Teresa Gambaro, an MP from
, is in hot water after suggesting employers should provide cultural awareness training for new Australians wanting to fit into the workforce. Brisbane
Headlines with words like ‘stink’ or ‘armpit’ show that her comments were considered outrageous, because she implied newcomers don’t know how to wear deodorant or wait their turn in queues. Some journalists have also thrown the name “Pauline Hanson” about in their stories.
Many papers have dismissed her claims that her words were taken out of context, but few have bothered to provide the context so we can decide for ourselves.
A bit of the context includes the following:
"You hear reports of people using public transport (without deodorant) and I think Australian residents are guilty of this too," she said. "I think we all need to be mindful of our fellow traveller. Sometimes these things are not talked about because people find them offensive but if people are having difficulty getting a job, for instance, it may relate to their appearance and these things need to be taken into account."
A large number of the public’s responses to her comments reflect just how polarised Australians have become about immigration, temporary workers, and cultural differences generally. One citizen says the outcry shows we need a referendum about whether we even want immigration. Another adopts the “Australians stink more than immigrants” stance, and so on.
This whole kerfuffle might seem a storm in a tea cup, but it would also be fair to say it’s indicative of a far deeper and more petty malaise; a malaise that results in part from a news media focused on sell-air-brity and shock horror headlines than the information that might help keep a democracy democratic.
Over the years I’ve heard plenty of complaints from immigrants that they were promised the earth by our embassies, but abandoned once they arrive. Many of the people who help immigrants settle in are volunteers. Their generosity is particularly important for non-westernised arrivals.
At some point, however, we seem heavily dependent on the notion that training or education is the answer to any and every problem.
Every day I stare, on a train, at a series of pictograms explaining what’s required of train travellers;
- buy a ticket;
- keep feet off seats;
- don’t drink alcohol;
- don’t use crude language; and
- some others I can’t remember.
These seem to have little impact on those travellers who have no interest in social norms or who are born, and determined to remain, self-absorbed arseholes.
Some people, like a new chum I chatted with years ago, want to ‘fit in’. After 24 hours on a fishing boat doing nothing much but sitting around, this chap was surprised to see all the other fisherman having a shower before they retired for the night. Realising this must be the done thing, he made a point of doing the same even though the idea was completely foreign to him.
A Chinese Malay student once told me the thing which astonished her most when she first came here to study was that everyone stood patiently in a queue when they wanted to buy something.
There are plenty of things people do that I find personally irritating, in particular sniffing [or snorting and spitting]; wearing too much perfume; and standing in busy doorways to chat while people are trying to get through.
At some point, though, we need to accept that people are different because if we don’t we’ll simply become dictatorially petty people. At some point, we need to make our own contribution to encouraging positive change: For example, whenever I’ve had a job serving people, I’ve steadfastly refused to serve people who don’t wait their turn. When they ask why they are being ignored I tell them.
When people ring me and would rather be abusive than have a rational discussion, if they don’t calm down I’ll tell them because I’m not allowed to hang up I’m going to put the phone down and ignore them til I hear they’ve stopped.
Would I tell a dozen drunken youths not to vomit all over the floor of a train? No. Only an idiot argues with an idiot - and only a moron would argue with someone whose likely to punch their lights out.
At what point did we become incapable of negotiating some behavioural change without saying we need laws against bad behaviour, or that someone else should educate others to behave differently?
In part, the problem seems to stem from all the laws we have to protect people from arbitrary discrimination. I’m all for laws against blatant discrimination, but laws which don’t allow for grey areas simply force social problems underground.
Employers will always come up with some excuse for not hiring someone they don’t want to hire, and nobody hires anyone – skilled or otherwise - they don’t like or fear other workers won’t like.
But why can’t employers simply say what they want, or have enforceable dress or hygiene or behaviour codes that are clear to all their employees?
Why can’t a shop keeper or service provider refuse to serve someone who stinks so badly all the other customers will leave?
In context, what Gambaro said did not deserve the over-the-top reaction it got. In truth, she could have said it in a far more diplomatic and inclusive way.
Immigrants should not be abandoned when they arrive; they should at least be given a chance to understand the legal and social issues that will help them get the most out of their lives here. On the other hand, we need to remember that no-one will remember all of the advice, and that some people will be more adaptable than others.
Instead of proposing solutions full of words like “must”, “should” or “educate”, we “should” keep a sense of proportion, allow people to speak a little more freely, and all take some responsibility for demanding the behaviours we prefer.