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AUSTRALIA: Populate or Perish

3 minute read

A happy-go-lucky country in the first 40 years of her national life, Australia awoke with a shock one morning in 1941. The date was Dec. 10, and in the space of a few hours the British navy ceased to be a power in the Pacific. Through the fall of Singapore to the Battle of the Coral Sea, Australia became acutely aware of her isolated geographical position and, in the face of Asia’s agitated masses, her own lack of people. “We must populate or perish,” sloganed Arthur Calwell, the Labor government’s Immigration Minister. “We must double or quit,” wrote Liberal Leader R. G. Casey. At war’s end the opposition political parties were agreed on one point: large-scale immigration. In the past six years 700,000 Europeans—including 165,000 D.P.s—have entered Australia, a larger intake, in proportion to the population (8,000,000), than that of the U.S. during its greatest immigration periods.

Danger of a Gallop. But this year Australia ran into economic trouble. Overseas trade, which in 1950-51 brought her a foreign credit balance of $533 million, in 1951-52 produced a deficit of $846 million. Receipts for wool, her chief export, were down 50%. As a result, imports were reduced to vanishing point. With retail prices up 100% since 1945 and the basic wage (upon which union wage scales are computed) almost trebled, there was danger of a galloping inflation. To counter it, able Prime Minister Robert Gordon Menzies acted boldly. He slapped a special 10% tax on incomes, increased corporation taxes, the general sales tax by 4%, and luxury taxes from 20% to 66%. Australia rolled easily with these blows, but not the Labor Party. It swung back. Although there are plenty of jobs in heavy industry, official figures now show 35,000 unemployed. Labor says there are far more and, forgetting its own enlightened postwar policy, has made immigration the pivot of its attack on the Liberal-Country Party coalition government. Said Laborite E. J. Ward last week: “More immigrants simply mean more unemployed.’

Actually, Australia’s generous immigration policy (each new immigrant costs the Australian taxpayer $2,600) has contributed surprisingly little to her economic troubles. True, the majority of immigrants have gone into industry instead of farming; they eat food that was once profitably exported. On the other hand, their needs create work. The country’s setbacks hit them first. At Bonegilla, a wartime camp of wooden huts, where immigrants are instructed in the English language and Australian customs, 2,300 Italians threatened to burn down the camp if not given work. Time to Absorb. Reluctantly, Immigration Minister Harold Holt flew off to Europe to ask governments there to cut their immigration quotas. Next year Australia will accept only 80,000 immigrants, about half the average intake of the last four years. Said Holt: “The time has come to absorb our gains.”

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