Speech: Book Launch - The Golden Country

13 September 2019

I’d like to begin by thanking the organisers of the Asian Australian Leadership Summit for agreeing to host this book launch.

This summit is an important event for our nation and I couldn’t think of a more appropriate platform to launch this book.

Gareth Evans and Jieh-Yung Lo from ANU, Penny Burtt and Mukund Narayanamurti from Asialink, and Andrew Parker and Sung Lee from PWC – thank you all for your support and indulgence in accommodating the launch of this book here today.

I start today, as always, by acknowledging the traditional owners of the land on which we meet, the Wurundjeri peoples of the Kulin Nation and pay my respects to their elders past and present.

At this inaugural Asian-Australian Leadership Summit we should echo Indigenous leader Noel Pearson’s call that we all work to bring together the ‘three parts of the one Australia’ -

‘the Ancient Indigenous Heritage which is its foundation, the British Institutions built upon it, and the adorning Gift of Multicultural Migration….’

- The “Three stories make us one: Australians.”

That’s the heart of what The Golden Country is about.

It’s about what it means to be Australian today and how that is shaped by our past.

And what it could mean in the future – and how we can shape that by our actions today.

The prologue to the classic book on Australian identity, Donald Horne’s The Lucky Country, opens in a bar in Hong Kong and continues with a series of conversations in Bangkok, Tokyo, Delhi and Manilla about Australia under the White Australia policy.

Eventually, a Filipino man tells Horne that Australia is ‘a huge continent. In a hundred years’ time it will be peopled from all over Asia.’

This proposition convinced Horne that ‘Australia was worth a book’ because ‘in the future it might be of interest to know what the huge continent was like…before it was peopled from all over Asia’.

But the story of Australia’s multicultural migration had barely begun when Horne sat down to write The Lucky Country.

In 1964 just 0.14 per cent of Australia’s population was born in China and slightly less, just 0.12 per cent, was born in India.

Even in the 1980s, only 3% of the Australian population claimed Asian heritage.

Of all people, we have John Howard to thank for changing this.

On coming into office in 1996, Howard set in train a series of major changes to our immigration system.

The cumulative effect of these changes was to create the first migration boom to this country since then end of the White Australia Policy – a boom that’s lasted for two decades and changed the face of our country.

It’s been extraordinarily successful.

Whether you’re looking at how Australians have responded to our changing immigration intake, how migrants did once they arrived in our country, or how immigration has affected our economy or our culture, John Howard’s immigration reforms, while not perfect, changed Australia for the better.

The fact that as a result of this migration boom, the proportion of Australians who claim Asian heritage has grown from around 3% to around 13% would hardly be worth noting…

… except for the fact that for the bulk of the first two centuries after European arrival, Australia’s national identity was defined in explicit racial contrast to the peoples of the neighbouring Asian nations.

The Anglo-Celtic founders of the Commonwealth of Australia did not see three stories as part of the nation they were building.

They saw a single story – a White Australia.

This was the story of my ancestors.

My great, great, great grandfather, John Watts arrived in Australia in 1840 and went on to be a member of the first Queensland parliament in 1860.

While defending the slaughter of Indigenous Australians committed by the Queensland Native Police during a Parliamentary Inquiry in the 1860s, told the Parliament:

‘Some may say we had no business to take this country from the natives, and therefore it was natural they should try to drive us out of it.

I am one of those who think this fine country never was intended to be only occupied by a nomad race who made no use of it except going from place to place and living only on the wild animals and the small roots of the earth, and never in any way cultivating one single inch of ground.’

My great, great, great, great grandfather, Charles Nantes, who arrived in South Australia in the 1840s before becoming a councillor in Geelong saw a similar imperative to build a White Australia not by dispossessing Indigenous Australians, but in keeping other non whites out of the country – he was an active member of the local Anti-Chinese Committee.

As The Argus newspaper of July 30, 1857 reports, after a public meeting Nantes' committee presented a petition to the Victorian parliament warning that the arrival of 'the Chinese' in Victoria was 'fraught with the greatest danger to the social, moral and political prosperity of this colony'.

The petition demanded that the Parliament 'immediately introduce the most vigorous measures to check any further increase of the Chinese race in Victoria' and 'effect a reduction of their numbers by imposing such a poll tax on all who may come hither as will induce them to prefer returning to their own country.'

