Sunday, July 10, 2011

strangers in our own land

The only thing better than a silly teen movie is a silly teen movie with a blues session. Albert Collins owns this scene which is the best part of Adventures in Babysitting [1987]:


If I am not for myself, who will be for me?
Being for myself, who am I?
[attr Hillel]

In his 1993 novel Remembering Babylon, David Malouf creates a sense that there is something unique about Australia, that ideas must somehow be viewed differently here. Those of us who arrive with preconceived ideas of how we should live and of the meaning of life itself, are forced by the uniqueness of this country to rethink how or where they might belong. I think this novel spoke to me in a way fiction rarely does because, for a very long time, I had wondered what it means to be Australian and where I might fit.

After five generations in Australia, my 1960s family still identified itself as Irish Catholic. Like most religions, the Catholic Church had become a substitute homeland for many, a place where people could relate to others of their own kind as much as a way to relate to any god.

The homeland "back home" was still occupied. Our very own Irish Catholic Archbishop had made his presence felt during the First World War, saying it was a trade war; that conscription was unnecessary as Australia was already doing its share.

For all the years he continued as Archbishop, we marched past the cathedral to salute him every March 17th. When Mannix finally passed away in 1963, at the age of 99, an era died with him.
Employers desperate for workers stopped adding the tag ‘No Irish’ to their job ads. A new and different generation of Catholics - Maltese and Italian - began filling pews in churches the Irish visited less and less often. Protestant and Catholic kids eventually stopped throwing names and stones at each other on the way home from school, the newer breed of Catholic kids having no emotional investment in such sectarian nonsense.

In the 1970s a new wave of troubles in Ireland began, leaving me feeling more personally stateless than ever. How could I be Australian if Australians are British? If Australia was my home and my home was British, then exactly who was occupying the old land of the leprechauns?

Australia is one of the oldest places on earth and for this reason its natural features are awe inspiring, but as a country Australia offered me few opportunities to feel I was part of something timeless or certain.

Some would have us believe World War I and Gallipoli defined us as Australian. I think this was not the case; the ‘war to end all wars’ simply hyphenated our identity, making us Australian-British subjects but British subjects still after fighting for the continuing glory of empire.

Yes, I had grown up watching and listening to imported BBC radio and TV shows; I stood when God Save the Queen was played at the local picture theatre before the latest Disney film started screening. Nonetheless, I felt very much that I was a stranger in a strange land.

I suspect it was with the arrival of post-war immigrants, who came in droves with their strange clothes and customs and foods that we eventually began to understand what it means to be Australian. And I suspect we were only able to define ourselves then because, for the first time, we became aware of what we were not.


No doubt there are many who would disagree, and say it was World War II that marked us as distinctly Australian when we had to defend our own land mass for the very first time. It was as if this was the moment of birth we had all been waiting for.

Captain Arthur Phillip, the very first governor of Australia, had built a gun battery on Sydney Harbour – ostensibly to protect us from the pesky French.
A wealthy country following the discovery of gold, we set to work finishing the battery at Fort Denison - just in case the Russians were coming. By the 1890s Victoria had its own Gibraltar for protection, at Fort Nepean.
We were relieved after World War I when the Treaty of Versailles delivered administration of German New Guinea into our hands.

For all our long history of paranoia, and our awareness of the impossibility of defending such a large border, the Japanese bombing of Darwin in 1942 caught us by surprise. A few months later three Japanese mini subs set out to blow up strategic points around Sydney Harbour.
This was followed by a three month struggle to stop the Japanese gaining a stranglehold on New Guinea; the last great land mass between ourselves and invasion.

Prime Minister Curtin had known the Japanese did not want to invade Australia; the Japanese were simply out to stop us using Australia as a staging post for the war we were fighting in the Pacific. Nonetheless, Curtin allowed the fear of invasion to build in the hope it would encourage more people to join the forces. Besides, if he admitted publicly that he knew there was no invasion planned, the Japanese would know their messages were being recorded and decoded.

This war and our defence of our own soil was still not the real deal, as we grudgingly acknowledge that without the aid of the United States the Japanese could not have been defeated.


Generations on, most of the European migrants who arrived after WWII, and the refugees who came after the fall of Saigon, have become Australianised. In turn, they have contributed a great deal, making Australia at first more European and then more worldly. They reminded those of us lucky enough to be born in the lucky country of what hard work and cooperation and patience can achieve.
Since then, advances in travel and communication technology have made Australia more Cosmopolitan.

Britain was never the same after World War II. The Nazi menace was defeated, but Poland - the rescue of which was the original trigger for war - was lost.

World War II was a first in many ways: It was not a war fought to increase the size of the empire, or because a series of silly alliances had collapsed on itself like so many dominoes, it was a war of principle and that principle was the right of any nation to self-determination. The age of Empire was over.

After the war, Britain dismantled the greatest part of its Empire, not just as a matter of principle but also because it could not afford to rebuild it. Once Great Britain's farm, Australia was cast adrift to find new markets for its meat and veg.

A generation later, the Government assets which had once been owned by all Australians were progressively privatised. Our dollar was floated, leaving us to sink or swim based on our own performance in the new, global economy.

