Journalist, author and political commentator George Megalogenis has made a unique contribution to Australian conversations about migration, politics and our shared potential. He first met Natasha Cica – the guest co-editor of The European Exchange – in 2003. She heard George speaking on ABC radio in Melbourne about his newly published, first book Fault Lines: Race, Work, and the Politics of Changing Australia (Scribe), and interviewed him for a story about Australia’s race politics for the South China Morning Post. Since then, the two have kept talking on this topic. They caught up for another instalment over lunch at this year’s Adelaide Writers’ Week in March. This edited transcript of their discussion explores Megalogenis’s latest thinking about how contemporary Australia has been shaped by the experiences of European migration.
You can measure the success of Australia’s post-World War II migration program in terms of small business success and home ownership for the first generation, and educational and professional excellence for the second generation. The data has been telling us consistently that Australian-born children of non-English-speaking migrants outperform their peers. And then in the third generation, it returns to the average. I think there’s something peculiar about the drive of immigrant parents, who make sense of the trip to a place like Australia through their kids’ achievements. In Australia, we’re talking about big migrations that began with displaced persons from countries like Poland after World War II, and then the wave from the 1950s and 1960s from Italy, then Greece, the former Yugoslavia. The children of people from those three southern European source countries – the second generation of those concurrent waves – pop out the same way. So it’s not specific to the Greeks, it’s not specific to the Italians, it’s not specific to the former Yugoslavs. It is specific to the time and place in Australia – and it repeats with the Vietnamese, too, who arrived in the second half of the 1970s and into the 1980s. It’s not that my parents’ generation walked into a full-employment economy in the 1950s and ’60s and I had free university education in the 1980s that made me privileged. The Vietnamese landed in a broken ‘old’ economy, in a relatively high unemployment period and a political environment that was questioning whether we made the right decision to bring them in; whereas the Greeks, Italians and Yugoslavs had a bipartisan welcome mat rolled out. But overall, the kids of all these groups achieved very similar outcomes. Yet the second-generation kids of the ten-pound Pom wave, which came out at the same time as our parents, didn’t achieve the same outcomes as the second-generation kids of non-English-speaking migrants.
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