ABC BRISBANE DRIVE
WEDNESDAY, 29 JUNE 2022
STEVE AUSTIN, HOST: What is an Australian today? What do we look like? What do we present as, given the census data? I want to do this with my guest who is, as a result of the federal election, now an Assistant Minister. Andrew Leigh is Assistant Minister for Competition, Charities and Treasury. That's not the real reason why I wanted to speak with him. He's also a prolific writer of honest and interesting books, and most recently wrote the book ‘What's the Worst That Could Happen? Existential Risk and Extreme Politics’. Andrew, thanks for joining me today. Have any of your scenarios in that book come true yet?
ASSISTANT MINISTER FOR COMPETITION, CHARITIES AND TREASURY ANDREW LEIGH: Pleasure, Steve. It’s fortunate to say that the world has not ended yet, and long may that continue.
AUSTIN: Give me your just general overview, first of all. What stands out to you? What do you think, Andrew Leigh, as someone who's got a PhD in economics and writes prolific, as a prolific book writer, what stands out to you in the census data about who we are?
LEIGH: Two big things, Steve. One is that almost half of Australians have a parent born overseas, and it really does speak to the multicultural success story that is modern Australia. The other is the significant decline in the share of Australians expressing a religious affiliation. There's now almost as many people who profess to having no religion as there are Christians in Australia. So a big change in the way in which the nation engages with religion.
AUSTIN: Now we know I'm sure that religion influences culture. How do you think this big rise in no religion assignation will change the Australian culture, if at all, Andrew Leigh?
LEIGH: It's interesting, isn't it? I mean, Christians will think about the story of Mary and Joseph going to Bethlehem to complete the census. And so in that sense, you know, historical censuses are tied in with Christian stories. But increasingly, Australians are disaffiliating from organised religions. I think we need to be particularly concerned about the drop in religious participation, because that's often been a pathway through which people have gotten active in their communities. People who attend religious services regularly are more likely to volunteer and to donate, even if you exclude their religious volunteering and donations. Religious attendees are more likely to give blood, for example. So thinking about other forms of civic engagement that might take the place of the important role that religious participation has played is really important for me in my role as Assistant Minister for Charities and somebody who's keen to see a rebuilding of that community spirit in Australia.
AUSTIN: I'll come back to that point a bit later on. I just want to pursue more a bit on that multiculturalism. Given now that we're so multicultural, where 50 per cent of the country has, you know, parents born overseas. What was the original aim of multiculturalism, Andrew Leigh? Can you recall? It came in, I'm pretty sure Malcolm Fraser was the prime minister at the time and he brought in Australia's official multiculturalism policy. What was it intended to do, back in the 70s?
LEIGH: Steve, the way I express it when I'm speaking to new citizens at citizenship ceremonies is that just as when you get married you don't have to have to disavow your parents, so too we shouldn't be asking new migrants to disavow all that they've brought from their countries of birth. Modern Australia is stronger when it benefits from the new ideas that come in from outside. We see this in a superficial way with cuisine, but there's also workplaces all around Australia right now where people are saying, ‘you know, in America, we used to do it this way’ or ‘you know, in Cambodia, here's the approach we used to take’ or ‘in India, here's the way we used to approach it’. It’s that strength and diversity you can see in effective sporting teams and in business organisations, in community groups. So I think that's the notion of multiculturalism, that Australia's plurality makes us a more dynamic, interesting, and affluent nation.
AUSTIN: Andrew Leigh is a member of the House of Representatives in Australia. He's an Assistant Minister, and a writer of multiple books, and he's joined me to talk about who we are as Australians now that the results of the census are being unpacked and revealed. Andrew has written an incredible array of books. If you were to describe Australians to someone who's never met an Australian, is there an anecdote or a cultural story you would use now, Andrew Leigh? Often, you know, anecdotes or stories are a really good way of passing on a lot of information in a descriptive way. What would you use?
LEIGH: Well, I've always liked the stories of the Australians who got off the ships in the gold rush - in that period in which in just a decade the Australian population tripled - and discovered that they had entered a country where Jack wasn't just as good as his master, but maybe better. And the notion that they were writing back to the people in class bound Europe, saying this is a new and exciting country in which ‘rank and title have no power in the antipodes’, as one of them put it. That I think is a really important part of our story, Steve, the idea that Australians prize you for the talents you have and that everybody starts off fundamentally equal. That we're a country that prizes the word ‘mate’ over the word ‘sir’. I think that's under threat given the rise of inequality in Australia in recent decades, and the decline in community participation, but it is a story that I'll often tell when people say what is it to be Australian. It's those values of multiculturalism, mateship and the fair go.
AUSTIN: So what are the implications of this census going into the future? The reason we do this census - to reveal these elements about who we are, what we believe, our makeup, our marriage, our affiliations - is so that governments, people like you, Andrew Leigh, can plan and provide appropriate services accordingly. So what are the implications of this for Australia's future, based on what you've seen?
