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Tea Leaves

Australia takes immigration debate to a new low

A bigger, more diverse population makes the country richer and safer

The inflow of more cultures has only made Australia a more interesting and secure place.   © Reuters

In early August, the population of Australia reached 25 million, according to the government's statistics bureau -- more than three times its size in 1948, when I came into the world as one of 7.7 million Australians.

Unlike a lot of my compatriots, I'm happy about the expansion and hope there will be many more Australians in years to come, from all kinds of ethnic, religious and national backgrounds.

Most of us in the outer Sydney suburb where I grew up in the 1950s were descendants or children of migrants from the British Isles. Every Monday morning at school we listened to "God Save the Queen," the British national anthem, while one of us held the Southern Cross, Australia's national flag, and another, the British Union Jack.

Briefly, there was an Aboriginal boy in my school class, and a Chinese family ran the local greengrocer's shop -- part of a small community that had established itself despite the country's "White Australia" policy, which officially restricted immigration to Europeans.

Gradually the wider world began to intrude. We chatted on the way to school with young Italians who were laying pipelines and sewers along our street. Elsewhere Italians, Greeks, Turks and others were opening restaurants and delicatessens. Leichhardt, a Sydney suburb named after a doomed German explorer, became Little Italy; Marrickville the local Athens.

The migration net spread after White Australia was abolished in the 1970s, with refugee waves coming from Vietnam and Lebanon, Koreans establishing a beachhead by jumping tourist visas and Chinese students seeking asylum after the 1989 Tiananmen Square massacre. Then a long economic boom drew in skilled workers, information technology specialists and foreign students.

It is no longer a surprise to hear Aussie accents emerging from East Asian, Indian or Middle Eastern mouths. The latest group is Africans, mostly from war zones. Some of the teenagers are running a bit wild, but they will be Australianized too.  Some are already sports stars, a sure way to acceptance.

Population growth also augments Canberra's overseas influence and addresses the "populate or perish" warnings of earlier statesmen, who worried that the protection of Australia's shores by friendly naval powers -- first Britain and then the U.S. -- would not last forever.

Yet supporters of immigration are now facing a backlash, in part because population growth seems to be snowballing. As recently as 2002, the government forecast that the 25 million mark would not be reached until 2042.

Environmentalists are concerned about the carrying capacity of a vast but mostly dry island-continent, currently suffering a severe drought. Others talk more about quality of life, especially in Sydney (population 5.1 million) and Melbourne (4.8 million) where about 87% of new migrants settle.

Congested traffic, crowded trains and escalating property prices are blamed on the influx, which some label a "Ponzi scheme" because immigration-related increases in the size of the economy can be maintained only by continued immigration.

Others see migration as part of a plan to smash the bargaining power of organized labor. The Liberal/National Party government recently cut the quota for permanent migration from 190,000 a year to 162,000, but that gives a misleading impression of the number of non-native workers; about half a million temporary migrants with the right to work are in the country at any one time.

There are answers to all these objections. The ideal population size for Australia has been unclear since the start of European settlement in 1788, though the Aborigines had a sustainable balance of about 600,000. Agriculture could be made more sustainable, perhaps by ending production of water-intensive crops such as rice and cotton. Sydney and Melbourne need better public transport and building design. Better training would improve the job prospects of local workers.

But there is also a renewed and nasty attack on the principle of migration, led by the xenophobic One Nation party, whose leader, Pauline Hanson, has shifted her focus from Aborigines to Asians and Muslims. Radio shock jocks and tabloid columnists talk of a "tidal wave" of non-English-speaking migrants "changing our culture."

The recent reduction in permanent migration appears to be a response to this. The qualifying period for citizenship has also been extended, and there is talk of tougher tests for English language capability and compatibility with Australian "values."

This is racist and wrongheaded. Immigration has transformed Australia into a more interesting and secure place. I don't miss the monocultural Australia of my childhood, except perhaps for the bonfire celebrations on (British) Empire Day (abandoned in both Britain and Australia in 1958).

Hamish McDonald is a former foreign editor of The Sydney Morning Herald.

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