Parliament Place for its proper intention and proper requirement is under consideration.[iv]

It was believed by the Government and the police that there were no laws to prevent the Aboriginal activists from erecting a camping site on the lawns of Parliament House as the Trespass on Commonwealth Lands Ordinance 1932 (Cth) excluded Aboriginals from being prosecuted under this Act. Roberta Sykes, one of the activists at the Embassy, wrote in her biography (and cited by Andrew Schaap and Paul Muldoon):

At the time, the Northern Territory was just that, a territory, administered by the politicians and public servants in Canberra, and containing quite large sections of Crown land. The government had framed a law that there was to be no camping on Crown land. However, because Crown land in the Northern Territory was home to dispossessed Aboriginal people who had nowhere else to live, this law specifically excluded Aborigines. The expanse of Crown land in front of Parliament House was also Crown land, but it had obviously never entered the minds of the politicians that Aboriginals would set up camp there.[v]

Scott Robinson, in his 1994 article, wrote that ‘the only applicable legislation… was the Gaming and Betting Ordinance, s.19(a), which imposed a forty dollar fine for loitering in a public place’, but this was not used.[vi] Roger Brown has demonstrated that this Ordinance was used in January 1972 to ‘move on’ a demonstrator conducting a ‘solitary picked outside the Israeli Embassy’, but an internal government document suggested that this provision ‘should not be used in view of public criticism of its use in the [Police v] Merhav case’.[vii] The ‘often-repeated story of the legal loophole’, as described by Schaap and Muldoon, does not mention whether the Public Order Act was considered by the Government, and discussion of this new legislation is conspicuously absent from Government documents and Parliamentary debates as well. However if Ralph Hunt’s description of the Embassy, taken from the above quote as ‘preventing other people from using it from day to day’, was used, it might have been possible – at a stretch – to view the Embassy as creating an ‘unreasonable obstruction’ to access to the Parliament House lawns and thus a violation of Section 9 of the Public Order Act.[viii] Simon Bronitt and George Williams have suggested that the Aboriginal Tent Embassy was a protest that formed a political discussion with the institution of Parliament and that the Government’s powers to restrict this discussion, due to its proximity to Parliament House, were symbolically weakened by the 1912 High Court decision in R v Smithers; Ex parte Benson, which ‘recognised an implied right of access to government and to the seat of government.’[ix]

In March 1972, the McMahon Government started drafting amendments to the Trespass on Commonwealth Lands Ordinance 1932 that would remove the exception of Aboriginal camps from the legislation and by the end of June, the Trespass on Commonwealth Lands Ordinance 1972 was created that made it illegal for a person to camp or erect a structure on unleased land, owned by the Commonwealth.[x] Believing that this Ordinance was now in effect, on 20 July, 1972, the police removed the structures of the Embassy and eight protestors were arrested. Scott Robinson claims that Police Inspector Osborne ‘made several announcements over the megaphone, warning the protestors to move away from the tents, and advising them that “if you fail to move you may be arrested for obstructing police”’,[xi] but does not say whether this was an invocation of the Public Order Act.

An application was made by some of the Embassy protestors and fellow-travellers to the ACT Supreme Court that the Ordinance had not been in effect (it had not been given notice in the Commonwealth Gazette) when the police dismantled the Embassy’s structures. In September 1972, Justices Fox, Blackburn and Connor delivered the verdict in the case of Golden-Brown and others v Hunt and another that the Ordinance has not been given the sufficient Gazette notice before the removal of the Embassy and its protestors and the use of the Ordinance was not lawful at that moment.[xii] In the ensuing debacle, Parliament debated whether the Ordinance should be re-instated and in the final weeks before the dissolution of Parliament before the 1972 election, ‘former government minister Jim Killen crossed the floor to vote with the opposition over the re-gazettal of the ordinance’[xiii] and when Whitlam won the election in December 1972, Labor decided not to re-introduce the Ordinance. As Schaap and Muldoon have argued, ‘having first acknowledged that the Aboriginal demonstrators were technically permitted to camp in front if Parliament House, it proved difficult for the government to recharacterize the Embassy as an act of trespass.’[xiv]

