Introduction to the issues
The issue of Asian immigration has recently been the subject of significant public debate in Australia, following remarks during the 1996 Australian election and subsequent comments by the now member for Oxley, Pauline Hanson. While conceived before this debate began, this book aims to provide some of the basic infoimation required for arational discussion about Asian immigration, information which is clearly absent from much of the current public discourse.
Large-scale permanent migration to Australia from Asian countries is a relatively recent phenomenon. Following local opposition to the influx of mainly Chinese immigrants during the Gold Rush in the second half of the nineteenth century, Australia chose to effectively close its doors on migrants from Asia for almost three-quarters of a century, through implementation of what has become known as the 'White Australia' policy. While there are Australians of Asian descent reaching back four or five generations, their numbers are relatively small. It was not until Australia's acceptance of Indochinese refugees in the late 1970s and early 1980s that large numbers of Asians were allowed to settle permanently in Australia, although attitudes towards Asian immigration have been less clear.
The changes to Australia's immigration policies and programs in the late 1960s and early 1970s, intended to move Australia towards a non-racially discriminatory policy, were brought about with the support of the majority of the Australian people. However, since the early 1980s, public opinion polls have shown increasing opposition to current levels of immigration, believing them to be too high, even though they were in fact much lower than in the immediate postwar years.
Why has this opposition to current immigration levels occurred? An opinion poll of over 2000 people, conducted by AGB McNair in June 1996, supported what many commentators have been saying: that people connect immigration with their own vulnerability in the workplace. Of the 65 per cent of respondents who thought immigration levels were too high, almost three-quarters gave unemployment as their main reason (Betts 1996:12). During the major period of high immigration levels, from the late 1940s through to the early 1970s, Australia had close to full employment. New migrants were not therefore seen as a threat to people's livelihoods. This has clearly changed.
The poll did not show people to be specifically against Asian immigration. Significantly, only 7 per cent of respondents in the survey gave 'too many Asians' as their main reason for opposition to the current level of immigration. In response to a further question in the same poll, over three-quarters of respondents (77 per cent) believed that Australia should have a nondiscriminatory immigration policy (Betts 1996:12). However, views on talkback radio following Pauline Hanson's maiden speech in September appear to contradict the poll results. Which measure of public opinion is more accurate is hard to say. There is certainly a level of public unease regarding the 'Asianisation' of Australian society. Nancy Viviani believes one reason for this is a deep-seated threat mentality among Australian, a fear that differences in 'race' pose a threat to Australian values, and a fear of military invasion from Asia (Viviani 1996: 7). Both of these positions have featured in the current debate, although the former has been more prominent. ...........................................