LEIGH: Well, certainly, we see a change in the countries of birth. So we've now got India overtaking China as the second highest country of birth overseas, following England. We're also seeing the steady trend of Australians moving to what our American friends would call ‘the sunbelt’, with Queensland being the fastest growing state in Australia. Now that's a change that goes back to the invention of air conditioning, where we suddenly started to see such strong population growth in parts of the country that had previously been too hot in the pre air conditioning era. And I imagine the growth of Northern Australia is only going to continue in coming decades.
AUSTIN: Once upon a time, you couldn't sell on the air conditioner if you spoke to some of the retail stores.
AUSTIN: Now they can't get enough of them. I don't know what's happened to us, we've become soft or something.
LEIGH: But it's a remarkable shift, right? And you see it - it's completely transformed not only American society, but also American politics, this big shift towards the sunbelt. I'm seeing the same trend happening here in Australia, just possibly over a longer timeframe.
AUSTIN: You write - I think, you wrote a book, was it called ‘Innovation and Equality: How to Create a Future That’s More Star Trek than Terminator’, which is a great title. But is there anything in this ABS census data that would help, you know, government assistant ministers like yourself go to cabinet or go to the senior minister to say, ‘look, I think policy wise, we're heading in the wrong direction here, that we should shift our focus’.
LEIGH: One of the arguments that I made in that book was that we need to make sure that we're identifying entrepreneurs wherever they might be, and that too often entrepreneurialism has been seen as something that's a thing that you do if you've grown up in an affluent background with parents who've been successful businesspeople. I noticed in the census that there's a steadily rising rate of education, but I'd like to see that increase even more rapidly because the best insurance against technological change is a good education. And I'd love to see us growing more businesses in parts of Australia that haven't been as rapidly growing as in the past. So I'm really curious as to how we forge a more dynamic economy. And there's hints in the census about the benefits that can come from that, Steve.
AUSTIN: Andrew Leigh is Assistant Minister for Competition, Charities and Treasury. This is ABC Radio Brisbane, it's 18 minutes past six. Let me go back to something we were talking about before – religion. One of the things that I noticed is although Christianity in Australia is still one of the largest or the largest religious grouping, the secularists - the different societies, the secular humanist societies, the atheist society of Australia - all demanded that Christianity stopped being given some sort of ear in Canberra and that as a result that the government should acknowledge that, you know, this group of secularists in Australia now and act accordingly. Can the government do that, Andrew Leigh?
LEIGH: I think you need to ensure that there aren't religious biases in Australia, and we've got that enshrined in the constitution, Steve-
LEIGH: Yes, exactly. As you know, we're seeing the growth of ‘no religion’. We're also seeing the growth of Hinduism, which has increased dramatically and probably sits in parallel to Indian ancestry overtaking Chinese ancestry in terms of where people were born. But, you know, I think there's a lot to be learned from communities of faith, and there’s interesting emergences of secular communities. So I think Alain de Botton’s ‘School of Life’, which is aiming to take from religion some of those community engagement norms, the principles of living a good life, which are embodied in in many communities of faith-
AUSTIN: Religion without God, so to speak.
LEIGH: Yeah, and recognising the value that’s embedded in pilgrimages and in shared time together and religious stories told to young Australians. Now I literally wouldn't exist if it wasn't for the Methodist church. My parents met when my dad was standing in for his father giving a sermon and my mother was in the front pew. So I'm very aware of what we get as a community from communities of faith, and the way in which they served us so diligently during lockdown. I think about the Sikh volunteers in my own electorate who looked out for overseas students who weren't getting very much support and delivered them meals through the lockdown period. So those communities of faith will continue to be vital going forward.
AUSTIN: This is ABC Radio. I want to sneak in one more question. There's a lot of people looking at what's happening in the United States at the moment. The whole sort of community seems to be really wrestling with major issues, some would argue the United States is tearing itself apart. Yet it is supposedly the benchmark of multicultural nations and democratic liberalism. Are there any lessons there for Australia, Andrew Leigh?
LEIGH: Ethnic diversity can potentially be weaponized by populists who were seeking to build a power base. It's not just America that’s shown us that. We've seen experiences of ethnic diversity being used by radical far right populists in Australia as well. So I think it's important to remind ourselves of the strength of multiculturalism, and the way in which effective assimilation of migrants into the community can ensure that multiculturalism endures. I think one of the challenges for America has been where migration has been unchecked, that you've seen a significant drop in people's support for the migration project in America. Migration is much more popular in Australia than it is in the United States, and partly that's because we've very successfully brought people in who've added to the Australian skills base rather than crowding people out.
AUSTIN: I really appreciate you giving me so much of your time today, Andrew Leigh. Thanks very much.
LEIGH: Always a pleasure to chat, Steve. Thanks for the thoughtful questions.
AUSTIN: Andrew Leigh, Assistant Minister for Competition, Charities and Treasury.
Authorised by Paul Erickson, ALP, Canberra.