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The real story about the "new class"

Three cheers for the Australian Bureau of Census and Statistics
By Bob Gould

Recently reactionary journalists and right-wing populists have been dusting off and resurrecting Pareto-style theories about the "circulation of elites" and the idea first raised at the end of the 19th century by the nihilist Jan Waclaw Machajski and the anarchist Max Nomad, that the modern intelligentsia constitute a new and oppressive social class.

This recycled "new class" theory takes a variety of forms in different hands, but all the major recent Australian exponents of it give it a distinctly conservative spin, imitating similar thinkers in the US and Europe. Katharine Betts argues that this "new class" forms a rootless cosmopolitan elite, whose views, sympathetic to migration and opposed to racism, defy the more popular racist wisdom of the native Australian Volk. Michael Thompson takes a similar line. P.P. McGuiness very explicitly revives Pareto and says that the "Chardonnay set" and the "chattering classes" are a silly group, who continue the "self-destructive hedonism of the 1960s", when what is really required is constructive conservatism as represented, of course, by his own reactionary ideas on all questions.

The only point at which this sustained right-wing ideological polemic impinges on sociological reality is in the chapters in Katharine Betts' book The Great Divide on The Social Location of Intellectuals and Australian Intellectuals and the Immigration Question. In these chapters Betts gives some statistics about the changed educational composition of the Australian population, which is, in fact, not a bad starting point for a serious inquiry into what are the new features of the class formations in Australia.

Betts, however, only uses her figures in a very loaded polemical way, to develop her tendentious "new class" thesis. Unfortunately on further investigation Betts' figures turn out to be a bit inaccurate, and therefore I have collected all the useful material available from that wonderful institution, the Australian Bureau of Census and Statistics. The figures I now rely on are some of Betts' figures, with those of her figures that seem to be inaccurate corrected by the statisticians' figures.

The two most useful census documents for this inquiry are Australian Social Trends 1999 and the Social Atlas for each capital city, and I will use the 1996 Sydney Social Atlas as my working example. On page 83 of Social Trends 1999 is the ABS classification of qualifications, which divides post-school qualifications into five categories: "bachelor degree and above", "undergraduate diploma", "associate diploma", "skilled vocational qualification" and "basic vocational qualification".

For purposes of describing people who have a university degree or equivalent, it seems sensible to group the first two together as representing a university degree. In the first census where degrees were tabulated, 1966, 1.5 per cent of the population over 15 years had degrees. In 1976, 3 per cent had degrees. By 1996, Katharine Betts gives the figure of 10.2 per cent, but she seems to be wrong, as the Bureau gives the figure of 12.8 per cent.

In addition, the Bureau gives a figure of 8.8 per cent for people with undergraduate diplomas and associate diplomas together. For simplicity's sake, we may assume half the 8.8 per cent for each category, which means that in 1996, according to the Bureau, approximately 17.2 per cent of the adult population had a university degree. By 1998, according to the Bureau, the figure had become 14.5 per cent plus 7.9 per cent, which takes the number with a university degree up to 18.4 per cent of the adult population, a very high figure indeed.

Another framework that is useful in relation to the educational qualifications of the population is the figures for the raw number of tertiary students. In 1912, when the Australian population was 4.5 million, there were a tiny 3672 tertiary students. In 1938, when the population was approximately 6.5 million, there was a still tiny 12,126. In 1966, when the population was 11.7 million, the number of students had risen to 91,272. Thirty years later, when the population had increased about 50 per cent to about 18 million, the number of tertiary students had soared seven fold to 634,094.

Women predominate among graduates in the fields of health, education and society and culture

In the Census Bureau's documentation there is a very detailed breakdown of "People with post-school qualifications, by type of qualification" by both age and sex. They reveal a very sharp increase in the number of women with university qualifications, who now number about the same as men, and who are concentrated in such areas as teaching, the health industry, social work and also, to some degree, in commerce and business.

The number of female primary teachers went up between 1988 and 1998 from 71.7 per cent to 77.5 per cent. The number of female secondary teachers went up from 48.3 per cent to 53.5 per cent, and the number of women teaching in higher education went up from 27.3 per cent to 35.1 per cent.

