Malcolm Turnbull’s get-tough stance on English skills for migrants is just more dog-whistle politics

The Turnbull Government’s insistence on a tougher English-language test for migrants seeking Australian citizenship is at the very least perplexing and at worst alarming.

At first blush it might appear a reasonable requirement of new citizens, but what problem is the Government seeking to remedy? Why does the world’s most successful multicultural society, as Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull so often describes Australia, suddenly need to overhaul its citizenship test, headlined by the requirement of English-language skills that many born-and-bred Australians may find challenging?

The absence of a clear explanation for a tougher English-language test can only invite the worst interpretation of the Government’s motives.

When it comes to using (and abusing) English language requirements as a barrier to migration, Australia has form going back to the very beginning of nationhood and the White Australia policy.

The Immigration Restriction Act of 1901 authorised immigration officials to dictate a passage of 50 words to a new arrival, who was required to write down and sign the given passage. The test was usually given in English, but if the migrant passed but was otherwise considered undesirable (that is, non-white), the immigration officer could repeat the test in another European language. This was the infamous Dictation Test.

The Turnbull Government is proposing nothing so blatant or draconian, but the intent would not be entirely unfamiliar to immigration officials enforcing the White Australia policy. Again, in the absence of a cogent explanation as to why Australia needs a tougher English-language test, the only available conclusion is that the Government wishes to filter out a certain group of people.

Those who support the Government’s tough stance on English-language skills say the same thing: “What’s wrong with expecting new citizens to read and write English?”

Of itself, nothing. But the tougher-test school makes various assumptions that simply do not stand up to scrutiny.

The first is that English deficiency has led to problems in the past. Of this there is no evidence; and even if it were to be demonstrated that this has been an issue, presumably it would be no greater than the problem caused by illiteracy levels in the wider Australian community. It would be unfair, not to say discriminatory, to requite new citizens to have higher English-language skills than born-and-bred Australian citizens.

The other assumption is that poor English is an unfailing indicator of character – of someone’s values, work ethic and good citizenship. New arrivals to Australia – or any country for that matter – do so with the intention of building a new and better life, with all the social and economic spin-offs that entails.

More about political optics

English or no English, some new citizens will immerse themselves in their new country, while others will leave it to their children and grandchildren to stake their claims as Australians. (And often there will be conflicts of cultural adjustment between generations, but that is a dynamic all of its own.)

The converse assumption that high English proficiency and a high score in the proposed values test would necessarily point to outstanding citizenship is simply naïve.

Criticism of the Government’s tougher approach to citizenship qualification is not to suggest that simply anyone can make Australia their home. But the Government’s get-tough approach is more about political optics than dealing with real deficiencies in our migration system. The continuation of John Howard’s infamous “we decide” mantra demonises rather than celebrates migrants to Australia; it places a question mark over the head of each person who does not sound or look like the rest of us.

If changes are needed, they should be considered at length, impartially and independently, based on public submissions and informed by Australia’s pre-eminent record as a multicultural society. Migration since the 1950s, a time of record migration to Australia, has not been without occasional social disruption, but on the whole it has delivered the society – and wealth – that most of us celebrate today.

We know what we have come to expect from Immigration Minister Peter Dutton, but surely we should expect better of Malcolm Turnbull. Their gratuitous call for tougher English-language testing is no better than those hurtful cries heard most frequently in the 1950s and 60s, “Why don’t you learn to bloody speak English!”, or more lyrically, “Why you no learna t’speaka da English?” Turnbull and his attack-dog Minister have given renewed license for such calls to be heard again.

My maternal grandparents migrated to Australia from Sicily in the 1950s. My grandfather had a rudimentary education roughly the equivalent of grade 3; my grandmother was illiterate. Neither learned to speak English, other than some basic words essential in the days of pre-self serve: milk, bread, butter, eggs. According to family lore, when my grandmother sat for your citizenship exam the English-language component involved her having to recite five English words; her selection included “Rinso” and “rump steak”.

I never heard either of my grandparents speak a whole sentence of English; they didn’t even qualify for “broken English”. Yet their contribution to Australia is beyond question.

He was always ‘Joe’

My grandfather worked in factories as a labourer for 20 years before he retired. “Giuseppe” was too difficult for his Australian workmates, so he was always Joe. Giuseppe was of a dark hue; in 1920s Australia he would have been classed as a “white alien”. (As in fact was my paternal grandfather when he migrated to Australia in 1925, except he was fair-skinned, reflecting Sicily’s own multicultural/racial history over millennia.)

But Giuseppe knew nothing of Australia’s vexed history of grudging tolerance and outright intolerance; or if he did, he did not let it get in the way of becoming a passionate Australian. His most prized possession was his citizenship certificate and his most abiding loyalty was to the Queen.

