Multiculturalism and Australian national identity


Bob Gould

John Howard and I grew up in the same part of Sydney, and he is a couple of years younger than me. I grew up at Beverly Hills on the East Hills railway line and for most of my school life, between 1946 and 1953, I used to get the train to Kingsgrove and then the bus across to Strathfield, to St Patricks, the Christian Brothers College there.

Howard grew up four stations down the line at Earlwood, on the hill. In those days, before and during mass migration, Beverly Hills, Kingsgrove, Lakemba and Belmore were working-class areas. Earlwood, on the other hand, was the ultra-Protestant preserve of the middle-class in the region, and the comfortable suburban villas of Earlwood, in which Howard grew up, overlook proletarian Marrickville.

For many years Eric Willis, that rather hypocritical paragon of Tory respectability, held the seat of Earlwood for the Liberals, frequently the only Liberal seat in the area.

Well, where I grew up, and where Howard grew up have both been changed irrevocably by mass migration. Beverly Hills is now extremely multi-ethnic, like the whole region. Where my parents had their three-quarters of an acre market garden at the top end of Melvin Street next to the railway line, there is now a small multicultural cul de sac with about eight houses. The suburbs I used to go through on the bus to Strathfield, Belmore, Belfield, Enfield and Wiley Park, are now fantastically diverse.

St Patricks, the school I went to, is now very mixed. Santa Sabina, the associated Catholic college for girls up the road is also now quite multicultural, and I noticed Santa Sabina listed as one of the schools from which the several thousand protesters came on the day of the recent high school strike against racism.

Strathfield and Homebush, the suburbs closest to St. Patricks, which used to be rather middle class, Anglo places, now have an enormous population of Chinese, particularly Homebush, where a bloke from Wrapaway Transport, one of the distributors of small newspapers, tells me the newsagent takes by far the largest number of Chinese newspapers of any suburban outlet in NSW.

In my bookshop recently I sold another copy of that wonderful little play about the Christian Brothers by Ron Blair (The Christian Brother), to two very Mediterranean-looking young blokes. I asked them where they went to school, and they said Lewisham Christian Brothers. I said, what’s your ethnic background, Maronite Lebanese?

We all laughed and they asked me how I picked it. I said aren’t half the students at Lewisham Maronites now, and they agreed. The quintessentially Irish Catholic experience of Ron Blair’s play is also significant to the next generation in Christian Brothers schools, a significant part of whom at Lewisham are Maronites. (The next generation after that includes a lot of Asians. Quite soon I expect to sell copies of The Christian Brother to young Chinese.

John Howard went to Canterbury Boys High. So did his brother, Bob Howard. Bob Howard is now an academic, a moderately left-wing member of the Labor Party, and lives in the inner-city.

Happily, conservative politics aren’t genetic. The Howards’ old school, Canterbury Boys High, is now as wonderfully multi-ethnic as the area in general, and was well represented at the recent high schools anti-racism demonstration.

The schools in the inner south-west of Sydney are amazing in relation to culture and ethnic mixture. I was talking in my shop recently, to a teacher at Tempe High, which is quite famous and is used as the setting for the very popular soap, Heartbreak High, which highlights questions of culture and ethnicity.

The teacher said that there were about 50 recognisable nationalities in the school, which, in his view mostly had some considerable identification with their overseas cultural background, but at the same time identified themselves firmly as Australian, both identifications existing at the same time.

The “wog palaces” of Bayview Avenue, Earlwood

John Howard’s patch, Earlwood, once the territory of the Liberal-voting middle class, has changed the most. Earlwood nowadays has a very pronounced Greek and Asian complexion, with a strong admixture of people from Arab countries.

I have a close friend who lives in Undercliffe, who I visit frequently. Above her head, so to speak, is Bayview Avenue, running up the hill towards Earlwood. This street is the most exotic expression of the dramatic changes in Earlwood. Many of the pleasant federation houses fronting Bayview Avenue are situated on long blocks, which go to the edge of the cliff that overlooks Marrickville and the city.

In the 1970s, shrewd workers in the building trade, mainly Greek, Italian and Arab migrants, saw their opportunity, bought these nice houses for a lowish price, and largely with their own labour and their building trades expertise, exploited the potential of these blocks for dual occupancy. Almost every one of these federation houses now has a magnificent, “wog palace” at the back of the block.

These spectacular structures, which take maximum advantage of the terrain and the views, are a wonderful and ingenious mix of Mediterranean and Australian architecture and are mostly of at least three stories. Being on the cliff, they dominate the landscape and are highly visible from the whole Cooks River valley. A typical Australian story.

Twenty or so working class families in the building trade, mainly migrants, saw their opportunity and took it, and transformed their initial investment of much less than $100,000 into much more than half a million dollars, and obviously had fun doing it.

I love the architectural and cultural diversity of Bayview Avenue. It tickles my fancy that mainly working-class people should have nutted out an opportunity like that and exploited it. I doubt if John Howard or Paul Sheehan share my enthusiasm for the cultural diversity on the cliff.

During the same time span in which these wonderful structures were built, Earlwood has swung from a Liberal seat to being a safe Labor seat. I suspect even the majority of the successful migrant battlers of Bayview Avenue vote Labor.

Across the ridge from Earlwood are Turella and Arncliffe, the Wolli Creek area. When I was a kid at Beverly Hills, the mud flats between Tempe and Turella were all occupied by Chinese market gardens. The Australia Post Mail Centre now occupies some of the same mud flats. That Mail Centre, as I know from delivering our booklist mailings to it, is one of the most culturally and ethnically diverse workplaces on earth.

A bit down the road in Arncliffe, you can’t park a car anywhere within three blocks of the shopping centre on Sunday mornings. The reason for this is the Egyptian Coptic Cathedral, the congregation of which come from all over Sydney to go to Mass on Sundays.

All these changes to the territory of my childhood and youth, and the landscape of my memory, fascinate me. I have a certain amount of nostalgia for the things that have gone, but nevertheless, the extraordinarily vibrant and diverse nature of the cultural mix that has replaced them stimulates me greatly.

Taken as a whole, I think the area has improved, one expression of which is the electoral shift to Labor in Earlwood. The whole region has an infectious life of its own, as anyone who has gone into the shopping centres of Earlwood or Arncliffe or Marrickville on a Saturday morning will testify.

The whole Cooks River-Wolli Creek area is one of the parts of Sydney where my long-standing romance with my home-town reaches its peak. I grew up going through it on the train to the city, and several of my close friends live there now. My feeling of a spirit of place about Sydney reaches its high point in this area. It has all the most exotic features of the Sydney landscape, a river, sandstone hills and lush valleys, and even a harbour, Botany Bay.

In fact, it has all the pleasant physical features of, say, the North Shore of the Harbour, with, however, a strikingly different, more mixed and plebian demographic, a cultural mix of the old and the new that I really love, and that the inhabitants of the area revel in.

Right now, there is a bit of an urban struggle going on, quite a typical one, with the residents in the Wolli Creek area fighting quite hard to ensure that the inevitable freeway linking up the current end of the freeway at Kingsgrove, with the City, is tunnelled under the ridge and doesn’t destroy the creek, and further that the tunnel is designed in such a way not to destroy the urban amenity of the residents above, even if that costs more.

In addition to this, for the last four years, the whole region has been the site of a vigorous and colourful and broadly based campaign against aircraft noise, which is by no means concluded yet.

I doubt, however, that John Howard shares my enthusiasm for the changes in his old patch and mine. Everything about him suggests that his ideal Australia is fixed in the verities of lower middle class Protestant Anglo life in Earlwood in the 1950s, and he certainly acts as if he rather resents the changes and the transformations that have taken place in ethnicity, culture and style in most of urban Australia.

Despite his occasional tipping of his hat to the Methodist values he learnt in Earlwood in the 1950s, he got the hell out of the area quite a while ago, and he has settled fairly permanently on the lower North Shore, at Wollstonecraft in his Benelong electorate.

