09 August 2018



(Acknowledgements omitted)

I acknowledge the traditional owners of the land on which we meet and pay my respect to their elders past and present.


I would like to thank the Australia India Institute and Professor Craig Jeffrey for the generous invitation to speak tonight.


The AII is an important intellectual institution for deepening our understanding of a relationship that should be crucial to Australia’s economic, strategic and cultural future – I’m honoured to be able to make a contribution.  


It is customary for Australian commentators on the Australia-India relationship to begin by noting the unrealised potential of this relationship.


We note that our countries share a democratic, widespread use of the English language and a love of cricket – sometimes working in our shared passion for curry and MasterChef – and on this basis we imagine Australia and India to be natural international partners.


The conundrum of why these commonalities haven’t in actuality resulted in a deeper relationship were summed up by one of the doyens of Australian foreign policy, Arthur Tange on his arrival in New Delhi as Australia’s new High Commissioner in 1965 over fifty years ago.


Tange noted that that while there was ‘fertile ground’ between Australia and India, ‘no-one seems to know what seed to plant’.


Fifty years on there is now an emerging consensus that one seed planted in this fertile ground may be beginning to sprout – our people-to-people relationships.


As an elected representative from Melbourne’s West, where people of subcontinent heritages are the fastest growing communities in the fastest growing area of Australia, I see this every day.


Australia’s ageing population and India’s youth bulge create a demographic complementarity for migration between our nations.


Australia is now home to around 700,000 people who claim Indian ancestry – nearly 3% of our population - and Melbourne is home to nearly 2/3rds of Australia’s Indian-born community.


Diwali, Holi, Navratri and Bathukamma are established fixtures of our community calendar and I’ve added Garba dancing to the list of skills that I didn’t expect that I would learn as an MP.


Our cricket and hockey clubs would be unrecognisable without our players of subcontinent heritage and even the CEO of our AFL team, the Western Bulldogs, Ameet Bains, is of Indian-Australian heritage. 


Given this I was pleased to see people-to-people links recently identified as one of the three ‘pillars’ for engagement with India in Peter Varghese’s formidable “India Economic Strategy to 2035” report.


Indeed, Varghese correctly called people-to-people links the ‘most significant asset of all’ in Australia-India relations’.


These people-to-people links are not just important for building trade and investment relationships, but also shape mutual perceptions.


Varghese explains the ‘soft’ value people-to-people links, as going into the “nooks and crannies of a relationship where governments cannot. They can shape perceptions in a way governments cannot”.


This is good stuff – and it’s consistent with the approach the ALP has been taking to this issue over the past year.


Labor wants to drive a step-change in Australia’s engagement with Asia and we’ve been developing a comprehensive, whole of government and whole of nation framework for this engagement called ‘FutureAsia’.

Labor’s Shadow Treasurer, Chris Bowen has committed to reporting to Parliament annually on progress against this framework.


As part of FutureAsia, a Shorten Labor government has committed to leveraging the knowledge and relationships of our diaspora through programs based on those long in place within the US State Department, to build people-to-people networks across governments, the not-for-profit and private sectors.


Tange couldn’t have imagined the potential for an Indian-Australian diaspora to be our ‘most significant asset’ in the Australia-India relationship because when he sent his first report to Prime Minister Menzies, Australia was still trapped in the self-imposed bondage of the White Australia Policy.


In fact, as Australian migration and multiculturalism expert Dr James Jupp has written, the first people to be denied entry into Australia for failing the Immigration Restriction Act’s infamous dictation test were two men from northern India – the Act having come into force while their ship, the Kumano Maru was already en route.


The insult to these two men was especially egregious as both were fellow British subjects and were even veterans of the Imperial Army in service of common cause with Australian soldiers.  


The affront led to one man becoming quote “so distraught that he had to be roped and dragged.”


The incident prompted a petition from the Indian residents of Victoria to the Colonial Office, an office with significant experience of complaints about the White Australia policy by that stage, questioning why Indians who had fought in service of the British cause were denied entry when Germans, Russians and Italians were waved through without molestation.