In 1996 227,000 people had bachelor degrees or higher in business and administration, 35.7 per cent of them were women; 213,600 had university degrees in health, 66.2 per cent of them were women; 357,800 had university degrees in the delightful ABS classification called "society and culture", defined as "economics, law, behaviour, welfare, languages, religion and philosophy, librarianship, visual and performing arts, geography, communication, recreation and leisure, and policing", 54.8 per cent of them were women. In engineering, however, with 120,100, only 8.4 per cent were women.

The great numerical explosion of people with university degrees was a product of the Whitlam period educational reforms. The extremely useful book, Australian Social Trends 1999, has a detailed breakdown of the age composition of people with university degrees. Part of this table is reproduced here.

PROPORTIONS WITH DEGREES, 1996

Bachelor degree Associate or
Age (years) or higher undergraduate diploma
Males
15-24 4.2 per cent 2.4 per cent
25-34 14.6 per cent 5.9 per cent
35-44 16.2 per cent 6.9 per cent
45-54 13.5 per cent 7.0 per cent
55+ 6.6 per cent 4.4 per cent
Total 10.8 per cent 5.2 per cent
Females
15-24 6.8 per cent 4.6 per cent
25-34 16.6 per cent 8.5 per cent
35-45 15.3 per cent 9.5 per cent
45-54 10.7 per cent 8.6 per cent
55+ 3.6 per cent 4.5 per cent
Total 10.1 per cent 6.9 per cent

The extraordinary increase in both men and women with degrees in the age group 25 to 54 clearly illustrates the magnitude of the explosion of tertiary education from about 1974 onwards. This forcefully underlines the very important point that this was the period when women soared from being a very small portion of the people with university degrees to rough numerical equality with men. It is fascinating to note the rage of conservative misogynists like Michael Thompson against the Whitlam period of free education. Possibly the rough equality in educational achievement gained by women in this period is one of the features that infuriates them.

What emerges most strikingly from these statistics is the enormous growth in the proportion of the whole adult population with university degrees. The very size and diversity of this group makes nonsense of the conservative rhetoric that they comprise, as a whole, an elite "new class".

It is important to bring to bear other available statistical information to get a picture of what is really the Australian class formation at the moment and how this vastly increased group of university graduates fits into it. This is where an investigation of the information contained in the Social Atlas comes in, particularly if you superimpose on this information the fairly elementary and obvious information provided by the statistics of electoral behaviour in federal and state elections.

The Social Atlas tells you that people with degrees are heavily concentrated in Sydney on the North Shore, most of the Eastern suburbs, and in a belt in the inner Western suburbs. There are smaller concentrations in the Sutherland shire, the Georges River area and the Blue Mountains. If you go, however, to the useful separate category that was provided in the 1991 Social Atlas, called "managers and administrators", you find that this coincides almost exactly with the map of "high income earners".

Both these maps, however, coincide only in part with the map of people with university qualifications. Most of the people in the southern part of the Eastern suburbs and in the Inner Western suburbs, with university degrees, are thus neither "managers or administrators" or "high-income earners" as defined by the ABS. I submit that, quite obviously, these graduates are by and large the ones working in teaching, health, social work, etc.

Coincidentally, the divide in political voting behaviour is on almost exactly the same geographical lines among graduates as the apparent geographical divide between "high income earners" and "managers and administrators" and the rest of the population. The southern-eastern suburbs and the Inner West vote overwhelmingly Labor or Green etc. The North Shore, Wentworth, the Georges River area, etc, all vote solidly Liberal. Any serious investigation of all these statistical tools shows that a real economic, political, and class division exists within the ranks of university graduates, not between graduates and the rest of the population.

Census information, combined with election results gives a rough but informative insight into the current Australian class structure

The Social Atlas provides a wealth of useful information. There are maps of the distribution of migrants of different backgrounds, and these maps are very informative. Most non-English-speaking migrants are concentrated in the Eastern suburbs, the Inner Western suburbs, and the middle western suburbs.

The pattern of people with trade qualifications is the obverse of the pattern of people with university degrees. Many people with trade qualifications are concentrated in the southern part of the Eastern suburbs and the further Western suburbs, but quite a few are also concentrated in the Sutherland shire and areas like Hornsby and the northern beaches. An overview of all the statistical information available gives a breakdown of the class structure of the Sydney population on broadly the following lines.