One of the rather nice idiosyncrasies of changing Sydney urban demographics is that the dramatic population changes that he doesn’t particularly like are pursuing him. His electorate of Benelong and the lower North Shore in general, and even the upper North Shore, are now being rapidly invaded by newer migrants of all sorts, Armenians, Russians, and particularly many thousands of affluent middle-class people from all over South-East Asia. His electorate is now 10 per cent Asian. Perhaps he sometimes ruefully thinks he might as well have stayed in Earlwood.

Multiculturalism and nationality, shop signs and other matters

If you go through the major shopping centres in inner south-west Sydney, you will see quite a few shop signs in the occasional foreign language: Arabic, Chinese, Vietnamese, etc. When ambushed on television on this matter, Howard blurted out that he didn’t regard shop signs in other languages as desirable. What a dope.

The Pauline Hanson bunch have launched a great assault on such relatively trivial, but in a way important, things, as shop signs in other languages. The obvious reply to them and to John Howard on this matter is that shop signs in other languages are obviously useful because they help people whose English skills haven’t as yet got to the point where they can easily understand signs in English.

Also, they assist tourists from other countries who may not understand English, and make them feel at home. This is going to be particularly important in the run up to the Olympic Games. There can be no serious doubt that a variety of shop signs in significant languages contribute in quite a material way to making Sydney a comfortable place to visit for the increasing and lucrative tourist traffic from overseas.

The Howards and Hansons who are opposed to these signs are economic zombies and and display a kind of small-town xenophobia that is quite out of step with the new reality in Australia, particularly in our expanding cosmopolitan cities.

The Sheehan-Hanson-Birrell attack on “ghettoes”

Journalist Paul Sheehan, demagogic politician Pauline Hanson and migration academic “expert” Robert Birrell all make much of the concentration of migrants in certain areas, but the notion of ghettoes in Sydney has always been a wild overstatement.

Certain suburbs have, in fact, had a fairly high proportion of particular immigrant groups for 10 or 15 or 20 year periods. Irish Catholics concentrated in Marrickville from about 1890 to about 1930. Greeks concentrated particularly in Marrickville from about 1950 to 1980. Right now, Vietnamese concentrate in Marrickville, but on a smaller scale than the Greeks did.

In recent years there has been a rapid growth in publishing of rather elegant, well-researched, illustrated books on Sydney suburbs. Shirley Fitzgerald, the Sydney City Historian, has been responsible for a number of very thorough books on suburbs such as Chippendale, Pyrmont, Ultimo, Surry Hills and the city itself.

Marrickville Council has sponsored two extraordinarily useful books about Marrickville. The research in all these books is useful and relevant in respect to the history of the demographics of the area and they underline their constantly changing character over the last 150 years.

Greeks concentrate at this moment in Earlwood and places like Blakehurst and Kingsford, but a bit less than they once did in Marrickville. Macedonians concentrate a bit in Rockdale and Kogarah, and Copts from Egypt a bit in Arncliffe because of the Coptic Cathedral there. People of Turkish and Kurdish origin concentrate at the moment in Auburn and Granville, but there are a lot of other minorities in those suburbs, particularly Arabic people and Chinese.

Other Arabic people concentrate currently in Lakemba, Campsie and Belmore, etc. But the striking thing about all these tendencies to concentrate is that, at the same time, there is a tendency to move out and spread into other areas.

Even the Lakemba-Campsie-Belmore area, which has a fairly high Arab component, has no more than 15 per cent of people of Arabic origin, and has many other ethnic groups as well, such as Fijians, other Polynesians, Koreans and Vietnamese, and still a considerable concentration of Anglo-Australians.

In reality, while ethnic groups maintain a certain amount of solidarity by congregating in certain suburbs for a while, over time they usually scatter to other suburbs as their financial situation improves. In terms of location, human behaviour, including migrant behaviour, is quite complex.

An amusing feature of this is the gentrification of some parts of the inner city. In the postwar years, for instance, many people of Irish Catholic background moved out of places such as Surry Hills, Newtown, Redfern and Balmain to the outer suburbs, as their economic situation improved during the boom.

It’s a truism that many of the young professionals moving back into the inner-city and doing up old terraces are the children and grandchildren of these working-class people who moved out of these suburbs in the 1940s and the 1950s, and who have moved up the professional ladder. There are several young professionals I know in Darlington and Newtown, near my bookshop, who have actually bought and renovated the terraces that their grandparents rented many years ago.

An interesting feature of out migration of young, second-generation Italian and Greek people from Leichhardt and Marrickville is that many of the second generation of Italian background who have moved to such places as Concord and Haberfield still go back to Leichhardt to patronise the shops and maintain cultural connections.

Similarly, second-generation Greek Australians, who have moved out of Newtown and Marrickville to Earlwood, Hurstville, Kingsford, still frequently patronise Marrickville and King Street, Newtown, for shopping, and King Street for nights out.

The so called Vietnamese ghetto in Cabramatta

The longest standing current urban myth relates to Cabramatta, and produces constant shock-horror stories from people such as Robert Birrell and Paul Sheehan. For a start, it’s grossly overstated. Only about 15 per cent of the people in the Fairfield Shire, which takes in Cabramatta, are ethnically Indochinese.

There is a simple reason why there have been ethnic concentrations over three generations in Cabramatta, starting with Italians and Maltese in the 1950s: Cabramatta is close to the Villawood and Cabramatta Migrant hostels, which were the point of entry for nearly 100,000 migrants to Australia, up to and including the cohort from Vietnam in the 1970s and 1980s. It was obviously convenient for many new migrants moving out of the hostel to settle in nearby suburbs.

In due course, many of the Italians and Maltese moved to other areas, to be replaced by the newer wave from Indochina. In their turn, quite a few of the Indochinese are moving to other suburbs. In the intervening period, however, the Vietnamese and Chinese have tended to turn downtown Cabramatta into a kind of Vietnamtown-Chinatown with a tourist emphasis on that basis. What’s so shocking about that?

It seems a very sensible commercial emphasis to me, as a small businessman. Chinatown in the Haymarket, in central Sydney, has worked perfectly for 100 years as a prosperous, interesting and useful commercial centre, both for Chinese people and for other Australians with a cultural, usually gastronomic, interest in things Chinese. What’s wrong with a new version of the same sort of thing in Cabramatta?

Such a cultural development benefits many people and harms no one, except maybe people whose Anglophile provincialism is visually offended, and after all there is no law that compels such people to visit Cabramatta or even look at it!

Curiously, the post-modernist Ghassan Hage is also rather hostile to Cabramatta, as he regards it as crude commercialism catering to a global tourism that he deplores.

Robert Birrell’s new twist

Over the last 20 years, many of the attacks on so-called ghettoes have come from that implacable anti-immigration demographer Robert Birrell, and his Monash Institute. As the attack on specific “ghettoes” has demonstrably become less effective, because the “ghettoes” change, he and his associates have recently come up with a new twist.

The problem, they now say, isn’t so much the specific ghettoes that they have whinged about in the past, but that there is now a general “ghetto” of poorer recent non-English-speaking migrants in certain designated working-class suburbs. Gee whiz, what a discovery! Poorer migrants settle in poorer working-class suburbs.

They never give up, the Robert Birrell bunch of sour anti-immigrationists.

The current assault on multiculturalism

Paul Sheehan’s book Amongst the Barbarians contains a sweeping and vehement attack on multiculturalism. Pauline Hanson devotes about every third television appearance to similar tense-faced attacks. Even in more intellectually developed conservative circles, there are constant such attacks and on the left there is a rather sophisticated attack on the notion of multiculturalism by Iggy Kim of Green Left Weekly, who argues that multiculturalism is a safety valve device of the capitalist class, and is associated with providing a reserve army of labour for capitalist exploitation.

This is a very old argument in Marxist circles. It has a rather nasty history in that it has often been used as a “Marxist” justification for opposition to migration, although I don’t suggest that Kim uses it in this way.

