Over-Cooked: a new twist in the national tale
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This was published 4 months ago

Over-Cooked: a new twist in the national tale

Scott Morrison had been looking forward to the 250th anniversary of Captain James Cook’s historic voyage to Australia. He had marked it in his diary as one of the most symbolic days of his prime ministership; an occasion when he would lead a new conversation on our national identity. It says something about the weight Morrison attached to the project that it was one of the last to be cancelled because of the coronavirus. Even the National Rugby League had gone into hibernation before the Australian National Maritime Museum called off the event.

The original plan was for a replica of HMB Endeavour to enter Botany Bay on Wednesday, April 29 to commemorate Cook’s landing. The vessel would then set sail on a year-long tour around Australia.

Prime Minister Scott Morrison has no intention of backing down when it comes to China. No Australian leader can.

Prime Minister Scott Morrison has no intention of backing down when it comes to China. No Australian leader can.Credit:Alex Ellinghausen

Morrison, whose local electorate is named after the explorer, had invested a generous amount of taxpayer funds, and a good deal of political capital on the exercise. The organisers had even cut some factual corners to expand the itinerary. Captain Cook had only charted the east coast of the continent, which he claimed on behalf of the British Empire on August 22, 1770. But this Endeavour would circumnavigate Australia, as if the country had been settled by a single boat.

Morrison thought the example of Cook as a man of science, and the perspectives of the Indigenous people who made contact with him, should be promoted across the country, to all Australians, as a shared journey.

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No smooth sailing: the commemoration of the 250th anniversary of Captain Cook's arrival was cancelled.

No smooth sailing: the commemoration of the 250th anniversary of Captain Cook's arrival was cancelled. Credit:Illustration: John Shakespeare

But when the anniversary finally arrived on Wednesday, history had moved on. There was no speech to give or questions to answer, only a joint press release from the Prime Minister, the Minister for Indigenous Affairs Ken Wyatt and the Minister for Communications Paul Fletcher.

At his media conference in Parliament House that day to update the nation on progress in the battle against COVID-19, no one thought to ask Morrison about Cook. The only empire that journalists wanted to talk about was China.

The poignancy in the timing underlines, once again, how the pandemic continues to disturb every aspect of Australian life. This week will be remembered not for our colonial past, but for the shock of our dependent present when Beijing threatened economic sanctions against Australia.

The cascade of invective from Chinese officials and state-based media was co-ordinated with one brutal goal in mind: to force Morrison to drop his call for an independent inquiry into the source of the virus, and its spread around the world.

Beijing hopes to send a message to other countries to ignore Australia’s campaign.

The Prime Minister has no intention of backing down. No Australian leader can afford the perception that he is easily bullied. But it does place our relationship with China in its most precarious position since the two countries opened their doors to one another in the 1970s.

China’s ambassador to Australia, Cheng Jingye, fired the opening salvo on behalf of Beijing on Sunday. He told The Australian Financial Review that if the dialogue continued to sour, then the Chinese people would stop coming to Australia: “If the mood is going from bad to worse people would think, ‘Why should we go to such a country that is not so friendly to China? The tourists may have second thoughts. The parents of the students would also think whether this place which they found is not so friendly, even hostile, whether this is the best place to send their kids here.” By Wednesday, the Chinese media had removed any ambiguity in that statement.

“Let me give a ‘coercion’ to Australia,” The Global Times editor, Hu Xijin, explained.

“As its attitude toward China becomes worse and worse, Chinese companies will definitely reduce economic co-operation with Australia, and the number of Chinese students and visitors going to Australia will also decrease. Time will prove it all.”

Whether Beijing has the ability to follow up on the threat is moot for now because the global pandemic has halted migration and tourism from China to Australia. And both sides appeared to leave some wriggle room for the other.

Fanning the flames: Chinese Ambassador to Australia Cheng Jingye.

Fanning the flames: Chinese Ambassador to Australia Cheng Jingye.Credit:AAP

The most revealing part from the Chinese end was what was left out of its warning: mining. The most interesting part of Morrison’s response on Wednesday was that he didn’t really mind if that became the primary focus of Australia’s relationship with China.

“The predominance of our trading relationship with China is obviously resources based, and I see no reason why that would alter in the future,” the Prime Minister said. “The thing about our relationship with China is it is a mutually beneficial one.

