A QUARTER of century after urging Asian immigration be ''slowed down a little'' to preserve ''social cohesion'', Dr John Howard yesterday told 260 new university graduates - half of them Chinese - that they were integral to a ''hugely optimistic'' Australian future.
''Australia is blessed in so many ways,'' Australia's second-longest-serving prime minister and new doctor of letters told the graduating class of business and economics at Macquarie University. Australia had inherited all the great doctrines of Western civilisation, ''we live cheek by jowl with the fastest-growing economic region of the world'' and ''we have a very big and enduring relationship with the most peaceful and remarkable country mankind has seen - the United States''.
He ventured an opinion on one of the more delicate issues confronting Australian foreign policy. Is Australia pro-China or pro-America? ''We do not have to choose between our history and our geography,'' Mr Howard said. ''We can have the benefits of both.'' Mr Howard said he had held this view for years. It is one of the few issues on which he agrees with the federal government, and Minister for Foreign Affairs Bob Carr in particular.
Later, Mr Howard said the placement of US marines at Darwin - agreed to last year between Julia Gillard and US President Barack Obama, and begun last week - was sensible. As prime minister, he said, the US never demanded his government choose one or the other and had always been relaxed about Australia's growing economic relationship with China.
The Chinese, he said, had a more sophisticated understanding of relations with Australia and the Australia-US relationship than many commentators exhibited. He told graduates that the global financial crisis (''rightly dubbed the North Atlantic financial crisis'', he said) would not dominate future reviews of today's world economy, important as it was.
''The event that will stand out from the last 30 to 40 years has been the remarkable transformation of so many parts of the world towards greater prosperity.''
He said this was the result of free enterprise and some was due to the 1978 pro-market reforms of Chinese communist leader Deng Xiaoping.