KIEN LY’S story sounds implausible. He was born in Saigon in 1955, the son of an officer in the South Vietnamese army. He qualified as an engineer, but after the communist North won the Vietnam war, he felt he had no prospects at home. So in 1981 he built a boat and fled, taking 54 of his countrymen with him.
Rescued from the South China Sea, he was transferred to a camp in Indonesia. The right-wing Australian government of the day admitted 70,000 refugees from Indochina between 1975 and 1982 in the first significant break with the recently abolished “White Australia” policy. Mr Ly soon found himself in Sydney.
He did not want to be seen as taking advantage of the generosity of his new hosts so, rather than studying for a local qualification, he took work as a postman. Ten years later, in part to campaign for fairer treatment of immigrants in the workplace, he became a union organiser. That brought him to the attention of the Labor Party, which asked him to stand for the local council in Fairfield, a city in the suburbs of Sydney which encompasses Cabramatta, a largely Vietnamese neighbourhood. Like any other local politician, he now spends his days feuding energetically with his fellow councillors over development schemes and municipal contracts.
Immigrant stories like Mr Ly’s are becoming more common. In the late 1980s, when Australia’s population was less than 17m, it began admitting over 100,000 people a year. These days the population is 25m, and the annual quota has reached 190,000.
Thanks largely to this influx, Australia’s population has been growing by over 1.5% a year. That is a third faster than in Canada and twice America’s rate. The immigrants are also young, which gives Australia a median age well below that of most European countries. The IMF estimates that, just by reducing the rate at which the populations ages, the new arrivals will boost GDP growth by 0.5-1 percentage points a year until 2050, provided immigration continues at the current rate. In a country with a long-run average growth rate below 3%, that is no small consideration.
Immigrants make up about a third of the population of all Australia’s state capitals except Hobart. The residents of Fairfield used to be largely of Italian stock. These days, however, much of the population is Vietnamese or Arab. As Mr Ly notes with a laugh, “In Cabramatta, if you see a European, they’re probably a tourist.”
Yet everyone seems to rub along fine. At My Tin jewellers in Cabramatta, the workers are all former Vietnamese refugees who arrived in the 1980s. They are all citizens now, most living in their own houses. They all insist that they have never suffered any serious discrimination as foreigners. Outside, a group of schoolgirls from Iraq and Syria have come to see what the Asian district is like. The main appeal of Australia to their families, they say, is that it is not racked by civil war. What they had not realised, in the words of one of them, is that “people are kind—they always help you.”
Polling data bears out her impression. In a survey conducted by the Lowy Institute, a think-tank, in 2016, more than 70% of respondents agreed with the following three statements: “Overall, immigration has a positive impact on the economy of Australia”, “Immigrants strengthen our country because of their hard work and talents” and “Accepting immigrants from many countries makes Australia stronger”. Only 35% accepted the contention that “immigrants take away jobs from other Australians”.
It helps that the main parties of right and left have long supported immigration. There is an explicitly anti-immigrant party, One Nation, but even in its heyday in the 1990s it never won more than 9% of the vote nationally. When its leader, Pauline Hanson, recently attended a Senate debate in a burka to demonstrate the perils of admitting Muslims, she won more mockery than praise.
There are problems. The right-wing press likes to dwell misleadingly on stories about immigrants and crime. It has stirred up a panic about African gangs in Melbourne, despite scant evidence that any such gangs exist. In 2005 a row between residents of a coastal suburb in Sydney and immigrants from poorer inland areas who had come to use the local beach escalated into a riot.
Moreover, public acceptance of high levels of immigration seems to hinge on an especially ferocious policing of Australia’s borders. During his re-election campaign in 2001, Mr Howard seized on the case of a Norwegian freighter that had rescued would-be asylum-seekers from a sinking smuggler’s vessel on its way to Australia. He sent the army to board the ship and prevent it from docking on Australian territory. This grandstanding quickly developed into the doctrine that anyone seeking to enter Australia by sea without proper paperwork should not be allowed in. “We will decide who comes to this country and the circumstances in which they come,” he intoned, again and again. He went on to erase his deficit in the polls and win the election.
Back where they came from
Since then, “boat people” unlucky enough to be caught on their way to Australia have been packed off to dismal camps in two impoverished Pacific countries, Papua New Guinea and Nauru, as well as Christmas Island, an Australian speck in the Indian Ocean. Although most have subsequently been judged to be genuine refugees, Australia still refuses to accept them. (It does admit about 20,000 refugees a year, but only through official channels.) Instead it has been trying, with little success, to strike deals with other countries to take them in. But the policy has been successful in another sense, in that few boat people now attempt the passage.
The Labor Party briefly opposed the “Pacific solution”, as the system of offshore detention is known, but has now embraced it, on the grounds that it deters human-trafficking. Ordinary Australians approve too, according to the pollsters. There is so much fuss about the topic that it often seems to dominate discussions about immigration, even though the number of people involved is inconsequential relative to the hordes of migrants Australia readily admits. Indeed, some Australians who cheer offshore detention seem unaware that nearly 200,000 other newcomers are let into the country each year. Those who are aware seem to be developing misgivings. The proportion telling the Lowy Institute’s pollsters that too many immigrants are admitted each year has risen from 37% in 2014 to 54% this year.
The political consensus is fraying too. Tony Abbott, a former Liberal prime minister, says that immigration is too high, and should be reduced to allow better infrastructure to be built. Peter Dutton, in his recent campaign for leadership of the ruling Liberal Party, and thus for prime minister, endorsed that view. The man he lost to, Mr Morrison, has not called for the current cap of 190,000 arrivals a year to be lowered. But he, like Mr Dutton, made a name for himself as a junior minister by talking tough about “stopping the boats”. In July, before becoming prime minister, Mr Morrison noisily highlighted data that show the number of immigrants this year is down markedly, to 162,000—proof, he says, that the government is rightly choosy about who it lets in. Yet Mr Morrison has also made impassioned pleas for openness. All politicians blow hot and cold depending on the circumstances. In Australia, that tendency is especially acute on one vexing topic: climate change.