John Menadue. Should we re-think Australia Day?

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 have reposted below my blog from Australia Day last year ‘Australia Day 2014 – a report card. Doing well but could do better.’

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 226 years later.

Succeeding generations came by boat in their millions, including my ancestors who came from agriculturally depressed Cornwall in 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 often 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.  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 November 11, 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 has now taken these settlement services out of the Department of Immigration which is now focussed 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 new comers 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 and Tony Abbott were the first post war leaders to break from that bi partisan 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 boy 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. 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.  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 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.

Fear holds us back from expressing the generosity we all possess.


John Menadue is the publisher of Pearls & Irritations. He has had a distinguished career both in the private sector and in the Public Service.

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15 Responses to John Menadue. Should we re-think Australia Day?

  1. Avatar Stuart Magee says:

    Furthermore, I now see that Barnaby Joyce is stridently against moving Australia Day. Well there’s another good reason to move it.

  2. Avatar Ann Tulloh says:

    I like the idea of having a formal ceremony plus oath on accepting Aust. nationality. I got my French nationality through a letter in the post. Bof bof! Much less meaning. (I got it in the ’70’s and was able to retain my Aust. nationality.
    Aust had a lot to be ashamed of by refusing European Jews in the ’30’s as “we didn’t have a Jewish problem and we didn’t want one” which I discovered in the Shoah museum in Jérusalem.
    The idea of redemption in this Latin country hardly exists. Polanski was asked to preside a film ceremony but had to back out. No, he didn’t do his sentence but his reputation suffered. Which is worse or the “best” punishment? And the supposedly raped girl has got over it.

  3. Avatar Wayne McMillan says:

    Well said John I agree with you 100%

  4. Avatar Jeffrey Miles says:

    How many people have come to Australia as migrants, since 1788, since 1901?

  5. Avatar John Challis says:

    Changing the date of Australia is premature. Lets wait until the Republic is declared ( probably on January 1st. to co-incide with the day of Federation in 1901) and Republic Day will automatically become the new Australia Day. It will give new meaning to the New Years Eve celebrations and workers could have an extra holiday on Jan.2nd.

    Of course the coming of the Republic would be hastened if QE 11 would follow the example of the Japanese Emperor and gracefully
    retire. This would provide the opportunity for Australia to make our own arrangements for a Head of State appropriate to our role in Asia.
    The anecdotal evidence provided by John Menadue in his earlier blog
    ” Australia Day:The Queen and the Asian Century” demonstrates the urgency of resolving this matter. The argument that the constitution is no broken and should be left alone is spurious. Our constitution is defective and harming our prospects for the 21st. century.

  6. Avatar Scott MacWilliam says:

    For those who regard National Days themselves as worth having, January 26 is about as inapprorpriate a day as possible. All the references to such as Macquarie’s legacy simply emphasise that the date is only of significance in NSW where it was the start of a convict settlement and of the iinvasion by white settlers in one part of the continent. This invasion continued in places where January 26 was of no consequence, as WA Premier Colin Barnett has been reminded by the Fremantle City Council. When diversity is being celebrated in Australia, it might be useful to find a date to mark the different dates of European settlement which characterise the country’s history, rather than trying to fit all experiences into a date which is both insignficant for many parts of the nation and perfidious for the first peoples who call this land home.

  7. Avatar Stuart Magee says:

    As a proud Australian I very much believe we should have a day of celebration but we cannot expect Aboriginal people to accept 26 January as an appropriate date. Ian McFarlane’s suggestion of 1 March, the day the Commonwealth began acquiring responsibilities from the States, is a good idea.

  8. Avatar Jim KABLE says:

    In these broad-sweep images of Australia through the 20th into the early 21st century I think you have got it right, John M. I grew up from mid-20th century – immigrant backgrounds included First Fleet exile – but later included a Scottish-born grand-mother and a rural English-born grand-father – on either paternal/maternal sides. I was born in Sydney but grew up in Tamworth – my neighbours were Italian and Dutch and Scottish and English – and of Chinese and German and Irish – and as I headed away to university – of Indigenous background. My mother was widowed in 1951 – looked after by Jewish holocaust survivors and Chinese landlords – and others. At university I sat next to students from Harbin and Darwin and others with Russian backgrounds – and when I went out teaching it was into far-flung rural areas and teaching students out of German and Italian and Indigenous backgrounds (the latter including some of the most outstanding of my students) – I was learning all the time – whilst ostensibly the teacher. Like many Aussies of my era – my wife and I made our own Grand Tour – across Asia to Europe and North America – living/teaching in Spain and Germany – back to Australia – teaching immigrants and refugees – studying about Australian Society Multicultural and Aboriginal Education post-grad Diplomas – and studying teaching Japanese – and nearly two decades in Japan – watching horrified from afar as John HOWARD with his whitewash version of history encouraged the rise of One Nation sensibilities which he then incorporated into the Liberal Party – whither Malcolm FRASER and Ian MacPHEE – and on and on to Tony Abbott and Peter Dutton. We can do and have done much better! I am hoping for some movement which will turn its back on xenophobia and Manus and Nauru hell-holes. I cannot turn sideways whenever I leave my house without speaking to someone of Indigenous background, who is Chinese or with Maltese and Maori backgrounds – links to Canada or Scotland – from Viet-nam or Fiji. This is us. We are all of us Australian.

