George Megalogenis is one of my favourite writers and one of Australia’s most respected political and economic journalists. I used to read him in The Australian, I have read and reread his seminal books and I am one of his 28,000 followers on Twitter. (Forgive this gush, George, but I’m about to make my point.) So imagine my surprise when earlier this month he was referred to – almost dismissed – as an “ethnic commentator”.
George Megalogenis an “ethnic commentator”? Oh, of course, it’s the surname.
A bemused Megalogenis tweeted on April 14: “I see my old employer News Corp has me branded as an ‘ethnic commentator’. Um, I was born in Oz.”
Even if Megalogenis hadn’t been born in Australia, how could anyone read his vast body of work as a journalist, commentator and author and pigeonhole him as an “ethnic commentator”?
Quite apart from being a misnomer, there is something inherently divisive in the notion of an “ethnic commentator”. The use of “ethnic” in this way is a throwback to a time when the population was divided into “them” and “us”. It deliberately sets out to marginalise and trivialise somebody’s contribution to public discourse.
So how did this contretemps unfold? It started when Megalogenis, in response to Tony Abbott’s decision to reintroduce knighthoods, while controversy raged over the government’s proposed changes to the Racial Discrimination Act, tweeted on March 25: “More than half the Oz population is either immigrant or Indigenous. Government introduces Imperial honours and bigots’ rights. Weird stuff.”
The comment caught the attention and raised the ire of Herald Sun columnist Rita Panahi who wrote on April 6: “It’s a common mistake to assume all ethnic minorities must be on the same page on a particular issue.” Megalogenis, and commentator Waleed Aly, who was also in her sights, were examples of “ethnic commentators who misrepresent minority groups”.
I was surprised to see this term still kicking around. Does Australia still have – need? – “ethnic commentators”? Can’t one simply be a commentator? Why should Megalogenis’ tweet carry any additional import because of his surname?
Panahi was born in the United States and it may well be that in the US, whose multiculturalism is as triumphant as it is tribal and angst-ridden, it is more common for commentators to speak on behalf of their ethnic constituencies.
Multiculturalism in Australia has made such enormous strides in a very short time – certainly within my lifetime – that even the term “multiculturalism” seems outdated and superfluous.
A foot in both worlds
My surname was plain D’Angelo until I added Fisher when I married in 1989. My mother was born in Sicily and migrated to Australia in the 1950s when she was in her teens; my father was born in Queensland of Italian immigrant parents, also from Sicily. (My paternal grandparents migrated to Australia in 1922; Pop was interned during the war despite being a naturalised Australian.)
In many respects I had a foot in both worlds. As a fair-haired boy I didn’t stand out on the school playground (my mother and maternal grandmother were blonde and blue-eyed), and because I grew up with English (as well as Italian) in the household I didn’t speak with the distinctive “ethnic twang” that most kids of Italian stock carried. As a child I was both a product of what would be called multiculturalism and an observer of its dynamics.
When I was at North Footscray Primary School in the 1960s the ethnic diversity consisted of Italian, Greek and recently arrived Yugoslav kids; nothing like today’s cultural cornucopia. I remember when a group of migrant kids started playing soccer in the school grounds – one of the boys had brought a soccer ball to school – and the headmaster strode up to the startled and embarrassed children and declared: “This is Australia; we don’t play soccer here!”
Once a week we had religious instruction, conducted by a Salvation Army officer. Before the class would begin a teacher would bid the “non-Christian” children – that is, the Catholic kids from migrant families – to file out and wait in the school yard until the “Christians” had their lesson. A dozen or so of us kids, fairly certain we were Christians, and well aware that we were being set apart from the Anglo-Australians, would chat among ourselves, bemused but happy to escape something so boring as religious instruction.
In the era before multiculturalism, when migrants were “new Australians” – a seemingly inclusive but subtly divisive term – assimilation was the order of the day. That’s why so many migrant kids from the 1950s to the early 1970s have tales of being ridiculed (or worse) in the playground for having salami sandwiches or other such exotica for lunch. Today everyone thinks they’re Italian and more often than not their specialty dish is spaghetti Bolognese (and more often than not it’s bloody terrible).
An explosion of difference
The other day I was walking through the Highpoint shopping centre, in Melbourne’s west, and as I surveyed the throng of shoppers I was struck by the presence of every possible hue, culture, ethnic dress and language in a cacophonous explosion of colour, sight and sound. Of difference. National dress would have been frowned upon in the 1960s, except at annual festivals, but today Australians from Indian, African and Middle Eastern backgrounds feel no hesitation in dressing as they would in their homelands.
How can anyone debate the desirability of multiculturalism, or protest that it’s time to scale back the “multicultural experiment”? This is now who we are. There is no turning back; there’s only the future and its many exciting possibilities to embrace.
The post-war migration boom of the 1940s and 1950s certainly changed the course of Australia, and the Whitlam government (1972-75) deserves credit for ridding Australia of the last vestiges of the White Australia policy and celebrating the diversity and riches of post-war migration. But the undoubted father of Australian multiculturalism is Malcolm Fraser, prime minister from 1975 to 1983, and he gets too little credit for it.
As well as increasing Australia’s immigration intake, which had slowed under the Whitlam government, with a particular emphasis on Asian migration, Fraser took a humanitarian approach to the Vietnamese refugee crisis and permitted nearly 60,000 Vietnamese refugees, including over 2000 “boat people”, to settle in Australia during his term. In 1978 the Fraser government created the Australian Institute of Multicultural Affairs, overseeing a migrant population that was multicultural and multiracial.
The success of Australia’s multiculturalism, defying its most ardent critics, is that ethnic and cultural differences have not dulled the broad community’s sense of common cause and values, of belonging, of one’s Australianness (except for those whose necks are of a particularly vibrant hue).
That is not to say that each infusion of migrants and refugees is seamless and without its challenges, but the richness, cohesiveness and productivity of Australia’s population is a great success story.
In such a free and inclusive society there is no need to marginalise or segment somebody who contributes to public discourse – whether as a journalist, blogger or interested citizen – as an “ethnic commentator”. To do so is divisive and trivialises whatever they have to say as something less than legitimate or credible (as opposed to a “mainstream commentator”).
So, where were we? Oh, yes: “More than half the Oz population is either immigrant or Indigenous. Government introduces Imperial honours and bigots’ rights. Weird stuff.”
That’s the view of George Megalogenis, commentator. If you disagree with George that is something you’ll have to take up with him, and thanks to social media you very easily can. He may well argue the toss with you and support his case with some compelling stats and facts, or he might refer you to something else he has written on the subject, or he may engage in a lively conversation with you in which you both learn something, or agree to disagree.
Because that’s what commentators do. They inform, engage and stimulate. And that’s about the size of it, in any language.