My grandmother, Rosa, was fair and blue-eyed. When she worked in her beautiful front garden, passers-by would assume she could speak English and would stop for a chat about the garden. Perhaps gardening is a universal language, because Rosa’s lack of English didn’t stop her from having the most animated conversations with little old ladies who wouldn’t have known Italy from a gum boot.

Despite their English-language “deficiency”, Giuseppe and Rosa bought a house, their five children, most migrating with them as adults, all worked and bought their own homes. Their grandchildren went to public and private schools, some played footy for local clubs, several went to university, and all went on to work in a variety of occupations: journalist, accountant, teacher, public servant and various trades.

So what’s the problem, PM? Loaded calls for tough English-language tests are clearly designed to appeal to a section of the Australian population – and backbench – whose intolerance hardly needs further stoking. The calls are presumably aimed at Muslims – or seen to be aimed at Muslims – buy they are a slap in the face for all migrants who over the decades have come to Australia with only positive ambitions: to rebuild, prosper, enjoy freedoms and to give back as best they can.

For Malcolm Turnbull to say otherwise is to repudiate his own boast that Australia is the most successful multicultural society in the world.

Leo D’Angelo Fisher is a Melbourne journalist and commentator. He is a former columnist with BRW and the Australian Financial Review. He was also a senior writer at The Bulletin magazine. Follow him on Twitter @DAngeloFisher

 

Malcolm Turnbull has hit a new low as he announces ‘Australian values’ crackdown on new migrants and foreign workers

Among the very few positive contributions that Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull has made to public discourse in Australia has been on the subject of multiculturalism, so it is disheartening that he should sink to his most desperate low by demonising the very people he was lauding only weeks ago.

Turnbull has in recent days adopted the xenophobic language of Pauline Hanson and the far-right of his own party. The spurious “abolition” of the 457 skilled migration visa gave Turnbull the opportunity to repeat ad nauseam loaded phrases such as “putting Australian jobs first”, “Australians for Australian jobs” and “Australian values” as well as plenty of gratuitous references to “foreigners”. (When it comes to such Trumpisms, Bill “I make no apology, I’m going to stand up for Australian jobs first and Australians first” Shorten hasn’t got a spindly leg to stand on, so the less we hear from him on this the better.)

The abolition of the 457 visa – in fact no more than a tidying up of the scheme – is a political rather than a policy exercise. The more Turnbull stressed that this was “a careful exercise in policy development” the plainer it became that it was nothing of the kind. To the extent that it was “carefully considered by Cabinet” it was to provide the Government with the opportunity to indulge in some migrant-bashing.

Turnbull has been, to employ his terminology, “manifestly, rigorously, resolutely” shameless in the jingoism he has employed.

“It [457] will be replaced by a new system that will be manifestly, rigorously, resolutely conducted in the national interest to put Australians and Australian jobs first. That’s our commitment: Australian jobs, Australian values,” Turnbull said at his press conference, with Immigration Minister Peter Dutton nodding approvingly by his side.

And in case there was any doubt about the atmospherics of the 457 announcement, Turnbull could not resist this tribute to his former foe, now mentor:

“[W]e should not underestimate either our success as a multicultural society or the fact that our success is built on a foundation of confidence by the Australian people that it is their government and their government alone that determines in the national interest who comes here and the terms on which they come and how long they stay.”

For those who might have been curious as to how low Turnbull was prepared to plumb in order to retain his job, they may need to be patient as it appears Malcolm is still digging.

Nobody realised a crackdown was required

Hot on the heels of the concocted 457 announcement the Prime Minister has announced a crackdown on migration rules and eligibility criteria for prospective citizens. This may come as a surprise to anyone not realising that a crackdown was required.

The shake-up of the migration program includes tougher English-language requirements, an “Australian values” test and proof that applicants have attempted to integrate into Australian society, providing evidence of a job, the enrolment of their children in school, and even membership of community organisations. Migrants who have permanent residence must now wait four years – currently it’s one year – before they can apply for citizenship.

In announcing these tougher measures, Turnbull has provided no evidence of inadequacies in the current migration system that needed to be rectified. He is claiming credit for fixing a system that nobody knew was broken.

The tougher migration regimen being proposed has only one purpose: to pander to the most reactionary elements in the Australian community.

“Membership of the Australian family is a privilege and should be afforded to those who support our values, respect our laws and want to work hard by integrating and contributing to an even better Australia. We must ensure that our citizenship program is conducted in our national interest,” Turnbull said, pressing all the red-neck buttons.

It’s just what supporters of One Nation and fringe ultra-right groups want to hear – or at least, that’s what Coalition strategists are hoping – but precisely how it can be proven that would-be migrants will be true to these motherhood verities is something else again. The fact of the matter is that many Anglo Australians – what Pauline Hanson and her flag-draped supporters might dub “real Australians” – would fail to meet these standards.

