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For those who travel across the sea in ships –Immigration then and now

Migrant construction workers in the 50s - Dad was working as a tradie for two years as part of his contract to come to Australia. He's second from right, smoking a pipe

I have just been reading the e-book recently launched by the Heritage Council of Port Phillip, about those who arrived in ships at Melbourne’s Station Pier in the post war immigration era.  It’s been a fascinating read not the least because it is a part of my own story.* While the stories are a mixed bag – some celebratory and some sad, the enduring thread is the bravery of those who dared to make that journey, that leap of faith, to leave their families and homelands and seek a new life in a country far away, one which was often  stranger than they could ever have  imagined. Many now question how it was that such large numbers of people could have been peacefully integrated over the ensuing decades, when we have such difficulty now.

Listening to the vehement arguments about immigration which are going on not only here (see for example Senator Jacquie Lambie’s recent tirade on the ABC’s Q and A program), but in many countries around the world, I wondered how the landscape of immigration had changed between then and now. True, there was scorn and derision then too, for those who were different, from which even the Ten Pound Poms (subsidised immigrants from the UK) were not immune, though they enjoyed a number of advantages e.g. such as the right to vote without being citizens, acceptance into higher occupations and positions of seniority, no doubt aided by a good command of English and a grudging respect from Australians, even as they mocked them for their supposed airs and graces or for complaining if things were not quite as they had been at home.It wasn't always plain sailing, not even for those from the UK.

For those who emigrated from other places, things were very different. For a start it took our father ten years to pay back our fares. Nor was there any assistance of any kind – no business loans, no English classes, no support groups. With memories of the war still fresh in people’s minds, Germans and people of Asian origin were viewed with some suspicion as were those with  links to communist countries, though they may well have come to Australia to escape all that, as no doubt is the case with many moderate Muslims today. Non  -English qualifications were not recognised and New Australians were largely left to do the menial work shunned by Australians. They were teased about their clothes, their accents and their “funny” food, especially those garlic munching Italians and the ‘Krauts’ with their German sausages, black bread and pickled cabbage (now very much in vogue) but on the whole migrants gained respect for their hard work, so long as they kept their place and posed  no threat to Australians in general. 
My sister has written a book about the immigration experience from our mother's perspective which should be available as an e-book soon
The biggest difference was that it was a time when there was plenty of work for all and there was far greater security of employment, so everyone could look forward to getting ahead,  New Australians and old. Environmental limits to growth and progress had not yet reared their ugly heads and all stood a chance of owning a home at some stage, a dream that has become much more elusive for subsequent generations to achieve, whatever their background. Now unemployment and underemployment are facts of life, real wages are stagnant and Australia is hostage to global economic conditions over which it has little control – the price of iron ore, rising exchange rates, troubles elsewhere. Aside from the many jobs which have been lost through automation, economic rationalism and globalisation, particularly through adherence to free trade agreements which make our goods uncompetitive against imports from low wage countries, there really is more competition for the remaining work within Australia, though technically the 451 Visa is only supposed to apply if no Australian can fill a position.

While new migrants, especially refugees and “boat people” have become the scapegoats for this frustration, the poor and the desperate are not to blame since the humanitarian segment is only a small fraction of the annual migrant intake, remaining more or less static at around 13,000 year since the 1980s, compared to say, the intake of skilled migrants which represented only around 10,000 in 1984 -1985 but had risen to 113,000 per annum by 2011.

Not only are overseas qualifications now recognised, but Australia is actively recruiting skilled and educated migrants and seeking affluent business migrants who are well equipped to compete directly with Australians for housing and jobs in ways that past migrants could not. Those born in the UK are still the largest number of immigrants 25 – 30%, despite what people may think in those suburbs which attract more than their fair share of other immigrants who are noticeably different.  Ghettoisation – the concentration of particular nationalities in one place, was always frowned upon, but now the Indian immigrant is just as likely to be your doctor or your solicitor as your taxi driver, and may well be driving a better car and living in a bigger house. Old Australians can no longer lord it over such immigrants or congratulate themselves on their progress. 

