The Honourable Al Grassby AM

The Hon Al Grassby is best known as the Australian Federal Minister for Immigration from 1972 to 1974 who initiated extensive reforms in immigration, citizenship and human rights legislation.

Albert Jaime Grassby was born in Brisbane in 1926. His parents were of Spanish and Irish descent. His paternal grandfather Jaime Grass was a fisherman from Malaga in Spain who had great adventures in South America and arrived in Brisbane towards the end of the nineteenth century. He sold race horses and changed his name to Grassby which he thought sounded suitably Irish. As a child Al spent long periods overseas where he acquired an understanding and empathy with different cultures. This experience was probably the catalyst for his later career in humanitarian issues and international affairs.

Mr Grassby initially followed a career in journalism before entering politics in 1965 as the Member for Murrumbidgee in the New South Wales Parliament. He served as Shadow Minister for Agriculture and Conservation between1968 and 1969. In October 1969 he won a seat in the Federal House of Representatives as the Labor Member for Riverina. When Labor won the election in 1972 he was again elected and became Minister for Immigration in the new Whitlam government.

As Minister he introduced wide ranging reforms in the areas of immigration, emigration, citizenship and services to Australians from non-English speaking backgrounds. During his tenure in office major reforms included:

  • The right to remain in Australia for overseas students on the successful completion of their studies and when their services were sought by an Australian employer.
  • The right of parents of Australian born children to remain in Australia. In announcing this Grassby said “We must stop making war on children”
  • Granting passage assistance to Vietnamese orphans coming to Australia and later extending to orphans from any country.
  • Removal of limitations in the amount of non-English language programming on radio and television.
  • Exclusion of racially selected sporting teams from Australia.
  • Decision to apply new non-discriminatory procedures for selection of migrants and issue of tourist visas.
  • Repeal of Section 64 of the Migration Act 1958-1966, the last of the old discriminations against Aboriginal Australians, which required them to seek special permission to leave the country.
  • Establishment of a new series of migrant education centres in State capitals to provide facilities for migrant instruction and a focal point of the migrant education program in each State.
  • Establishment of Community Relations Committee of the Immigration Advisory Council to enquire into the discrimination against, and exploitation of, migrants and the use or non-use by migrants of community services.
  • Development of a home tutoring scheme particularly to reach migrant women at home, using voluntary tutors and a home tutoring kit based on a kit used in Great Britain, but adapted to Australian requirements.
  • Amendment of the Aliens Act 1947-1966 to eliminate the annual notification of Address, occupation and marital status by aliens.
  • Rise of persons granted Australian citizenship from 38,402 in 1972 to 57,102 in 1973, an increase of 48.7%.
  • Australia’s first amnesty for illegal immigrants.
  • Amendment of the aliens registration policy to remove restrictions on the changes of names by aliens.

While he was Minister for Immigration he became famous for wearing highly colourful ties. He recently told The Age newspaper,

The ties came with the Whitlam government because I decided that we were liberated from a dull and colourless past to a new and colourful Australia. And it just went from there.

In 1974 Mr Grassby was appointed by the government as the first Commissioner for Community Relations and undertook an important role in administering the Racial Discrimination Act 1975. At the launch of the Office of the Commissioner for Community Relations the Prime Minister, Gough Whitlam said

The Racial Discrimination Act wrote it firmly into the legislation that Australia is in reality a multicultural nation, in which the linguistic and cultural heritage of the Aboriginal people and of peoples from all parts of the world can find an honoured place.

…For the first time Australia affirmed its opposition to all forms of racial discrimination…

The Act, inadequate as it is in many respects, is still the best guarantee that Australians have ever had that the dark forces of bigotry and prejudice which have prevailed so often in the past will never again be able to exercise influences far greater than their numbers in the community.

Mr Grassby has had a lifelong interest in humanitarian and multicultural issues and has published on a wide range of associated subjects. He has negotiated numerous international trade agreements and associations and has received many awards and honours for his work including the Order of Australia in 1985 and the UN Peace Medal in 1986.

The Hon Al Grassby died in Canberra on 23 April 2005. Read obituary notices in The Sydney Morning Herald and The ABC.


Theme: Australian history and race relations – Cultural diversity and multiculturalism