Migrants come to Australia to seek a better life for themselves and their children, which by definition means a preparedness to work, to contribute and give-back in myriad ways, to strive for the best possible education for their children, and generally to prosper.

The idea that migrants come to Australia with a view to recasting the nation in their image is a myth as old as the vestiges of White Australia that persist to this day and are now being fanned by Turnbull. One would have to be of a particularly forgiving mind not to conclude that Turnbull’s shameless dog-whistling is aimed at those who believe Muslim migrants are hell bent on turning Australia into a Sharia state.

Turnbull’s sudden conviction that Australia needs tougher migration laws is at odds with his own recent statements on multiculturalism.

‘An example to the world’

In March, the government released its statement on multiculturalism: Multicultural Australia – United, Strong, Successful. What part of “united, strong, successful” is the government seeking to remedy?

In a soaring speech delivered to coincide with the release of the statement, Turnbull was at his most eloquent and statesmanlike. There was no hint that Australia’s multiculturalism was in need of urgent repair. Far from it. He declared with evident pride that Australia’s multicultural society is “the envy of the world” and “an example to the world”.

“We are the most successful multicultural society in the world and it’s a badge we wear with pride,” he said.

“We are proud of the role immigration has played in shaping the Australia we love so much.

“At a time of growing global tensions and rising uncertainty, we remain a steadfast example of a harmonious, egalitarian and enterprising nation, which embraces its diversity.

“We welcome newcomers with open arms and mutual respect because we are confident in our culture, our institutions and our laws. In return, our newest Australians pledge loyalty to Australia and its people, affirm our shared democratic beliefs and agree to respect and uphold our liberties, rights and laws.”

Well, apparently not if we are to believe Turnbull’s most recent statements calling for an Australian values-based migration system.

Even for a government notorious for flitting from one policy position to another, the differences between the sentiments expressed by Turnbull in that March speech and the subsequent narrow-minded, retrograde rhetoric of 1950s Australia weeks later could not be starker.

It is no wonder that voters have turned their backs on this Prime Minister who promised so much and has delivered so little. While many – including this writer – have dared to hope that we may yet get to see the “real Malcolm” it is hard to imagine that after this latest act of base populism and political cowardice that his prime ministership can ever be redeemed.

Leo D’Angelo Fisher is a Melbourne journalist and commentator. He is a former columnist with BRW and the Australian Financial Review. He was also a senior writer at The Bulletin magazine. Follow him on Twitter @DAngeloFisher or correspond via leodangelofisher@gmail.com

 

 

The play ‘Blue Italian’ plates up some unpleasant truths about our treatment of migrants and refugees

Blue Italian & Nil by Sea
Plays by Katie Pollock, Directed by Rachel Chant, Produced by Peter Fray
Sydney, April 29-May 17

My father was born in Queensland but his parents migrated to Australia from Sicily in the 1920s. They were joyous occasions when we would travel to Ingham, cane country, in Far North Queensland, to visit my grandparents, by this stage retired from farming.

My grandfather – Leonardo D’Angelo, Nonno to his adoring and adored grandchildren – was a Carabiniere, a member of Italy’s military police force, before he migrated to Australia. A gentle and softly spoken man, I would like to think he wanted no truck with Benito Mussolini’s fledgling fascist state, but I never got to ask. My grandmother – Rosaria, Nonna – was a strong and independent woman, who loved to be surrounded by family.

Nonno became a naturalised Australian in 1931. He felt it was his obligation to become a citizen of his adopted country, even though he knew he was not welcome by his Inglese neighbours. The Queensland government lamented the flow of southern Italians, who were considered to be racially inferior, to its northern canefields.

A 1925 Royal Commission concluded that while northern Italians were “law abiding and honest” (and unambiguously white), their swarthy counterparts from the south were “less likely to be assimilated into the population of Queensland”. The fledgling Australian parliament, meanwhile, grudgingly placed southern Italians (and other southern Europeans) beyond the reach of the White Australia policy (and Queensland’s unilateral attempts to ban them) by declaring them “white aliens”.

When WWII commenced thousands of these “white aliens” were declared “enemy aliens”, my grandfather among them. Despite being an Australian citizen, he spent two years in an internment camp in Cowra, NSW. My grandmother ran the farm with my father and aunt, both of whom were still at school and mercilessly bullied and beaten by students and teachers alike as enemies of King and Empire.

If my grandfather resented the humiliation and injustice of internment, he never said so. My grandmother, on the other hand, never forgave Australia for what it did to her husband. I think about my grandfather in that camp. What thoughts went through his mind? Did he regret migrating to Australia, or was this simply the price that he was prepared to pay for a better life?

