One of my great-great grandfathers on my mother’s side was transported to Australia in the early 1840’s for stealing lead from a chapel roof. The lash and Van Dieman’s Land didn’t reform him, although marriage in Geelong to an Irish orphan helped- even though a couple of manslaughter convictions followed.
Not that I knew about this as a child born in 1936 in remote eastern Victoria. My family historian brother later extracted the information from a reluctant Mum (a crusading Salvationist’s daughter). Her opinion was, “We don’t need to talk about that sort of thing.” With hardworking and upright Dad being a Methodist local preacher, the numerous local Catholics (of Irish origin) were to be treated with some reserve –not really people like us. For their part, they probably saw us as “wowsers”. The hundreds of Chinese alluvial gold miners who once dug up the place had long gone. They didn’t meet “White Australia” prescriptions anyway.
During the Second World War years Dad returned from a visit to relatives in the Western District with stories of how a companionable Italian POW assigned to them sat at the family dinner table.
A few years later Dad employed on our farm one of the “Balt” refugees then coming into the country. Although he spoke funny, he seemed to be a decent person to have around.
Both my parents had limited educational opportunities. In Dad’s case it was through family and financial circumstances, in Mum’s because she was a girl. They wanted their kids to have a better chance.
So they sent me off to boarding school in Melbourne in 1949. Boarders included Chinese “boys” sent by the Missions from Rabaul, people whose wartime internment by the Japanese had delayed and interrupted their schooling. They were great fella’s; impromptu and illicit after hours Chinese tucker in the boarding quarters provided a great introduction to different food. Another student was the daughter of a Jewish refugee doctor from central Europe.
Then came teenage hitchhiking around north-east Victoria. I was a bit of a problem for my mates. Being blonde and blue eyed, I looked too much like a “reffo” from the Bonegilla migrant camp. The word was out that they, not being “people like us”, were a problem if you let them into your car. So I was hidden away from the edge of the road while the mates did the hitching.
Back at the school I was elevated to dormitory master. There were different faces in the streets as the mass immigration recruiting ground of Arthur Calwell (he of “two Wongs” fame) was moved from northern European climes to the warmer Mediterranean, bringing in “wogs” and “dagoes”. A Greek kid arrived at the school with not a word of English, and was fluent within weeks.
By then the melting pot of the Snowy scheme was a great demonstration of how Australia could manage the welding together of many diverse cultures. The term “New Australian” was coined in an attempt to get away from derogatory references to newcomers. It worked for a while.
Like others, I was caught by National Service Training requirements. I spent my twenty-first birthday with the Melbourne University Regiment in the bush at Puckapunyal, helping set up a jungle training shooting alley as part of national preparations against the “coming hordes from the North”.
In late 1972, another brother escaped being Vietnam fodder. Malcolm Fraser later let in Vietnamese boat people; something I remember each time I visit my highly competent Vietnamese dentist.
Through most of my early life, people of aboriginal descent were in the shadows around my old country market town, Bairnsdale, having come from nearby Lake Tyers Mission settlement. The lawyer in me found the Mabo decision when handed down by the High Court a road to Damascus, yet despite formal constitutional and judicial recognition, attitudes of other Australians generally remain apathetic towards dealing effectively with the continuing profound disadvantage that stands in the way of First Australians being “people like us”.
My elder daughter Katherine has married Colin, an ethnic Chinese from Malaysia. They have three gorgeous and talented children – Nicholas, Hannah and Julia. What a gift!
A few years back I took Bryce, the elder son of my younger daughter, Nicole, from Canberra to the cricket in Sydney. Going up the afternoon before, we walked down a Sydney suburban shopping street. I was struck by the fact that nearly all shop signs were in Chinese or another non-English language. There was scarcely a Caucasian face. I said to Bryce, “Do you notice anything different around here?” He said he didn’t and we walked on. A few minutes later he said he had spotted the difference. “What is it?” Bryce’s answer: “They’ve all got I-pads.”
Some days on after- school pickup of his young blonde brother Trent, I meet the latter’s best mate, a refugee kid from deep in the Sudan- someone with the best smile and the brightest dark eyes, the best rugby player in the team.
Waiting in the schoolyard each day are parents from all over the globe. Among them are modestly dressed mothers who I take from their dress to be Muslims. Happy kids mix with each other. At a well attended school concert, kids dance as they sing a song in Arabic.
As I chat about these things on the way home Paige, sister of Bryce and Trent, chimes in from the back seat to say matter-of-factly that her school friend (from Indonesia) has been fasting all day because of Ramadan and will be away, at prayers, the next day. This leads me to reflect on how religious observance and practice were a major part of my upbringing, my Protestant Mum going to great lengths to ensure that we ate fish on Good Friday.
Travelling interstate, I can’t remember the last time that the taxi driver from and to the airport was someone who once would have been described as “dinki-di”. Someone has to do that tough and not greatly rewarding job, just as other immigrant people work hard at jobs that are not appealing to the “mainstream”.
Names in today’s telephone book, like names of players in sporting teams, strongly demonstrate a world-wide spread of family origins of Australians. On the other hand, when I indulge my pastime of attending country clearing- sale auctions I don’t see the faces of a typical urban Australian street, just faces reflecting the time of my childhood.
Last weekend a couple, friends of over 50 years, visited. We got talking about the latest drownings of boat people – this time of people trying to get into Europe from the African continent and the Middle East. Leaders overseas have called for broad solutions. Our friends tell us that they are both offspring of boat people. Both sets of parents came by ship as “10 Pound Poms”.
It strikes me that ten quid is not much compared with the amounts desperate boat people are reported to be paying to “people smugglers” or (dare I say) as air fares for a “legal” arrival followed by a visa overstay.
The old Protestant/Catholic divide has gone but religious prejudice stays around. It seems funny that proposals for a Muslim school, a mosque and even recently a Muslim cemetery in the country still meet with NIMBY- type objections (for example, adverse traffic effects). Sadder still to me (now an agnostic) is that if one follows the claimed lineage of the Christian, Muslim and Jewish faiths, they all lead back to the same “big fella”. Were I to choose to be buried, which denominational section would I be put in? Would it matter?
While my great-great grandfather came involuntarily to a continent then little changed from the way it had been managed by indigenous people for centuries, succeeding waves of boat people –people seeking a better life- and their descendants have created a diverse society that is rightly envied elsewhere. People once feared as being “different” have not only fitted in, widening the sense of “us”, but greatly enriched Australian life.
My granddaughters, Gracye, Ellanor and Maddison, sing the National Anthem at morning line-up at their little country school at Numeralla. They are too young to catch the irony in the words that “for those who come across the seas” we have “bounteous plains to share”.
Australian society and its composition have changed and pressures for further change will not go away. Sitting on our island we would be both foolish and inhumane not to recognize that there are many more at-risk human beings beyond our shores who are desperate for somewhere to go and who, on any analysis, are simply people like us.
The great thing is that kids of today don’t see the differences between people that my generation did.
The Australia of my childhood has changed. It is still changing. But is it better and does it hold more promise?
PS The daughter of the great-great grandfather referred to earlier married a man (my great grandfather) who had changed his name on arrival in Australia. He was a Swedish seaman who jumped ship in Melbourne. That means that I am a descendant of someone who today would be classed as an “illegal maritime arrival”.
Trevor Boucher was Commissioner of Taxation for eight years. This was followed by two years as Australia’s Ambassador to the OECD.
This article by Trevor Boucher was published before Christmas in ‘Australia 21’. For further information see www.australia21.org.au.