Ethno-nationalism is resurgent in many European countries, in the United States and in Israel. Hostility to immigration and to refugees is widespread. The Australian debate about the level of immigration is a mild symptom of the present malaise. Andrew Bolt’s more strident recent attack on immigrant communities attracted widespread and cogent criticism. But it raised a number of significant questions.
His discomfort about migrants talking foreign languages in the streets reminded of me of similar sentiments that I used to hear during my childhood years. When the first post-war migrants began to appear on Hobart’s streets people were affronted by hearing strange languages spoken perhaps for the first time. The common refrain was that you didn’t know what they were talking about. The first foreigners to come to our high school were two Dutch boys. We regarded them with suspicion. One of them, we heard, was called Axel which was thought to be a very odd name for someone to have. When,soon after, the first Italians arrived hostility was palpable. I remember people declaring that they carried knives but even more common was the complaint that they smelt of garlic.
These memories of the old white, British and homogeneous Australia are a reminder of just how dramatically Australia has changed in just one lifetime. And it was change which few people imagined possible, let alone desirable in 1950. It is not just that we are now a successful multi-cultural society, as Malcolm Turnbull reminds us, we are one of the few anywhere. Most countries in the world have small numbers of foreign born residents. Globally the figure in 2015 was 3.3%. Australia, as many readers will know is approaching 30%, and in the large cities the figure is closer to 40%. Half the population are either immigrants or have at least one parent who arrived from overseas. This is remarkably high by world standards. If we take 20% or more foreign born as a fair measure of significant cultural and demographic diversity then Australia, Canada and New Zealand stand out. Western European countries would average out around about 10%. Britain is just over 12%, France 11% and Denmark where anxiety about alien intrusion is now high has 9%. The countries of Eastern Europe where concern about the influx of foreigners is even greater have less than 3% foreign born. The United States has a large foreign born population but it is only 13% of the total.
What these figures show us is that Australia has now crossed over a demographic watershed. We are multi-cultural and there is now no way back to the old white British world. The only choice we have is to make this unique society work or allow it to fail. And that is where the right wing assault on multiculturism , exemplified by Andrew Bolt’s recent diatribe, is so dangerous. What is clearly happening is that the cultural warriors on the right are taking up the sentiments, discourse and tactics that are current overseas without bothering to consider whether they are equally appropriate here. Many of the countries in question have the choice of shutting their doors and turning their backs on mass migration. We don’t. Nativism is no longer an option for us. Ethno-nationalism makes no sense here at all.
This becomes even more apparent when we consider the first Australians. Does Bolt think they are part of the “us” he wants to defend against the tidal wave of immigrants? Are they part of his “we.” Are they in other words really are countrymen or not? The implication of the whole Bolt position is that the world he believes we are losing is the old white Australia that had no place for Aborigines and Islanders. Just for a moment think what it means if you apply Bolt’s dystopia to fully one third of the continent above what has been called the Townsville/ Cape Hedland line. Hundreds of Indigenous communities are clustered into what he calls ‘tribes that live apart from each other’ and do not ‘even speak the same language in the street.’ So what Bolt would do about the 50,000 speakers of 48 traditional languages and the perhaps 20 or 30,000 people who speak some form of Kriol is hard to say. Advise them not speak them in the street when they come into town because it would offend ’ whitefellas’ even those whose families have only been here for a short time? Bolt is an assimilationist . He wants everyone to do as his parents did before him. But does he really think this is a desirable, or even a useful prescription, for indigenous Australians who have resisted this outcome for many generations?
When in the early C20th White/British Australia was developing its national institutions and ways of seeing the world it was possible to ignore the black north. It was far away and there was the comforting belief that the Aborigines and Islanders would eventually ‘die out.’ That was a pre-condition for the Australia that still existed when I was growing up, the one that Bolt believes is even now being inundated by waves of aliens. How things have changed. Indigenous Australians now occupy large areas of Australia on land over which they hold title. This is not just culturally important. It is a geographical fact of great significance. It is the Aborigines and Islanders who control places like the Torres Strait and the Tiwi Islands which are of overriding strategic importance to the nation.
It would be an act of high flying folly for the right wing culture warriors to imply, as Bolt does, that indigenous Australians are not really part of ‘us.’ The truth is that large parts of Australia have always been multicultural. They have been that way since the arrival of the’ whitefellas’ over 200 years ago.
Henry Reynolds is an eminent Australian historian.