At the very top of Australian society there is a powerful ruling class, which interlocks with a power elite, if you prefer that form of words. This group is very small. It, however, exercises direct ideological influence and hegemony over a broader group who show up in the statistical figures as "managers and administrators" and "high income earners", and these two maps in the Social Atlas are almost completely coincidental.

For statistical purposes, it is useful to group the core power elite and/or ruling class and the aforementioned two groups, together, as statistical Group One.

Statistical Group Two are very distinctly represented in the Social Atlas by the section of the map of university graduates, who are excluded from the map of "high income earners" and "managers and administrators". These lower paid university graduates comprise university staff, teachers, health workers, many public servants, minor bureaucrats in welfare organisations, and other such people. They are concentrated heavily in the Inner Western suburbs and the southern part of the Eastern suburbs. A very large number of these people are of upwardly mobile Irish Catholic or older European migrant background, and include many people who don't state a religious belief in the census. They are overwhelmingly Labor voters.

Statistical Group Three are the most diverse group. They are scattered all over Sydney except in the areas of very high incomes on the North Shore and in the northern Eastern suburbs. They include such people as clerical workers, proprietors and workers in small retail businesses, bank workers, computer workers, call centre workers and finance industry workers. They also include many self-employed tradesmen.

They range from low incomes to quite high incomes and are of very diverse ethnicity, Anglo, Irish Catholic, European migrant and even including self-employed recent migrants. A significant part of this group votes Labor, but many also vote Liberal and the biggest number of swinging voters is concentrated in this group. The ruling class attempts to exercise ideological hegemony over this group, particularly through television and the tabloid press, and a lot of the current reactionary populism of the right is an attempt to influence this group electorally.

Statistical Group Four includes the blue-collar section of the working class and the unemployed. Although manufacturing industry has declined somewhat, the blue-collar section of the working class is still a very decisive section of the population. This group is now composed overwhelmingly of recent non-English-speaking (NESB) migrants. This section of society is concentrated in the Western suburbs, which are also the areas of recent migrant concentration and relatively high unemployment. This group overwhelmingly votes Labor in elections.

Even a cursory overview of the correlation between the information provided in the census publications and electoral results confirms the general thrust of the above break-up and analysis. This four-level description of Australian society is realistic and useful for a variety of purposes.

In my view the decisive class division in Australian society is between the ruling class, with enormous economic and political power, which exercises very great ideological influence and hegemony over the "high-income earner" and "managers and administrators" Statistical Group One, and the rest of the population. This four-level division of Australian society holds for all the major capital cities and for the Illawarra, Newcastle, Whyalla, Launceston and Geelong, with the qualification that the smaller capitals and the provincial towns have a much lower NESB component in Statistical Group Four, the blue-collar section of the working class.

Rural and provincial Australia contains some elements of this division, but a concrete analysis of rural and provincial Australia has to incorporate a number of other factors, and I will deal with rural and provincial Australia in another chapter.

The alternative intelligentsia "new class" thesis is really ideologically loaded nonsense, belted out from time to time by different conservative pundits for a variety of purposes. In the P.P. McGuiness and Michael Thompson version, which is reproduced at its crudest in the unspeakable Murdoch tabloid, The Telegraph, in Sydney, the obvious aim is to whip up the hatred of the most underprivileged Australians against more educated Australians, as scapegoats, and it is an attempt to persuade the most underprivileged Australians that their interests lie with the free market and the ruling class.

This construction is episodically useful to the ruling class electorally. Michael Thompson's unpleasant humbug about non-manual employees' "core values of family, hard work, independence and patriotism" counterposed to the almost unmentionable alternative values of his "new class" is the clearest expression I've seen anywhere of this kind of pitch to backwardness.

In the McGuiness-Thompson version it is associated with a ferocious misogynism directed against "femocrats" and the "obscenity" of the Whitlam-period free education, when so many women made the great initial leap into further education. This curiously vehement anti-feminist rhetoric from the McGuiness-Thompson coterie has a delightfully personal quality, suggesting many years of grievances on their part against the feminist phenomenon.

The Katharine Betts-Robert Birrell bunch's anti-migration version of the "new class" theory

The most sustained and developed recent version of the "new class" theory is the Betts version. In The Great Divide Betts repeats, from her old book, the chapter headed, The Case for Growth. This chapter heading is rather deceptive. It would be more correctly titled, "Betts' arguments against growth". She nowhere states, in a clear or developed way, the arguments in favour of migration, to then go on to refute them.

