Friday, January 13, 2012

nosey government

Teresa Gambaro, an MP from Brisbane, is in hot water after suggesting employers should provide cultural awareness training for new Australians wanting to fit into the workforce.

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. 


  1. Personally, I am all for letting people from other cultures know what the standards are here in the U.S. because the more common ground we all have the better we can get along. I used to work at a university and we had some students from another country who used to blow their noses in the public water fountains. Where they came from this was acceptable and so how were they to know unless someone told them of the standards here? Most people are willing at adapt in order to get along if they only know the expectations of their new land.

  2. I wrote a post about the matter, but I couldn't get it right without it sounding racist. However, given the mix of people I work with and as a frequent public transport user, I know who smells of BO and where they come from and some are not recent arrivals.

    I don't suppose many of us know what assistance migrants do get upon arrival. I do know they were pretty good in the late seventies and early eighties.

  3. This is a storm in a tea cup drummed up by the media to score brownie points it will all be forgotten about in a weeks time. Immigrants will always have something to whinge about no matter what :-).

  4. Hi Rubye,
    I think your expression "common ground" is perfect in this context. I certainly agree people need advice about what is expected, and a chance to fit in; perhaps I just have reservations about what "education" will mean.
    I also like your point that what is not acceptable in one place can be perfectly acceptable in another. For this reason, while we might dislike some behaviours, we would be mistaken to assume newcomers don't care what we think, or are setting out to be offensive.

    avoiding the great sin of sounding racist is not easy. It's just human nature to notice difference, in everything from height to gender to skin colour. Pretending otherwise is insane.

    It's also quite reasonable to believe that one "group" is more likely to spit than another, because it is a real cultural difference. If that cultural group are also predominantly of a particular race, this is not racism.
    I do know that a lot of people who spit are purple, but I also know that not all purple people spit and not everyone who spits is purple - in other words, I know it's not race.

    I guess what I was trying to say here is that - whether we like it or not - it's time we were able to openly discuss what we want.

    I realise my sloppy writing might be interpreted to mean immigrants who didn't get what the government promised were all whingers. To the contrary, I was actually thinking about someone here temporarily on a special skills visa who didn't realise he wouldn't qualify for medicare. It's just one example of how we would have trouble organising a chook raffle. I think he should have been given a chance to take out private health insurance.

    On the other hand, yes, people will always have something to whinge about - [but notice I only complained about sniffing, perfume and people who talk in doorways. This was quite restrained of me, because I could go on... and on!]

  5. You have made me think further. Is what I wrote unpublished, racist? It names a race, but what I wrote is quite true. It is fact, and scrutiny would prove the point. Spitting is unforgivable, and many offenders are 'Australian'.

  6. Perfectly said!
    It was a beat up by the media, twisted and misconstrued whereas, yes, she could have phrased it much better.
    The old 'lead by example' springs to mind :)

  7. Andrew,

    You may know in your own heart you are not racist but you will always be at the mercy of 21st century journalistic "standards". Like Gambaro, you have no way of ensuring that you won't be quoted out of context. Anything you say can and will be used against you. There are laws against frank discussion, and it suits commercial media to enforce this suppression.

    Spitting is a particularly big issue in Australia, because it's a surefire way to spread TB and we have worked hard to make it universally unacceptable. I'm not sure it matters who is doing it so much as it matters that we are all walking on eggshells and there are few safe ways to tell individual spitters we disapprove.


    Sometimes I wonder why I bother with newspapers at all - Goebbels would be jealous of the thought control they exercise.

  8. It must be hard being a politician or celebrity because you would always have to be on guard with your mouth, because the media are sure to take it out of context or beef it up. She was probably saying what many of us have thought or said to a friend.
    Windsmoke should not generalise, not all immigrants have something to whinge about. My husband and I are both immigrants from 2 different countries and we are happy here. We were not supported by the government in any way other than an assisted passage here. My parents had a hard struggle , living in a tent at first but they became good Australians. You can read my story of migrating to Australia on my sidebar. PS. We shower every day and don't spit . "When in Rome do as the Romans" is still a good quote.

  9. Diane,
    As much as I like to whinge about politicians, it is fair to say we rarely hear the whole story about what they say or do.
    The way your parents and their neighbours worked together to build their homes, building a new life one step at a time, just shows why immigrants sometimes make the best citizens; they don't think the world owes them a living at all.
    I think what Gambaro said was more than fair because she was talking about helping immigrants understand what it is that "Romans" do, and also asking the rest of us to take a good look at ourselves as well.
    Again, I think the press have a lot to answer for when it comes to generalisations. Today we read about an Iranian Australian who was released from Saudi Arabia where he had been sentenced to 500 lashes for blasphemy. The news report said he had complained the Australian Government should have done more to help him. We don't hear many good stories about people who are grateful for this or that - reporting can be very selective.

