RAMESH THAKUR. The invisibility of Asian–Australians is a national scandal. The silence on this scandal is a disgrace

As I read through the opinion articles in The Canberra Times and The Australian on Saturday 9 November, I grew increasingly exasperated at the total absence of any Asian voice. I then did an online search of opinion articles in the Fairfax media (The Age, The Sydney Morning Herald), plus The Daily Telegraph. As far as could be ascertained from their names and photos (with a built-in margin for errors), of the 49 opinion articles on that Saturday, only one was by a non-Caucasian.

Even he is a South African-born American columnist for The New York Times whose Times column had been reprinted locally in Australia. The mainstream media in other Anglosphere countries like Canada, the UK and the US have recruited residents of Asian origin among their stables of regular columnists, in addition to being far more visibly open to publishing unsolicited opinion articles by non-Caucasians as well.

By now thoroughly disgruntled, I checked the demographic make-up of contemporary Australia. According to an Australian Bureau of Statistics document of 3 April 2019, Australia’s 2018 population was 25 million, of whom 17.65 million (70.6 per cent) were Australian born and 7.35 million (29.4 per cent) were born overseas. In the latter category, 2.3 million (9 per cent) were born in Asia, mostly in China (2.6 per cent) and India (2.4 per cent).

Source: Australian Bureau of Statistics (April 2019)

There were 83,000 more Chinese-born and 24,000 more Indian-born than New Zealand-born people living in Australia in 2018. At 5.0 per cent, the number of Chinese and Indian-born Australian residents together exceeded those born in England (4.0 per cent) by a quarter million. Can anyone honestly say this remarkable contemporary reality is reflected in our quotidian social and political discourse?

The age breakdown of the overseas-born is also very illuminating. The median age of those born in England is 56, and in New Zealand 43. For the Chinese and Indian-born, the median age is 34. In other words, the Asians with their younger families represent the future face of Australia’s changing demographic profile.

In 2016, the religious make-up of the Australian population was Christians 52.1 per cent, no religion 30.1 per cent, Muslims 2.6 per cent, Buddhists 2.4 per cent, Hindus 1.9 per cent, and Sikhs 0.5 per cent. (Just to avoid any misunderstanding: I answered no religion in the census form.) Going by media attention and public debate, one would be hard pressed to guess that the last three groups are almost double the Muslim population. Moreover, in the 2006–2016 decade, the fastest rise in the population share was recorded by Hindus: an increase of 171 per cent, compared to 53 per cent for Muslims.

Because I am not religious, I had not paid any attention to this aspect of Australian social life until a group of Canberra-based Hindus raised it with me. They were unhappy at being treated unfairly vis-a-vis Muslim groups with respect to access to ACT grants, services and politicians. I have no idea if their sense of relative neglect was or is justified. In a variant of the squeaky wheel being noticed and getting greased, they wondered if their groups were in effect being penalised for being good citizens instead of harbouring a minority of extremists. This would be an unfortunate and dangerous sentiment to germinate in any group. But it did make me think about the space devoted to different religious groups in our national discourse, and the invisibility of Hindus and Buddhists does stand out.

In April 2018, the Australian Human Rights Council (AHRC) published an updated and revised version of its original 2016 study, entitled Leading for Change, on the paucity of cultural diversity in leadership positions across Australia’s many sectors: public service, private sector, universities. It noted that 76 per cent of our population is of Anglo-Celtic and European background, 21 per cent of non-European background, and 3 per cent of Indigenous (Aboriginal or Torres Strait Islander) background. Of the 2,490 seniormost posts in Australia, 94.9 per cent are held by people of Anglo-Celtic and European origin, 4.7 per cent by non-Europeans, and 0.4 per cent by Indigenous people. The report commented: ‘Cultural diversity is particularly low within the senior leadership of Australian government departments and Australian universities’.

Source: Leading for Change (April 2018), p. 1.

Source: Leading for Change (July 2016), p. 2.

The 2018 report concluded:

This is a dismal statistic for a society that prides itself on its multiculturalism.
It challenges Australia’s egalitarian self-image. It also challenges Australia as a nation whose prosperity relies upon international trade, capital inflows and mobility of people.

