CULTURAL DIVERSITY: AUSTRALIA’S GREAT TRIUMPH
UNIVERSITY OF WESTERN SYDNEY, PARRAMATTA
FRIDAY, 17 JULY 2015
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In politics, it is said that hope will inevitably be vanquished by fear.
However I remain an optimist.
This country is crying out for hope to triumph over fear.
Any student of Australian history understands that in this country we have a deeply ambivalent attitude to race.
We do not have to delve too deeply to find examples of xenophobia and racism.
Yet it is undeniable that modern Australia is an extraordinarily successful example of a nation characterised by, and enriched by, cultural diversity.
Together with the United States and Canada, Australia is one of the world’s great immigrant nations.
Prior to World War II, xenophobic views prevailed.
In the 1930s, those who opposed White Australia were regarded as un-Australian.
It is deeply troubling that even today there remain pockets of racism in this country.
Thankfully, in today’s Australia the overwhelming majority of Australians are hostile to racism.
But minorities within conservative politics have argued that our national unity is challenged by ethnic diversity.
There are heightened sensitivities about differences of race and religion, but Australia’s cultural diversity has not undermined national identity as xenophobes like to claim.
On the contrary, I firmly believe that our nation has been made stronger by its success in attracting people of diverse cultures and religion without open conflict.
Before we congratulate ourselves on that, however, we have to recognise the threats to community cohesion and the cause of social tensions and conflict.
Context is important here. We should remind ourselves that historically we have been good at resolving conflicts of this kind.
There is a glaring exception to that, in the multiple inequalities that indigenous peoples experience.
But that failure is all the more disheartening because the experience of immigrants has generally been the opposite.
To cite the most obvious example of a cultural conflict that settlers brought with them but which has been overcome: the clash between Catholic and Protestant is now only a distant memory.
Yet throughout the 19th century and well into the 20th, it had sharpened social divisions and political hostilities.
In some quarters Irish Catholics were once spoken of with fear, as a dangerous and potentially subversive group that must never be accepted into the Australian mainstream.
It is unimaginable that anyone would speak that way today.
But we all know that there are people who do not hesitate to use a remarkably similar rhetoric about Muslims, or Asians, or asylum seekers who arrive by boat.
The old xenophobia has found new targets.
So when we talk about threats to community cohesion, we should ask why some people want us to live in fear.
Why do they want to undermine the great national success story of immigration and cultural diversity?
That success story is a major political achievement.
Politicians had to lead on these issues, and in the decades after World War II that began to happen.
Just how far we have come cannot be underestimated.
We should not forget that the institutionalised racism of the White Australia policy served political objectives as well.
The legal machinery of the Immigration Restriction Act, which excluded immigrants considered undesirable by requiring them to take a dictation test “in any European language”, was a convenient tool for governments.
In 1934 the Lyons Government tried to exclude Egon Kisch, a Jewish communist and peace activist, by ordering him to take the test.
Kisch, who had grown up in the old Austro-Hungarian empire, spoke several European languages fluently.
But Scottish Gaelic, the language of the test given to him, was not one of them.
As a Labor Senator and Shadow Minister I am proud of the fact that the opening up of Australia’s immigration program began under the Chifley government, due to the vision of Arthur Calwell as minister.
It was the experience of large-scale migration from non-English-speaking European countries in the 1940s and ‘50s that sowed the seed for acceptance of the later, more radical change of dismantling the White Australia policy.
The institutions of Australian life, especially the “free, compulsory and secular” public school system, played a key role in that process.
The schools brought people of diverse backgrounds together, imparting attitudes of tolerance and respect without suppressing differences.
I am especially proud that it was another Labor government, led by Gough Whitlam, that finally consigned the White Australia policy to history.
And I am proud, too, that it was a minister in the Whitlam government, Al Grassby, who implemented as national policy the goal of building a multicultural society.
Since then the use of the term “multiculturalism” has been contested – sometimes by racists who misunderstand it, and sometimes by people who know better but find it politically expedient to exploit fear and ignorance.
This latter group want to feed the myths of xenophobes.
They rarely acknowledge, for example, that the Australian model of multiculturalism never involved abandoning English as the shared national language.
Still less did it involve rejecting the equality of all citizens under the law, regardless of race, religion, or gender.
On the contrary, multicultural policy relied on these things as foundations.
The Howard government pandered to the political right when it discarded the term multiculturalism.
But it could not wind the clock back to 1972, still less to 1901.
The cultural diversity fostered by the changes in immigration policy since the 1970s is a fact.
During a recent parliamentary debate on asylum seekers, the Opposition Leader, Bill Shorten, argued that this country has been made great because of its diversity.
We are great as a nation because we have been able to embrace every faith, every flag, and every culture.
That reality is at the heart of multiculturalism, and it has become vital to the prosperity of this nation.
It is why the fight against those intent on dividing the nation for political gain cannot be relinquished.