  10. One of the biggest problems is in defining exactly what it is the 'Romans' do! Sure, we can all think of a few examples of what in OZ would generally qualify as inappropriate (ie spitting etc), but what does it fundamentally (much as I loathe that word) mean to be an Aussie?? And who will decide what's left in and what's left out of 'education' for new arrivals?? Then who will explain to the new arrivals why some Aussies do the things they've been told are unacceptable?? It's all too hard, so it'll end up becoming an arbitrary list of minor things that won't actually change anything.

    We often forget our rich multicultural heritage when we talk about immigration - where would we be as a nation without it?!

  11. Red,
    Writing lists of what a majority thinks is important is a serious challenge. For example, John Howard wanted a question about Don Bradman on a citizenship test. This sort of thing could seriously jeopardise my own citizenship. Perhaps it would be for the best if I wrote the list.
    As for explaining why some Aussies behave in unacceptable ways, you've hit on a perfectly good argument for people to stop talking about "groups" of us and them, and work at an individual level where the problem really starts.

  12. I guess that's just a common dilemma...expressing expectations about behavior without offending people.

    It's like when someone has something stuck in their teeth. You'll embarrass them by saying something; but they'll be embarrassed more if you don't say something.

    I guess what's more challenging is when there's cultural differences and what's embarrassing or uncomfortable to us is not embarrassing to the culprit.

  13. Dina,
    it is a common dilemma. Perhaps Gambaro was thinking that if the idea comes from a neutral source like a government there is little personal embarrassment involved all round. [Still not the major drama the press was making out].
    On another level, it's unfortunate that for many reasons individuals - like employers - feel the law does not allow them to speak to individuals without fear of punishment because their intentions will be misinterpreted as criminal.
    So although it's an uncomfortable problem, the problem won't go away if governments meddle in everything, especially smaller issues that should be dealt with on an individual level.
    [And yes, a friend once let me walk around all afternoon with spinach stuck to my teeth. Just as well I knew it was her sense of humour, and she knew I would laugh. But I knew she would have said something if it was a potentially embarrassing situation.]

  14. There is of course lots of wisdom in old sayings, that is afterall how they got to be old.
    A lot of the comments seem to focus on how to treat others, shall I tell them their behaviour is unacceptable etc. I tend to go with the "do unto others as you would have them do to you" wisdom.
    I would rather someone told me I was being offensive. It doesn't always change my behaviour as sometimes I want to be offensive so it is handy to know when you are for that purpose. More often like all us social beings I want to fit in.
    Two other observations, sometimes we ignore custom as there is no cost to us for ignorance but a gain to be had. eg queing is very anoying if you are in a hurry and generaly there is no cost to que jumping if you can get away with it.
    As to why can't employers be honest, because the "right to work" has been appropriated as a social good rather than an employers property which it more correctly is.

  15. Hi Big Dog,
    I worry about us all being silenced in a way that really only ends up dividing people. When the people who make laws deciding what we can and cannot say get into trouble for discussing proposed laws, things are fairly tragic.

  16. Hi Fruitcake, this 'storm in a teacup' has not reached the fair lake shores of Geneva but your opinion of it all seems perfectly valid and appropriate.

  17. Hi Fruitcake, this is my first visit here and I came because I always agree with your comments on other blogs I read.
    I support Andrews remark above that not all odorous people are New Arrivals. It is also true that the media is everybody's enemy and will blow up a phrase out of all proportion, so anyone dealing with them should be very very wary.
    Too much cheap perfume is unbearable in trams and theatres, I despair over that one.
    As for cultural horror, the present trend for young women wearing tiny tiny tight shorts, must frighten our Muslim friends who set a great emphasis on modest dress for women.
    The girl I endured on the bus yesterday added the most vicious uplift-bra to her ensemble and it was awful being near her.
    Scuse I, indeed.

  18. Hi Kath, the few times I have been away from Oz it has always seemed weird to have no idea what we are all grizzling about back home, and sometimes odd to notice what others grizzle about elsewhere! But I've noticed how carefully you have tried to fit in, even if no one "educated" you in advance about not wearing muddy boots in your caretaker's clean foyer.

    Hi Ann, thanks for visiting. And I'm delighted to meet someone who suffers as I do when people insist on bathing in rancid perfumes - which doesn't mean I'm delighted that you suffer, but it is nice to have my claim that it makes me physically ill validated.