The Australia of today is vastly different to the Australia of my childhood with its widespread racism and sectarianism. It was socially suffocating. For those changes I am very grateful. There is a lot that we can be proud of. No country has integrated newcomers as well as we have. But there have been failures and remedial action yet to be taken. We are yet to be reconciled to our indigenous brothers and sisters who watched the European boat arrivals in 1788. We are yet to take our share of responsibility for the displaced and persecuted people of the world.
I wonder what Indigenous people thought when they saw Captain Phillip with his ships come uninvited and sail up Sydney Harbour in January 1788. There does not seem any doubt that despite their concerns they were less hostile than we are to boat people 230 years later.
Succeeding generations came by boat in their millions, including my ancestors who came from agriculturally and mining depressed Cornwall on SS Northumberland to desolate Port Willunga in SA in 1847.
Migration has never stopped. It has dramatically changed Australia, mainly for the better. I don’t think any country has done it as well. It has brought vibrancy and greater openness. If I could be more precise, I think Australia has benefited most from refugees. Whilst the first generation of refugees may often lack skills and education, they more than make up for it in enterprise, courage and risk-taking. That enterprise and high aspirations are often expressed through their children who outperform others in education. Refugees are by definition risk-takers who will abandon all for a new life. They select themselves much better than a migration officer can ever select them.
We have seen the benefits of migration, refugees and multiculturalism, but seem hesitant about new people. But this hesitancy, and sometimes hostility to newcomers, in time gives way to acceptance and pride in our common achievements. This has been our experience with waves of newcomers. Irish Catholics were initially depicted as different and perhaps disloyal. We were prejudiced against Jewish newcomers. German migrants, particularly in the Barossa Valley, were harassed for decades. We were sceptical of Balts, reffos and dagos. We were initially wary about the Indo-Chinese and what damage they might cause to the Australian way of life. And now we have Peter Dutton’s scurrilous fear-mongering about African youth gangs with an echoing ‘me too’ from Malcolm Turnbull. But over time, it changed. Even the early Afghans who built the transport links in Central Australia now have a train, the Ghan, named in their honour.
Whilst Australians are invariably hesitant about newcomers, what gives me confidence is our pragmatic acceptance. That seeming contradictory response is shown consistently in opinion polling and over long periods. We are favourably impressed with the personal experience we have of the neighbour or shopkeeper who is Italian, Chinese or Vietnamese. Is there something in the casualness and our easy-going acceptance that overcomes ideological and philosophical opposition? We eschew the extremes and don’t get too excited by ideologies at either end of the spectrum. If 11 November 1975 couldn’t even provoke a general strike, what could? Insurrection is rare. There isn’t much blood on the wattle. We bump into each other, but we don’t cause a great deal of hurt.
One important reason for our successful integration of newcomers has been our settlement programs, particularly English language training. Unfortunately the Abbott Government took these settlement services out of the Department of Immigration, which is now focussed, with the urging of Peter Dutton, on border protection rather than settlement and nation-building.
As the host, Australia has particular responsibility to provide opportunities for newcomers. But it is not a one-way street. The leadership of the new communities also carries responsibilities. Most have provided that leadership. Some have obviously failed both their own communities but also the wider Australian community. There is a lesson to be learned here.
I believe that we do not place sufficient emphasis on citizenship, not in the jingoistic way of the United States but as a symbol of our unity. There must be strong commitment to Australia and newcomers must place that ahead of loyalties to former homelands. Australian residents or citizens who go to fight in wars in their former homelands must be dealt with very firmly.
We welcome diversity but not for its own sake. Diversity must be of benefit to the common good. For example, we fought too long and hard for the separation of church and state to be prepared to give way to sharia law. We have built a superstructure of enriching diversity. But that diversity has been built on a strong substructure of shared institutions and values…our constitution, the rule of law, parliamentary democracy, freedom of speech and religion, English as the national language and tolerance and equal opportunity.
In addition to time healing differences, we have also had leaders who have inspired the best in each of us or ‘touched the better angels of our nature’ (Abraham Lincoln). Ben Chifley overcame public opposition in allowing Jewish refugees after World War II. Robert Menzies, on coming to office, continued the acceptance of the displaced people of Europe. Harold Holt skilfully, but in defiance of public opinion, commenced the dismantling of White Australia. John Gorton and Gough Whitlam continued the process. When Malcolm Fraser responded to the anguish of the Indo-Chinese people, he knew that he was acting contrary to public opinion. Bill Hayden and then Bob Hawke supported him. Yet no-one today would argue that these leaders got it wrong. We applaud their courage and leadership. John Howard, Tony Abbott and now Malcolm Turnbull were the first post-war leaders to break from that bipartisan tradition and engender fear of newcomers.
Border protection is clearly necessary to maintain public confidence in migration and refugee intakes. But it is possible to do that, as Malcolm Fraser showed, without dividing the country and punishing the most vulnerable people on earth.
What gives me confidence is the Australian people. I know of a Jewish refugee man who went to school in inner Melbourne after World War II. He told me his story. His sister and he were called before the headmaster to discuss their progress.. As they were leaving his office, the headmaster asked them whose photo it was on the wall. They didn’t know, but surmised that it might be head of the police or the head of the military which they had expected given the political background of the country from which they had fled. The headmaster told them who it was, but the name meant nothing to them. They then asked their schoolmates and were told it was Don Bradman. That Jewish man said to me recently ‘I knew then that we were safe’. If the most important public figure for the headmaster was a famous sportsman, there was little to fear and a lot to be looked forward to in Australia.
Our nation will always be dynamic. It will be work in progress. The Australia of today is vastly different and better than the Australia of my childhood with its widespread racism and sectarianism. It was socially suffocating. For those changes I am very grateful. There is a lot that we can be proud of. No country has integrated newcomers as well as we have. But there have been failures and remedial action yet to be taken. We are yet to be reconciled to our Indigenous brothers and sisters who watched the European boat arrivals in 1788. We are yet to take our share of responsibility for the displaced and persecuted people of the world.
Fear holds us back from expressing the generosity we all possess.