I was 12 when I visited my grandparent’s little house in Ingham for the last time (in fact, Nonno died while we were on the road, a day short of arrival). I remember the distinctive Queensland cane furniture; the black and white photos of friends and family in faraway Italy that lined the walls, but also of crowded picnics in dusty Australian settings; the colour-tinted photographic portrait of an ancient and slightly scary Italian couple – apparently my great-grandparents – above a doorway; but most vividly of all, I remember the proud display of Blue Italian dinnerware.

All in blue and white

I had never before seen such crockery and they fascinated me, the idyllic, bucolic scenes that always seemed to reveal something new … a shepherd and his flock, his dog, a woman washing clothes on the water’s edge, mysterious ruins, the glimpse of a village, people going about their business, a castle in the background, glorious clouds, beautiful flowers … and an unmistakable sense of peace, tranquility and far away. All in blue and white. When I see those patterns today they take me straight back to my grandparents’ home.

Not that I knew them as “Blue Italian”. I didn’t know that’s what they were until several weeks ago when I saw the play promoted on Facebook. And yet I instinctively knew what the play’s name referred to. (I looked up Blue Italian and found that this “iconic English design” has been in continuous production by Spode since 1816.)

The moment I heard of this play there was an immediate and very personal connection. The poster of a young girl, barefoot, in a simple dress, holding two battered suitcases (“ports” my Queenslander father still calls them) looking back as a path before her wends its way through Australian bush. That girl could have been any of the thousands of young Italian girls who made their way to Australia, perhaps to join relatives while the rest of her family saved enough to make the journey themselves. This was my mother, who was 15 when she came to Australia from Sicily in the 1950s, her parents and siblings – my grandparents, uncles and aunts – not joining her for several years.

What I was reading into Blue Italian, based on these few clues, was very much from my own experience. Like all good theatre, this play will touch people in many different ways, possibly unexpected ways. The political relevance of the play was unmistakable, but for me it was also a very personal journey.

This powerful and moving one-act play, of just 30 minutes’ duration, is set in an “unknown destination”. For everyone in the audience, and certainly for me, the destination was Australia. In any case, the themes are universal. They will resonate in any country that takes immigrants. And they apply equally to official migrants and, with searing contemporary resonance, “illegal” asylum seekers.

What was remarkable about playwright Katie Pollock’s work was the ability to get into the minds (and hearts) of these wanderers, and to simply and starkly convey the hope, fear and desperation of people who find themselves in faraway and unwelcoming environments. Are they the aliens, or are we?

Chaos, displacement and rejection

The play, performed by four actors in an intimate setting, at ground level, amidst the chaos of a jumble of black and yellow traffic barriers, orange lights flashing, is a rapid-fire exploration of longing and belonging, the desperate search for somewhere to call home when far away from home, innocent hope that is met with the inexplicable anger of unfeeling officialdom and unwelcoming strangers. They endure the pain because the desire for sanctuary is so much greater than the obstacles placed before them at every turn; even greater than the pull of memories of loved ones left far behind. (The play takes its name from the girl’s memories of eating her nonna’s soup from a Blue Italian bowl.)

The play is not presented as a linear narrative, which heightens the sense of chaos, displacement and rejection that migrants must feel in a new land, particularly a land that manifestly does not want them there.Let alone how asylum seekers must feel. “Go back!”, “Access denied!”, “Wrong way!” Who are these barriers for? Anyone who is not us. But who the hell are we?

I wondered about the sacrifices my grandparents made to build a new and better life not just for themselves but for their children and future generations of their families; the barbs, slights and humiliations for no other reason than their difference; of the everyday embarrassments of joining the wrong queue, entering the wrong door, boarding the wrong bus; the hurt of being told to “speak English” and “Go back where you came from”, of being called “wog” and “dago”. And every day they would rise from their beds, knowing that they would have to endure the same again, with few helping hands to ease the way. And they would keep getting up until things got a little easier, a little more familiar.

‘She’s very beautiful for an Eye-talian’

My mother, a resilient and intelligent woman, recalls that her introduction to Australia was not quite so jarring: unlike the stereotypical swarthy Sicilians who so alarmed the Queensland government, she was fair-skinned and blue-eyed. “They all thought I was Inglese, and when they discovered I wasn’t the old women would say, ‘Ooh, she’s very beautiful for an Eye-talian’.” (My mother made it her business to learn English as soon as she could.)

As an imperfect but overwhelmingly successful multicultural society each new wave of arrivals is looked upon with suspicion and resentment, but in time they become valuable members of society, and then it’s somebody else’s turn. Blue Italian provides a glimpse of how poorly these “new Australians” are treated before they go on to settle and contribute unwaveringly to their adopted homeland – but we certainly don’t make it easy for them.