The right-wing critics, such as Sheehan and Hanson, argue that multiculturalism is a racket to give privileges to migrants and an elite among them, and Kim similarly argues that it was used by the last Labor government to buy off the leaders of migrant groups.

The conservative critics argue, in a mindless Anglophile way, that multiculturalism is in opposition to true Australian nationalism, which they praise, but interpret in an essentially British-Australia way. Iggy Kim, on the other hand, argues that multiculturalism is incorporated into an Australian nationalism that he condemns as being opposed to the interests of the working class.

Multiculturalism can’t win!

One useful definition of multiculturalism

I’m aware that I’m in some danger of being accused of a late-in-life conversion back to the Catholic Church, in that I keep finding sources appropriate to my concerns and arguments in Catholic academic journals. In fact, I have found in the course of this investigation that the better scholars with a Marxist background, driven by the ethicism at the core of Marxism, end up drawing pretty much the same kind of practical conclusions as the better scholars with a Catholic background, who draw their underlying ethical views from their Catholic theology.

The better people from both traditions stand out in stark contrast to the worst from both traditions, who justify racism and prejudice with rather strained “religious” or “Marxist” arguments. The best piece I have found so far on multiculturalism is a 28-page article by Allan Patience, then a senior lecturer in Sociology at Flinders University in South Australia, in the October 1988 Australian Catholic Record.

This very useful article describes multiculturalism and defends it intelligently in a Catholic theological framework, particularly against conservative opponents around the Catholic conservative orbit, such as Lachlan Chipman and Frank Knopfelmacher, and also against the usual suspects such as Robert Birrell and Geoffrey Blainey.

I can’t better Patience’s description of multiculturalism and I quote from this article:

    “But the whole picture was dramatically transformed early in 1973. The advent of the Whitlam government heralded an entirely new policy towards immigrants. It became known as multiculturalism and it has three central elements. The first of these elements is its advocacy of cultural maintenance. This is the recognition that all Australians have the right to maintain their native cultural identities and practices (including languages), within the context of Australian laws and social conventions. People are encouraged to maintain their own cultural traditions, and to respect those of others, in an atmosphere of tolerance and understanding. Cultural maintenance means valuing the integrity and significance of cultural pluralism and acknowledging its civilising effects on social development in Australia. The second element is social justice. It has been recognised for many years that people who do not speak and understand English reasonably well, and identify primarily with a non-Anglo-Australian ethnic tradition, are likely to be socially disadvantaged. This is particularly so where educational, employment, legal, medical, welfare and other cultural institutions are not geared to the ethnic pluralism that is now the central feature of Australian society. The social justice element of multiculturalism emphasises the need for giving everyone a ‘fair go’ regardless of colour, religion, and cultural background. It aims to ensure that programs and structures are developed that guarantee access to the appropriate awards and services that are part of everyday life for native English speakers … The third element of the policy of multiculturalism is economic necessity. It is based on the recognition that economic inequalities are too frequently linked to particular ethnic groups in the Australian social structure. Freeing people from these inequalities will enable them to contribute more productively to the Australian economy, resulting in benefits to themselves and to the economy as a whole.”

In addition to the above description of multiculturalism I would make the following points: the term multiculturalism is just a word, but the general idea also now includes the right of migrants to Australia to preserve ethnic, religious and cultural identities at the level at which they choose to do so, at the same time &medash; as is often the case — that they thoroughly integrate themselves into Australian life and Australian identity as well.

There is something in Iggy Kim’s point about multiculturalism being absorbed into Australian nationalism, although in my view, it’s a good thing, not a bad thing as he would have it.

Lenin on the national question

At the risk of enraging the Iggy Kim school of mechanical “Marxism”, I must assert, after a lifelong study of these matters, that there is a version of Australian nationalism that’s generally defensible and quite historically progressive. If you take as your point of departure, which I do, the general thinking on the matter of Lenin, the greatest theoretical and practical Marxist of the 20th century, it is useful to apply his general ideas on nationalism and nationality to Australia.

For a start, he made a sharp distinction between the nationalism of the major imperialist powers and the oppressed colonial countries that they conquered. He regarded the nationalism of the major imperialists as a reactionary force to be combatted and defeated, and he defended the struggles for national self-determination, and in that sense the nationalism of oppressed nationalities, like the Poles, the Irish, the Finns, the Indians, etc.

He made a very sharp point of defending the Irish Rebellion in 1916 against conservative alleged Marxists who opposed it. After the Russian Revolution, he was the first Bolshevik leader to assert firmly that the utmost consideration should be given to the national interests of the smaller oppressed nationalities, such as the Georgians, and he described, even after the Bolsheviks had taken power in Russian, the great Russian chauvinism that still prevailed, as the old reactionary rubbish that had to be destroyed.

Nevertheless, in other places, he made the strong point that, while the pretensions of the imperial nationality had to be destroyed, nevertheless, the Russians had the right to their ethnic and cultural self-determination too, and that a fine line should be drawn in all these matters.

When he had his final stroke in 1922, he was involved in an enormous battle with Stalin over the rights of the Georgians against Stalin’s Great Russian centralism, and the later degeneration of Soviet nationalities policy into Stalin’s Great Russian centralism took place in total opposition to Lenin’s political line on the national question.

If you look at the history of the national question in Australia from the point of view of Lenin’s method and ideas on these matters, the following approach is appropriate.

Australia started as a penal colony of British imperialism. From close to the beginning there was an incipient Australian nationalism in opposition to the imperial power, “currency” (native-born) versus British, which owed a lot to the alienation of the Irish from the British imperial power. The whole of Australian history in the 19th century records a rapidly growing Australian national consciousness in opposition to British imperialism.

The conservative side in Australian politics always celebrated the British connection, the attachment to the British “home”, and the Irish Australian and labour movement side usually placed a heavy emphasis on Australian national identity in opposition to Britain, although some in the labour movement occasionally paid homage to the British allegiance as well.

In the 19th century, the worst racism was practiced against the Aboriginal population, the Chinese and the Kanaks, but the vicious racism of British Australia was focussed for the longest period against the Irish, because they were by far the largest group in conflict with the British Empire, and they were the closest discordant force to the English in appearance and culture.

While the Irish side in politics, up to a point, also accepted the anti-Asian and anti-Aboriginal stance dominant in British “white” Australia, their racism was generally less brutal and pronounced, because the Irish themselves hated and resented the racial superiority notions of the dominant British imperial power.

How Australian nationalism developed in Australia in the 19th century

There was a fair bit of turmoil in the 19th century from the working class, Labor and democratic side against British imperialism at the time of the Sudan expedition, the Boer War and particularly the split over conscription during the First World War.

When I was a kid at a Catholic school in the 1950s, we used to defiantly sing Advance Australia Fair when the kids at the public schools sang God Save the Queen. (I was absolutely fascinated and a bit amused to see on television the reactionary British-Australia racists of Pauline Hanson’s One Nation Party, self-consciously singing Advance Australia Fair at a couple of their rallies. Even 20 years ago, that bunch and their parents would have wrapped themselves in the Union Jack, singing God Save the Queen. How times have changed!)

Every major move to separate Australia from British imperialism and develop an independent national identity has come from the Labor movement side of politics, and been thoroughly resisted by the conservative side.

In recent years, with the notable exception of Malcolm Fraser’s government, all the major practical moves to humanise migration, get rid of the White Australia Policy, recognise multiculturalism, etc, have come from the labour movement side of politics. The fault line on all the matters of race, multiculturalism etc now lies between the Labor and Tory side in politics, so much so that reactionaries like Sheehan concentrate their fire on these matters on the Laborites — for good reasons.

Some socialists advance another argument. They assert that any accommodation with Australian nationalism is wrong because Australia is now a significant imperialist power.

That proposition is incorrect. Australia is a modern capitalist economy, with multinational elements having a very major role in the domestic Australian economy, and with some Australian firms having overseas interests. The proposition that Australia is primarily an imperialist power is methodological gibberish from a Marxist point of view. A new Australian labour movement nationalism is emerging, incorporating multiculturalism, fairness in immigration and the full recognition of Aboriginal rights and prior occupancy.