Rather, she just mentions cursorily a few sentences of some arguments, and the whole of the chapter is a sustained polemic against migration, with her arguments overwhelming the rudimentary "straw men" she constructs on the first couple of pages. This enables her, to her own satisfaction at least, to start her next chapter, called The Social Location of Intellectuals, with the following imperishable paragraph:

"The new class cannot have supported the idea of high immigration because expert opinion told them that it was a good idea. Disinterested experts refute most of the arguments for immigration and are equivocal on nearly all the others. Consequently if we want to explain new-class attitudes we must look at the ideological role which support for immigration plays for them, which means exploring its role as a status symbol. But before the evidence for this theory can be investigate there are some background questions to be explored. What is this entity termed the "new class", what role does it play, and why should educated people want to demonstrate that they belong to it?"

What fantastic chutzpah the woman has! Some of her fellow anti-immigrationists become "disinterested experts", yet she nowhere seriously addresses the case for migration, and constructs a value-loaded "sociological" explanation for the viewpoint of university graduates, which she continually asserts from her reading of very old opinion polls, mainly from the 1970s and 1980s, favours immigration and multiculturalism, when, according to her, the ordinary Australian volk are against these things!

As I've outlined above, her merging of different segments of the university-educated section of the population as some sort of global "new class" is intrinsically absurd, given the many conflicts of interest and opinion within these social layers. Nevertheless, she's probably right that a significant majority of university graduates, both the Labor-oriented and poorer health workers, teachers, public servants, etc, and the Liberal-voting, more free-market "managers and administrators" etc, do have in common generally civilised attitudes supportive of migration and multiculturalism.

From where I stand, the fact that my political opponents on the Liberal right include a significant group who are at least civilised in relation to race, migration and multiculturalism, seems to me quite a good thing, and I will form a united front with them on those questions, although we will war against each other on other very important matters.

The populism of Katharine Betts' attack on employers in the building industry for favouring migration is typical of her frequently expressed concern for the interests of poorer Australians. Nevertheless, the entrepreneurs in the building industry are absolutely right. Migration is obviously good for generating work, commercial activity and prosperity.

Throughout Betts' two chapters expounding the "new class" theory, she desperately tries to paint a picture that hostility to multiculturalism and migration is the natural condition of ordinary Australians, and that the more civilised views of university-educated people are an aberration from this so-called "norm", which she tries to imply is general in Australian society.

She even gets in a sharp attack on the Catholic Church in her introduction. That hoary old Anglo bogey, international Papism, supports migration because the birth rate is dropping and it wants more Catholics! Ms Betts will dredge up the most ancient ativisms in her attempt to mobilise the population against migration and multiculturalism.

Racism is not innate in "human nature"

If you step back a little from Betts' ugly narrative, the flaws in it become reasonably obvious. Racism and opposition to migration and multiculturalism are not innate in human beings. They are usually learned behaviour. Kids in schools don't develop any hostility to people of a different appearance unless such hostilities are deliberately stirred up by adults.

The apparently endemic racism of "British Australia" was an ugly construction, built and whipped up over generations by tabloid newspapers, bourgeois politicians, the Protestant churches, and accepted as a line of least resistance by the backward leadership of the labour movement in past eras. It wasn't innate.

It was constructed in the context of the imperialist British conquest of Australia from its indigenous inhabitants, who often resisted quite vigorously. This racism was developed in the domestic conflict here with the Irish Catholic section of the population, who were in constant conflict with the racist pretensions of the ruling class of "British" Australia.

From this angle, rather than being some aberration, it is strikingly obvious that improved education organically undermines racism and hostility to migration and multiculturalism, by allowing the more civilised instincts, which are the ones really innate in human beings, to develop. Betts' and others' (including her ostensible opponent, Ghassan Hage) fancy post-modernist story that university graduates' opposition to racism is some kind of cultural badge of status is, like most post-modern rhetoric, a misreading of social reality or, at best, only a tiny part of a much more complex story.

Betts makes great play of the fact, pointed to by all of these reactionary populists, that the enormous upheaval in English speaking countries against the monstrous imperialist war in Vietnam, was one of the major commencement points in the enormous swing among educated people against all forms of racism and opposition to migration.

These populists associate this development also, in their propaganda, with the explosion in numbers of tertiary educated people, which commenced at approximately the same time. Well, the dates and times are more or less correct, but their interpretation of these developments is only valid if you presume a bigoted racism as the norm in human behaviour.

