Australian migrants have to really want to come to this country. We are not like Europe or Africa or the Americas where migrants can trek from one country to another across a land border. And Australia isn’t conveniently positioned between continents teeming with humanity. We’re a bit out of the way … in fact we’re a long way out of the way. Which means that if migrants do decide to make the journey to Australia, then getting back to see family and friends is difficult. I think our isolation, the tyranny of distance, delivers an urgency to the Aussie migrant’s yearning for success.
Come to Australia, mate, work hard, pay your taxes, make a civic contribution, perhaps raise a family and share in the resources of our bountiful continent. Large-scale migration shapes the culture of the host population. Migrants lift the bar; they have something to prove; they measure their success by the success of their children (and often set up by the exceptionally hard work of the migrating parents). Without migration Australia would have remained a white Anglo enclave, a colonial outpost of Britain. Migrant effort, energy, enterprise and muscle have shaped this nation and changed the way we eat (pasta), style our homes (back veranda is now alfresco) and greet each other (cheek kissing) along the way.
All of which leads me to conclude that Australia is the greatest migrant nation on earth. And here is why I believe we can make that claim. According to the latest census figures 28 per cent of the Australian population was born overseas, up two percentage points in the past five years. This proportion in the US, Britain and Spain is barely 13 per cent. Only New Zealand (25 per cent) and Canada (20 per cent) come close to the Australian figures.
If we include residents with at least one parent born overseas then this proportion rises to 49 per cent. Or at least this was the proportion last August; by now we probably have topped the 50 per cent mark. There are more than 6.1 million migrants living in Australia — up 870,000 from the 2011 census — which represents an increase of 174,000 per year.
In Greater Melbourne, Perth and Sydney migrants comprise between 36 per cent and 39 per cent of the population (and even higher proportions in tighter definitions of these cities). This proportion in Greater New York is 37 per cent, in Paris it is 25 per cent, in Berlin it is 13 per cent, in Tokyo it is 2 per cent and in Shanghai it is less than 1 per cent. The Germans get all angsty when Berlin pushes much beyond the 13 per cent mark; Greater Sydney is sitting at 39 per cent and rising. And if we again include local residents with at least one parent born overseas, then 65 per cent of Sydney’s population is a migrant or closely connected to the migrant experience.
I do not see how anyone can credibly make the case that Australians are fundamentally racist — racist incidents perhaps, but not fundamentally racist — when close to 40 per cent of the population in our biggest city consists of migrants. If Australians had a fundamental problem with migrants then the issue would have been brought to a head long before Sydney got to be a more cosmopolitan city than New York.
There is no rioting in our streets. Generally we all get along. There are, of course, serious issues that we are dealing with in regard to refugees. However, I cannot cite another nation with metrics even approaching Australia’s generosity in accepting migrants.
Australia’s largest migrant groups are the British (1.088 million) and New Zealanders (518,000). The Brits arrived en masse after World War II as “ten-pound Poms”, while enterprising New Zealanders have always sought to test their mettle in the bigger market of Australia. However, through the 2020s it is likely that there will be a switch in our largest migrant populations. The Brits are dying off and the recovery of the New Zealand economy has stemmed the flow of Kiwis.
The rising migrant forces in Australia are unmistakably Asian. The latest census counted 510,000 Chinese-born residents, increasing at a rate of 38,000 a year, which means they probably already have surpassed the Kiwis as Australia’s second largest migrant group. Then come the Indians with 455,000, increasing at a rate of 32,000 a year. Then there are the Filipinos with 232,000 and the Vietnamese with 219,000.
The Chinese are our leading source of new migrants; they probably have replaced the Kiwis as our leading source of visitors; they form the largest body of overseas students; and China is our leading export market and source of imports. I think it’s time we made Mandarin a compulsory second language in the school curriculum. Indeed I think it is in the national interest for Australians to understand some Mandarin (and at times in business not to let on that we understand some Mandarin).