And then there are the asylum seekers. When Prime Minister Tony Abbott and his Ministers dismiss asylum seekers as “economic refugees”, “queue jumpers” and “illegal migrants” we can only marvel at such heartless arrogance and willful vilification. These wretched people are so desperate that they are prepared to risk their lives and those of their families, braving uncertain sea journeys in the quest for a better and safer life. Even if Australia can’t offer refuge to all who seek it, surely we can treat these poor souls with dignity and respect.

The companion play to Blue Italian, Nil by Sea, also a one-act play and performed by the same four actors, is based on the tragic story of Jose Matada, whose body was found on a London suburban footpath in September 2012, his body smashed and containing no identification. The young man, from Mozambique it subsequently emerged, had stowed away in the wheel recess of a British Airways aircraft departing from Angola. He fell out, most likely already dead, when the aircraft’s undercarriage opened in preparation for landing at Heathrow airport. Texts sent by the man, who died on his 26th birthday, referred to his hopes for a better life.

Nil by Sea features residents discussing – with a combination of casual disregard and growing empathy – what level of hardship it would take to compel someone to take such desperate measures for a better life. Indeed.

The Blue Italian-Nil by Sea combo was produced by Peter Fray, who as well as being an emerging impresario is a prominent newspaper editor. He is deputy editor (news) of The Australian and is a former editor-in-chief of the Sydney Morning Herald and editor of the Canberra Times and the Sunday Age in Melbourne.

I am in awe that a busy deputy editor of a national daily newspaper can find the time – and clarity of thought – to produce plays. As someone who is in the process of writing my family’s story, with Leonardo’s story at its heart, both the play, and Fray’s clearly boundless reserves of energy, give me heart.

Kudos to Peter Fray and his outstanding creative team: Director Rachel Chant, assistant director Samantha Hickey, lighting and production designer Benjamin Brockman, sound designer Tom Hogan, physical coach David Jackson, and the actors Jennie Dibley, Nat Jobe, Alex Malone and Sarah Meacham.

Blue Italian-Nil by Sea
Leichhardt Town Hall, Sydney
Runs until 17 May 2015
Tickets $30 adults/$20 students and pensioners
Bookings http://www.trybooking.com/hfho

Was Miriam Margolyes right that people don’t like Jews? We need to talk about anti-Semitism

On the ABC’s Q&A program recently, actress Miriam Margolyes, not known for her reserve, made two incendiary remarks that instantly set social media alight and provided plenty of fuel for heated office-corridor discussion the next morning.

One pithy remark was in response to a question from the audience, near the end of the program, about her views of Tony Abbott. “I think he’s a tit,” she said with exquisite diction and lethal precision. The audience was in disbelieving but approving uproar.

But Margolyes’ comment of deeper significance and lasting reverberation was on the subject of anti-Semitism, a subject often considered too sensitive for robust debate or frank assessment.

As a questioner from the audience pointed out, racist attacks against Jews do not seem to elicit the same kind of spontaneous sympathy and support for Muslim Australians in the wake of the Martin Place siege in January, which gave rise to the #illridewithyou social media campaign.

For Margolyes – a British-born Jew, now an Australian citizen – there was only one response:

“People don’t like Jews. It’s not comfortable to say that and it’s not comfortable to hear it, but I believe it to be true.

“After the Holocaust it was not fashionable or possible to be anti-Semitic…but because of the actions of the state of Israel and the appalling treatment of the Israelis towards the Palestinians, and the settlements that have been built in contravention of the United Nation’s rulings, and the support that has been given by American Jews and Australian Jews to what is going on in Israel, anti-Semitism has again reared its horrific, ugly head and anti-Semitism is as unacceptable as anti-Muslim feeling.”

It was a controversial sentiment, but it’s one that many Australians would agree with. However, it’s not the kind of sentiment to be expressed in polite society. But is Margolyes right: are the actions of Israel the reason for the rising tide of anti-Semitism around the world, including Australia? (So great in Europe that Israel Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu has urged European Jews to emigrate to Israel. “The State of Israel is your home,” he says.)

It is true that opposition to Israel’s stance in relation to Palestine has galvanised growing and increasingly strident support for Palestinian statehood and condemnation of Israel. But that’s more likely to be the subject of blogs, scholarly articles and newspaper opinion pieces.

At the risk of sounding elitist, the intricacies of the intractable Israel-Palestine standoff are unlikely to be the catalyst for the desecration of synagogues and Jewish cemeteries, the outpourings of searing anti-Semitic invective directed at anyone going about their business simply because they are wearing a yamaka or a fedora hat, the bullying of school children, and the cowardly assaults.

A problem that Australians prefer not to talk about

At least Australia has been spared the menacing fascist street marches that are now almost commonplace across Europe.