    • Avatar Jim KABLE says:

      And yes – it is definitely time to re-think Australia Day – to put it on another day – one not associated with the day on which a British Flag was raised while eleven ships lay at anchor in the cove/bay off-shore within that great harbour. Let’s not use that symbolic day of sorrow for Indigenous Australia as a supposed day of national celebration (and of little meaning for all other colony establishments). Let’s be mature about this – and properly say our national sorries to the original inhabitants and their surviving descendants – let’s grow up as a nation – making due compensation for the terrors and dispossession – and enshrining Indigenous primacy within our Constitution.

  9. Avatar Frank Carter says:

    John, I do think you are putting forward a far too-rosy picture of this country. Today, 26 January, I am particularly ashamed to be Australian, and sincerely wish I could claim a different nationality. This is by far the most racist country in the world, daylight second. To celebrate as a national day a day that started the horrible history of genocide and child-snatching of aboriginal children is truly shameful, but hardly surprising in a country that prides itself on its exclusionary policies.

  10. Avatar Doreen Borrow says:

    I endorse the sentiments expressed in this article but add further comment on Australia Day. Why is there never any recognition of our foundation mothers and fathers who were on board the First Fleet.? They were the ones who struggled to survive and establish the roots of what we are today.Or are we still shamed that Australia was a penal colony and our leaders are still Kow Towing to those whose ancestors established Australia as such? i have lived in the same street for 55 years and there are 15 families who came from O/S who also reside here. We have, with the exception of one family, had harmonous relations. Thank you for the articles you have posted which are forwarded to me by a friend.

  11. Thank you John I agree with your comments entirely I remember the 70s when whe you were head of the Prime Ministers Dept & great days of Gough Whitlam I remember you well from Balmain where I lived until late 1972 In fact you have been in my house in Gipps st BalmainMy wife & I used to housekeep for you Best wishes

  12. Yes, isn’t it amazing that a prime minister, a leader of this Government, would even consider publicly implying the boat people deliberately burning themselves.
    How far can we still sink?
    The PM’s slur is another one of those remarks he made to the dying Bernie Banton a few years ago. Totally insensitive and callous. We don’t know so why the implied denigration?
    Is there an award for the Un-Australian of the year…?

  13. Avatar John Thompson says:

    Dandenong is a major outer suburb of Melbourne that one tends to drive through when going somewhere else rather than visit for its own sake. I thought I should see what it was like so I recently took the train out to it and spent a Saturday just ambling around. I was amazed to find that I was obviously in a (very) minority ethnic group. There were very large numbers of Indians, Africans and Asians – and very few Europeans. The Dandenong Market was an extraordinary melting pot of many races, all getting on quite famously with each other, and it led me to reflect on how my country was handling this immigration caper so well. It sounds a bit corny perhaps, but I felt somewhat proud of Australia at that time.
    I sat at a sidewalk Lebanese cafe in the main drag and drank some thick black coffee and conducted a little personal survey. I counted 100 passersby and estimated (by their appearance) how many were of European background. By my reckoning, admittedly very rough, six of those who passed by were of European background.
    This led me to think of the fear of refugees and the racism that the Howard government had initiated and subsequent governments had pandered to. All of the cultivation and fanning of border protection hysteria starting mainly from that shameful Tampa incident and Howard’s nasty reaction to it has been like a cancer spreading through our community, weakening it and diminishing our country in the eyes of the world – and in the eyes of many of us Australians. And, like many cancers, the cure is very difficult to achieve once it has established itself.
    Now I worry that the austerity programs that the current government seems intent on introducing will impact especially on communities such as Dandenong where there are people who have not yet established many resources except their determination to establish a better life for themselves and their families. Their task is already a hard one; I fear that it will be a lot harder soon and they will therefore find it more difficult to take their place in our Australian community. Worrying times….

  14. Avatar Keith Hefler says:

    Thank you John Menadue for reminding us that Australia once had compassion for those less fortunate. I am ashamed at the way we treat refugees now and I hope that my children and grandchildren live to see changes to the current harsh treatment of those desperate and vulnerable people.

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