In response, the Victorian Parliament did impose a tax that effectively prevented Chinese arrivals from disembarking in Victorian ports – triggering what is now known as the ‘Walk from Robe’, as around 17,000 Chinese migrants were forced to make the journey from the nearest port outside the state, the South Australian seaside town of Robe, to the goldfields on foot. Nantes’ thinking—that there was something inherent to the Chinese newcomers which was antithetical to the colonial-Australian way of life—was typical at the time.

This kind of belief spurred the federation of the colonies forty years later and was crystallised in what Edmund Barton, our first Prime Minister described as the first issue of ‘high policy’ debated by the federal parliament, the Immigration Restriction Act 1901, better known as the White Australia policy.

Five Australian prime ministers—Barton, Watson, Reid, Deakin and Hughes—spoke in the debate on the bill in language that would not be out of place in a white-supremacist internet forum today.

Alfred Deakin, the great Australian Liberal, told the house:

‘The one matter on which the Commonwealth is united is in the determination to maintain a “White Australia”.’

‘No motive power operated more universally on this continent than the desire that we should be one people and remain one people without the admixture of other races. It is only necessary to say that they do not and cannot blend with us, that we do not, cannot and ought not to blend with them’.

Those of different races could not ‘intermix, intermarry and associate without degradation on either side’, and as such should be excluded from the nation.

He called this first matter of ‘high policy’ debated by the Federation Parliament a ‘Declaration of White Australia’.

Such thinking didn’t just change Australia’s demography: it was fundamental to the myth-making that bound together the white people living in the newly formed nation.

Like a shadow-puppet show from the archipelago to our near north, the edges of the emerging Australian identity that was to separate us from the old world— egalitarianism and irreverence, resilience and mateship—needed a contrasting other to give them definition.

The stereotype of a servile, physically weak and morally corrupt Chinese horde, the ‘Yellow Peril’, was the threat, the other, that the nation’s founding fathers needed to mark out who they themselves were.

In this historical context, the rapidly increasing diversity of the Australian population is a significant change for the country.

The problem is that while Howard set these changes to our demography in train, he also broke our ability to talk about them as a nation.

Howard’s weaponization of the culture wars, particularly on questions of race and identity, have paralysed our ability to talk about Australia’s changing identity.

While he was Prime Minister Howard once declared that he knew ‘what an Australian has always been and always will be’.

Howard saw no need for what he called a ‘perpetual seminar’ on national identity because, for him, Australian identity was something carved on stone tablets and handed down to contemporary 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.

But this vision of Australian identity sells us short.

To deny our history, to deny our past failings, is to deny our ability to growth as a country and to take pride in our ability to grow.

It denies us a deeper appreciation for the journey of our nation and a bolder ambition for our future.

Our failure to tackle the questions of national identity raised by Australia’s changing demographics is holding us back from reaching our full potential as a nation.

We’re still suffering a psychological hangover from a century of nation building in the image of White Australia.

Sixty years after Donald Horne published, The Lucky Country, we need to ask what Australia is like today, as it is being ‘peopled from all over Asia’.

My argument is that we’ve become a nation of contradictions.

Despite being one of the world’s most successful multicultural nations, people of colour still commonly experience racial prejudice and discrimination in Australia.

Similarly, people of colour experience structural racism in our institutions and national imaginings.

Despite extraordinary individual successes across business, the arts, sciences and sports, a bamboo ceiling has left people of colour dramatically underrepresented in the leadership of the institutions of power of these sectors.

Indeed, while Asian-Australian comprise around 13% of the Australian population, they hold only around 1.5% of the senior leadership positions across our ASX 200 companies, our Ministries, our public service and our university management.

In my own work place, the Australian Parliament, there are five Asian-Australians when proportionally we might expect thirty.

Today, Australian multiculturalism works extraordinarily well in contemporary Australia—until people are asked to imagine an Asian-Australian (or a Muslim Australian or an African-Australian) as a representative of us, rather than as an exception.

We’ve become a successful multicultural society with monocultural institutions and symbols.

The result is a politics and a public sphere that doesn’t reflect the reality of the modern Australian community.

A public debate that’s more insular, more reactionary and more fearful than the Australian community.

As a result, when people of colour try to shape what it means to be Australian by speaking out on issues connected to national identity, our media and politics react like a host insulted by a guest in their own home.