If you don't, other interpretations present themselves immediately. My interpretation, which I assert to be the valid one, is this: in Australia, with which I am most familiar, the Whitlam period of free education did coincide with the enormous popular mobilisation against the imperialist monstrosity in Vietnam, in which I personally was lucky enough to participate, with many thousands of others. It also coincided, indeed, with the avalanche into higher education of the first substantial generation, out of for instance, Catholic secondary schools, and of other working class and lower middle class Anglo-Australians, and of the first generation in universities of European migrant background.

The shift in attitudes to race among students and graduates coincided with their shift towards Labor in electoral politics

The dramatic shift in attitudes to race and migration that took place in this period among university graduates, also coincided with the swing of both university undergraduate populations and university graduates to the Labor side in electoral politics. Until about 1969 the overwhelming majority of tertiary students and university graduates, to the number of about 80 per cent, always favoured Liberal in every election in Australia since responsible government.

It was only in the 1969 election that Labor even got to 40 per cent preference amongst tertiary students, and it was only in 1972 that polls suggested a majority of students, for the first time ever, supported Labor. It was only about 1972, also, that a majority of graduates began to swing towards Labor.

All these major changes coincided with the massive expansion of university education to social groups that had never previously had access to it. In this wonderful period of the expansion of tertiary education to new layers, there were a number of significant secondary features. For instance, in 1967 the extra school year was introduced in New South Wales.

As a result, the only freshers in universities were a large cohort of mature-age students who were encouraged to take advantage of the gap year to start university education. (This was the year when the Vietnam antiear protests, incidentally, really began to gather momentum, and it is my very distinct memory that many of these mature-age students, who by then knew a bit about the world, were in the forefront of this development.)

A little later, throughout the 1970s the very notable phenomenon took place of mature-age women students taking advantage of scholarships and the Whitlam free education to get degrees, and many of these women became rather belligerent feminists, having previous been deprived of tertiary education by social circumstances.

In short, the combination of all these factors produced a massive change in the moral, cultural and political climate of the times, and this had a very big and happily enduring impact on the generations who acquired their education in the 1960s and 1970s. It was a time of great inquiry, criticism and change.

It may have had its aberrations and eccentricities, but it was a great time to be alive. In this period, as I observed and experienced it, a number of previously latent currents in Australian society came to a certain flowering, such as the basically healthy ethical training in relation to matters like race and migration in Catholic schools.

This was the period when the products of the Catholic education system formed a disproportionate part of the undergraduate population, having been well instructed by the brothers and nuns to take full advantage of all the Whitlam period educational opportunities available to them, which pitched them headlong into the political and cultural radicalisation of the period.

The substantial swing among students and graduates in this period against racism, did owe a lot to the educational revolution of the period, but it also owed a lot to the new moral climate that emerged in these conditions, which actually corresponds more adequately to basic civilised human instincts than the bigoted backwardness that the Katharine Betts of this world believe is normal in human beings.

Happily, these more civilised attitudes have persisted among people who acquired their education over this period. It's their normal state of being in relation to all these matters. There may be a certain amount of group identification in it as well, but that's no bad thing either! It's better to be a proud member of the generation of 1968 or 1972, in my view, than to be a dopey bigot.

Over the last few years I have time and time again had the experience of graduates of the classes of 1968 or 1972 bringing their children into my bookshop, reminiscing about the past and attempting to introduce their sometimes rather bored kids to the delights of Furry Freak Brothers comics and the serious literature of the period.

It is my impression that the decisive sea change on cultural matters, censorship, politics, race and migration made in the 1960s and 1970s, by many people who were educated then, tends to persist into the next generation. Even if the children of the class of 1968 or 1972 are sometimes a bit bored by them, they tend to retain the basic values acquired by their parents during the great sea change.

How Betts, Birrell and company worry about Sydney. Bob Gould live from Gomorrah!

A rather bizarre aspect of the 25-year Betts-Birrell crusade against migration and multiculturalism is the particular attention these Anglo-Victorians always give to the perceived problems of life in Sydney. Over the period they have made constant dire predictions of social, environmental and economic disaster in Sydney, and later events have mostly proved them wrong.

