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Like it or not, we’re more diverse than ever this Australia Day

One of the sharpest divides in attitudes to Australia Day celebrations is between those who think of Australia as a nation of migrants and those who regard Australians as a unique people and culture. For…

Australia’s demographic make-up is changing rapidly. AAP Image/Dean Lewins

One of the sharpest divides in attitudes to Australia Day celebrations is between those who think of Australia as a nation of migrants and those who regard Australians as a unique people and culture.

For those who see Australia as a nation of migrants, evidence of growth in the numbers and diversity of the overseas-born is a cause for celebration. They can claim Australia is becoming an even more exciting multicultural mix. On the other hand, those who think of the Australian identity as a unique outcome of generations of settlers’ encounters with the land are likely to see migration as a challenge.

The latter group are typically proud of the egalitarian value set, down-to-earth lifestyle and sense of place that they believe is the outcome of this experience. For them, the challenge is to use Australia Day to articulate this heritage, in the hope of persuading migrants to embrace it as their own.

The changing face of Australia

Australia’s population has grown rapidly from migration over the past decade. This partly reflects the economic buoyancy triggered by the resources boom and the decisions of successive Australian governments to encourage employers to source their permanent and temporary worker needs from migrants. It has also been driven by the influx of overseas students, almost all coming from Asia. They have been responsible for around a third of the growth in net overseas migration during the past decade.

The result, according to the Australian Bureau of Statistics (ABS) estimates, is that the share of Australia’s population born overseas has grown from 23% in 2000 to 26.8% in 2010. Australia is the developed-world champion in this regard, with our nearest rivals being Canada with 21.3% of its population overseas-born in 2010, Sweden with 14.1% and the USA with 13.5%.

In terms of diversity, the outcome is even more striking. Again, according to the ABS, 58% of the migrants who arrived in Australia over the decade 2000 to 2010, who were still here in 2010, were born in Asia, North Africa and the Middle East. As a consequence, the share of Australia’s total population born in these regions as a percentage of Australia’s total population has grown from 6.7% in 2000 to 10.6% in 2010.

This is a remarkable transformation, considering how controversial Asian migration was in the 1980s. At that time, suggestions from critics that 5% or more of the population might be born in Asia by the early 21st century were regarded as outlandish.

A tale of two cities

A further relevant demographic outcome is that the surge in Asian, North African and Middle Eastern migration has primarily affected Sydney and Melbourne, since most choose to live in these two cities. This is largely because that is where the main communities from these countries are established.

We await the results of the 2011 Census for up-to-date estimates of settlement patterns. But according to the 2006 Census, 77% of mainland-China-born migrants still in Australia who arrived between 2001 and 2006 were living in Sydney and Melbourne; 75% of the India-born, and 91% of the Lebanon-born. There are still large numbers of UK and New Zealand migrants coming to Australia, but their destinations are largely Perth and South-East Queensland respectively.

Australia is now two nations as regards ethnic diversity. Sydney and Melbourne sharply differ from non-metropolitan Australia and from the other state capitals.

There is only a dim awareness of the magnitude of these demographic changes within the wider community. Nevertheless, such is the scale of the Asian, North African and Middle Eastern presence in Sydney and Melbourne that there can be few residents who have not noticed changes in the ethnic make-up of their community.

A nation divided

The celebration of Australia Day 2012 will reflect the divide in attitudes towards diversity and national identity outline above. For those who embrace the nation-of-migrants perspective, recent demographic developments are an occasion to highlight Australia’s distinctive diversity.

For those who believe a unique, shared culture and way of life has been forged here, an emphasis on diversity may generate a sense of unease and even loss. They would prefer to see their heritage venerated.

I’m afraid demography is against them.

Join the conversation

13 Comments sorted by

  1. Dale Bloom

    Analyst

    A question I believe has never been properly answered by anyone, is why does a society need so much cultural diversity?

    Surely there is a limit to how diverse a society can become before there is no national culture at all, but a mixture of people with no sense of national identity or national purpose.

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  2. Adrian Vazquez

    logged in via Twitter

    We are simply repeating failed European policies of mass immigration and multiculturalism.

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  3. James Walker

    logged in via Facebook

    Multiculturalism assumes that immigrants and their children, grandchildren etc are going to *want* to remain separate from the rest of Aussie society. Same may - but a large slab of each generation is going to lose any connection to their other heritage and be absorbed seamlessly: as has been happening for over 200 years.

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    1. Edward Drabik

      Postgraduate student

      In reply to James Walker

      Your argument overlooks the profound differences between previous waves of immigration to Australia and immigration of today. The last time Australia experienced an immigrant influx anywhere near the magnitude of the current wave was back in the mid 20th century. Back then, Australia had a strong, British-derived core culture and insisted that immigrants assimilate. Moreover, the immigrants were all European, sharing - despite some ethnic differences - a common Western heritage with the existing…

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    2. Lorna Jarrett

      Former PhD candidate, physics teacher

      In reply to Edward Drabik

      Edward, I think you'll find the Australian nation DID actually experience "the demographic submergence of our existing ... population by ... peoples with no connection to the historic Australian nation". Right around 224 years ago.

