IPA Today

So, What Makes Australia A home?

Written by
30 June 2022
Originally appeared in The Australian Financial Review

Democracy, the rule of law and freedom of speech might all be ideals originating in Europe, but the legacy of the history and tradition of “the West” is today in Australia either ignored or cancelled.

Never has it been more important for Australians to have a sense of their nation’s identity and purpose, yet such a sense is now almost completely absent in this country.

The findings of last year’s census released this week reveal that for the first time in our history, more than half of the population was either born overseas or has a parent who was.

Out of more than 30 countries in the OECD (leaving aside Luxembourg and its 650,000 residents), Australia has the highest proportion of foreign-born people in its population at 29.9 per cent. The countries that follow are Switzerland at 29.7 per cent, New Zealand at 26.8 per cent and then Israel at 21.2 per cent. The figures for the United Kingdom are 13.7 per cent and for the US it’s 13.6 per cent.

The only countries with a higher proportion of their population born overseas are either very small, or in the Middle East with large migrant worker programs such as Kuwait and Saudi Arabia.

Australia is unique. Although we might celebrate Australia’s status as a multicultural (or more precisely a multiethnic) nation, and note the non-Anglo, Italian surname of the new prime minister, just how special we are isn’t widely understood.

When 21-year-old Barbara Porritt from Yorkshire arrived in Australia in 1955 as officially the country’s one millionth post-war immigrant, she came to a nation that understood itself as basically a fragment of the British Empire with all that entailed. Then, for good or ill, we regarded our history as European, our religion as Christian and our outlook as optimistic.

That is not true of Australia today.

Democracy, the rule of law and freedom of speech might all be ideals originating in Europe (or more precisely in their modern form, Britain) but the legacy of the history and tradition of “the West”, broadly defined, is today in Australia either ignored or cancelled.

What young Australians think of their country speaks for itself.

Last week it was announced the name of the trophy for which the national Australian and English rugby union teams compete would be changed. It was previously “The Cook Cup”.

As explained in The Sydney Morning Herald: “[James] Cook has become a divisive figure in recent years, with a statue of the pioneering British sailor in Melbourne vandalised on Australia Day this year. A statue in Cairns that has long caused angst for the region’s first Australians was removed last month by the new owners of the land on which it stood.”

Whether Australia is still “Christian” is debatable. The census showed that also for the first time, less than half the population regard themselves as Christian. Fourty-four per cent of Australians responded that they were, compared to 52 per cent five years ago and 61 per cent ten years ago. Meanwhile, 39 per cent of people ticked the “no religion” box in the census.

What young Australians think of their country speaks for itself.

‘Stay and fight, or leave?’

In March, the Institute of Public Affairs commissioned a survey of 1000 Australians asking: “If Australia was in the same position as Ukraine is now, would you stay and fight, or leave the country?”

Across all ages, 46 per cent said they would stay and fight, 28 per cent said they would leave and 26 per cent were unsure. What people say in a survey is of course different to what they might do in real life, but the fact that less than half of respondents would not volunteer to fight for their country is, at the very least, thought-provoking.

Of those between the ages of 18 and 24, 32 per cent said they would stay and fight, 40 per cent said they would leave and 28 per cent were unsure what they would do. Nothing young Australians are taught according to the national curriculum will change these percentages.

If a country’s fertility rate is a measure of its people’s faith in the future, the signs are not good. Australia’s fertility rate has been declining for the past thirty years.

The controversy of a few decades ago about whether new arrivals should “assimilate” or “integrate” or do something else to the community in which they now live is becoming moot. It’s not obvious whether they would assimilate or integrate.

It remains to be seen for how long a country of immigrants such as Australia can be sustained if it has such a small sense of identity and purpose.

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John Roskam

John Roskam is the Senior Fellow at the Institute of Public Affairs

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