I advance this proposition, which I believe is completely in accord with Lenin’s general ideas on nationality. Australia is a normal modern capitalist state with some secondary sub-imperialist elements. It has evolved from being a colony of British imperialism, with Australian nationalism historically always having been posed against British imperialism, and with Australian nationalism having been the rubric of Irish Catholic and working-class Australia, under which it advanced its independent interests which, while limited and reformist in character, were righteous and defensible.

The worst feature of Australian nationalism was its secondary racist aspects, which were taken over wholesale from the ideology of British imperialism. That has now been pushed aside and the general labour movement notion of Australian nationalism now incorporates full and complete recognition of the rights of Aboriginal Australians, a completely non-racial immigration policy, and the general defence of multiculturalism.

A new Australian labour movement nationalism has emerged, incorporating all of the above elements, and it is completely defensible

Socialists and left-wingers should take their initial stand on this general framework in relation to nationality and race, and conduct their campaigns for their other programmatic aims on this basis, rather than conducting a sterile and, in fact, implicitly racist polemic against Australian nationalism and multiculturalism.

This polemic, in fact, puts them pretty much into the same camp as Paul Sheehan and Hanson on multiculturalism. The Iggy Kims, Humphrey McQueens and Ghassan Hages imply that there is some kind of original sin in proclaiming a cultural pride in any national identity. That sort of approach is stupid rubbish, and has no real basis in the method and politics of the great teachers of Marxism such as Lenin and Trotsky.

That variety of “principled” opposition to national cultural identity is, in fact, a completely contrived invention, with disastrous tactical consequences.

Arguing with Hanson and Sheehan on multiculturalism and nationality. The example of Israel

From all that I have written above, my ideas on the question of Australian nationalism become obvious. My Australian nationalism incorporates multiculturalism and recognition of Aboriginal prior ownership and national identity as well, and emphases the decisive character of the working-class and oppressed in the development of Australian national consciousness.

The hysterical conservative opponents of multiculturalism counterpose quite a distinct alternative. Paul Sheehan, for instance, pontificates that we were “united by Gallipoli” (which proposition has to be one of the greater historical nonsenses of all time, considering the volcanic split in Australian society over conscription), and they want to preserve a homogenous Anglophone Australia, and have everyone assimilate into it fast or go away.

They say that if this doesn’t happen, Australia will be lost! In all these prejudices they display a considerable incapacity to study and learn about what is going on around them, as well as a profound lack of any creative imagination.

If I viewed the world the way they view it, I think I would have to go away and cut my throat! In relation to their main fear (that migration, the “Aboriginal industry” and multiculturalism are undermining a genuine Australian national identity) it’s quite useful to have a bit of a look at the state of Israel.

Israel shares with Australia one very striking feature. Israel and Australia are the two countries that have had by far the largest components of mass migration in the postwar period. Israel in this respect is way ahead of Australia, having gone up from 600,000 Jewish people in 1948, to nearly five million now, with more than one million Arabs.

Australia is considerably behind this proportion of mass migration, but is still way ahead of any other country in the world in the proportion of the population made up of migrants from other countries over the last 50 years. Both Australia’s and Israel’s population explosions started in 1947 and 1948.

I am no great fan of the Israeli state. I am very conscious of the fact that the Palestinians have suffered a great national wrong, in having the Israeli state dropped on top of them, squashing them, although I’m well aware that the overwhelming majority of the Jewish people who immigrated to Palestine had nowhere else to go at that time, in the 1940s and the 1950s, because, particularly the United States and Western European countries would not allow them to settle there permanently.

I’m strongly of the view that eventually the national rights of the Palestinians will have to be properly recognised and properly accommodated in a real geographical entity, and that is not happening yet. There will never be peace in Israel-Palestine until the national rights of the Palestinian people are fully and properly embodied in a national territory and a national state.

Nevertheless, Israel is a real and existing state and the Israeli nationality is a real nationality in Lenin’s sense of the word, and a study of this nationality and state can still tell us a great deal about nationality, ethnicity and multiculturalism.

There have been three or four waves of immigration to Israel. From the 1920s to 1948, when the state of Israel was proclaimed, there were some Zionist ideological immigrants but most migrants were refugees from Hitler. In 1948 there were 600,000 Jewish people in Palestine, immediately before the state of Israel was proclaimed.

After the proclamation, the Holocaust survivors, many of whom were still in camps, and most of the remaining Jewish population in Bulgaria, Hungary and Romania, about a million people in all, went to Israel.

Between 1949 and 1952, due to the military conflict with the Arab states over the territory of Palestine, life became impossible for the Jewish communities in most Arab states and by 1955, when the last communities in North Africa emigrated, about 1.5 million Arabic-speaking Jewish people from the Middle East and North Africa moved to Israel.

In more recent times, 70,000 black Falasha Jews from Ethiopia went to Israel. Finally, nearly a million people of Jewish identification, often quite remote, emigrated from Russia to Israel between 1985 and now.

There are also more than a million Arabs within the Israeli state boundaries who are Israeli citizens, whose parents didn’t move elsewhere in 1948. The population of the Israeli state is now nearly six million Jews and Arabs in a relatively small geographical area — a little bit bigger, say, than the Sydney statistical district.

In addition to this, the population of the even smaller area of the West Bank and Gaza is another million and a half, mostly Arabs. The overwhelming majority of migrants to Israel have been Jews who did not have the opportunity of migrating anywhere else, although a minority from countries like the United States and Western Europe have settled in Israel out of Zionist beliefs.

Throughout the whole period there has been a constant re-emigration of Jews out of Israel to other places as opportunities have arisen for such re-emigration.

Inside Israel there are a number of major fault lines. First of all, obviously, the fault line between Jews and Arabs. Then the next major fault line is, within the Jewish community, between the mainly European Ashkenazi group, who speak many European languages and Yiddish, and the Sephardi Jewish group from Arab countries, whose first language is Arabic.

The million people from Russia speak mainly Russian. Within all these groups there is a multitude of secondary divisions into quite distinct ethnic and cultural groups with their own traditions. There are Jews from Kurdistan, and Cochin in India, etc, and many of these groups maintain very specific and strongly held cultural and religious peculiarities.

There is an Arab group, the Druze, 90,000 of them, adherents of an Islamic heresy, who identify quite strongly with the state of Israel and serve in the Israeli army.

The other Arab citizens of Israel, Muslim and Christian, are thoroughly alienated from the Israeli state for obvious historical reasons. Nevertheless, they hang on to their Israeli citizenship for very practical considerations of employment, etc, and they vote solidly in elections and have their own Arab nationalist and communist opponents of Zionism vigorously representing their interests in the Knesset, the parliament of Israel.

Israeli culture, religion and language

Israel is a linguist’s paradise. Hebrew, the official language used by all, is, in the modern spoken form, an artificial language because before it was revived for political reasons by Zionism, no one had used it generally for over 2000 years, except in religious ceremonies, as Catholics once used Latin in the Mass.

This is the only example in the world of a revived language becoming a successful national language. The Irish haven’t succeeded in reviving Gaelic as the major national language, and the other major semi-artificial language of recent times, Bahasa Indonesia, the national language of Indonesia, is a syncretic amalgamation of existing Malay dialects that were still in current use.

Despite its exotic origins, Hebrew is unquestionably the national language of the state, and even the Arab citizens can speak it for practical reasons. A million Israelis speak Russian, many hundreds of thousands of people speak English, and hundreds of thousands of people speak other European languages.

There are also a number of surviving older people who speak Yiddish, the old language of the Eastern European ghetto, which was so tragically almost exterminated by the brutality of the Holocaust. By far the second major language in Israel, however, is Arabic, the common language of the Jews from the Middle East and North Africa, and the Arabs in Israel.

