RAMESH THAKUR. Australia’s curious neglect of citizens of Asian origin

Last year, I commented on the puzzling neglect of Asian-Australians in the country’s public life, in particular Parliament. Published in Pearls and Irritations on 3 October, the article seemed to resonate among many readers and generated more messages in response than usual with blog posts on this site. It also caught the attention of ABC Radio National and on 23 October, they broadcast a 30-minute interview by Geraldine Doogue with George Megalogenis and me on the interlinked themes of migration and the shift to a Eurasian nation, and on the missing Asian-Australians in our institutions. This produced even more messages.

The Megalogenis interview picked up on his interesting analysis in the inaugural issue of Australian Foreign Affairs, in which he dissected Australia’s changing demographic profile with the substantial influx of immigrants from China and India in recent years. At an early point in the interview with me that followed, I asked how many Asians were among the authors in the inaugural issue. As suspected, the answer was none.

I was reminded of that with the decision by the Australian Labor Party to nominate former NSW Premier Kristina Keneally to fill the Senate vacancy caused by the resignation of Sam Dastyari following his injudicious links with Chinese businessmen and the appearance of spruiking China’s line on foreign policy issues in consequence. Criticism of the Keneally choice focussed on two complaints: that she had risen to prominence in NSW politics with the support of some of the state’s most notoriously corrupt politicians, Eddie Obeid and Ian MacDonald; and that Labor was choosing someone twice rejected by voters – in the 2011 state elections when she ‘led’ her party from government to a crushing defeat with a 16 per cent swing against Labor, and then again in the Bennelong by-election on 16 December 2017 caused by sitting Liberal MP John Alexander being ensnared in the citizenship trap and having to resign and recontest.

In the context of my argument, an equally relevant criticism is that Labor’s – albeit not just Labor’s – commitment to racial equality is more gesture than conviction politics. In my previous post last October, I asked: ‘Can you imagine an ethnic Indian as the state or federal leader of any of Labor, Liberal, National or Green in the foreseeable future’? Two of the last four Australian prime ministers were migrants from the UK. How many members of cabinet over the past decade have come from European migrant families? Keneally too is a US import.

I have no personal knowledge of her and not being a resident of NSW I cannot judge her record as state premier. But I did note how during the Bennelong by-election, Labor played to the large Chinese community in particular by trying to characterise the Turnbull Government as China bashers and therefore implicitly anti-Chinese. The obvious hypocrisy of selecting an American-Australian candidate as the champion of Asian-Australians – that too against a true blood Australian the technicalities of the dual citizenship fiasco notwithstanding – seems to have escaped senior Labor figures entirely. I was surprised at how strong my sense of outrage seemed at the time.

I had also noted in my original article how Asians are just as poorly visible in our university leadership. This despite the fact that Asia has been climbing the fastest of any continent in global university rankings, proving that Asia’s university leaders must be doing something right.

A listener drew my attention to a 2016 study published by the Australian Human Rights Commission. An initiative led by Race Discrimination Commissioner Tim Soutphommasane, Leading for Change: A Blueprint for Cultural Diversity and Inclusive Leadership has some telling statistics to confirm my impressionistic observations. Of the nation’s vice chancellors at the time, 85 per cent were Anglo-Celtic and the remaining 15 per cent were European. Of the federal and state departmental chiefs, 97.6 per cent were Anglo-Celtic/European, 1.6 per cent were non-European, and 0.8 per cent were indigenous. The corresponding figures for the federal ministry were 97.6, 0, and 2.4; for federal Parliament, 94.7, 3.5 and 1.8; and for the ASX 200 CEOs, 95.0, 5.0, and 0.

If that picture of Asian and indigenous Australians missing in action from top leadership positions is not a graphic and stark illustration of structural racism in our institutional leadership, I don’t know what data will convince the sceptics. It would have been even more interesting to see a comparative table of such figures from Canada, New Zealand, UK and the US as the other members of the Anglosphere. My suspicion would be Australia would rank triumphantly at the bottom, the smug boasts of the most multicultural nation in the world notwithstanding. It would actually feel good to be proved wrong.

