Australia Day reminds us that we can overcome the fear of foreigners & ‘boats’.

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John Menadue.

Tens of thousand migrated from Europe after WWII. Here, future New Australians line up on the wharf at Trieste in 1953 to board the Castel Verde. Australian National Maritime Museum.

The Australia of today is vastly different from 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 of which we can be proud. No country has integrated newcomers as well as we have.

But there have been failures, and remedial action must be taken. We are yet to be reconciled to our indigenous brothers and sisters who watched the European boats arrive in 1788. We are yet to take our share of responsibility for the displaced and persecuted people of the world, particularly for those displaced by our involvement in futile and disastrous wars in the Middle East, which  triggered the enormous refugee outflows. 

I wonder what Indigenous people thought when they saw Captain Phillip with his ships sail uninvited 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 231 years later. Succeeding generations came by boat in their millions, including my ancestors who came on SS Northumberland in 1847 from agricultural and mining depressed Cornwall to desolate Port Willunga in South Australia.

A nation of migrants in Indigenous country

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 increased openness. If I could be precise, I think Australia has benefited most from refugees. While 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 those 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. Never underestimate a refugee.

While we have seen the benefits of migration, refugees, and multiculturalism, we still seem hesitant about new people. Fear of the foreigner is so easy to promote by unscrupulous politicians like John Howard and those who followed his racism and opportunism. But this hesitation and sometimes hostility to newcomers in time give 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 the damage they might cause to the Australian way of life. Then we had Tony Abbott, Scott Morrison, and Peter Dutton promoting fear of boat arrivals which they had triggered in the first place. And now we have Peter Dutton’s scurrilous fearmongering 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.

While Australians are invariably hesitant about newcomers, it is our pragmatic acceptance which gives me confidence. That seeming contradictory response is shown consistently in opinion polling and over long periods. We are favourably impressed with our personal experiences with our Italian, Chinese, or Vietnamese neighbour or shopkeeper. 

Is there something in our casualness and easygoing acceptance which overcomes ideological and philosophical opposition? We eschew extremes, and are not too excited by ideologies at either end of the spectrum. If 11 November 1975 couldn’t 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 on settlement and nation-building.

Australia Day 2014. Chris Phutully.

As the host, Australia has the 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 clearly failed their own communities, as well as 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 it should not be 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.

Why political leadership matters

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 in Jewish refugees after World War II. Robert Menzies, on coming to office, continued the acceptance of the displaced people of Europe. Harold Holt skilfully, although 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 noone today would argue that these leaders had it wrong. We applaud their courage and leadership.

John Howard, Tony Abbott, Malcolm Turnbull, and now Scott Morrison 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.

We have seen now for years the lies and deception from the Coalition about ‘stopping the boats’, and the cooperation of the media in three major falsehoods. Peter Hughes and I have written many times on this subject.

First, the action of Tony Abbott and Scott Morrison triggered the surge in boat arrivals after May 2011. In that month, in cooperation with the Greens, they blocked the legislation which would have given effect to the Malaysian Arrangement to curb boat arrivals. As a result, boat arrivals increased dramatically from 6 in May 2011 to 48 in July 2013.

Second, the Abbott/Morrison governments did not stop the boats. Boats were largely stopped by the decision of the Rudd Government in July 2013 that people arriving in Australia after that date would not be settled in Australia. As a result, boat arrivals fell from 48 in July 2013 to 7 in December 2013, when Operation Sovereign Borders came into operation. By then, there was only a trickle of boats for Tony Abbott and Scott Morrison to manage. The job was largely done.

Third, Malcolm Turnbull, Scott Morrison, and Peter Dutton spent so much time politicking over how good they were in stopping the boats that they took their eyes off the dramatic increase in asylum seekers coming by air. As Abul Rizvi put it in Pearls and Irritations on 4 January 2019, “The bridging visa backlog is creating a honeypot, attracting people-smugglers who abuse our ONSHORE protection visa system. In 2017-18, we had a record number of ONSHORE asylum seeker applications, exceeding that of any year under the Rudd/Gillard governments”. 

The people-smugglers were just too smart for the grandiose Peter Dutton. While he was boasting about stopping the boats, people-smugglers decided to send asylum seekers by air to exploit our borders, which were really out of control. Processing was just not good enough. It was also too slow. For incompetence, Peter Dutton and his Department of Home Affairs are hard to beat.

Hope for the future

What gives me confidence is the Australian people. A Jewish refugee man who went to school in inner Melbourne after World War II told me his story. His sister and he were called before the headmaster to discuss how they were settling in. As they were leaving his office, the headmaster asked them whose photograph it was on the wall. They didn’t know, but surmised that it might be head of the police or the military, as 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 about the photograph, 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”.

Political  opportunism and the  promotion of fear by conservatives holds us back from expressing the generosity we all possess.

This article is reprinted from JohnMenadue’s blog, Pearls & Irritations

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