Asianising Australia

When Jason Day won his first World Golf Championship in the US in February 2014, and Nick Kyrgios beat Rafael Nadal at Wimbledon a few months later, it heralded a new phase in Australia’s immersion in the Asian Century.

Trade, investment, tourism, international students: these have traditionally been the headlines of Australia’s Asian journey. Now, with Day and Kyrgios, whose mothers were born in the Philippines and Malaysia respectively, Asian Australians have entered the temple of Australian international sport.

Australia’s multicultural society is now “Asianising”. This follows over two centuries of Westernisation, dominated by the settlement of migrants from the United Kingdom, Ireland, Germany, Italy, Greece and other European countries. To be sure, there were some migrants from Asia in the 19th century, like the Chinese who worked as shepherds or in the gold fields, and the Indians who worked in the sugar cane plantations. But the migration of Asians to Australia was then restricted by the “White Australia Policy” until the early 1970s.

Australia has since been blessed with a wave migrants from Asia (and elsewhere), as have Canada, New Zealand, the UK and the US. Asian Australians now make up 12% of the nation’s population. Today’s migrants from Asia are more skilled on average than the local population, and their children have better education achievements. Migrants are also more active as entrepreneurs.

Asian Australians are now making their mark on Australian society, politics and the economy, and not only on the sports field.

Penny Wong was a recent federal minister. John Williams is a Grammy Award winning classical guitarist. William Edward “Billy” Sing served in the Australian Imperial Force during the First World War, including during the Gallipoli campaign. Neville Roach was chairman and CEO of Fujitsu Australia. Professor Veena Sahajwalla is winner of the New South Wales Scientist of the Year Award. Singer Kate Ceberano was an artistic director of the Adelaide Cabaret Festival. The list goes on.

But apart from these famous individuals, is Australia in general making the most of its skilled migrants? According to the evidence, the answer is a clear no. Too many skilled migrants are unable to find jobs corresponding to their skills, and are vastly overqualified for the jobs they manage to get. Doctors become nurses, accountants become taxi drivers, and so on.

Why? There are a number of reasons. For a start, qualifications may not be recognised in Australia. Or when they are officially recognised, they may not be accepted by potential employers. Sometimes a lack of local experience or insufficient English language capacity may be perceived problems.

Business and government must make greater efforts to ease migrants’ path to economic and social integration. Giving migrants a “fair go” is not only a question of social justice. It is good economics to fully mobilise a nation’s human capital, especially since skills is one of the key selection criteria for migration.

The Diversity Council of Australia has highlighted this issue in a recent report on the “bamboo ceiling” in the business sector. The report found that Asian Australians are well represented in entry level and mid-level jobs in Australian business, but they are significantly underrepresented in leadership roles, representing an enormous waste of talent.

The key barriers locking out Asian talent in Australian organisations are: cultural bias and stereotyping; westernised leadership models; lack of relationship capital; and a lack of understanding of the value of cultural diversity. In other words, despite Australia’s veneer of multiculturalism, its business and political leadership is hampered by a predominantly male, “command and control” style.

It is critical for Australia to make the most of its talent, whether it be of Asian or other origin. Following a two-three decade period of strong growth, driven by the reforms initially launched in the 1980s and the Asia-driven resource boom, its Asian export markets are now slowing down.

It is thus now time for Australia to re-engineer its growth strategy, and prepare for a new chapter in its journey into the Asian Century. One path for continued prosperity would be better harnessing the nation’s social diversity as a source of creativity and innovation, especially in the service sector.

But success will require deep reforms, new attitudes and approaches, and a new narrative according to Lindley Edwards, Group CEO of the Australia and South East Asia based AFG Venture Group. In this context, Ms Edwards has made a strong case for more inclusive and participative management and leadership which encourages the participation of all segments of society in idea-generation and decision making. This includes Australia’s different ethnic groups, indigenous Australians (about 3% of Australia’s population), youth and women.


*John West, an Australian, worked at senior level at the OECD in Paris from 1986 to 2008. The views expressed in this article are his own.

By the same author

“’Cool Japan’: An enterprising new model?”, in OECD Observer No 297, Q1 2014, read by clicking here 

“Asia’s information revolution,” in OECD Observer No  293, Q4, 2013, read here

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