Thursday, August 21, 2014

The Asianization of Australia?

To what extent can we say there has been an Asianization of Australia? The numbers tell a good part of the story.

First, the reality of multicultural Australia is that it contains Asian cultures and identities. Nearly 50 percent of our population were either born overseas or have a parent who was born overseas.

While it is difficult to offer a precise figure, it is estimated that close to 10 percent of the Australian population have Asian cultural origins or ancestry. Of the top 10 overseas birthplaces of Australians, five are countries in Asia: China, India, Vietnam, the Philippines and Malaysia. China and India now represent the two largest source countries for immigrants to Australia.

Of the 4 million people who speak a language other than English at home, close to 1.3 million speak an Asian language — including more than 650,000 who speak Chinese.

There has been an increasing orientation of economic activity towards Asia. China and Japan are our two largest two-way trading partners; this week saw the finalization of a free-trade partnership between Australia and Japan.

Looking at the region more broadly, it is striking that of Australia’s top 10 two-way trading partners, seven are part of the Asia-Pacific region. Only one of the top five isn’t an Asian nation (that being the United States).

Beyond the numbers, there has also been a shift in mind-set. Australians understand that we can’t divorce our society from the fate of Asia. It is the case, of course, that every Australian generation believes that they have discovered this for the first time. As early as 1964, long before notions of an Asian Century were current, Donald Horne argued in The Lucky Country that Australians needed to be more serious about living with Asia. He condemned Australia for playing “an aristocratic role in the society of Asia — rich, self-centered, frivolous, blind”. Still writing at a time when the White Australia policy, he wrote that the future “holds dramatic possibilities for Australia which may necessarily include racial change”.

The growth of Asian economic power has only deepened our consciousness of the region. As Michael Wesley has observed, there has been an inversion of Australia’s world. Where once Australians thought of Asia as “poor, backward and unstable”, another Asia has emerged:

An Asia that showcases the future in the same way that America used to; an Asia that builds infrastructure with an ease that appears beyond our capacities here in Australia; an Asia through whose streets flows wealth that is eye-popping to Australians who have grown up thinking they lived in the rich, lucky country.

The Asianization of Australia has occurred, for the most part, with public acceptance. But there have been occasional periods of dissent. Exactly 30 years ago, in 1984, the historian Geoffrey Blainey launched the first challenge to Australia’s non-racially discriminatory immigration policy. It came in a speech delivered in Warrnambool, Victoria.

“Rarely in the history of the modern world,” Blainey said, “has a nation given such preference to a tiny ethnic minority of its population as the Australian government has done in the past few years”. Asians were the “favored majority” in Australia’s immigration intake. According to Blainey, this wasn’t accepted by “everyday Australians”.

Indeed, Blainey would provide a template for subsequent panics about Asianization. As Pauline Hanson put it in her maiden speech to parliament, Australia was “in danger of being swamped by Asians”, who “have their own culture and religion, form ghettos and do not assimilate”.

Debates about Asian immigration reflect a contest over Australian national identity. For some, immigration has meant a repudiation of Australia’s British cultural heritage — a rejection of all that was, in their eyes, traditionally Australian. For such people, Asia — to be more precise, immigration from Asia in significant numbers — was a source of cultural corruption or degradation.

As demonstrated by periodic anxieties, a proportion of the Australian population has regarded multiculturalism as a threat to social unity.

And yet, for all of its pungency, the rhetoric about multiculturalism’s imminent failure hasn’t been proven correct. Australian multiculturalism has endured. In last year’s Scanlon Foundation survey on social cohesion, 84 percent of respondents agreed that multiculturalism is a good thing and benefited Australia.

Australian multiculturalism hasn’t only endured, it has succeeded — and it has done so, with all the Asian inflections that it has taken on since the 1970s. The passage of time has proved interesting. Where once the threat of multiculturalism was synonymous with the inassimilable Asian, this seems no longer the case.

The facts speak for themselves. On any measure of integration, those Australians of Asian background have proved in every way capable of participating in the life of the nation.

They have excelled when it comes to educational attainment or economic participation. Suburbs such as Cabramatta in southwest Sydney or Springvale in eastern Melbourne — once regarded as ethnic ghettos — are now thriving communities.

To be sure, it could be argued that our success has a lot to do with the character of our immigration program. It has been to Australia’s advantage that governments since the late 1970s have favored selective migration intakes involving highly skilled immigrants.

But the composition of immigrants doesn’t alone explain why multicultural Australia has worked. Multicultural policies — for the most part endorsed in a bipartisan fashion by our political leaders — have played an important role in equipping immigrants to participate in Australian society.

As a result, Australian society has been able to deal with social change with much less friction than what may have otherwise been the case.

When policy and leadership come together, the task of integration can look easy. Its success may even look organic.

Yet there is clearly a formula. Where people feel that they belong to a society, and feel accepted as who they are, they will have a better chance to participate in a society as full and equal members.

In this respect, multiculturalism is not about diversity in and itself. It has been about a muscular expression of citizenship.

By this I mean that Australia has had a multiculturalism that has been distinctive from versions elsewhere. Australia has had a liberal multiculturalism, a nation-building multiculturalism. Multiculturalism has always been something that was meant to strengthen Australian national identity rather than supersede it.


This 3 part article is condensed from a keynote speech delivered at the Annual Conference of the Asian Studies Association of Australia held recently in Perth, Western Australia. The writer is the Race Discrimination Commissioner.


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