The White Australia Policy remained a major obstacle to relations between Australia and India for decades - one of Tange’s predecessors as High Commissioner, Roy Gollan had even advised the government in 1949 that:


“Australia is now being specifically named with South Africa when the question of racial discrimination is ventilated in the Indian press”.


This was an apt comparison as the dictation test had originally been pioneered in the South African province of Natal as an instrument for restricting Indian migration to the region before being adopted in Australian colonies at the suggestion of the Colonial Office as a compromise to an outright ban on non-white migration. 


It was diplomatic cables like this that lead to the External Affairs department being one of the most consistent bureaucratic resistors to the White Australia policy – they could see the damage it did to us better than most.


The thinking that underpinned the White Australia Policy was based on the assumption that there was something intrinsic in non-white people, that left them congenitally unable to embrace the egalitarian values of the nation we were building here.


This thinking was laid bare in the classic 1886 statement from the editor of The Bulletin, James Edmond, explaining the adoption of the publication's banner "Australia for the white man".


Edmond declared:


"By the term Australian we mean not those who have merely been born in Australia. All white men who come to these shores – with a clean record – and who leave behind them the memory of class-distinctions and the religious differences of the old world; all men who place the happiness, the prosperity, the advancement of their adopted country before the interests of Imperialism, are Australian. In this regard all men who leave the tyrant-ridden lands of Europe for freedom of speech and right of personal liberty are Australians before they set foot on the ship which brings them hither. Those who fly from an odious military conscription; those who leave their fatherland because they cannot swallow the worm-eaten lie of the divine right of kings to murder peasants, are Australians by instinct – Australian and republican are synonymous."


Noble indeed!


But there was a catch.


A limit to these egalitarian Australian values that the Bulletin went on to make brutally clear:


“No n*****r, no Chinaman, no lascar, no kanaka, no purveyor of cheap coloured labour, is an Australian."


By the thinking of the formative years of our nation, anyone who wanted to resist the injustices of the old world was an Australian for merely having this thought, but no non-white man or woman could ever cross this threshold.


It was not, until 1958 that the dictation test was abolished in Australia, and not until 1972 that the last remnants of formal racial discrimination were removed from our immigration system.


It’s an ugly part of our history – but one worth reflecting on as we embark on a hopeful new chapter in the Australian-Indian relationship.


Today, the context for people-to-people links between Australia and India has changed radically.


Reforms of Australia's immigration system emanating from an unlikely source, the newly-elected Howard government, and then largely being continued by governments of both political persuasions have dramatically changed the scale, nature and composition of our immigration intake.


The creation of a demand-driven, skilled migration program at the beginning of the longest period of sustained economic growth in our history has resulted in more people coming to our shores, in raw numbers than ever before.


As a result, in 2016, 28.5% of the Australian population or 6.9 million people, were born overseas, the highest it has been since the 19th century.


This was unexpected - a forecast by the Bureau of Immigration, Multicultural and Population Research at the beginning of the Howard government even projected that the proportion of Australians born overseas would reach between 18 and 21% by 2031 – a reduction from the 22.8% at the date of the projection.


Notably, Howard’s unlikely reforms also resulted in another unexpected by-product - the dramatic acceleration of migration from Asian countries to Australia.


When Donald Horne wrote 'The Lucky Country' in 1961, a few years before Tange’s note to Menzies, just 0.14% of our population was born in China and slightly less, just 0.12% were born in India.


By the time I was born in the 1980s, the proportion of the Australian population claiming Asian heritage was still less than 3%.


Today over 13% of the Australian population, or 3.13 million people, are of Asian ancestry.


From a very low baseline, thanks to Howard’s unlikely reforms, Asian-Australians have grown to become as large a minority group in Australia as African-Americans in the United States and on conservative forecasts will exceed the size of the Hispanic population in that country in the next decade.


In the context of the century of nation-building, on the premise of White Australia that shaped our early nationhood, on the policies that caused us to deny entry to two northern Indian men in 1902 and poisoned the well on our relations in the region for decades - this is an extraordinary transition.


We live in a very different Australia to that imagined by Alfred Deakin when he predicted that thanks to the actions of our Federation era governments, by the 21st Century there would not be a “black or even dark skin among (Australia's) inhabitants” .