On 17 October, 1973, the Embassy was re-erected on the lawns outside (Old) Parliament House and lasted at this spot until 13 February, 1975, then established at several different sites around Canberra until 26 January, 1992, when the Embassy was re-built on its original site and remains there until the present day.[xv] Since the mid-1990s, the Embassy has been recognised as ‘a site representing political struggle for all Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people’ and a place of ‘significance for the local Aboriginal community’ as a traditional ‘meeting and gathering ground’.[xvi]


[i] Much has been written about the Aboriginal Tent Embassy, but some of the best articles are: Scott Robinson, ‘The Aboriginal Embassy: An Account of the Protests of 1972’, Aboriginal History, 18/1, 1994, pp. 49-63; Heather Goodall, Invasion to Embassy: Land in Aboriginal Politics in New South Wales, 1770-1972, Allen & Unwin, St Leonards, 1996, pp. 335-351; Kathy Lothian, ‘Moving Blackwards: Black Power and the Aboriginal Embassy’, in Ingereth Macfarlane & Mark Hannah (eds), Transgressions: Critical Australian Indigenous Histories, ANU E-Press, Canberra, 2007, pp. 19-34; Paul Muldoon & Andrew Schaap, ‘Aboriginal Sovereignty and the Politics of Reconciliation: The Constituent Power of the Aboriginal Embassy in Australia’, Environment and Planning D; Society and Space, 30, 2012, pp. 534-550

[ii] Robinson, ‘The Aboriginal Embassy’, p. 49

[iii] Robinson, ‘The Aboriginal Embassy’, p. 51

[iv] Hansard, House of Representatives Parliamentary Debates, 23 February, 1972, p. 108

[v] Roberta Sykes, cited in Schaap & Muldoon, ‘Aboriginal Sovereignty and the Politics of Reconciliation’, p. 546

[vi] Robinson, ‘The Aboriginal Embassy’, p. 52

[vii] Brown, ‘“And Hast Thou Slain the Jabberwock?”’, p. 116; Department of the Interior, ‘Campers on Parliament House Lawns’, Aide Memoire, 27 June, 1972, reproduced at: (accessed on 16 August, 2012). See also: ‘New Israeli Protest Called Off’, Sydney Morning Herald, 7 January, 1972

[viii] Under the Public Order Act, ‘unreasonable obstruction’ means ‘an act or thing done by a person that constitutes, or contributes to, an obstruction of, or interference with, the exercise or enjoyment by other persons of their lawful rights or privileges (including rights of passage along the public streets) where, having regard to all the circumstances of the obstruction or interference, including its place, time, duration and nature’. Public Order (Protection of Persons and Property) Act 1971 (Cth) s.4.(1)

[ix] Simon Bronitt & George Williams, ‘Political Freedom as an Outlaw: Republican Theory and Political Protest’, Adelaide Law Review, 18, 1996, p. 302

[x] Trespass on Commonwealth Lands Ordinance 1972 s. 3

[xi] Robinson, ‘The Aboriginal Embassy’, p. 55

[xii] Golden-Brown and others v Hunt and another, 12 September, 1972, Federal Law Reports, 19, 1972, pp. 438-451

[xiii] Robinson, ‘The Aboriginal Embassy’, p. 62

[xiv] Schaap & Muldoon, ‘Aboriginal Sovereignty and the Politics of Reconciliation’, p. 547

[xv] Coral Dow, ‘Aboriginal Tent Embassy: Icon or Eyesore?’, Parliamentary Library Paper, 4 April, 2000, (accessed 13 January, 2010)

[xvi] Australian Heritage Council, ‘Aboriginal Embassy Site’, Australian Heritage Places Inventory, (accessed 13 January, 2010)

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