About 80 per cent of Israelis can at least understand Arabic. Out of cultural nostalgia, many of the Arab-speaking Jews from the Middle East and North Africa, listen to singers and other musicians on the radio, from Arab countries, despite their intense territorial conflict with the Arabs in Israel.

The second major conflict inside Israel is over religion. Nearly half the population, while technically Jewish in religion, are in reality totally secular, and many of them have a non-religious, liberal and socialist cultural tradition carried over from Europe. On the other hand, there are many extremely fundamentalist Jewish religious sects. Some of these sects don’t even recognise the state of Israel, because in their theology the state can’t be proclaimed because the Messiah has not come yet.

Between the fundamentalists and the secular, there is a fairly large group of more or less orthodox Jewish religion, particularly among the people from the Middle East. These religious and cultural differences give rise to constant conflicts and are often quite sharp, and they inevitably spill over into the political sphere, where the conflict in Israeli politics between the left and the right often assumes a cultural and religious aspect.

Despite all these extraordinary multicultural features, cross-currents, conflicts and divisions, the Israeli national identity and national consciousness is one of the most potent and powerful on earth. This extreme national consciousness has the very obvious bad aspect that many Israelis vigorously resist the just settlement of the historic wrong done to the Palestinians, but nevertheless anyone studying politics who hasn’t noticed the extraordinary vigour of Israeli national identity and national consciousness, is blind, deaf and dumb.

The Hansons, Sheehans and other Australian conservatives who think that multiculturalism necessarily prevents the preservation of a broad Australian national identity, are really pretty stupid. They obviously haven’t examined the case of Israel, and, for that matter, they haven’t looked at Australia very closely, either.

The Nick Greiner effect and the Joe Gutnick switch in Australian electoral politics

In 1988, the conservatives in NSW came back from nowhere, so to speak, to win an election under a new leader, Nick Greiner. Greiner was a slightly Charlie Chaplinesque kind of man, caricatured unmercifully by the cartoonists and the media, who termed him “Kermit the Frog” but, nevertheless he led the Liberals in NSW into the greatest resurrection since Lazarus, and he turned out to be a consumnate politician.

It is worth examining the subtext in Greiner’s election victory. He was the first migrant of non-British origin to lead the Liberal Party in NSW. He was also the first Catholic and, paradoxically, also the first Jew (in the sense that he was brought up a Catholic, but his father was Jewish by origin. Such a religious and cultural mixture was very common in Budapest, Hungary, where the family came from.)

Greiner made quite a thing of his migrant battler origins and he made no secret of his mixed ethnic and religious background, and there was a lot of media discussion of his battler father starting a small timber yard. I have not the slightest doubt that the publicity about Greiner’s background and mixed ethnicity and religion was on balance a substantial political asset to him and one of the major factors in the success of the Liberals under his leadership.

A big slice of Australians of different backgrounds could easily identify with Greiner and he gave the Liberals quite a different appearance to, for instance, the more traditional Tory, Anglophile, Protestant appearance that they now have once again, under Howard and Costello.

It is my belief that many ethnic and cultural minorities, other than the ones that he belonged to, were willing to vote for Greiner because they vaguely felt that there was a chance for them too, if Greiner could lead the Liberal Party. Thankfully, from the point of view of the Labor interest, which I support, the Greiner experiment eventually proved too much for the Tories to live with and they dumped him after he received a bit of an electoral setback later on, and reverted to their traditional Anglophone ethnic and cultural style.

Just before the recent federal election, the prominent Melbourne billionaire, Jewish goldmine entrepreneur Joe Gutnick, made quite a calculated public declaration that he had swung over to the Labor side in politics, and had had a lengthy discussion with Labor leader Kim Beazley and that this was a long term change of allegiance, as he did not expect Labor to win the recent election, and that he was going to donate a lot of money to the Labor Party.

It’s difficult to imagine that Gutnick didn’t raise with Beazley, among other things, the interests of the gold industry, of which he is a part, but nevertheless, Gutnick’s change in political allegiance is of considerable interest.

He is a fairly unusual kind of man: an adherent of a rather exotic ultra-orthodox Jewish religious group, the Lubavichers, and he is a strong Zionist in Israeli politics and a rather fierce right-winger in Israeli terms. He made the quite public point that he and Beazley disagree about the Israel Palestine question, but that this disagreement won’t stop him supporting the Labor Party.

He also lives in Melbourne, and in the course of his commercial activities, a protracted battle between his interests and the old Melbourne establishment stockbroking firm, J.B. Were, produced very interesting evidence of the underlying attitudes of the Melbourne establishment.

Gutnick’s legal representatives had reason to subpoena internal records of J.B. Were in relation to a commercial dispute, and out popped the nastiest and crudest anti-Semitism about the Jews and Gutnick, in internal phone conversations of the J.B. Were traders.

J.B. Were aren’t any old share traders. They are the creme de la creme of the Melbourne establishment. In 1932 some of the then principals of J.B. Were were leaders of the Old Guard, the paramilitary right-wing secret army led by General Sir Thomas Blamey, and they also were part of the cabal of Melbourne establishment figures who organised the defection of Joe Lyons from the Labor Party to set up a conservative national government for the rest of the Depression.

All of this is in the record. The Melbourne establishment, as a whole, has an absolutely vicious history of both anti-Catholicism and anti-Semitism, and it’s only in relatively recent years that the bar against Jews has been removed in the Melbourne Club and the Melbourne Stock Exchange.

Not too long ago, in 1948, that extraordinarily unpleasant scion of the Melbourne establishment, Joe Gullett MHR, made his famous anti-Semitic speech in the Australian parliament against Jewish immigration. When you put Gutnick’s fairly calculated public defection to the Labor side in politics in this context, it’s easy to understand some part of his motives.

Anecdotal evidence from the Jewish community is that there has been a very sharp swing away from the Liberals, even among the most wealthy people in the Jewish community, because of the historically developed sensitivity of Jewish people to race and racism. Many, many Jews can see the shadow of Hitler behind the One Nation bunch, and they are very very angry at the failure of Howard to jump on it right at the start.

NSW MP Helen Sham Ho has led the same kind of exodus from the Liberal camp in the Chinese community, and there’s no doubt that similar things are happening in most organised ethnic groups in Australia. The point of this story, in electoral terms, is this: when the Liberals elected John Howard and Peter Costello, they, possibly more or less unconsciously, opted in favour of the old style of Protestant ascendency Tory Australian politics.

Then, when Pauline Hanson erupted on the scene, they made the crude tactical decision which, however, I’m sure came to them pretty naturally, that allowing the Hanson right-wing populists to play the Anglophile-Australia racist card, would benefit them electorally.

Politically speaking, this was the gravest possible miscalculation. They let their traditional prejudices be transformed into a tactical estimate of the potential relationship of electoral forces in Australia. They are so stupid that they haven’t really noticed the enormous demographic, cultural and other changes that have taken place.

The way that the Labor side of politics has again, like Lazarus, come back from the dead in the last few months has to have a network of objective origins in Australian life, and it’s my profound belief that a big part of this Labor revival relates to ethnicity, culture and race.

While Kim Beazley has been quite deliberately appealing to the new Australian mix, including quietly but definitely indicating his wife and his mother-in-law’s Hungarian migrant and Catholic identity, (with his throwaway remarks about the “Hungarian mafia” organising the family packing back home), Howard and Costello have been constantly exhibiting their small-minded Anglophile Australian bias.

I haven’t the slightest doubt that the electoral balance of forces is now such that an emphasis on multicultural diverse Australia is electorally more beneficial, in the short, medium and long terms, than the Howard, Hanson, Paul Sheehan emphasis. I believe that the ethno-cultural undercurrents in the recent election were a real and significant factor in the dramatic swing back to Labor, which brought the ALP up to approximately 51.5 per cent of the preferred vote.

Ethnic and cultural minorities in Australian history

A certain amount of multiculturalism started with the First Fleet. There were at least 30 African or West Indian black people in the First Fleet, and a significant number of Jews, to say nothing of the largest ethnic minority, the Irish.