But that is not to say that anti-Semitism is not a problem in Australia, albeit a problem that many Australians deny, or simply prefer not to talk about. There will be self-conscious remarks about the old-money Melbourne Club not permitting Jewish members – a claim the club vehemently denies by pointing out the names of prominent Jewish members – but it’s a touchy subject nonetheless.

A Melbourne businessman and prominent Liberal Party identity once told me that he deliberately chose not to join the Melbourne Club for that reason.

“Behind the closed doors, the old Melbourne Club view of the world is that you don’t promote Jews, you don’t socialise with Jews. The way I express my disapproval of this is by not joining the Melbourne Club and not being seen at the Melbourne Club, and a lot of people like me, who have Jewish friends, think in exactly the same way.”

Even so, this normally outspoken individual declined to put his name to the comment.

But sometimes a controversy will emerge that makes it impossible to look the other way in the face of blatant anti-Semitism.

In 1998, as a staff writer on The Bulletin magazine, I covered the explosive “Gutnick tapes”, the revelation of taped telephone conversations between employees and clients of the venerable stockbroking firm JB Were & Son which exposed a series of offensive remarks about Melbourne businessman Joseph Gutnick and other Jewish investors.

The tapes came to light when they were played during a Melbourne insider trading trial. Gutnick refused to let the matter drop and secured a formal apology to himself and the Jewish community. Oddly enough, Gutnick was criticised for making a bigger issue of the tapes than it needed to be – including by fellow Jews – but as Gutnick told me, there was an important principle at stake:

“If you don’t fight language like that, it goes further. We live in a golden era with regard to tolerance, but in times of economic turmoil, anything can happen. The lesson to others, not only regarding anti-Semitic remarks, but any type of racial vilification, is that it won’t be tolerated in business.”

When I was writing that story, which included interviews with several Jewish community leaders and prominent Jewish businessmen and women, I was sympathetic but professionally dispassionate. I was, however, very moved, when I wrote a sidebar to the story which involved the reaction of a young Jewish manager to the tapes controversy.

‘Those boys didn’t speak to me again’

He told me that the incident reminded him of his schooldays and he recounted this story:

“In 1985 I was playing cricket at a Scotch College cricket camp. During the first few days I was mixing with a group of boys I’d met for the first time. On the third day of the camp, I mentioned that I played cricket for [the Jewish cricket club] Ajax. Those boys didn’t speak to me again for the next three days and I was taunted on the field whenever we played. It upset me that kids could have that attitude, and it still does when I think back.”

It was a conundrum for me then and it remains so today: what is it about being “a Jew” that stirs up such venom in non-Jews? Why would an Australian boy, who happens to be Jewish, find himself the victim of centuries-old hatreds, in a young country that couldn’t be more removed from the dark and blighted histories of pogroms, displacement, systematic discrimination and genocide?

This is where Margolyes’ proposition falls short: anti-Semitism is a constant through the ages that defies rational explanation and is connected to no one event.

In the 1980s I was a journalist at Peter Isaacson Publications, at the time the largest independent publisher of business titles. The urbane and modest Peter Isaacson was – and is – a war hero (he was a World War II fighter pilot, flew dangerous missions over Nazi Germany, was awarded the Distinguished Flying Cross, and on his return to Australia flew his Lancaster bomber, Q for Queenie, under the Sydney Harbour Bridge) and a media trailblazer. Last year he was inducted into the Media Hall of Fame.

Working for Peter remains a defining time in my career. I was only a few years into journalism when he appointed me editor, at age 26, of one of his national publications that set me on my way as a business journalist.

I really didn’t think about it then, but it would horrify me to think that anyone would see Peter first and foremost as being Jewish. Peter is a proud Jewish community leader, but he is so much more. And Peter himself, whether in his workplace, or anywhere else, could not abide any behaviour that smacked of intolerance, racism or discrimination.

In 2002, Isaacson had a very public stoush with then editor of the Crikey site, Stephen Mayne, over an article in Crikey which he felt had gratuitously referred to Larry Adler and Louis Moss as “Hungarian Jews”.

“I do not care whether you publish this letter or not. It is a protest about your unnecessary identification of the religion of Larry Adler and Moss as Jewish,” he wrote.

‘He’s a Jew you know’

“I do not recall, in the two years I have subscribed to Crikey, of reading the religious identification of any Anglicans or Presbyterians or Roman Catholics or Plymouth Brethren or any of the multitude of other religions. Why specifically identify those whose religion is Judaism or any other religion UNLESS the identification has a bearing on the report? What you have done is to disregard one of the prime ethics of journalism.”

A clearly very angry Isaacson demanded that Mayne instruct his editorial staff ”not to use a person’s race, colour, creed or sexuality as an identifier UNLESS such use is imperative to the meaning of the story”.