Dog whistlers who wrap themselves in the flag to demonise asylum seekers, or to question the loyalty of Muslim Australians, like to talk about national unity.
But it is they who threaten the unity of the nation by trying to set Australian against Australian.
If they succeed the unity of the nation would unravel.
I do not believe they will succeed, because Australia’s multicultural society has demonstrated its strength.
No amount of jingoistic rhetoric about lining up with Team Australia will change that.
Dog whistlers in the present Government won’t find turning the clock back any easier than John Howard did.
The danger is that while inciting hatred and suspicion they are also practising the politics of division in other ways.
I have always liked the definition of politics coined during the Great Depression by Harold Lasswell.
He said that that politics was a battle over “who gets what, when, and how”.
That hasn’t changed.
When people feel that their livelihoods are threatened or their futures are insecure, they too easily fall under the sway of demagogues who offer them a scapegoat.
That happened in Europe in the 1930s.
And we saw a version of it more recently in Australia, during the brief heyday of Pauline Hanson’s One Nation.
One Nation failed.
In part, because of the incompetence of its organisers.
In part, because conservative rural politicians like Senator Ron Boswell recognised the threat it posed and stood courageously against it.
Boswell’s attitude stands in sharp contrast with Mr Abbott’s actions today.
Mr Abbott is prepared to ban his Ministers from appearing on the ABC not backbenchers - namely George Christensen - appearing at racist rallies.
This is on a day that senior police officers are saying the actions of these extreme right wing groups are one of the biggest challenges facing law enforcement.
Divisive and inflammatory actions by government MPs undermine efforts to build community cohesion.
One of the consequences of neoliberal economics is its challenge to people’s sense of economic security.
That in turn creates a challenge to the political system.
Politicians need to be able to provide answers to people’s legitimate concerns about the jobs of the future.
That is one of the reasons why I have always strongly maintained the need for a strong manufacturing sector.
Manufacturing generates high-skill, high-wage jobs that sustain families and help to build cohesive communities.
An economy narrowly focused on commodity exports and services won’t generate those jobs in sufficient numbers.
So we need to attend to the lesson in Lasswell’s definition: to who gets what, when and how.
We need to ensure that Australia remains an inclusive society economically as well as culturally.
Yet the present Government, which has so willingly embraced the politics of division, has shown little interest in answering the question of where the jobs of the future will come from. I do not believe that is a coincidence.
Insofar as this Government does acknowledge a connection between migration and economic activity, it has mainly been through its rubbery attitude towards labour-market testing of visa applications.
Undermining Australian standards for wages and working conditions, as has recently happened in the shipping industry, will not promote community cohesion.
It may, however, provide yet another opportunity for the dog whistlers.
The Government has no jobs plan, and public investment in education and industry programs has been savagely cut.
I know from long personal experience how communities can be transformed when governments invest properly in education.
Education is the door to opportunity, for individuals and for the nation.
We must not allow a Government intent on cutting spending to slam the door shut.
I saw educational opportunity change people’s lives when I attended Moreland High School, in Coburg in Melbourne’s north.
I saw it again when I became a teacher, for 10 years at Glenroy Technical School.
Two of my daughters are now teachers, and the stories they tell resonate with my own experience.
The public education system, from pre-primary to university, still plays the role it did after World War II, when it brought together people from diverse cultures and backgrounds.
But it will be harder and harder for educational institutions to sustain that role if public investment in them is steadily wound down.
Migration has made Australia a richer, as well as a more culturally diverse and interesting society.
The xenophobes who continue to doubt this are refuted by the daily experience of life in this country.
When I go to an AFL game to support the Bulldogs, I hear Vietnamese accents mingling with the barracking of old Footscray fans.
You hear them roar together when the Bulldogs score a goal, and what you hear is Al Grassby’s vision being realised.
We should acknowledge the extent to which the institutions of Australia’s civil society, especially its sporting codes, have promoted the tolerance and respect on which a multicultural society depends.
The sporting codes are perhaps more influential in that respect than any other non-government institutions.
They are uniquely powerful popular educators because they can engage people across other social and cultural divides, whether as participants or spectators.
We all remember Nicky Winmar lifting his guernsey to point to the colour of his skin, and Adam Goodes’ term as Australian of the Year.
Because of their status as sporting icons, they could condemn racist attitudes more powerfully than other public figures.
But the influence of sport in breaking down prejudice doesn’t only exist at the elite professional level.
It is also true of amateur sport played in local communities, in which so many younger Australians become involved.
On the field and in committee rooms, involvement in those clubs teaches people to work together.
People sometimes miss this when they focus on the uglier aspects of professional sport, such as drug scandals.
But those things are far outweighed by the positive achievements.
In a world in which cultural difference is far too often a cause of hostility and violence, Australia’s story is one of which we can all be proud.
We must make sure that the story does not become a cause for shame.
Hope must triumph over fear. Our continued prosperity depends upon it.