African and American blacks came here throughout the 19th century. American blacks, other Americans, Germans, Austrians, Swedes and Italians all fought at Eureka. Germans immigrated throughout the 19th century in large numbers, particularly to South Australia and Queensland, and the German immigration to South Australia also included a large number of a Slavic minority in Eastern Germany, the Sorbs.

The first Greeks who came to Australia were seven young men from the Aegean Islands, sent here as convicts in the 1820s, some of whom stayed, and some of whom eventually went back to Greece. These young Greeks, being seafaring men like many Greeks, set themselves up as privateers, attacking Turkish shipping during the Greek War of Independence, but they were unlucky enough to tangle with an English ship by mistake, were condemned to death for “piracy” in Malta, and their sentences were commuted to transportation to NSW.

Thus, the now-large community of Greek Australians had its origins in courageous young fighters for Greek independence.

Many Japanese came here as pearl divers in northern Australia. Indonesians from Macassar traded with Arnhem Land. Pakistanis from Baluchustan came here as camel drivers in the Centre, and were labelled Afghans, in a kind of crude British imperialist shorthand. (It’s a rather exotic feature of Australian politics that Bob Katter, the maverick National Party MP from Kennedy in North Queensland, has “Afghan” camel drivers in his ancestry.)

The first Arabs in Australia were Maronite Catholics from Mount Lebanon, who became energetic and agressive traders in clothing travelling around rural Australia in drays, as peddlers, and many of whom eventually set up clothing stores in Australian country towns. They were always dubbed ‘Syrian’ traders, because in the 19th century Lebanon was part of Syria, but most Syrian traders were actually Lebanese Maronites.

The new Victorian ALP leader, Steve Bracks, is the descendant of one of these 19th-century Maronite families. Southern Slavs, particularly Croats from the Dalmatian coast, started to come to Australasia in the 19th century. In the 1870s many Dalmatians settled in the North Island of New Zealand, and many intermarried with Maoris, giving rise to a distinct Maori group now popularly called Dalmats.

Other Dalmatians worked on the goldfields of Western Australia from the 1890s through to now, despite some deportations after the First World War, and unpleasant race riots in the 1930s. Many also settled and had market gardens at Brookvale and Warriewood near Sydney from the 1930s to the 1960s.

Melanesians, popularly called Kanaks, were blackbirded here to work in the cane fields. Nearly 10,000 were brutally sent back home in the early 1900s after the adoption of the White Australia Policy, in the first brutal mass deportation from Australia (the second was that of the Germans and others in 1919) but several thousand Kanaks managed to stay, and from these origins a large minority group in Queensland is descended.

Despite the White Australia Policy, many Chinese managed to stay as well. Throughout the 19th century, many Scandinavian seamen jumped ship in Australia and settled here. The two best-known descendants of Scandinavians are both descended from Danes, Jo Bjelke-Petersen, the extraordinarily reactionary Queensland right-wing populist, and the other Petersen, George Petersen, the left-wing Labor member for Illawarra in NSW, who was responsible for abortion law reform in NSW, the exposure of the Bathurst bashings leading to substantial prison reform and who even had a considerable input into homosexual law reform in NSW.

All through Australian history since 1788, the indigenous Aboriginal people have been fighting a vigorous struggle, initially just for survival, and in more recent times to reassert their full cultural identity and claim a major and significant part in the new Australia.

Australia has had a very considerable multicultural aspect since day one, and we should celebrate it and never forget it.

Ethnic identity and how the word “wog” was reclaimed by southern Europeans

A feature of migration has always been self-interested conservatives stirring up hatred against recent migrants in any way possible. Richard Broome’s book about the sectarian upheavals in Australia at the end of the 19th century describes how fundamentalist Protestants, using rhetoric attacking Sunday trading and defending the “British Sunday”, often concentrated their attacks in a very racist way against Italian fruiterers and icecream vendors.

Quite a number of these ostensibly religious racists were actually competing fruiterers and icecream vendors who were losing out to the Italian competition. One particularly vociferous competing small businessman wrote hundreds of letters to the chief secretary of NSW denouncing rival Italian small businessmen in his own area for Sunday trading, and his letters which are in the Mitchell Library, contain a vintage assembly of all the racist attacks on non-British migrants in Australia.

The first wave of mass European migration in the late 1940s gave rise to a number of pejorative terms, “dagoes”, “reffos”, “Balts” and particularly “wogs” applied to people from southern Europe and the Middle East. Well, as human beings will, the second generation from these places started taking over the word wog defiantly, and in a self-celebratory way in the 1970s and 1980s. Quite a number of stand-up comedians of that collective and general ethnic background now make an excellent living out of a humour concerning the “wog” subculture.

The comedy stage play, Wogs Out of Work played again and again to packed audiences of people of Greek, Italian, Spanish and Middle Eastern background, around Sydney and Melbourne in the late 1980s and the early 1990s. Recently the new movie Wog Boy has been a spectacular success, with very large numbers attending, and it looks like becoming one of the most financially successful Australian movies of all time.

In the late 1970s I had a bookshop in George Street, Sydney, opposite the picture theatres. When the movie Grease was released, more or less by accident I cornered the market in a little coloured paperback illustrated book of the film.

I sold 1000 copies in about a month, which was a lot for me. The striking thing about the young kids going to the movie across the road and buying the book, was that almost all the young males seemed to be dark-haired younger versions of John Travolta, and the girls often were blond-haired teeny versions of Olivia Newton John.

The movie Grease captured the attention and imagination of the children of the enormous southern European migration to Australia in the 1950s, and was a kind of rite of passage for many of them and for other teenagers of Anglo ethnic origin, because of the way it dramatised the impact of migration and ethnic diversity, and even expressed something of that atmosphere as it applied to Australia.

At the sociocultural level, the youth of all those ethnic communities in working-class areas often blend into a general subculture, which has absolutely core, specifically Australian, elements, but is also a clearly proletarian general “wog” subculture.

This is quite noticeable in many Australian cities. This kind of proletarian subculture is both specifically Australian and distinctly multicultural and ethnic in the now quite pronounced Australian way. In Sydney, for instance, on Sunday nights there is often a large assembly of young “petrol-heads” and their girls, celebrating their romance with their old cars and engaging in drag racing wherever they can.

They tend to drive the authorities mad, because these petrol-head largely “wog” assemblies move about from place to place, as they are moved on by authority. In the early 1990s they were a spectacular feature of Parramatta Road, Leichhardt, assembling outside a particular petrol station, which had a sandwich bar attached.

More recently, they assembled on the Princes Highway at Tempe. Currently these petrol-heads tend to assemble at Brighton or at a particular Seven-Eleven on the Hume Highway near Burwood, and most of their drag racing happens around La Perouse. The defiant and good-humoured appropriation of the word “wog” by the descendants of the people to whom it was directed as a form of abuse is an important commentary on the resiliance of real multiculturalism in Australia.

Aboriginality and Australian national identity

Indigenous Australians have obviously by far the strongest reasons of any cultural group to feel hostility to Australian national identity. Yet, when Cathy Freeman made her wonderful statement of Aboriginal cultural and political identity in her victory lap at the Commonwealth Games by carrying the Aboriginal flag, she made the political point of also carrying the Australian flag.

She obviously identifies both as an Aboriginal and an Australian. While some indigenous Australians completely reject Australian national identity, and that is their right, it is fairly obvious that most indigenous Australians adopt the Cathy Freeman strategy of asserting vigorously the right of indigenous Australians to land rights, justice, and the recognition of prior ownership, but combining that with asserting their right to claim a part of the whole Australian cultural identity.

The language question: Australian English, indigenous and migrant languages

The generally used language in Australia is the Australian dialect of English, which is pretty convenient from our point of view, because the English language is one of the four or five dominant world languages, and perhaps even the dominant world language, which gives us enormous access to global culture.