In general, children of immigrants outperform children of Australian-born parents in educational and employment metrics. Go into any average school in Australia and immigrant kids will likely be disproportionately represented in the ranks of the top academic performers. So which black hole do they disappear into by the time of the senior rungs of the leadership hierarchy? Asian universities, especially East Asian universities, have made the most dramatic gains of any region in world university rankings. Their top leadership must be doing something right. So how is it that with the imminent departure of Professor Deep Saini from the University of Canberra, Australia will once again be left without a single Asian Vice Chancellor, the statistic captured in the 2016 edition of Leading for Change?

If anything, based on the potent combination of talent, application and ambition, Asians tend to be over-achievers. So much so that even a venerable institution like Harvard University has resorted to racist admissions procedures in order to limit the number of Asian students.

Systemic racism? Nah. Tell them they’re dreaming and, if the Australian dream has turned into a personal nightmare, they should go back to where they came from.

Ramesh Thakur is emeritus professor in the Crawford School of Public Policy, The Australian National University, a former United Nations Assistant Secretary-General, and a Fellow of the Australian Institute of International Affairs.


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6 Responses to RAMESH THAKUR. The invisibility of Asian–Australians is a national scandal. The silence on this scandal is a disgrace

  1. Bob Ellis says:

    I live in that part of Australia that lacks mobile phone coverage, postal services etc. The sizable proportions of Asian immigrants to Australia are not evident here (though their influence is noticeable, for example as a result of Australia Post withdrawing services from the region under an Asian CEO, or where I cannot subscribe to a service unless I quote a mobile phone number). Instead, when my phone rings (landline) nine times out of ten it is an Asian voice which claims to be from my bank/telstra/NBN. They are not. They are scammers. Consequently, I hang up now when I hear an Asian voice begin the speil. My point is, that in some areas of public life in Australia Asian migrants are overrepresented and that influences the perceptions of fourth generation Australian born ‘old white males’ like me. I note also that Australian-born citizens are classified by Mr Thakun as ‘Anglo-Celtic and European background’ segueing to ‘Anglo-Celtic and European origin’. Too cute by half to make your point.

  2. Alison Broinowski says:

    Invisible Asians in Australia? Not in Sydney or Melbourne on public transport or in schools and universities. Some students complain that they only know their own identity-group. Asians are less visible in media, politics, and some professions perhaps, but there are plenty of exceptions, including in the churches. The problem is with the old white males from all-male education systems who appoint and promote in their own image. Women know how it feels, even to try to get equal pay, even now.

  3. Nick Deane says:

    Very interesting read… It makes a mockery of the current hysteria in he mainstream media, about China ‘taking over’ in Australia.

  4. Tony Kevin says:

    Cheer up , Ramesh. I am Caucasian and I don’t get published either these days. I don’t think it is a race thing. It is about the allowable discussion space. Many subjects are off limits these days. It did not use to be like this in Australia.

  5. Dennis Argall says:

    David Suzuki made the observation once that first generation migrants were preoccupied with the security of their children, that later generations took up social and political causes. But we have a deeper problem of intolerance in Australia. which seems at the moment to grow worse.

    This creates a problem of entrenchment as communities run within themselves, tending only to see themselves. We fail to address this at peril. I am not of a generation that can influence. Younger generations, including the most liberal, tend to wall off.

    Why aren’t there lots more like the irrepressible Dorothy? I’m sure there are, but the news cycle will always go to the nearest waterhole.

  6. Sam Lee says:

    It is worthwhile acknowledging that tribalism is human and one can be just as tribal about blood relations, class, fashion sense or … extremist ideology .. as one can be about race. The problem with being tribal about race in Australia is Australia has a lot of races – as theorised and designated, made into law, propagated and now re-invented by the dominant race in Australia – it really doesn’t have to be an existential part of one’s culture – and democracy does not work when equality before the law and universal sufferage are variably implemented according to one’s race.

    Ultimately the question is whether democracy (and unfettered capitalism) are in one’s personal interest or not – clearly many have already made up their minds especially amongst the race whose dominance can effect change or deny it in Australia.

    (Tribalism does not have to be racial, it’s just so ingrained in this culture I don’t see any feasible way for us to move away from it; and it should be said the constant attempts at colouring the Chinese with the same brush – as ‘racist Han’ – probably achieve the desired dog-whistling for cultures ingrained with the idea of racism but for those of us who have a background in Chinese heritage especially with its language/s – which include most of Australia’s geographical neighbours – they repeatedly highlight the ignorance and machinations of those making those attempts and probably achieve the exact opposite).

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