And this new multicultural reality is working extraordinarily well for Australia.


The central institutions of economic policy in Australia, the Treasury, the Reserve Bank and the Productivity Commission all agree that immigration has had a positive effect on the Australian economy over the past two decades.


Indeed, it’s likely that the success of Australia’s economy, whether measured by GDP per person or overall GDP growth, has never been more reliant on the success of our immigration system.


This is highlighted in a 2018 joint report of the Treasury and Home Affairs department that cited research that estimated that immigration was responsible for nearly one fifth of the growth in GDP per person enjoyed by Australians over the past 40 years.


It went so far as to suggest that “migration helped the (Australian) economy successfully weather the Global Financial Crisis and the slow global growth and poor economic conditions that followed”.


This is a function of the way that migrants have flourished on their arrival in Australia.


By whatever measure of economic and social success in a community that you can think of, Australian migrants have thrived, and their children have done even better.


Just today – Phillip Lowe gave a speech outlining the economic benefit of migration to Australia.


Across employment, entrepreneurialism, earnings and crime - migrants generally do at least as well as those born in Australia, and often do much better.


20 years after the start of Howard’s unlikely reforms, a special report of the Scanlon Mapping Social Cohesion project summarising a decade of research and concluded that despite the scale and pace of change experienced in Australia, there has been


“consistency in the level of acceptance of immigration and cultural diversity - and a large measure of stability across key indicators of social cohesion”.


The 2007 Scanlon report recorded those who thought immigration was ‘too high’ at 36% of the population against those who thought it ‘about right’ or ‘too low’ at 53%.


Ten years and more than a million more permanent migrants later, these figures stood at 37% and 56% - they had barely moved.


Only 6% of respondents indicated that immigration is the most important problem facing Australia today.


The strong and enduring support for diverse immigration in Australia during a period of significant immigration growth is a dramatic contrast with the rest of the world.


Indeed, according to the Gallup World Poll, Australia is the only developed, western nation to have a net positive view on immigration rates in their country, finding even fewer Australians who wanted to see it reduced, 25% of respondents, than the Scanlon survey.


We see similar patterns in Australians’ attitudes to multiculturalism.


When Scanlon has asked whether ‘multiculturalism has been good for Australia’, 83-86% of Australians have responded ‘yes’ against only 10-12% who answer in the negative.


It’s difficult to find an issue with stronger public support in Australia than multiculturalism.


To reclaim a phrase, the Australian public have been remarkably ‘relaxed and comfortable’ about immigration and multiculturalism.


These broad community attitudes of acceptance of migration and cultural diversity are reflected in an equally high sense of belonging in Australia on the part of migrants.


Fully 92% of migrants surveyed by Scanlon reported a great or moderate extent of belonging in Australia. 



Gallop’s World Poll Happiness Report recently found that migrants in Australia were the 6th happiest of the 140 countries surveyed – happier even than the Australian population as a whole (who ranked 10th).


Unsurprisingly given these attitudes, more than eight out of ten migrants who have been in Australia for at least ten years formally buy into the Australian community by taking up citizenship.


The success of Australia’s immigration system and Australian multiculturalism is exceptional by international standards.


We’re certainly not perfect, but overall, you'd rather be a migrant in Australia than any other nation.


This story of national evolution and success is a personal story for me.


It is the story of my family and my community.


My ancestors have been in Australia since the 1840s – six generations.


My ancestors were members of the Anti-Chinese leagues who lobbied for the exclusion of non-whites from the country they were building, and members of the pre-Federation colonial Parliaments who formalised the White Australia policy.


Yet today, my wife is a first generation Australian, born in Hong Kong and migrating to Australia as a child.


My children speak Cantonese and English at home, go to a bilingual Vietnamese-English primary school and love both the Western Bulldogs and Australia.


They’re typical of my constituents in multicultural Melbourne’s West


People with many backgrounds coming together in this nation to create one new Australian story where this time, everyone is included in those defining Australian values of egalitarianism, mateship and the fair go.