The Australian dialect of English is extraordinarily robust. Given the wide geographical spread of Australasia, it is interesting that there is only really one basic dialect of Australasian English, with a fairly modest regional variation in New Zealand English, and even that regional New Zealand variation is comparatively small and seems to be a product of the interface between Australasian English and the Maori population of New Zealand.

Anyone watching the New Zealand, mainly Maori movie Utu is suddenly struck by the obvious influence of Maoridom on the New Zealand sub-dialect of Australasian English. Australasian English is a very lively, living language. Historically it owes a great deal more to the “lower orders” of Australian society than to the upper classes, and most etymologists discern its origins in the interface between proletarian Cockney English, as spoken by the underclass around London, and Irish English, as spoken in the rural Irish areas from which convicts and other Irish migrants came.

In addition, it is possible to see some influences from Irish Gaelic and elements from Aboriginal languages, and the whole powerful and distinct Australasian dialect is a product of the interaction of all these elements, very much from the underclass of Australasian society rather than from the ruling class.

Australasian English, while not losing its distinctive quality, is rapidly evolving all the time. One is struck, if one looks at old newsreels of speeches by John Curtin or Chifley, how much the language has changed even in 40 or 50 years.

Being myself an extremely “strine speaker”, who sounds a bit like John Elliott, another extremely “strine” speaker, I’m deeply attached to the language, but I’m not unaware of the speed with which it evolves and changes. There can be no doubt that the various waves of non-British migration in the last 50 years have affected the Australian English dialect quite a bit.

That is entirely natural, and is accentuated by the persistence in the community of some millions of non-English-speakers. My strong view is that migrants from non-English-speaking backgrounds should be effectively and positively encouraged to maintain their traditional language, as well as becoming thoroughly and effectively bilingual in Australian English.

The actual tendency is for socialisation in the schools to exert a practical pressure on children of migrant backgrounds to drop the old language, and I believe that is a loss for the richness of the cultural mix in Australia.

A subtle problem arises in relation to the language of instruction in schools and rather sharply lately in some parts of northern Australia, about whether indigenous languages or Australian English should be the language of instruction. I incline to the view that Australian English should be the main language of instruction, even for indigenous Australians, for practical reasons, but I am also strongly of the view that every effort should be made to maintain the traditional languages in the schools as well and encourage indigenous Australians to be effectively bilingual in both the traditional indigenous languages and in Australian English.

The practical necessity for this dual approach seems culturally obvious to me, but I am open to argument on this matter from indigenous Australians who may think otherwise because, in the final analysis, they have enormous natural rights in this area.

The question of indigenous languages is complicated even more by the small number of speakers left of many such languages, and the tendency in many areas for indigenous languages to be merged, at a practical level, into an Aboriginal patois that is a blend of the indigenous languages in a particular area.

In many small rural schools in northern Australia there are indigenous kids from up to as many as half a dozen distinct language groups.

I have a similar view to the question of migrant languages in schools. I believe that the current practice of the primary language of instruction in schools being Australian English is entirely sensible. In practice, the children of every wave of migrants become extremely proficient in Australian English very fast, and they contribute to the rapid and colourful evolution of our lively, developing Australian English.

In addition to learning English, however, every effort should be made in schools to teach children of migrant background their traditional language as well, up to a reasonable standard of proficiency. It is wonderful to watch, observe and hear the evolution of our extraordinary Australian English dialect.

New elements and influences are intruding into it all the time but, nevertheless, it retains its own powerful popular momentum. I am extraordinarily confident of its future. Within this framework of confidence of its future, I believe that Australian English can only benefit from a project of positive encouragement for the maintenance of all migrant and indigenous languages and idioms in Australia.

They all need a great deal of practical support if they are to be maintained as ongoing sources of cultural enrichment, because the natural tendency is for them to be subsumed and forgotten, which is a great waste. Their maintenance as a significant element in the Australian cultural mix will actually contribute to the further development of the important Australian dialect of the international English language, to which I am personally strongly attached.

Overseas political conflicts in Australia

The Geoffrey Blainey, Pauline Hanson, Paul Sheehan, Robert Birrell bunch have another refrain in their attacks on migration. They constantly complain about and gloomily predict the introduction of overseas political conflicts into Australia, and resulting “social chaos”.

The first thing that can be said about this is that argument about overseas political conflicts is not new in Australia. Again, it is necessary to remember the constant struggles of the Irish Catholics against the British establishment in the 19th century and the early 20th century, initially even to practice their religion, and then in support of Irish independence.

These conflicts were repeated, vigorous and sometimes very sharp indeed. Nevertheless, no one was ever killed in such conflicts in Australia and, in fact, the struggle of the Irish in support of Irish independence fed into a struggle for democratic reforms in Australia that was pretty successful and beneficial for Australia. The intrusion of overseas political conflicts into Australia is, in fact, as Australian as the bunyip.

The striking thing about the intrusion of overseas political conflicts into Australia over the last 50 years has been its relatively peaceful and democratic character. One only has to enumerate the kind of conflicts and issues that have taken place to underline the general point that the intrusions of overseas political issues, even where hotly contested, have been entirely healthy.

One kind of issue has been protests in Australia by particular migrant groups against military dictatorships, coups and other problems back home. I can recall personally, the following:

  • Demonstrations in Australia in the 1950s for independence for Cyprus.
  • demonstrations in the 1960s and 1970s against the military regime in Greece.
  • demonstrations in the early 1970s against the Franco dictatorship in Spain.
  • demonstrations in the 1970s against the Pinochet dictatorship in Chile.
  • ongoing campaigns by Timorese and West Papuan people for independence or autonomy for their countries against the dictatorship in Indonesia.
  • the massive 10-year campaign of Australians against the war in Vietnam, which changed Australian society dramatically
  • the extraordinary mobilisations in Australia against apartheid in South Africa that culminated in the very effective demonstrations against the South African Springbok Rugby Tour in 1971. The world wide protests against South African Rugby tours contributed to the ultimate dismantling of the Apartheid regime.
  • The massive demonstrations in 1989 by Chinese students against the Tiananmen Square massacre.
  • The demonstrations in Australia against British rule in Northern Ireland at the time of the hunger strikes.
  • Demonstrations by Filipino people and Burmese against the dictatorships of Marcos in the Philipines and the generals in Burma.

The striking thing about all these demonstrations, usually initiated by migrants from particular countries, but supported by other Australians, is that they have rarely been violent, that rarely has anyone even been injured, and they’ve had the capital value of educating Australians that we live in something called the world, and we have an interest in seeing that democracy and basic human rights exist in other countries as well.

There is another category of collisions where overseas conflicts between national interests or group interests arise, where there are large migrant communities on both sides in Australia. Examples of this sort of thing are the protracted collision between Israel and the Palestinians and other Arabs, the conflict between Greek national sentiment and Macedonian national sentiment, the civil war in the former Yugoslavia between Croats, Bosnian Muslims, and Albanians on the one side, and Serbs on the other, and also the division in Turkey between Kurds, Turks and Armenians.

All of these conflicts have, over many years, given rise to rival demonstrations and sharp political controversy in Australia between the contending communities. The really striking thing about these issues, however, is that despite the intense and real conflicts of interest, and communal tensions involved, and the presence of large migrant communities from the contending parties in Australia, there have been very vigorous demonstrations, arguments and conflicts, but almost no violence.

Once again, I take pride as an Australian that it has been possible for these different communities with strong feelings about political issues in their own country to demonstrate and campaign for their point of view in Australia without any significant damage at all to civil life here. Once again, the political expression of these issues in the traditional Australian way of demonstration etc, serves to remind other Australians that we live in something called the world. What’s wrong with that!

Seeing a vigorous demonstration in Sydney from different migrant groups about some issue in another country is possibly the best kind of civics or history lesson for all young Australians. The shock-horror rubbish about overseas political conflicts in Australia actually veils a deep-rooted Anglophile racism and chauvinism.

