Do better Australia!!!
The year 12 school photo surprises many who stop to look at it closely: more than 80 per cent of the students grinning into the camera are Asian-Australians. Most were born here of parents who came from China, Hong Kong, Vietnam, India and the Philippines. In the small world of the selective high school, the face of multicultural Australia is unmistakable.
Take a walk through the city at lunchtime. You don't have to know that 35 per cent of Sydney's population was born overseas. The ethnic diversity is overwhelming. Move west or south-west into the suburbs and the colour, smells and sounds of the whole world swirl around you. In Fairfield, almost 60 per cent of the residents were born overseas; in Bankstown, it's 40 per cent.
Australia was once touted as a multi-cultural success story, a beacon in a xenophobic world. Now it is branded as racist. After attacks on Indian students, culminating in the murder of Nitin Garg in Melbourne, our reputation, and one of our biggest export industries, education, is imperilled.
There is no room for complacency about Australia's capacity for bigotry. Australians are not as racist as the Indian television networks shrilly assert. We like the economic benefits migrants bring. Even in the face of the global financial crisis, we supported high levels of immigration. Unlike the British or Europeans, we think of ourselves as a nation of immigrants. But nor are we as tolerant as we protest. History shows it only takes a wilful politician or hard economic times to whip up latent prejudices and bring out the worst.
As a nation we are less accepting of ethnic diversity than Americans, Italians or Swedes, the World Values Survey reveals, but more accepting than the Germans or Spanish. We have not banned minarets on mosques like the Swiss, or headscarves in classrooms like the French. But groups of Australians fight the building of Muslim schools, and the Cronulla riots are a permanent stain on the national psyche.
There is anxiety about hard-working migrants who keep their businesses open to midnight and get their kids into selective schools; we don't believe we are better than the "brown skins" as the English do; we fear we are inferior.
A hard-core 10 per cent of Australians are dead-set against immigrants. This intolerant nub can quickly expand when the times are right, or should I say wrong, to encompass the deeply ambivalent - a significant 35 to 40 per cent, research shows. When politicians make migrants a political issue, as Pauline Hanson did, or when unemployment rises, bigotry erupts like a burst boil.
The best account of how we are tracking is a new report for the Scanlon Foundation called Mapping Social Cohesion, by Andrew Markus, of Monash University. It is the source of my figures. Based on a survey involving 3800 people in July last year, it shows the glass is half full, the picture more nuanced than can be conveyed in a TV sound bite.
Racism flourishes in some locations, and among some groups. It is more prevalent in poorer areas, and where third- and fourth-generation Australians live in ethnic enclaves, feeling like minorities. It flourishes where people don't trust each other, and don't feel safe, and are financially struggling. In this lies hope. Projects to build trust between groups, increase employment and bring better policing and lighting to poorer neighbourhoods can have spin-offs in better relationships.
The shift from white Australia to ethnic diversity in 30 years is full of contradictions. There is ammunition in the Scanlon report for both sides of the debate about racism. To celebrate is the 68 per cent agreement that migrants make Australia stronger; the proportion that thinks we take too many migrants is at a record low despite immigration levels being at a record high.
Under prime ministers Bob Hawke and Paul Keating, 75 per cent thought immigration was too high; now it's 37 per cent. The Labor prime ministers were considered captives of the ethnic lobby and people feared we were becoming a nation of tribes. John Howard's genius was to raise the immigrant intake while distancing himself from the multi-cultural lobby. Kevin Rudd has followed suit.
To cheer is that 88 per cent of migrants from non-English-speaking backgrounds feel they belong here; and they believe, even more strongly than the rest of the population, that Australia is "a land of economic opportunity where in the long run, hard work brings a better life". Between 60 and 70 per cent of Australians say people of different ethnic backgrounds get on well together in their neighbourhoods.
Yet coexistence masks high levels of discrimination because of skin colour or ethnicity, with Indians and Sri Lankans reporting at twice the national average. Physical assaults, though reported by less than 10 per cent, have doubled since 2007.
Most Australians appreciate that the kids grinning in the school photo will help make Australia stronger, clever and competitive. The economic benefits of immigration, at least in good times, are understood. Yet there is some way to go before many Australians overcome their ambivalence and unease and embrace ethnic diversity with enthusiasm.