To give you just one example, earlier this week, my friend and activist in the Indian community of Melbourne’s West, Jasvinder Sidhu established a drought relief fundraiser, drawing on the hard experience of the Australian-Punjabi community with the vicissitudes of agricultural life to raise thousands of dollars for Australian farmers doing it tough.


Next week they will be doing a joint event with a local CWA – this is the lived experience of Australian multiculturalism.

It is this lived experience of diversity that underpins what Peter Varghese describes as Australia’s most ‘significant asset’ for engagement with India.


However, we need to understand that we’re far from alone in this respect.


The Indian diaspora is approximately 30 million strong - the world’s largest.


It is true that as a percentage of population, the Indian-Australian diaspora community is substantially larger than any other OECD nation, in raw numbers there are many people to people links between other developed nations and India. 


The nations that will be most successful in leveraging these links will be the nations that enable the members of their diaspora communities to reach their full potential.


It is here that we face domestic challenges.


Unfortunately, our nation’s media and political class haven’t caught up with the success of Australia’s new multicultural reality.



The leadership of our public institutions, our parliaments, our executive, our public service, our universities, our board rooms and our C-Suites remains stubbornly monocultural.


The most recent research from the Australian Human Rights Commission has found that “about 95 per cent of senior leaders in Australia have an Anglo-Celtic or European background”.


According to the same report, Asian-Australians make up only 3.1% of senior leadership positions in Australian organisations. 


That’s barely a quarter of the number we would expect if senior leaders reflected our community.


It seems that Australian multiculturalism works extraordinarily well until we’re asked to imagine an Asian-Australian as a representative of us.


Australia is dramatically underperforming relative to the US, UK and Canada on this measure of openness to diversity.


Whereas Australia only achieves a quarter of the national parliamentary representation for ethnic minorities it should if parliament proportionately reflected the community, the US and the UK achieve about half and Canada roughly three-quarters. 


This disconnect between the Australian community and the leaders of our institutions has real consequences.


We’re seeing out-of-touch conservative political and media figures, who so desperate to import US and European campaigns against multiculturalism into our domestic politics, that they are seeking to create a self-fulfilling prophecy.


Our outgoing Race Discrimination Commissioner, Tim Soutphommasane was right to warn this week that ‘Race politics is back’ and that “there has never been a more exciting time to be a dog-whistling politician or race-baiting commentator in Australia."


In the last two weeks alone, we’ve seen splash headlines in the Daily Telegraph warning about the increasing number of babies being born to foreign born Aussie mums (like my wife!) relative to Australian born Aussie mums,


We’ve seen Andrew Bolt unironically warning that Australia is being ‘colonised’ by migrants in an article headlined “The Foreign Invasion”, citing as evidence for his proposition, a high school level bungling of statistics that led him to overestimate the Chinese-Australian population of Box Hill by around 100%.


And we’ve seen a Neo-Nazi on Sky News.


Views expressed not on the margins, but in the mainstream of our public sphere.


We have also seen a government warning, without evidence, that Australia is travelling down a 'European separatist multicultural model', while at the same time seeking to raise barriers to new arrivals becoming fully fledged members of our community – increasing citizenship waiting times and flagging vague new tests for eligibility.


This discourse has consequences.


One of the dark clouds in the data on Australian multiculturalism is an uptick in reports of discrimination based on skin colour, ethnic origin, religion over the past decade - increasing from 9% in 2007 to 20% in 2017.


Nor is it helping the visible minorities who are still subjects of overt racist abuse with for example, 26% of people of Indian heritage reporting experiencing such abuse.


And increasingly we’re seeing people of colour in Australia with the temerity to talk critically about what it means to be Australian treated by our media and political classes as ungrateful dinner guests who have insulted the host rather than citizens of equal standing in our nation.


If we want people to people links to be a living bridge between Australia and India in a way that strengthens this relationship rather than hinders it we need to ensure that the experience of Indian-Australian diaspora members reflects positively on our country.


In this respect, out-of-touch conservative politicians and media commentators risk cutting of our nose to spite our face. 


My personal view is that this disconnect between the successful lived experience of Australian multiculturalism and our political and media class is a function of our inability to grapple with questions of Australian identity over the past two decades.


While he was radically reshaping Australia’s immigration system as Prime Minister, John Howard made it clear that he and his supporters knew ‘what an Australian has always been and always will be'. 


