The urgent case for a diverse nation - The Australian

My latest opinion piece in The Australian looks at how increased diversity in our community can enrich Australians socially, culturally and economically. Here's the details:

Urgent case for a diverse nation, The Australian, 24 July 2014

PROGRESSIVES are often most comfortable making a political or moral case for diversity: that it is a necessary corollary of liberalism in a multi-ethnic societ­y or, more optimistically, a social good in itself.

This is no longer enough. Our ideas must expand beyond platit­udes about multiculturalism giving us good places to eat. We need to recognise the real economic and social benefits that flow from diversity and acknowledge the challenges so we can find ways to maintain cohesive societies in the face of these.

To see the positive impact of diversity, go to Silicon Valley. Half of all start-up teams include a first-generation migrant, from Russian-born Sergey Brin at Google to Hungarian-born Andy Grove at Intel.

Immigrants also do better than average among US Nobel laureates, National Academy of Science members and Academy Award film directors.

In an ethnically diverse place such as Sydney, an innovative firm can hire a financier who has worked in Hong Kong, a design­er who has worked in Milan or a health expert who has worked in Tokyo. This “excellence ­effect”  comes with global ­connectedness.

Diversity also boosts trade. Several studies show that when a country receives more migrants from a particular nation, it is likelier to trade with it. By understanding the cultures of both countries, migrants facilit­ate the flow of goods and services between them.

In Australia, we urgently need to take advantage of diversity to boost our export industries. As our mining boom moves into the production phase, it is generating fewer jobs.

This was at the heart of the 2012 Australia in the Asian Century white paper, which set a goal for all high school students to be able to learn four priority lang­uages: Mandarin, Hindi, Indon­esian and Japanese. The more Australians engage with the Asia-Pacific, the better we can take advantage of Asia’s growth.

These are important benefits. But they do not come without costs. Many studies have shown that in the face of difference trust is lower, friends are fewer, altruism is diminished and community co-operation is rarer.

This is hard for progressives to confront, especially those of us who put a premium on diversity in and of itself. But we must understand it to develop models of diversity that work for the long term.

Another cost of diversity is rac­ism, which has an immediate cost to the victim and a flow-on cost to society.

I co-authored a study that used ethnically distinctive names to test for discrimination. We found that Chinese and Middle Eastern jobseekers in Australia needed to put in 60 per cent to 70 per cent more applications to get the same number of interviews as an Anglo applicant.

To maximise the benefits and minimise the costs of diversity we need to forge national identities based on values rather than ancestry or stereotypes. Here Australia can learn from the US. Americans’ shared belief in freedom, opportunity and tolerance (summarised by that great motto e pluribus unum — out of many, one) is a great asset.

In Australia, there is less consensus about our national values. This creates a risk of us drifting into a mix of old-fashioned stereo­types, defining ourselves as stubbie-carrying cricket fans who drive Holdens, eat meat pies and are probably white.

We also need to ensure that the benefits of immigration are shared across the community. Here the US might learn from Australia, which largely has avoided the downward pressure on low-skill wages that has accom­panied US immigration.

Making the most of difference requires open minds and open hearts, as well as good policy settings. But if we get it right we will reap real benefits as our communities grow socially and economically richer — together.

Andrew Leigh is the opposition assistant treasury spokesman. This is an edited excerpt of a speech to the Progressive Policy Institute in Washington, DC.

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