Over this period Sydney has constantly evolved. There are real problems in Sydney, many of which stem from the successful economic development of Sydney and NSW. A very serious and worthwhile Sydney economist, Phil Raskell, has made his recent life work the careful documentation of, for instance, such things as the widening economic inequality in Sydney.

For this useful project, he has worked extensively on the public statistical records of who pays tax and at what level. But Phil Raskell never overloads his useful and thoroughly commendable work on income inequality, with the vehement anti-migration and anti-development rhetoric that the Monash group does. They tend to grab hold of Phil's economic work, whenever it is published, and then they put their own unpleasant anti-migration spin on it.

Sydney is a very significant city. It has been in the forefront of Australian economic development since the early years of the 20th century. It is now, in fact, Australia's economic and financial capital, and it is the city in Australasia that is most locked into global financial markets and to trade in the region.

It is Australia's global city, and has a similar role to New York, Shanghai, Bombay or London in the US, China, India or Britain. It is at the bottom end in Australia for unemployment and the top end for job creation. It has always had a distinct ethnic and cultural mix.

In the 19th century, Sydney and NSW were widely noted for having the highest proportion of Irish Catholics in the country. For the past 15 years Sydney has been the favoured point of entry for the spectacular wave of Asian migration, and about half the Asians who come to Australia have Sydney as their first preference.

Sydney and NSW have historically had by far the longest period of state Labor governments in Australia. The Labor Party started here in 1891. The defeat of the conscription referendum in 1916 was a product of the size of the Catholic population in NSW and the strength of the labour movement in this state.

NSW was also the site of the greatest ever popular mobilisation of the labour movement against the ruling class during the Lang period in the 1930s. At this moment we have a state Labor government almost as firmly entrenched as two earlier governments, the one led by McKell and the one led by Wran. The present electorally very successful Premier in this Labor government looks like Pinocchio, can't drive a car (like myself), is well known for his literary and historical interests, and is married to a confident Asian migrant, a businesswoman, Helena. He has just been re-elected as Premier in one of the biggest electoral swings in recent history.

Sydney is full of the bustle and activity that so pained one of the literary anti-migrationists. Sydneysiders rather like this bustle and activity, because it means jobs and incomes.

Sydney does have plenty of problems. There is increasing inequality. Housing prices are much higher than elsewhere, which is good for those who own a house, but bad for those who are starting out. Taken as a whole, however, the problems of Sydney are not insoluble and they are not made worse by migration.

Migration actually produces an economic prosperity that lays a basis for the solution of many of these problems. Even the poorest cohort in Sydney, people who live in the Western suburbs, have increased economic opportunities because of the nature of Sydney. The Victorian academics who use Sydney as a shock-horror example of the consequences of migration, are at a considerable loss for an explanation for this basic conundrum. If Sydney is so bad, why is it the favoured point of settlement for about half the people who wish to migrate to Australia?

Their Arthur Calwell and mine

Both Thompson and Birrell wax lyrical about different things said by Arthur Calwell in his autobiography. I find their colonisation of Calwell thoroughly offensive. Calwell is one of my heroes. I actually knew Calwell and had some political dealings with him. I revere him for the following things that he did in his life:

  • His opposition to conscription and support for Irish independence during the First World War, which earned him a military intelligence file.
  • His opposition, from within a Labor cabinet, to conscription during the Second World War.
  • His decisive role in starting mass migration from non-British sources in 1946, which included helping Jewish survivors of the Holocaust and pushing aside the rabid Melbourne establishment anti-Semitism of the time.
  • His solid support for the Labor side against the Groupers during the Split.
  • His courageous and far-sighted opposition to the Vietnam War and conscription, which was the context in which I had dealings with him. He was quite willing to speak for our hard-nosed and militant Sydney Vietnam Action Committee, despite the fact that we were denounced by many of the "official Left" as splitting Trotskyists.

Calwell was a complex, courageous and intelligent man, but he was a man of his place and time, with some of the religious and cultural prejudices that came from his background.

Predictably, Thompson and Betts celebrate only his most backward statements and attitudes, which suit their reactionary purposes. In my view, Calwell's great contribution to the Australian labour movement and Australian life will endure after this petty colonisation of his legacy has been forgotten.

