Australia’s split identity

While I do not pay much attention to the sheer childishness of what passes for ‘politics’ in Australia, I am intrigued by its split identity.

Let me put it this way: about 60,000 years ago a planned migration took place. Those who became the first peoples in Australia came from south-east Asia, heading southward across a series of islands to the mainland. They were homo sapiens, while Neanderthals still roamed Europe. But their arrival made it clear that the country was part of south-east Asia.

Some 240 years ago – by comparison a very short period of time – some Europeans arrived, tried to wipe out the most ancient continuous culture in the world, and tried to shape this part of the world as a western European outpost. It worked for a while, when the immigrants were mostly from the UK. For example, after the Second World War, the total population was 7 million, of which the vast majority were from the UK.

Since then, the shift has been dramatic. Waves of wider European immigration took place, and after 1972, more and more people emigrated from the Middle East, Africa and especially Asia. At the time of writing, the population is almost 25 million. Now those of English ancestry are a clear minority, and in the not too distant future those of European ancestry (like me) will also be a minority.

Why? Each year almost 200,000 immigrants move to Australia – apart from those who come to Australia to study and work. Of these, more than half come from Asia. Indeed, as I write, more than 2 million people who are Australian citizens were born in Asia, let alone those born in Australia of Asian parents over the last few decades.

Anecdotally, earlier this year I attended one of many citizenship ceremonies held each year. About 500 people were present, of which perhaps ten percent were white and most likely of European extraction. The vast majority were from everywhere else in the world.

Some time soon, the country may well revert to its former identity, but in the meanwhile it faces a continuing problem of split identity. Is it a ‘western’ European country that somehow – by a quirk of geography – found itself in another part of the world? Or is it really part of Asia, or perhaps the Asia-Pacific?

Or as a rather insightful article in the Global Times put it, with more immediate relevance:

Canberra must pursue an independent policy toward China. The key issue is Australia’s self-positioning. On the one hand, Australia identities itself as an Asia-Pacific country because Asia is the fastest-growing economic region, so involving itself in Asia’s industrial chain will bring tangible benefits to Australia’s economy. If Australia wants to follow that strategy, it has to carefully deal with its relations with China to enhance bilateral ties.

On the other hand, Australia is used to seeing itself as a member of the Western camp, acting as a US ally over political issues. But politics is bound to affect economic ties and economic problems between the two countries are essentially a political issue. Rethinking its identity will help Australia adopt an appropriate policy to deal with Chinese issues.

 

This article puts it in economic and political terms, but I would add cultural identity in light of the rapidly changing demographics.

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