“We do not claim to be Asian.” This provocative statement defined John Howard’s first overseas trip as prime minister in September 1996. He meant no offence to his host, Indonesian president Suharto, and none was taken. In fact, the comment generated little discussion at the time because it was self-evidently true. Australia’s ethnic face was Anglo-European. Barely 5 per cent of our population was born in Asia, and the projections at the time had the figure creeping up to 7.5 per cent by 2025.
“Are we reverting to England?” would have been the more appropriate question at the dawn of the Howard era, because immigrants were still coming from the mother country while the waves from Italy, Greece and Yugoslavia had long dried up. In 1996, the English-born in Australia outnumbered immigrants from southern and eastern Europe and from Asia.