The area in which Calwell's weaknesses were striking were his attitude to race and his moralistic attitude to questions like censorship and sexuality. In both these areas the absolutely fundamental cultural changes of the 1960s and 1970s are irreversible. The vast majority of the people, whose origins are in the robust Irish Catholic layer of Australian society, who had their education in the 1960s and 1970s, have a totally different attitude now, on questions such as sexuality, censorship and race.

Like me, quite a few of those people respect Calwell's contribution on the other matters, but they laugh in a slightly embarrassed and amused way about just those things that Thompson and Betts celebrate in Calwell, because as a social group, the Irish Catholic-identified section of the Australian population have painfully shed those prejudices -- rather more so, possibly, than Anglo-Australians.

We respect Calwell for his great contribution, but we understand him as a man of his place and time, and there's not the slightest chance that his backward prejudices on some matters will strike any chord at all among the majority of those who come from the cultural background that he came from. It is really cynically eccentric for reactionary Anglos like Betts and Thompson to be hanging their hats on Calwell's weaknesses. I revere Calwell, but he belongs to us, not to them!

Why Betts and company can't win

The Betts-Birrell bunch have been conducting an energetic and resourceful campaign against migration and multiculturalism for the past 25 years, and this new outbreak is only the latest episode in their campaign. In my view they have to be combated and opposed, but happily I don't think they have much chance of winning. Australian society has evolved well and truly past them.

If you look at the books that they have published at intervals during the course of this campaign, the actual scale of migration that has taken place subsequently has tended to be at the top end of their direst predictions, and at the top end of their predictions for Asian composition etc.

Happily, none of their gloomy prophecies of social disintegration, racial conflict and other baleful results from this high immigration, have taken place. In fact, throughout the period, there has been a steady, small decline in unemployment during periods of fairly high migration -- a real conundrum for Betts and company -- and a steady improvement in prosperity and economic activity, despite the obvious persistence and even widening of inequality.

The decisive major obstacle to their campaign to stop migration stems, however, from the real class formations that currently prevail in urban Australia that I have described above. In modern urban Australia, the population is now so diverse and marriage and family formation has now such an exogamous element, that the objective basis for nativist opposition to migration and multiculturalism of the Betts-Birrell-Sheehan sort is constantly being eroded by the new social circumstances.

All Australian tertiary institutions outside the smallest provincial centres are now ethnically and culturally diverse and produce many, many multiracial couples in all levels of society, from the poorest to the very richest. Most urban schools are now ethnically and culturally diverse, with the same result. The civilised attitude of both the Liberal-voting managerial group, and the Labor-voting public service and education group, among university graduates, is not going to change.

The next layer, the bank clerks etc, are also ethnically and culturally diverse, and opposition to migration is steadily declining among these people because of the diversity of the group. The bottom segment of urban society is overwhelmingly made up of recent migrants. In one of her asides, Katharine Betts remarks that, from her point of view, the group that she found in her old opinion polls who had the highest figure of support for migration and multiculturalism, were that dogged, hard-core, pro-migration group, NESB migrants with university degrees.

Well, of course, that group is growing constantly as well. In the real terms of actually evolving Australian society, many of the arguments of the anti-migration lobby are educated atavisms and unpleasant shrieks from the primeval past, but we have to work hard, educate people and campaign vigorously to keep it that way.

August 3, 1999

Robert Birrell and the Monash anti-immigrationists are at it again

You have to hand it to the Robert Birrell, Monash University bunch. They don't give up on their 25-year campaign against immigration, and their more recent campaign against Asian immigration, which they try to cloak in a show of concern for the migrants they investigate. They have just produced a new study aimed at highlighting the number of recent migrants who are in poor social groups. (Article in the Sydney Morning Herald, September 19, 1998, page 3, by John Marsh)

This is a slightly new spin in their long campaign against migration. The last time I remember one of their studies being highlighted in the press, they concentrated on the notion of alleged Vietnamese ghettos in Cabramatta, Sydney and Richmond, Melbourne.

This line of argument was refuted by other demographers and migration consultants, who were able to satisfactorily establish that Birrell and company were wildly overstating the ghetto angle and that the concentration of Indo-Chinese, for instance, in Cabramatta and Richmond was less than 20 per cent.

Obviously, the ghetto argument wasn't terribly successful among serious commentators, although it has been considerably more successful in the spher of urban myth spread by people such as Pauline Hanson and Paul Sheehan.

