Making a modern nation – just add migrants

The remarkable and transformative story of Australian immigration over the course of the 20th century is the subject of a major new study by Flinders University historian Professor Eric Richards.

In Destination Australia, Professor Richards’ narrative blends the often dramatic stories of individual migrants with the shifts in official attitudes that lay behind the ‘grand experiment’ of Australian immigration.

“I’ve tried to get a balance between the big picture – the long perspective – and some of the several million stories that make up the whole experience,” Professor Richards said.

“It’s a story that reaches into the lives of almost every Australian family,” he said.

“Australia is also a terrific example of mobility and migration in the world at large; even now it is among the top immigrant nations.

“This makes Australia an interesting case study in how people move about the world, and how that has changed over the course of the last century into the current situation where we have many different kinds of mobility.”

Professor Richards said Australia’s distance from the sources of its immigrants had largely enabled the government to pick and choose its immigrants according to the country’s perceived needs.

He points to two big changes in the Australian policy in the 20th century: “British Australia continued right through to 1947, and then there was a radical switch under Arthur Calwell to the Europeanisation of Australia, which can really be seen as an attempt to reinforce the White Australia policy.”

“Only in the 60s and 70s do we see the next big shift, with the demise of the White Australia policy and the emergence of a much wider catchment for migrants.

“These were big shifts and, looking back, it’s interesting to see how Australia managed the change from a highly monocultural society and population into one that becomes increasingly diverse.”

Despite periods of political and social anxiety, Professor Richards said Australia has successfully realised one of the most racially diverse immigration programs in the world with a minimum of disruption.

“Australia has moved from an extraordinarily monocultural, monoglot condition to one of extreme diversity, which is a bigger shift than you see in most societies.

“The tensions were always greater in anticipation than in reality,” Professor Richards said.

Destination Australia is published by UNSW Press.

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