There is a pattern to the Australian migrant story. They come first through our biggest cities. Perth is the exception; it has a high proportion of overseas born because it was the first port of call for ten-pound Poms arriving by boat in the 1950s. Today 25 per cent of the northern beaches suburb of Jindalee in Perth was born in England. Probably a good place for a fish and chip shop.
In Sydney the Chinese cluster in Hurstville where they comprise 37 per cent of the population. The Indians prefer Parramatta (40 per cent), the Vietnamese like Cabramatta (36 per cent), the Filipinos base themselves in Rooty Hill (15 per cent) and the Lebanese prefer Greenacre (15 per cent).
In Melbourne the Chinese, driven by a large number of international students, cluster in the CBD (28 per cent), Clayton (26 per cent) and Carlton (25 per cent), while the Indians bunker down in Truganina (22 per cent) and the Vietnamese gather in Sunshine North (28 per cent).
The older and the more established the migrant group the less they cluster. The Greek hotspots in Sydney and Melbourne top out at about 7-8 per cent of the population in Earlwood and Oakleigh respectively. Eventually today’s Chinese and Indian enclaves will weaken as the next generation disperses and seeps out into the broader population.
There are migrant hotspots in every major city, especially among non-English-speaking settlers. The Chinese make up 9 per cent of the population in Hobart’s Sandy Bay. In Darwin’s Coconut Grove Filipino migrants comprise 10 per cent of the population. In Brisbane the Chinese comprise 23 per cent of the population in Macgregor, Indians cluster in Runcorn (9 per cent) and the Vietnamese congregate in Inala, where they comprise 20 per cent of the population. In Adelaide, for some reason English migrants love McLaren Vale where they account for 15 per cent of the population.
Generally British and New Zealand migrants integrate seamlessly into the Australian social fabric. Contrary to popular opinion New Zealanders do not dominate the Sydney suburb of Bondi, where they form just 3.4 per cent of the population. In fact the newest Kiwi enclave is a long way from hip Bondi; it’s Marsden in suburban Brisbane, where they form 13 per cent of the population. The Brits do congregate, but mostly as retirees in lifestyle locations such as Melbourne’s Mount Martha where they also comprise 13 per cent of the population.
But Australia’s migrant story doesn’t begin and end in the big cities. Go to Horsham, a town of 20,000 residents in Victoria’s Wimmera, and you will find 13 per cent of the population born overseas. In the US in Pittsburgh (population 2.4 million) this proportion is barely 7 per cent.
The migrant component to the Australian population swishes and swirls to every nook and cranny on the continent. I say this imbues Australians with a global perspective not found elsewhere. We have developed an absorbent culture that soaks up and showcases migrant influences. Perhaps because we are so removed we see overseas and cosmopolitan influences as a mark of sophistication. Quinoa salad, anyone?
There is one particularly telling outcome from the 2016 census question on migration that relates to the year of arrival. It tells a powerful story, not so much of the peaks and troughs of migrant arrivals but of the eternal struggle for Australian global-city supremacy between Sydney and Melbourne.
Between 1945 and 1969 migrant arrivals in Australia favoured the manufacturing heartland of Melbourne over Sydney. But between 1975 and 2005 Sydney was preferred over Melbourne as manufacturing lost ground to financial and other services as a source of employment. However, from the time of the global financial crisis Melbourne regained supremacy as the preferred destination for new overseas arrivals.
Australia’s two biggest global cities will always attract the most migrants; here is where migrant bonds and services are strongest. Here, too, is the greatest source of work. But with the demise of Australia’s manufacturing industry there must be something new attracting migrants to Melbourne over Sydney. Yes, there’s access to a global-city job market as well as to an established and rich migrant culture in Melbourne. But I suspect there is the added attraction of more affordable housing in Melbourne than is on offer in Sydney.
Which brings me to a final observation about Australia’s migrants. They make the journey to Australia to secure a better life for themselves and their families.
And in so doing I think they make choices based on work availability and perceived quality of life. Sydney may offer the next generation of migrants work opportunities in financial services, but it is the first generation that wants to buy a home, perhaps as a symbol of their success in the new world. And when you think about it, this aspiration to work and to own a home aligns nicely with fundamental Australian values.
By Bernard Salt