Thus the neglect of our indigenous population is even more shameful than that of Australians. It is to Labor’s everlasting shame that Warren Mundine, one time national president of the ALP, was interested in but passed over for the Senate vacancy in March 2012 when Mark Arbib resigned. Now Mundine is more closely affiliated with the Liberal Party than with Labor. Would it not be wonderful to have him and Jacinta Price (going by her views) on the Liberal benches and perhaps Stan Grant to join Linda Burney on the Labor side in Parliament? All three of Mundine, Price and Grant are thoughtful ‘born leaders’ whose contributions to public debate are weighty and demonstrate gravitas.

Meanwhile there is little reason not to believe that the political parties’ commitment to racial equality and parity stops at the point where rhetoric ends and practice begins.

Ramesh Thakur is a professor at the Australian National University and co-convenor of the Asia–Pacific Leadership Network for Nuclear Non-Proliferation and Disarmament.


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2 Responses to RAMESH THAKUR. Australia’s curious neglect of citizens of Asian origin

  1. Paul Frijters says:

    I appreciate what you say, Ramesh, but my headline message on Australia’s treatment of Asian migrants living here is totally different from yours. Australia currently takes in about 1% of its population every year in new migrants, lead by Chinese and Indians. That is an enormous inflow and represents a very positive attitude to Asian immigrants. Inter-marriage rates with these migrants and other groups are very high (see the works of Xin Meng and Bob Gregory on this). Integration in the world of work and school is also very high (just walk into any selective state school in Australia: lots of Asian-origin children). So the main message must be one of good news. Given that the migrants from Asia are predominantly very recent migrants, a lot of the statistics on non-representation at the top that you quote are not that relevant.

    I think the appropriate headline would thus be: “Australia is a very Asian-immigrant friendly country, but we can still do better.”

    If you want to complain about Asian-related sexism and racism, I have two observations for you: 1) the Asians let in are relatively rich and well-educated (no poor migrants!), and 2) the Asians that went to the school of my children were considered ‘white people’ and were thus deemed co-responsible for the age-old oppression of First Australians by the teacher, after which a representative of said First Australians (someone just as white!) would come in and lecture the girls on how inferior they were relative to males and were thus not allowed to play the didgeridoo whilst the boys were. That open racism and sexism, applied to Asian whites, other whites, and all girls, is indeed appalling, but my complaints to the school principal were ignored under the grounds that this was appropriate racism and sexism because it was perpetrated by ‘oppressed people holding on to their culture’. Textbook racism and sexism dressed up as political correctness! Yes, you can’t make this stuff up: institutionalized racism and sexism perpetrated in supposedly ‘enlightened’ schools in Australia. I dare you to openly take on that fight!

    You will thus find that if you truly oppose racism and sexism in Australia, you will be fighting many sides of the political spectrum.

  2. David Maxwell Gray says:

    There are win-win outcomes if we Australians of Anglo-Celtic origin were to put aside our deeply embedded, but usually not acknowledged, racist tendencies and better join with other Australians of different origins, whether Asian or indigenous. For, example, with China (PRC) having emerged as clearly a really important focus for our trade and diplomatic relations, with many ethnic Chinese coming as students from the PRC and many other parts of Asia, we could much better utilize the language skills and cultural understandings of existing Australians of Chinese origin. This could be in many activities: in business, government, the public service, in teaching and in community organisations. We need to cede power and influence, to make this work. And our collective trade and diplomatic relations and our choice of appropriate international strategies, would benefit.

    The same principal applies to people of other ethnic origins, and our continuing failure to teach Australian students Asian languages in particular at any reasonable level is gross national negligence. Let us “walk the walk” about being part of Asia.

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