Happier times, although Dad did eventually return to Germany

Overall, the annual intake  of people has certainly increased from approximately  82, 000 permanent settlers in the 1980s to around 339,000 by the 2009 Census, not counting the 320,000* students  and 101,000 business migrants  on long term visas, who may or may not decide to settle.  Their countries of origin have also become more diverse e.g. in the 1990’s  Vietnamese immigrants began to appear in the  top ten countries of origin, as did China and the Philippines, places previously  occupied  largely by people from Italy, Greece and middle European countries.  In 2001 India ranked in the top ten for the first time. However, after the UK, New Zealand ranked as the second highest source country with 8.8% in 2006. Another group which appeared in the top ten in the same year, are South Africans (many also travel on UK passports) who have also come to our shores in large numbers in recent years and while they enjoy higher employment rates and higher wages than most Australians, do not excite the same passions because they blend in.

One of the great levellers in that great wave of post war migration, was the public education system.  Almost every immigrant child I have spoken to went through that mill which made one ashamed of one’s heritage and culture and desperate to be like everyone else – no accent, no funny clothes, no funny food, in order to fit in, the need to belong being so intense. Peers, not parents became the role models for behaviour and parents lost their authority. Rejected by their children, ridiculed and demeaned in their new society, many did not find great happiness in their adopted country, although their children usually did well. 

Extreme views could not flourish in this climate, but this has also changed. Many people bring their prejudices with them too. Nepotism and corruption are still the norm in many of the countries from which we draw immigrants and in some cases notions of free speech, a free press, democracy and egalitarianism are not. India still has its caste system in which great degrees of inequality are acceptable. South Africa had Apartheid.  Nor is it an accident that whitening creams are highly sought after in several Asian countries, though that is not to say that everyone coming from a particular country will feel this way, any more than all people coming from post war Germany were Nazis. Rough and ready and at times unpleasant as it was, it was in that tumbling process in the schoolyard, that we were also exposed to the positive aspects of Australian culture such as the sense of fairness, mateship, equal opportunity and generosity.  In return, Australian children lost their fear of “the foreigners,” gained exposure to other cultures and ideas, and got pizza, decent coffee and doonas into the bargain. Society in general became richer, more open and more diverse. When immigrants remain within their own cultural groups and establish separate schools and churches, these great levellers can no longer fulfil this assimilative role and we remain separate, rather than united and the newcomers and their culture remain strange and even threatening to us.  


 The speed of change coupled with economic insecurity have not allowed the host culture to adapt as easily to newcomers in their midst this time around. The latter have also been drawn from much more diverse cultures with which we are even less familiar than that of those who came before, so it is little wonder that a not necessarily large, but extremely vocal section of the community yearn for those early days in the 1960s and 1970s, when migrants knew their place, kept quiet, settled in and did the back -breaking work without making the locals feel uncomfortable. 


In purely economic terms, it is most likely true as Patrick Carvalho  said on the Drum, that these migrants too will benefit the country in terms of productivity and innovation as those in the past have done and the general consensus is that they are less expensive to keep than the native born, when it comes to demands on welfare. There are however limits to growth especially if  everyone demands an affluent lifestyle with consequent pressure on water, energy and agricultural land, which are already in short supply. While Australia may look like a huge vacant lot from afar, especially compared to densely populated urban centres in Europe or Asia, it is not a very fertile or hospitable land and cannot support huge increases in population, especially under conditions of climate change. However, having said that, many of our rural areas could certainly do with a boost and already have spare capacity and infrastructure.


By far the biggest threat however, is to ignore the growing rifts in our social fabric. The resentment in the host culture must be taken into account before Fascist factions in our own ranks gain more power, and both growing inequality and the lack of individual advancement need to be addressed. Ideally, before bringing  in more people willy nilly, we should consider our capacity to absorb them and ensure that our own are adequately educated, employed and housed. Lastly, with respect to who should be allowed to come, perhaps we should focus less upon the potential economic benefits they could bring and more upon their values.  A personality test may be more important than a literacy test. Are they open, flexible, inclusive and tolerant? Do they believe in egalitarianism, individual freedom and the separation of church and state? Meritocracy? Freedom of speech and expression?  As far as Dinky Di Aussies are concerned a sense of humour wouldn’t go amiss either. 

* These figures may not be entirely accurate as long term visa holders who go home for a holiday or travel back and forth, are likely to be recounted each time they re -enter.