The emerging picture of ‘the Ugly Australian’

The emerging picture of ‘the Ugly Australian’


Australia features prominently in the Hong Kong media as I’ve discovered on a number of recent trips to Britain’s last Asian colony.

Take these two major news headlines, which either made the front page or led the evening television news:

Australia Refuses To Take More Vietnamese Refugees.

Australia Loses $HK2.7 Billion In Business Migration.

Those headlines were both in the space of 48 hours in January. When I was last there in September, it was the inevitable RSL spokesman, Bruce Ruxton, who grabbed a week of multimedia attention, speaking against Asian immigration.

It’s true that these items featured in the minority English media, much of which is is either Australian owned by News Corporation, or in which Alan Bond’s companies had interests until recently.

I can’t say how much attention the Chinese media gave to the above matters, but it hardly makes one feel proud to be an Australian in Asia.

It turned out that, in fact, one of those headlines was wrong. A small page two heading the next day revealed that Senator Evans planned to announce an increase of a few hundred Vietnamese refugees to Australia during a February image-building trip to Hong Kong. Of course, the damage to Australia’s image had already been done.

I think that this is particularly revealing media incident for two reasons. First, it shows a certain expectation about Australia’s attitude to the people of Asia. That we would refuse to increase our refugee intake is expected or even assumed by headline writers, almost regardless of the facts.

But then what’s an increase of a few hundred places in our quota anyway? Perhaps the news editors got it right in the beginning.

Secondly, this incident shows how much Asians consider Australia part of the same regional reality. After all there were many other countries who also refused to take more refugees, but the media people singled out Australia for headline treatment.

There is a feeling that Australia with all its vast hectares and resources ought to do more to help the immense problems of our region.

The second headline about our business immigration program also deserves comment. Is it true that our only interest in immigrants from Asian countries is the amount of investment they bring to Australia? That’s what you would have thought from the headline.

The article actually reported Mr Hawke’s public warning to Australians against discriminatory attitudes. Unfortunately, it didn’t quite sound that way in Hong Kong.

And if Mr Hawke’s words provided little comfort to HK business people thinking of migrating to Australia, they were hardly more reassuring to ordinary workers.

At present many Hong Kong factories are moving to the Special Economic Zone in Shenzhen across the border in China. It’s only 30 km away, and wages are a fraction of those paid in Hong Kong.

Actually, right now there is still a shortage of labour in Hong Kong, but many workers’ organisations are becoming increasingly concerned at the HK Government’s emphasis on developing as a financial centre — at the expense, it seems, of manufacturing, which provides the bulk of employment.

In addition, China in its draft plans for beyond 1997, when it assumes control of Hong Kong from Britain, has also failed to guarantee the place of manufacturing in the Hong Kong economy.

Meanwhile, Hong Kong newspapers are filled with articles about business people and professionals migrating to Canada, Australia, the U.S., and so on, taking billions of dollars of investment and education with them.

In the middle of this, how does the ordinary Chinese worker feel? It’s not so easy, one could almost say virtually impossible, for such an ordinary worker to migrate to Australia, except on special grounds, for instance, family reunion.

Technically, the grounds for rejection of his or her immigration application may not be “racist” in a narrow sense, but they discriminate against the ordinary worker nonetheless.

Of course, Australians can have very little influence on Hong Kong’s own development policy, and no doubt should not seek to do so. However, we certainly have a right and responsibility to evaluate the impact of our own policies on our neighbours.

Taking the case of business immigration, I am certainly not opposed to Hong Kong business people trying their luck here. To the contrary, we should welcome their energy and the cultural values they bring.

For me the real question is are we prepared to take in the unskilled workers and provide them with equivalent opportunities?

After World War II, Australia took in many hundreds of thousands of immigrants. People came here directly from the villages and rural areas of Europe. Australia provided them with work and training and opportunities to advance.

True enough, this burst of immigration which lasted from the late 40s through the early 70s was not altogether altruistic in motive as our expanding economy required all the labour we could bring in. But today, our policy seems to have sunk to new depths of pragmatism.

Each business immigrant brings into Australia $A500,000 to invest in job creating business ventures. Let’s assume each new job needs $100,000 in capital investment; so that’s a minimum of five new jobs created in Australia, without taking into account the multiplier effect of the jobs created to service the needs of those five workers.

In fact, the same $A500,000 may represent an even greater number of jobs in Hong Kong, where the capital investment per job is likely to be much less than in Australia.

In other words, business migration takes away employment opportunities from the source countries transferring them to Australia. Surely, then, a just immigration policy would require Australia to open its doors to a proportional number of unskilled workers as a counterbalance to the number of business migrants?

To take an opening figure, what if Australia committed itself a target of five unskilled workers for every one business immigrant? and I don’t mean to include those unskilled workers who come in under other existing immigration programs.

Taking the same reasoning a step further: what if we took in, say, two unskilled workers for every professional level immigrant we. allow to enter Australia? It still wouldn’t end the brain drain from Hong Kong, but at least it would be a step in the right direction.

I suspect that until we tackle the “fundamentals,” no amount of pacifying diplomatic trips by Senators Ray or Evans will really erase the growing image of “The Ugly Australian.”

Stefan Gigacz

The Advocate, 25 May, 1989