Inspirational heroes abound – discover and promote them

Feb 2, 2021

Gellibrand MP Tim Watts draws on his family experience – his children, Hong Kong Chinese wife and in-laws – for his book “The Golden Country: Australia’s Changing Identity”. A modern response to Donald Horne’s 1960s “Lucky Country”, Watts see our future as a “golden country”, reflecting a largely Asian Australia.

Tim Watts writes that “we should openly declare that Australia’s existing institutions and symbols are broken, in that they are irrelevant to most Australians and actively exclude many others. We need to provoke the nation into a period of shared imagining about who we really are as a country.”

So far, he says, the serious thinking has been done mainly by Indigenous Australians, including for the Uluru Statement from the Heart, and Noel Pearson’s 2018 Lowitja O’Donoghue Oration which articulates that: “Whereas three stories make Australia, the Ancient Indigenous Heritage which is its foundation, the British Institutions built upon it, and the adorning Gift of Multicultural Migration … Three stories make us one: Australians.”

As a promoter of change rather than despair, Watts says that “the most effective way to combat racism isn’t to perpetuate the idea that Australian society is inherently racist, but rather to assert that Australian values are anti-racist and that those who contravene these norms are the outliers. It’s more powerful to call out racism as untypical than as typical. A national identity that focuses on Australia’s success in building an inclusive society is self-perpetuating; it generates a norm that anti-racism and inclusion are ‘what Australians do.’”

Further, he says that “research suggests that anti-prejudice interventions are most effective when they come from a place of common identity between the sources and targets of prejudice, rather than as one groups judging another … (Such interventions) have been found to be most influential when prejudice is regarded as being exceptional and contravening shared norms in a community … The challenge for Australia is to continue to expand the circle within which the promise of the Australian fair go, egalitarianism and mateship is offered.”

I think I’m at least as aware of our history as the average Australian, but was surprised by Watts’ list of a bunch of people who swam against the tide of white racism, British imperialism and submission to authority over the past 150 years. These rugged individuals, our putative National Heroes, are more significant than many of the public figures worshipped by the fading minds at the Australia Day Council, and yet are generally unknown. They deserve to be relevant to the Anzac legend as well as Australia Day, and I pass on his words which honour them.

“We ought to be able to broaden the popular memory of Anzac in a way that lets every Australian kid, regardless of their background, feel the same kind of connection to the diggers as I did while poring over The Anzac Book as a child. Every Australian student should learn about the stories of Anzacs like Billy Sing – and CalebShang (Lee Wah Shang), who survived Pozieres, Messines, Passchendale, Ypres, Bullecourt and the Somme, and won two Distinguished Conduct Medals for conspicuous gallantry and a Military Medal along the way, making him for a time the most decorated soldier to come from Queensland.”

Other heroes not widely known are John Wing, who inspired the 1956 Melbourne Olympic Committee to have competitors walk together as one, without national allegiance, in the closing ceremony, and William Ah Ket, “Melbourne’s first barrister of Chinese descent, who mounted a successful High Court challenge to the exclusion of an Australian-born Eurasian man, James Minahan, from the country under the dictation test.”

Add here Peter Lalor, ButlerCole Aspinall and John Wood, “the only three colonial members of the Victorian parliament who voted against discriminatory licence fees for Chinese miners on the goldfields.”

Then there’s James Roberts, “who sheltered more than 1,000 Chinese from the Lambing Flat roll-up on his property, Currawong, …Andrew Inglis Clark, the Tasmanian Attorney General who during the Federation debate unsuccessfully championed the inclusion of an American-style equal-protection clause, which would have prohibited racial discrimination in the new nation … (and) Bruce Smith, the only MP in the House of Representatives, and James Macfarlane, the only senator, in the legislative debates on the White Australia policy to speak against the bill on the grounds that it denied the Christian doctrine of common humanity.”

Also Rev. Sir Alan Walker, “a Methodist minister who campaigned against the policy on moral and philosophical grounds for decades, and published influential pamphlets making that case in the 1940s … (and) the Immigration Reform Group – people like James Mackie, Kenneth Rivett and Herb Feith – as well as Don Dunstan and Gough Whitlam in doing the hard work of unwinding the White Australian policy inside our political parties.”

How do we bring these warriors of yesteryear to the centre of Australian awareness and honour, to show that yesterday’s minority voices can win in the end, and our past is not one of universal darkness, but of minorities fighting majorities ie. struggle. This is also about declaring our support for those who fight against obscurantism, who we will honour in the future.

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