Therefore, Birrell and company have produced a new study, in which they look for concentrations of poor people from a number of non-English-speaking backgrounds, in certain working-class suburbs around Sydney. What an amazing discovery! Poor, non-English-speaking migrants tend to be concentrated in poorer working-class suburbs. Gee whiz!

The underlying bias of the Monash Centre for Population and Urban Research against migrants and migration is made very clear in Birrell's reported comments, in which he uses his "discoveries" as a chance to once again repeat his long-standing attacks on multiculturalism and immigration.

A few questions must be asked about Birrell's study. Did he try to track the Asian and other non-English-speaking migrants alongside, say, a study of English speakers of rought the same socio-economic group in the same suburbs?

He obviously got his idea for selectively tracking non-English-speakers from the excellent research work of Phil Raskell who, for many years, has been studying the breakdown of economic power and income in Sydney, Who is Rich and Who is Poor?, and doing it as one properly should, not for migrants alone but for the whole population.

In his studies, exactly the same suburbs that Birrell mentions emerge as centres of poverty for both migrants and English-speakers. Birrell has turned this normal demographic inquiry into class, income and status, into a value-loaded attack on recent migrants.

The tendency of recent and poorer migrants to concentrate in already-existing poorer working class areas, is in fact obvious, and has existed right back to the first European settlement in Australia. For instance, from the middle of the 19th century, when Sydney began rapidly developing as a big port city, the poorest suburbs were the city itself, which had an enormous population in those days, Glebe, Chippendale, Ultimo, Pyrmont and Camperdown.

Studies in those days showed those suburbs to be the areas inhabited by the poorest working-class and even lumpen-proletarian people.

Census figures in those days, which listed occupations, showed a preponderance of labourers, domestics, unemployed and some tradesmen in those suburbs. They also showed a sharp religious imbalance in Sydney suburbs. The poorer working-class areas that I've just named had a much higher preponderance of Irish Catholics, around 40 per cent of the population, whereas richer people tended to live in the outer suburbs of Sydney, such as Petersham, Canterbury and Ashfield, and these suburbs were only about 15 per cent Irish Catholic.

The anti-migrant bigots of those days, largely from the British Protestant upper crust of the colony, used to regard the predominantly working-class Irish Catholic suburbs as cesspools of poverty and iniquity.

Further on in Irish history, in the 1950s and 1960s, many of the suburbs Birrell mentions had a high proportion of Greek, Italian, Polish and Yugoslav migrants, who in their time, were also much poorer when they arrived, for the obvious reasons.

Many studies were done in the 1950s and 1960s showing the poverty of the newer working-class migrants from European countries, and there was much clucking by the Robert Birrells of the time about Greek, Italian, Maltese and Yugoslav alleged ghettos. The irony is that many of the suburbs discussion the 1950s and 1960s in relation to the older European migrants are the same suburbs that Birrell talks about now.

All any of this underlines is the obvious point that the poorer cohort of every wave of migration tend to end up in the poorer suburbs.

As sugar coating on his essentially racist approach, Birrell mentions that there are many Asian migrants in Sydney who are affluent and do well, and who live in suburbs other than the ones he names, and he implies that their immigration may be all right. This, of course, raises the obvious question: is he demanding that only already affluent Asians be allowed in? This seems to be implied in his attack on family reunion and high levels of migration of less-skilled Asians.

Civilised Australians of all ethnic and cultural backgrounds, who have some sens of Australian history, should consider that Australia has been for most of its existence a country of rapid mass migration. This migration has always been dominated by poorer people looking for a new life and better chance in a new country.

Poorer migrants have always outnumbered richer migrants. This was true of the Irish in the 19th century and the Europeans in the post-war years. I bet Birrell did not conduct a survey among the poor migrants on whom he descended as to whether they preferred being in Australia or in the poorer countries from which they came.

The answers they would give in any such survey are pretty obvious. Mostly, even difficult conditions in Australia are better than the conditions in their countries of origin, and it's this impulse that drives all mass migrations.

Birrell's concern for these poor people can be dismissed as crocodile tears, overlain on a constant and implacable desire to keep out the people from the nether world who he views as threatening the Australian social fabric.

Civilised Australians should mobilise vigorously, as a lot are, in defence of the general policy of keeping Australia's doors reasonably open to migrants from many countries on a non-racist basis, and on a basis that allows poorer people to migrate as well as richer people.

October 13, 1998

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