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Australians rightly embrace ethnic diversity, yet concern about immigration is justified

By Chris Lewis - posted Thursday, 13 August 2020

While Australians have rightly abandoned the White Australia policy since the 1960s, unwound its heavy reliance upon European immigration, and currently support multiculturalism (85%) while rejecting the selection of immigrants by race (80%) and religion (74%), I do not believe that all is well with Australia's recent immigration intake.

My concern exists despite most Australians overcoming any stupid notion of racial supremacy after longstanding interaction between people from different ethnic backgrounds, and exposure to business, sporting and entertainment excellence from many nationalities (including black, African, Jewish and Asian).

While the concept of multiculturalism promotes shared fundamental values that enable different cultures to co-exist on a complimentary rather than competitive basis, I too hold some fear that multiculturalism in Australia has the potential to be divisive if any preferential treatment is given to migrant groups which may undermine the dominant culture.


In line with such concern, I reject any argument that liberal democracies should give ethnic minorities representation in line with a belief that democracy is "a plurality of constituent democracies".

Thus far, I believe that Australia's multicultural experience has proven largely successful by upholding three sensible aims better than most other nations. As discussed in 2015 by Kenan Malik they include 1) Welcoming mass immigration, but not formally institutionalising cultural differences; 2) Treating everyone equally as citizens rather than as bearers of specific racial or cultural histories, yet never ignoring discrimination against particular groups; and 3) Overcoming debates about culture and common values by embracing diversity and avoiding any construct of a nation which alienates some "in a tribal fashion that presumes a clash of civilizations".

In other words, while many Australians do have considerable affinity with a British and Western legacy, its policy mix towards different ethnicities has been vastly different from the national examples of other liberal democracies that "enacted either multicultural policies that place communities in constricting boxes or assimilationist ones that distance minorities from the mainstream".

However, history shows that Australia too must always take heed of public opinion when it comes to immigration.

For example, the Howard government's initial reduction of immigration numbers in the late 1990s followed a June 1996 AGB McNair poll which found that 65% thought the immigration level was too high given the current level of unemployment, with 60% also concerned over the number of migrants settling under the family reunion component.

And with other polls from the late 1980s expressing more opposition about 'cultural maintenance' by immigrant groups, including a survey by the Office of Multicultural Affairs, the Howard government's 1999 and 2003 statements upheld the concept's social and economic benefits yet promoted a commitment by new citizens and residents to Australia and the basic structures and values associated with Australian democracy.


By 2020, however, given recent trends, there are again legitimate reasons of concern about Australia's recent immigration program, albeit numbers are currently stalled in response to the coronavirus epidemic

For example, the recent heavy reliance on Chinese and Indian migrants has the potential to create greater domestic resentment as many Australians are denied housing and employment opportunities.

With both China and India having both huge populations (nearly 3 billion between them), including large pools of professionals seeking employment overseas, Australian governments have relied on such sources to a greater extent for housing and employment needs. In 2018-19, migrants from China and India numbered 24,282 and 33,611, around 40% of Australia's 160,323 total immigrant intake combined.

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About the Author

Chris Lewis, who completed a First Class Honours degree and PhD (Commonwealth scholarship) at Monash University, has an interest in all economic, social and environmental issues, but believes that the struggle for the ‘right’ policy mix remains an elusive goal in such a complex and competitive world.

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