Asians Changing Face of Australia

"Aussie-born, eh?" said the immigration officer at Sydney airport as he flipped through my American passport.

"Yeah," I grunted in my best Australian accent.

"Good--there's not many of us left," said the middle-age officer with a smile.

A quiet drama about race and immigration is being played out Down Under. Nearly half of Australia's population of 16 million was either born outside Australia or had at least one parent who was. Old and young often have different views on the resulting changes, as do white and black, and those with jobs and those without.

Before the British arrived 200 years ago, the Australians were black only. Then for a long time, as the aborigines were suppressed, Australians considered themselves white only. Today they are all colors.

So far only about 5% of the population is Asian--under 2% are black. But more than half the immigrants who have come in recent years are Asian, which is a dramatic change from the past "white Australia" immigration policy.

The approach of a Eurasian Australia has been made possible by some basic changes in Australian policy and behavior. A massive post-World War II European migration made Australians accustomed to new arrivals with different food and speech and values. The longstanding British flavor of Australia began to be diluted as Greeks, Italians and Yugoslavs settled in the big cities.

Tourist travel by Australians to Southeast Asia and Japan liberalized Australian race attitudes, as did the presence and good behavior of the thousands of Asian students who in recent decades have graduated from Australian universities.

In the 1970s, as the arrival of Vietnamese refugees began an era of Asian immigration, governments of both left and right put forward the doctrine of multiculturalism to express a new ethnic pluralism.

Today, in Australia's foreign policy, Indonesia (as a defense worry) and Japan (as an economic partner) outweigh in importance any European country.

Having tried in the British era to ward Asia off, Australia in the end could not resist geography, and began to accept interaction with Asia on the basis of mutual benefit.

In many cities and large towns--hardly at all in rural areas--Australia takes on a cosmopolitan look. Greeks and Yugoslavs teach classes that are half Vietnamese and Chinese; yesterday's migrants teaching today's, in English (mostly), with eucalyptus trees outside the window and cricket played during the sports hour.

Why do so many Asians want to come to Australia, I asked a Chinese immigrant from Malaysia, as we dined in Sydney's lively Chinatown. "Those with money come because of the political stability," she replied. "The poorer ones come because of the high wages and good social-welfare structure."

The shadow of Japan falls selectively. Japanese technical and sales personnel make an appearance in those mining areas where Australia is being gouged to supply Tokyo's industries. Rich Japanese invest millions in the creation of holiday resorts amid the blue magnificance of the Queensland coast.

Another force involved in Australia's reckoning with race--together with the postwar European immigration experience, the new ties with the region, and recent Asian immigration--is economic. Thirty years ago only 20% of Australia's exports went to the Pacific countries; today 60% go there.

But in the 1970s the Australian economy ran into uncertain waters as commodity prices fell and over-protection caught Australian industry flat-footed. Many of the vast army of young unemployed feel, with whatever justification, that a reduced immigration flow would add to their own chances of finding work.

Australians are a relaxed and friendly people, but one cannot rule out future racial trouble. The population of Australia is still tiny compared with that of neighboring Asia. Australian history is brief. From English convicts to Vietnamese boat people has been a bare 200 years.

In post-British Australia, a deep self-examination and an embrace of diversity are being undertaken simultaneously, and it is not certain that the Australian Way is firmly enough rooted--it is much less so than the American Way--to make these processes character-building, as they ought to be, rather than demoralizing, as they could be.

If one day a majority of the population should be foreign-born, it seems possible that today's guilt at past racism could become tomorrow's impulsive effort to reclaim bits of a mauled heritage.

Still, the Asianization of Australia will go ahead. "Where are we going to get the capital to develop this place?" a Melbourne newspaper editor said to me. "The U.S.A. is now a net importer of capital--it's going to have to come from Korea, Taiwan, Japan, Hong Kong. Can we really tell these people, who'll be supplying the capital, 'No, your grandson can't come and be a doctor here?' "

The editor referred to Australia's empty frontier areas: "And tell me, in the growth states, the northern part of Queensland, the Northern Territory, and the northern part of Western Australia, who is going to do the hard work?"

"There's nowhere to go but to become multiracial like California," said a Queensland leader of the Labor Party--the dominant party in the nation at present. "It's no good hoping for a manufacturing base when you've got no people here to sell the bloody products to."

One day Australia will complete the large transformation from British outpost to Eurasian melting pot. It seems inevitable. Those who leave Australia, as I did for America 20 years ago, are far outnumbered by those who flock to Australia as a new frontier.

Multiculturalism is at its best a principle of tolerance; it promises a truly mature Australia. At the same time, during the realization of multiculturalism's promise it will be important to maintain a continuity of established Australian values and institutions, and a clear-eyed commitment to individual liberty--as distinct from the rights of ethnic blocs.

Journeys through a socially changing Australia leave me with two thoughts. The easy-going temperament of Australians faces accelerating challenge from the superior drive of immigrants. And immigration--in Australia as elsewhere--can be both a threat to established identity and a precious spark of dynamism.

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