Effectively, our already unmanageable borders increased in size exponentially, for we were now not just geographically vulnerable but financially vulnerable as well.

We battled our own fears of inadequacy, gradually accepting that no one had to succeed in the "real world" of Britain or America before they could call themselves successful. Gradually, we have come to accept that inventing the famous 'aeroplane black box" was pretty impressive, but most of the millions of other parts in a plane were invented and perfected by people of other nationalities.

This struggle to define ourselves was born as an accident of history. The history of post-colonial Australia is short compared to other developed countries. Australia was never a brave new world, settled by people with a vision for building a new country with new values. We have never claimed our own country through a revolution that changed the people at the top, or ways we were governed.

The timing of our birth was unfortunate. There was no stable, decades-long period of growth during which we could find our feet. Rather, we became self-sufficient in our late adolescence, at a time when the very pace of change itself was starting to change.

We have moved in a short space of time from a primary producing country, to a predominantly manufacturing country, to a country competing in service markets - all with little confidence of how we might be innovative enough to survive.

Today, we are still a country of primary producers, but digging holes in the ground does not create a lot of jobs, it simply makes our financial borders more vulnerable. Our manufacturing industries are heavily subsidised, and we have depended too heavily on the new-housing industry to keep money circulating; we are on a treadmill we can't afford to stop.

We are still struggling, too, to define ourselves in a constantly shifting environment of ideas, rules, laws and regulations relating to discrimination and freedom.

Countries like the United States have had more than 200 years to test the principles of their democracy, to establish the ways in which the Bill of Rights should be interpreted, while we are struggling to catch up. Every new law we pass to fill the void is open to challenge and interpretation as we legislate ourselves into corners, too often forgetting that where one person’s liberty begins another’s must end.


We now have a far greater proportion of overseas-born Australians than ever, and a greater portion of those are not of Anglo or Celtic extraction. It is probable that today's newcomers who choose not to mix or be absorbed are no greater in number than in the past, but in an Australia served by instant communication, they are certainly more conspicuous than ever before.

Both major parties have taken the same negative stand on the issue of “boat people” but this is not fully supported by the electorate. In so many policy areas, it is as if voters are shopping for a car, and Henry Ford is telling us we can have a T Model Ford in any colour we like – so long as it’s black.

The chicken or egg question applies to politics: Do leaders shape opinion or reflect it? I can only offer two answers to this question;
  • If public opinion counted for anything, gay marriage would be legally recognised by now.
  • On the other hand, votes are sometimes bought with promises. [Sadly, consumer protection laws do not extend to the sale of party policies.]

As in comedy, so it is in the rest of life: Timing is everything.

The rise of Pauline Hanson’s One Nation Party took a lot of us by surprise. I never believed or wanted to believe Australia is a country of racists. For a long time I asked people who supported Hanson what it was they like about her. The answer I received most often was something like this:
“I don’t agree with everything she says, but at least she’s honest.”

To be fair, she was as honest as she was naïve, and not everything she had to say related to race. Unfortunately, it was her poor judgment on matters of race that came to define her.

The Coalition party did the most practical [if questionable] thing when it seized on her comment that we were in danger of being swamped by Asians, and that we wanted new Australians who were prepared to mix and adopt our values. The Coalition blatantly took her sentiment and ran with it.

·         By October 1998 Pauline Hanson had lost her seat in parliament.
·         In August 2001, the Prime Minister refused to take in rescued asylum seekers from the Norwegian freighter MV Tampa.
·         In October 2001, just weeks after the 9/11 attack on the World Trade Center in New York, the Prime Minister accused asylum seekers of throwing their children overboard in order to force Australia to take them in.
·         In December, 2001, the Prime Minister said "We will decide who comes to this country and the circumstances in which they come."
·         In 2007, Howard proposed to test applicants for citizenship by putting questions to them like this:

Q. Which one of these Australians is famous for playing cricket?
1. Rod Laver
2. Sir Donald Bradman
3. Sir Hubert Opperman

While they professed outrage that she would make such public claims about Asian migrants, our parliamentary representatives failed to challenge her statements. 
Nobody was running around saying “It is a myth that new Australians receive higher support payments than other Australians”, they were too busy running around saying “isn’t she awful!”

There is no question that newcomers should adopt the important values of its host country, but making citizenship rights depend on knowing who Sir Donald Bradman is betrays the underlying struggle we still have to define ourselves.
Perhaps the problem does not lie with attempts to define ourselves– with expressions like ‘fair go’ or ‘equality of opportunity’ – the problem lies with the meaning they have been given in practice, and that meaning is very little.

Where the main players on the political stage have exploited the issue of asylum seekers this has not succeeded because of xenophobia. They are exploiting a very real, very Australian sense of vulnerability, and an ongoing sense of uncertainty about who we are and where we are heading. They are succeeding, not just by refusing to negotiate the component parts of their policies, but by refusing to negotiate with Australian voters at all.

So, there we were, not so long ago, sitting in our very own club and minding our business when some people who were definitely different rushed in. 
John Howard did not invent mandatory detention, but he was the one who first shouted, loud and clear “Nobody leaves this place without singing the blues”.

to be continued

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