I get where Isaacson was coming from, because I know people who, when referring to someone who happens to be Jewish, feel they must identify him as such, irrespective of the context. A friend of mine has this habit: “I worked with Max a few years ago – he’s a Jew – and he was a bloody good salesman…” When I take issue with him his riposte is always: “Well, it seems you’re the one who has a problem with him being Jewish.”

Is my mate anti-Semitic? Probably not. Maybe. Who knows? But what is it about being Jewish that it cannot go unremarked? Is it a harmless cultural tic, or does it signify something deeper?

Washington Post columnist Richard Cohen recently reflected on the death of four Jews in the Paris kosher supermarket during the murderous “Charlie Hebdo” terrorist rampage in January and the rise of anti-Semitism in Europe.

“In the long and blood-soaked history of Europe’s Jews, the death of four more in a Parisian kosher market is, at best, a footnote. But they were not the accidental victims of the terrorists’ wrath, not just merely in the way or in the line of fire. They were singled out for who they were and not for what they had done,” he writes. “They were killed for being Jews.”

The terrifying aspect of anti-Semitism is that from this volatile well of ancient hatreds, which has irrationally and inexplicably transported itself to one of the youngest nations on Earth, Australia, some similar horror might easily emerge.

In these times of dread and uncertainty – unnecessarily fanned by opportunistic politicians and excitable commentators – who would blame those Jews who fear what the darkest minds among us may be capable of? Who would blame those Jews who toss those words around and around in their minds: “They were killed for being Jews.”

No wonder that for some Jews even the relatively innocuous – whether it’s the insults of a racist stockbroker or gratuitous references to someone being Jewish – casts such menacing shadows.

There are no answers here. Perhaps many more questions need to be asked. Certainly some frank discussions need to take place. Just because we’re too uncomfortable to talk about anti-Semitism doesn’t mean it hasn’t set deep roots in our society. And a little empathy and understanding wouldn’t go astray.

We can’t will anti-Semitism away. We know it’s not that simple. But perhaps we can make a promise to our better selves that no matter what trials and challenges lay ahead, no one will be singled out for who they are.

From the chants of the #JeSuisCharlie marchers to the cant of Abbott’s charlies the word is “freedom”

It is the stuff of history. On Sunday, 11 January, 1.5 million people filled the streets of Paris – 3.7 million marched nationally – in a show of solidarity and defiance following the three days of jihadist terror that traumatised the French capital and horrified the world.

Paris has a long history of mass rallies and on Sunday its denizens came out in force, in tribute to the 17 dead, unbowed in the face of terror, united in their embrace of the democratic and social values they hold sacred – and which the jihadists repudiate.

Along the procession could be heard the ardent cries of “Freedom! Equality! Brotherhood!”, the spontaneous renditions of the French national anthem, La Marseillaise, and tearful expressions of pride in “the Republic” – this was a nation celebrating its past and girding itself for whatever lies ahead.

The attack on the offices of the satirical magazine, Charlie Hebdo, leaving 12 dead, shocked because of its cold-blooded depravity and the ease with which the executions were carried out. But for the French, there was also a principle at stake: freedom of expression, a value as old as the revolution itself.

Charlie Hebdo was struck because it had dared – pointedly dared – to run satirical cartoons of the Prophet Muhammed, raising the ire of radical Islamists who took their bloody revenge on Wednesday 7 January. (There are no taboos at Charlie Hebdo; it spares no religion, no public official, from its biting satire.)

The immediate international response of horror and solidarity on social media was to adopt the hashtag “Je Suis Charlie” – “I am Charlie” – with 5 million tweets carrying #JeSuisCharlie in three days. The Western world became as one in defence of freedom of expression and freedom of the press.

On Wednesday 14 January, exactly one week after the Charlie Hebdo slayings, the surviving members of the magazine produced a defiant edition of the magazine featuring, of course, the Prophet Muhammed on the cover, weeping, holding a Je Suis Charlie sign under the banner heading “All is forgiven”.

In deference to the worldwide show of support for Charlie Hebdo and its ideals, 3 million copies of the post-massacre issue were printed, compared to the usual 60,000.

The sting in the tail of the Charlie Hebdo rally that wended its way through Paris – led by 40 world leaders – is that the spirited show of unity masked a hard truth that in the light of day must now be confronted: France is a nation torn. The Paris march, and others throughout the country, was an affirmation of France’s resolve to overcome its internal divisions to fight the dark forces of Islamic fundamentalism. That now remains to be seen.

World leaders march for freedom of the press

It is a great shame that in this cathartic moment of national mourning – but also a rousing show of defiance – that the values underpinning the march were mocked by the presence of world leaders who were abusers or fell well short of the values and virtues that the marchers were defending.

