IF there is a more tolerant and welcoming place on the planet than Australia, demographer Bernard Salt would like to know about it.
“We are not inherently racist,” he said.
Mr Salt, from KPMG Australia, was speaking in his capacity as keynote speaker at the Australia Day WA Being Australian Social Inclusion Symposium: Building Socially Inclusive Communities, held at The University Club of WA.
The demographer described broad trends that showed our high migrant density and increased engagement with Asia.
With new Census figures due out shortly, Perth currently has about four in 10 international-born residents.
China, India, Malaysia, Japan and Singapore are now among the greatest sources of Australian migration.
“The nation is like a supertanker shifting in the direction of Asia,” Mr Salt said.
“Australia is shifting its migrant source from Anglo to Asian.”
However, symposium guest speaker Aleem Ali, the national manager of Welcoming Cities, had concerns about a developing “narrative of fear”.
“It’s a false narrative but it’s beginning to chip away at the social cohesion of our communities,” he said, referring to statistics compiled in the Scanlon Foundation’s Social Cohesion Index.
Welcoming Cities supports local communities and leaders to leverage ideas and innovation that come from being welcoming and inclusive.
“Negative views of immigration, and discrimination have increased in the last 12 months.”
He warned about leaders “dog whistling a diminishing future, a future of us and them”.
“We need a counter-narrative, we need a different story,” Mr Ali said.
“We need to work towards an expansive and collaborative vision for the nation.”
National Australia Day Council chief executive Chris Kirby agreed it was important to accentuate the positive, noting that young people were tending to click on stories that gave them hope.
“We need to celebrate what unites us, not divides us,” he said.
“The stories we tell define us as a nation.”
The guest speaker outlined five core values that defined Australians: egalitarianism, optimism, tenacity, independence and informality.
The notion of a ‘fair go’ is still considered an important part of our identity and sets us apart from most other nations, who do not so readily celebrate the concept of sharing their success and prosperity with others, the guest speaker said.
Reconciliation WA co-chair Carol Innes said everyone, including the 3 per cent of Australians who identified as indigenous, had to step out of their comfort zone, or else “nothing will change”.
“We need to look after each other so we can be a much stronger part of that 3 per cent,” the guest speaker said.
“We need to influence that 97 per cent.
“True reconciliation might not be achieved in our lifetime but we may get there with a connection with our hearts and minds.”
Mr Salt said we were starting to develop a cultural allegiance to Asia, which would be more manifest in the next decades.
“The greatest challenge will be social cohesion and managing the transition to more efficient models,” he said.
“We are not resistant to migrant influences but we now cherry pick.
“You cannot argue that we are not inclusive and absorbent of migrant influences, more so than any country on the planet.”