Howard saw no need for what he called 'the perpetual Australian symposium' on national identity because for him, Australian identity was something carved in stone tablets and handed down to Australians from Sir Henry Parkes by way of the Anzacs and Sir Donald Bradman.


It didn’t need to change.


It couldn’t change.


It just was.


Howard’s culture wars hamstrung our nation’s ability to talk about what it means to be Australian at the moment we needed it the most – at the time that we were finally outgrowing the legacy of White Australia and becoming a thriving, modern, multicultural nation.


As a result, what Benedict Anderson called our ‘imagined community’ the stories that a people tell themselves and each other about who they are and what they imagine that they have in common because of this – has failed to keep up with our national reality. 


Unless we come to grips with these challenges, Australia's past is going to catch up with us and prevent us from realising the opportunities of the new nation we’re building.


In short, Australian politicians need to get back into the national identity debate.


This is important, and it isn't optional.


If mainstream politicians don't construct a new national identity that’s fit for purpose for modern Australia, extremists will double down on appeals to the past and ethnicity as the source of what unites us – a 21st century version of Henry Parkes ‘crimson thread’.


Advocates of modern, multicultural Australia have a more difficult task building an inclusive national identity than the ethno-nationalists.


We can't just point to something innate and assert that everyone with that characteristic is united by the same interests.


We need to build the bonds of shared identity and affinity through the stories we tell each other about our past and our joint endeavours as a nation.


So what does it meant to be an Aussie in the 21st century? 


Polling reveals that the way Australians view themselves is pretty exceptional by world standards – particularly with respect to the place of migrants in our national identity.


A 2016 international survey by the US Pew Research Centre has found that only 13% of Australians believe that being born in Australia is very important to being truly Australian.


This might feel unsurprising to an Australian reader, but it's a dramatically different response to many other developed nations.


The median in European countries is 33% and in the United States, the nation whose identity is most explicitly bound up with the idea of being an Immigrant Nation it is 32%.


In this regard, the Australian public are further down the path of recognising our new national identity than our politicians or our media.


Australians view being an ‘Aussie’ as more of something that you buy into, rather than are born into.


50% of respondents to the Pew survey also agreed that it's very important to 'share national customs and traditions' to be truly Australian.


What is this Australian culture that migrants are expected to buy into?


A 2017 survey found that the top four characteristics reported by Australians as being 'especially Australian' were 'Belief in the fair go' 89%, love of the great outdoors 89%, a sense of humour 89% and interest in sports, 82%.


You can still hear the echo of the egalitarian rural pioneer in these answers, but it’s all pretty generic and none of it is culturally exclusive.


In fact, interestingly 78% of respondents indicated that it was ‘especially Australian’ to have a diversity of background.


We have a strong platform to build a national identity that is inclusive of migrants.


It’s worth talking about these issues now as Australia may be about to enter a period of discussion about national identity.

National plebiscites on Indigenous constitutional recognition and an Australian republic loom on the horizon asking us to reflect as a nation on who we are as Australians – today.  


In this respect, we can learn from the serious thinking about national identity that has been done by indigenous Australians as part of the development of the Uluru Statement from the Heart.


As Noel Pearson argued in the LOWITJA O’DONOGHUE ORATION 2018, done right, this process could be an opportunity to:


“bring together each of the three parts of the one Australia: its Indigenous Heritage, its British Institutions and its Multicultural Migration.”


Until we confront these contradictions in the way we see ourselves, we won’t be able to shape the way others – like India – see us either.


In her impressive history of the Australia-India relationship, Dr Meg Gurry writes about Peter Varghese’s experience arriving in India as the Australian High Commissioner in 2009 during the Indian student assault crisis.

Gurry writes that Peter found 'a time warp in our perceptions of each other' - having to explain the demise of the White Australia policy and the emergence of a diverse, multicultural reality of modern Australia.


Today it is clear that the real time warp in perceptions is that of Australia’s political and media classes.


To fully realise the potential of the people to people links between Australia and India, we need to change the way we think about ourselves. 


Authorised by Noah Carroll, ALP, Canberra