How dare Australians, particularly migrant Australians, have opinions about things overseas, is the view of the Pauline Hanson types. Every time you get major public events, an excellent example of which are the recent spectacular Kurdish demonstrations precipitated by the unprecedentedly vicious violation of the right of ssylum involved in the kidnapping of Krudish leader Abdullah Ocalan, the unspeakable tabloid media and talkback radio hosts have a field day, and do their best to whip up hysteria against whichever nationality has had the demonstration.

Nevertheless, Australians have got quite used to such events, and the hysteria whipped up by the nastier sections of the media dies away these days very quickly.

Alan Patience replies to critics of multiculturalism

I can’t better Alan Patience’s response to some of the major criticisms of multiculturalism, so I read include another quote from his article, originally published in The Australasian Catholic Record.

    The neo-assimilationist attack.This attack is based on an assumption that the “core values” at the heart of Australia’s culture are being seriously compromised by multiculturalism. For example, Lachlan Chipman has written: “Multiculturalism … represents not a more radical liberalism but support for selective oppression … Support for the values of some communities means support for sheltered, separate, limited and thoroughly sexist upbringing for daughters, for example.It means for some communities, inculcating radical ethnic mythologies theoretically irrelevant to the future of Australia, but politically, and literally, explosive. It means the 16-year-old daughter of ex-Calabrian peasants should not be allowed to go to the disco with her classmates.”

    Frank Knopfelmacher extends this position even further by asserting that multiculturalism poses a threat to what he refers to as Australia’s essentially “anglomorphic” cultural identity. He writes: “We favour the assimilation of ethnics into a hegemonial Australian culture which is anglomorph, that is, historically English. The objective is not to fuel a melting pot brewing a nondescript Australian of the future, but to dissolve and transform non-anglomorph kinship lines in such a way that their issue will be anglomorph. Thus one assigns to the English political and social culture of the Australian nation a privileged, hegemonial position into which the ethnic elements must be dissolved. The object is relatively painless anglification of non-anglomorph Australians.”

    The most obvious thing about this neo-assimilationist attack is that it is based on a flimsy straw man version of the multicultural position. Professor Chipman’s view that the rule of law in Australia will not prevail in the face of illegal or antisocial practices (of ethnic derivation of otherwise) is simply naive.

    All its serious advocates recognise that multiculturalism is a theory of cultural adaption and change. I doubt that even Chipman would seriously contend that blood feuds, for example, are defended by any proponents of multiculturalism. In addition multiculturalism has never been prompted as an extra-legal flouting of the rule of law in this country.

    Chipman’s position, in short, is based on a lurid fantasy – it has no need to be taken seriously. The early history of Australian Catholicism robs Dr Knopfelmacher’s quaint doctrine of anglomorphism of any substance. Many Irish and other Celtic convicts and their families experienced the quasi-racist cruelty of the English officials and soldiers in the early part of this country’s history.

    It was partly a response to this that the Australian colonies in the latter half of the 19th century rapidly formulated some of the most radically democratic political institutions for their times. The democratic strains that grew so healthily then later informed and helped shape similar developments in democratic government in England.

    In short, it is ridiculous to assert that some mythical anglomorphism radiates out from England to shine civilisation upon us all. The English have been relatively slow, though promiscuous, learners, borrowing from other cultural traditions, not the least being the Celtic traditions upon which they imposed themselves over four hundred years ago.

    Knopfelmacher’s position is dismissive of the integrity and richness of non-anglomorphic Celtic traditions and is seemingly ignorant of the democratic history of Australia’s political development.

The 1999 election, multiculturalism and national identity

The 1999 election has confirmed, expanded, and probably entrenched, a fault line in Australian politics, which will remain for a generation or two. The conservative side in politics and their backers in some sections of the tabloid media chose to play the race card, to some degree, although they awkwardly tried to diguise this by doing it sparingly and no doubt, in their view, subtly.

Nevertheless, the division widened and became absolutely clear as the election campaign developed. Many ethnic newspapers switched over from being supporters of the Liberals to neutrality in electoral politics. A lot of other ethnic papers, particularly the Chinese papers, obviously reflecting their readership, swung over in one jump from supporting the Liberals to supporting Labor.

Many ethnic figures publicly deserted the Liberal side and helped organise the Unity Party, which did quite well in the election for a new formation, and gave its preferences to Labor. This Unity Party is likely to be a fairly short-lived phenomenon, and there is little doubt that almost every organised ethnic group will tend to entrench itself and even participate in the internal life on the Labor side of politics.

Ethnic, community and electoral politics all abhor vacuums, and the dramatic way that Laborism has reasserted itself as the only electoral alternative to the conservatives in a two-party system will exert an irresistable gravitational pull on all the ethnic groups that have been repelled by recent political developments from the conservative side of politics.

For instance, one can almost write the script for how the confident young, recent-immigrant, well-educated professional people who have been active in the Unity Party, will flock into the ALP. This will just happen!

On the other side of politics, after their limited electoral success, the future of the One Nation outfit is in doubt. There is no history of right-wing populist electoral formations like One Nation lasting much more than one election as separate entities. For example, the Bjelke-Petersen for Prime Minister movement lasted one election.

The most likely variant is that the mobilised electoral activists of One Nation will rapidly drift back into the National Party in rural areas and the Liberal Party in the cities, accentuating the racism always latent in the conservative parties.

Particularly in the more far-flung states, rural Australia, Queensland and even NSW, the scene is set for the re-emergence of exotic right-wing forces in the mainstream conservative parties. For instance, it’s pretty predictable that as they flounder around in the Queensland parliament, the strange collection of One Nation politicians will disintegrate as a cohesive force and that a number of them will drift back into the National Party, which will be glad to have them, much as a number of Vince Gair’s Queensland version of the DLP drifted back to the National Party in the 1960s.

It is hard to visualise how the conservative parties, particularly the Nationals, can prevent such a development even if they want to, and this development will tend to reinforce the already well-commenced entry of the ethnic communities into the day-to-day life of the Labor side of politics. The 51.5 per cent preferred vote of the ALP in the recent election obviously includes a very large ethnic vote.

The 48.5 per cent on the Liberal side obviously does not. Unfolding future demographics will increase the 51.5 per cent and diminish the 48.5 per cent, in that sense fulfilling Paul Sheehan’s worst fears about immigration. These fault lines and divisions between the conservative and Labor sides in politics are likely to become permanent features of the next period in Australian life.

The times demand a new, inclusive Australian nationalism of a popular and democratic sort incorporating multiculturalism and basic Aboriginal rights. In the past year or two, since the 1996 elections, the lines have been well and truly drawn, with the Howard government attacking migration, toying with Anglophile racism, attacking Aboriginal rights, and actively colluding with the rise of the xenophobic One Nation movement.

Happily, the fault line that has developed on these matters has located an emerging majority of Australians on the civilised side, against these reactionary forces, as the recent election results show. We now need a carefully and confidently articulated new multicultural vision for Australia, drawing on the past democratic nationalism of the Labor movement and entrenching within it the rights of reasonable and highish migrant entry to Australia, the defence of multiculturalism, and the defence of Aboriginal rights, along with the recognition of Aboriginal prior ownership.

I have in my mind the image of a new Australia in which Australian national consciousness and culture is constantly evolving and developing as a distinct entity, but in which a multitude of distinctive subcultures, all of which have their own Australian aspect and features, are continually contributing, sometimes merging, and sometimes developing a bit independently within the general framework, constantly renewed by new migrants from different places stimulating the whole development.

The constant tendency of each generation is usually to assimilate a fair bit into the general Australian culture, but the preservation of aspects of the other cultures, their languages, etc, is all to the good and to the benefit of all of us, and can be constantly freshened by further immigration.

With imagination, good will and vigour, such a new vision can win a solid majority in Australian political life, but it needs to be worked on, elaborated, defended and extended if the civilised majority are to win this battle.

The issue is joined and we should all stand up and be counted in this struggle for a civilised multicultural Australia, which is turning into one of the most decisive political conflicts we face at the end of the 20th century.

June 3, 1999

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