      Compared to what the Aborigines had to contend with, it's pretty mild today.

      I think Australia as a nation has some profound challenges to contend with - degredation of our irreplacable soil and water resources; infrastructure and a 1950s-derived culture that assumes cars as the primary means of transport; the mining boom, its distortion of the national economy and its environmental impacts. I know a lot of immigrants, hell I AM one. I think immigration is one of the least of our worries.

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    3. James Walker

      logged in via Facebook

      In reply to Edward Drabik

      Edward - Australian culture is one of the best known in the world; you can go to Mongolia or the Congo, but the moment you say you're an Australian you'll get a "g'day" from grinning locals.
      Further, immigrants who come here, for the most part, *want* to be Australians. Does it really surprise you that Pakis coming here follow the cricket religiously?
      Now, something that might surprise you - what religion do you think most Indian immigrants follow? Hinduism? Nope: over half of all Indian immigrants…

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    4. Lorna Jarrett

      Former PhD candidate, physics teacher

      In reply to James Walker

      "No Iraqi ever called me Paki" (A.D.F. 2005). Edward, where I come from, that word is offensive. Frankly, so is your "admission" that there's a problem with Islamic immigrants. Can you justify this assertion?

      Also, Hinduism is Australia's fastest-growing religion. With only 14% of Australians regularly attending church, it's questionable that we have "Christian values" - unless you mean those generic ethical values that most people hold regardless of religion or otherwise.

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    5. James Walker

      logged in via Facebook

      In reply to Lorna Jarrett

      Well, lets' start with the fact that Edward didn't say any of that, I did.

      Now, where *I* come from, Australia, Paki is a high compliment, reserved for our fine cricketing rivals.
      It's an insult overseas? Tough. So is 'boy' to Americans, 'bastard' to most of the world. Cope.
      Yes, there's a problem. The cronulla riots are a unique incident in OZ history; and the closest comparison, the Lambing Flat riots, were in the 19thC. No other group has earned so much contempt in Australian society.
      Now…

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    6. Edward Drabik

      Postgraduate student

      In reply to Lorna Jarrett

      The Australian nation-state is a British creation. There was no Australian "nation" prior to British settlement. The pre-1788 inhabitants of the Australian continent were never a unified, cohesive nation or people but rather a scattered collection of disparate nomadic tribes. They certainly never formed any sort of recognisable nation-state in the territory that is today's Australia. Thus, it is correct to assert that the current, immigration-induced demographic tsunami constitutes an unprecedented…

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  4. Lorna Jarrett

    Former PhD candidate, physics teacher

    James - I think you're partly right. It's inevitable (and I think desirable) that migrants and their descendants will adapt to the local culture. But I think it's also inevitable (and desirable) that the local culture will adapt to them. "Real" (ie: white and born here) Aussies can hardly complain, after all when their ancestors rocked up in Sydney Cove, they didn't exactly adopt the locals' way of life.

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    1. James Walker

      logged in via Facebook

      In reply to Lorna Jarrett

      I'm an Aborigine. The delightful local custom of my tribal ancestors was, when a boy hit puberty, was to take him into the mountains and slap him around until he lost a tooth, that was kept as proof that he was now an adult.
      Previous 'intolerant' white authorities considered that sort of thing hazing (thank God) and the custom was stamped out.
      Yes, it's great when immigrants bring in new foods, music, dances and so on. But after centuries spent fighting for freedoms that are the envy of the rest of the world, why the blazes would we endanger those? Frex, Sharia law treats the women as dirt; the testimony of a Muslim is only worth half that of a non-Muslim: why would any sane person want to adapt to this rubbish?

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    2. Michael Low

      Student

      In reply to Lorna Jarrett

      Lorna - I agree to an extent. I think when we use the term "culture" it defines a lot more than just preferred foods or taste in music. The term multiculturalism once seemed to me a harmless anecdote, something that I wouldn’t have thought twice about. But having become very aware of the problems being experienced in Europe at the moment, I’m now much more hesitant. The British PM and German Chancellor wouldn’t have both described multiculturalism as a failure if nothing was wrong. I think the more…

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    3. Lorna Jarrett

      Former PhD candidate, physics teacher

      In reply to Michael Low

      Michael - I don't know about the German Chancellor but I wouldn't take much notice of what the British PM has to say about anything very much. The Tories have a long and proud tradition of being not very nice people. Trust me, I was there.

      I saw "The Iron Lady" recently (a walk down memory lane if ever there was one) - and was struck by how violent and fraught a place Britain is in comparison to Australia. I remember watching those riots (and others) on TV. I remember bomb scares on the Tube.

      Like it or not, that's part of British culture and before you accept the PM's pointing the blame at Muslims, do a little research on what life was like during the Troubles. White Christians against White Christians, as bloody as time as you could never want to experience again.

      Also - equality of genders certainly wasn't part of the local culture when I was growing up in the West coast of Scotland (or the Sicily of the North, as it was also known) - and I'm not exactly ancient.

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