“It is a comprehensive strategic partnership, and we will continue to pursue that partnership, respecting China's sovereignty, and their independence, and its success will continue to depend on that being returned.”

Whether he meant that comment to be taken as ‘we don’t need your people, but you need our quarry’ is not clear. Morrison was careful not to inflame the argument, while holding his ground on the inquiry. He has no interest in alienating Chinese Australians already here, especially when they cluster in higher-income Liberal electorates in Sydney and Melbourne. Morrison has been at his most animated during this crisis when calling out racism against Chinese Australians.

But the question of Australia’s dependence on China came with a surprising twist this week. While Morrison would have preferred to celebrate our British heritage, and China tried to school us in superpower diplomacy, a third country, India, snuck up on us. New data from the Australian Bureau of Statistics released on Tuesday shows that the Indians were poised to overtake the Chinese as our second-largest migrant community behind the English before our borders were closed to the rest of the world in March.

In other words, Beijing’s threat was not only impractical for the time being; it was out of date. The two-decades-long skilled Chinese migration wave to Australia appears to have peaked in 2017. The latest figures show the Chinese-born population grew by just 4.3 per cent in the last financial year; its slowest rate since 2010-11. But the Indian community continued to record double-digit growth.

The difference between the two groups had been 50,000 in 2011, when the Chinese-born in Australia numbered 387,000 and the Indian-born 337,000. That gap had closed to just 17,000 in June last year, with the Chinese-born at 677,000, or 2.7 per cent of our total population of 25.365 million, and the Indian-born just behind them with 660,000, or 2.6 per cent of the total. It is likely they swapped places by March this year.

Australia’s settlement story today revolves around these two rising Asian nations, and the two cosmopolitan capitals that welcomed them. Between them, the Indians and the Chinese are responsible for more than a third of the three million migrants who have settled in Australia since 2001. The Indian community expanded by 560,000 and the Chinese by 520,000 over that period. Two-thirds of all the Indians in Australia, and three-quarters of all the Chinese live in Sydney and Melbourne.

The English, meanwhile, have seen their total numbers creep down in each of the past six years, from a peak of just over one million in June 2013 to 986,000 last June. The Indians and Chinese won’t catch them while the borders are closed, but both will pass them before the end of the decade once regular migration resumes.

The English-born are just 3.9 per cent of our total population, which is their lowest rate in the history of European settlement in Australia. One of the unintended consequences of self-isolation is it will accelerate the relative decline of our original migrants. Half the English in Australia today are aged 57 years or older.

The English had been the dominant ethnic community in every capital and regional town from the First Fleet in 1788 to the turn of the 21st century. Now four of the eight capitals have someone else on top of their ethnic ladder: the Indians in Melbourne, the Chinese in Sydney, the New Zealanders in Brisbane, and the Filipinos in Darwin.

Australia has never looked this different. The English still outnumbered all migrants from Asia as recently as 1996, when John Howard’s coalition government took office and Pauline Hanson first entered parliament. Last year, Australia’s Asian community stood at 3.226 million, 12.7 per cent of the total population, and more than three times larger than the English.

While the English are moving into retirement, the Asians are in the prime of their working life. The Chinese and the Indians are among the youngest members of the Australian community today. The median age for each is just 34 years, which matches the figure for the Australian-born population. This means the lockdown of the Australian economy might increase diversity at the margin as the older groups from England and Europe lose more people through natural attrition, while the younger Asian communities increase their numbers through the second generation, those born here to migrant parents.

As Australian leading demographer, Professor Peter McDonald, has noted, recently arrived migrants bring a double bonus for the population.

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“In general, migrants to Australia are young and have not yet had their children,” the professor of demography at the University of Melbourne says. “They have their children not long afterwards. So, migrants add very strongly to the population in the childbearing years thus increasing births.”

The immediate danger for the Morrison government is not the belligerence of Beijing, but the own goal of Australian nativism.

The Commonwealth’s refusal to offer a lifeline to international students who have lost work in the shutdown, and who have seen their studies disrupted by social distancing, plays into the hands of the Chinese government. The call to boycott Australia might resonate if our government reinforces that message with a signal to any international student, whether Chinese, Indian, or English to go back to where they came from.

It would be smarter to treat the last arrival with the same respect as the oldest Australian. That would serve as a more powerful expression of national purpose than any speech Morrison might have given this week to launch the HMB Endevaour on its journey through the past.

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