Despite the Australian public remaining highly supportive of diversity and multiculturalism, populist politicians and ethno-nationalist movements have a growing public profile.

A regionally concentrated backlash has been brewing, driven by the material anxieties of an economy that has stopped working equally for all, but also motivated by the cultural anxieties of a small minority of people who fear that their relative social status as the default, the dominant cultural group, is declining.

Given all this, to realise the potential of the new Australia that has been emerging in recent decades, we need to start doing things differently as a nation.

We need to start thinking again about immigration as nation building again, as an enterprise that will shape the kind of country that we become and that must be managed with a vision for our future always in mind.

We need to break the bamboo ceiling blocking the advancement of Asian-Australians through our institutions.

We need to maintain public support for Australia’s immigration program by focusing more on ensuring that nobody is left behind, economically or socially, in our changing nation—regardless of where they live.

Most importantly, we must change the way we think about what it means to be Australian.

At the Centenary of Federation, Paul Keating said:

‘Nothing is more important to a country than the way it thinks about itself… the commonly shared model of what its national values and priorities are.

Everything else, including economic growth, flows from that.

The act of Federation was an act of imagining by the men and women who fought for it; that the people of this country could be something larger than we were.

They changed the way Australians thought about themselves.

I believe that a similar act of imagining is needed again.’

This was true when it said it in the year 2000, and it’s still true today.

We need to change the way we think of ourselves.

We need to re-imagine Australia.

The Australian identity of the past excludes too many of us and doesn’t speak to many others.

Our national symbols are increasingly being used by people who want to divide us, rather than bring us together.

In the face of a new, internet enabled and internationally connected, movement of ethnonationalist populists trying to divide us, we need to be working harder than ever before to build an inclusive national identity – an identity based on shared culture and values, rather than ethnicity.

Building a renewed, inclusive national identity can only come out of an ongoing national discussion that involves Australians of all backgrounds.

Unfortunately, the institutions of our body politic aren’t well equipped to carry this discussion.

I recognise that I’m part of the problem here.

We need to seek out new voices and deliberately create space for traditionally excluded or unheard Australians to help shape these stories about what it means to be Australian.

We need more institutions like the Asian Australian Leadership Summit to give these new voices a platform.

In the introduction to ‘Growing Up Asian in Australia’, Alice Pung writes: ‘Asian-Australians did not sit around all day meditating on cultural identity when we were growing up.’

Now that this generation has grown up, however, we’re seeing a flourishing of new voices on questions of identity in Australia, demanding a more inclusive society and national identity.

The leaders in the institutions of power in our country need to make space for these new voices to be heard, and they need to listen.

Together, we need to articulate a new vision of Australian national identity.

Which brings me to the cover of the Golden Country.

In the vanguard of this reimagining of Australia are a plethora of Asian-Australian voices in the arts: people who are transcending the traditional migrant story, consigned to the margins of our default identity, and are now telling stories about what it means to be Australian within an Asian-Australian setting.

I feel so privileged that one of my very talented constituents, a freshly minted Australian citizen, who is in the audience today, allowed me to take the cover image for this book from one of her works.

Nikki Lam’s Falling ‘Leaf Returns to its Roots’ is a response to Max Dupain’s classic piece of Australian iconography, Sunbaker.

Instead of Dupain’s black-and-white photograph of a bronzed Australian man, Lam presents a vividly colourful video accompanied by the sounds of a beach and marked by subtly shifting winds and shadows, with herself, a Chinese-Australian woman, in place of the Sunbaker.

Nikki’s description of the work is instructive:

“By comparing myself to an iconic Australian image, I am claiming that the idea of citizenship or belonging…can also take a fluid, progressive, unexpected turn and foster into something completely different, hybrid and continuous…

As the video loops, it is through the repetition that (my) identity is enforced (or questioned)… that identity is not about being but becoming.

Given that the notion of identity is both retrospective and contemporary, this project is an attempt to reference the past while reinterpreting the present through the reinvention of an iconic Australian identity.”

I love it – and it says visually what I’m trying to say in this book better than the 60,000 words I spent years agonising over!

Nikki’s work speaks to the kind of Australia that I hope we can build for my children – to The Golden Country of the book’s title.

A nation where all Australians can shape and reinterpret our national symbols.