For Australians, it was a point of particular affront that among the leaders defending freedom of the press was Egypt Foreign Minister Sameh Shoukry, in whose gaols Australian journalist Peter Greste (along with two of his Al Jazeera colleagues) has languished for over a year.

Reporters Without Borders expressed outrage at the presence of “predators of press freedom”, singling out leaders from Egypt, Russia, Turkey and United Arab Emirates, “countries where journalists and bloggers are systematically persecuted”.

American author and journalist Jeremy Scahill was scathing of the “circus of hypocrisy”:

“[E]very single one of those heads of state or representatives of governments there have waged their own wars against journalists.

“Blasphemy is considered a crime in Ireland. You had multiple African and Arab leaders whose own countries right now have scores of journalists in prison. Benjamin Netanyahu’s government in Israel has targeted for killing numerous journalists who have reported on the Palestinian side, have kidnapped, abducted, jailed journalists,” he told public broadcast news program Democracy Now!

Australia’s fervent expression of solidarity with France and its defence of the values of free speech – Australia was represented at the march by Senate President Stephen Parry – has had some unintended political consequences on the home front.

Liberal senators Cory Bernardi and Dean Smith (who is chairman of the Parliamentary Joint Committee on Human Rights) have taken advantage of the attack on Charlie Hebdo to renew calls to change Australia’s race-hate laws, specifically Section 18C which makes it unlawful to offend, insult or humiliate a person or group on the basis of race, colour, ethnicity or national origin.

The 18C saga began almost a year ago. The Abbott government’s plans to repeal the section came unstuck after the political storm created by the unintentionally provocative statement by Attorney-General George Brandis: “People do have a right to be bigots, you know. In a free country people do have rights to say things that other people find offensive or insulting or bigoted.”

It could easily have been a statement made in defence of Charlie Hebdo, but it was in March 2014.

What should have been an important debate on the competing demands of free speech and community cohesion was cut short because the politics became too hot for the Abbott government.

Tony Abbott’s “leadership call”

Tony Abbott explained that he had made a “leadership call” to overrule his Attorney-General, which should not be confused with Tony Abbott demonstrating leadership on the issue. His was a political call, not a matter of principle.

Instead of an emphatic prime ministerial affirmation of values and principle, Abbott replaced Brandis’ contentious language with his own mealy-mouthed offering: “I want the communities of our country to be our friend not our critic. I want to work with the communities of our country as Team Australia.”

Politicians choosing to avoid difficult discussions make life momentarily easier for themselves, but sidelining an issue should not be mistaken for settling an issue.

The Charlie Hebdo massacre was just what proponents of changes to 18C needed to prosecute their case for freedom of expression with unrestrained vigour.

Human Rights Commissioner Tim Wilson, who seems to think he is an elected politician, bought into the issue by gleefully pointing out that under section 18C of the Racial Discrimination Act, Charlie Hebdo could not be published in Australia – or would be subject to continual challenge and/or censorship.

Bernardi would have been aware of all those #JeSuisCharlie tweets and he pounced on this obvious contradiction:

“I find it extraordinary that people will support Charlie Hebdo in France being able to publish what they want, to lampoon and to mock and satirise who they want, and yet many of the same people are happy for us to restrict what we can publish…because we might cause offence in this country.”

It was not the federal government but Race Discrimination Commissioner Tim Soutphommasane who sought to curb the enthusiasm for revisiting 18C, insisting that support for Charlie Hebdo and Section 18C are not incompatible:

“There is complete and unfettered freedom to discuss and debate matters of religion, religious identity, religious belief and religious practise. There is in any case wide protection for anything that is artistic work or fair comment on matters of public interest, provided that it is done reasonably and in good faith.”

The renewed push for the dumping of 18C is taking place in a vacuum of Tony Abbott’s making. With a private senator’s bill co-sponsored by Bernardi set to revive the 18C divisions, the onus will once more fall on Abbott to show leadership – on this issue specifically and more generally in assuaging the concerns of Australia’s Muslim population in the wake of both the Sydney Siege and the Paris terror attacks.

In the absence of the necessary leadership, Australia finds itself mired in a highly partisan “debate” about free expression at a time when members of the Muslim community feel their voice goes increasingly unheard.

Opportunistic tosh

Dean Smith has cynically co-opted events in Paris to seek Senate support for changes to 18C. “As a tribute and defiant rebuttal [to events in Paris] we should change our laws to allow for greater freedom of speech, expression and opinion,” he wrote in The Australian.

Such opportunistic tosh is offensive and if anything qualifies Smith for the Charlie Hebdo treatment.

At some basic level there is bipartisan support in Australia for the principals of freedom of expression and freedom of the press, but that ends at the door of 18C: Labor is against watering down the section, and the government is choosing not to pursue its preferred option.

Rather than start this debate from scratch, let’s accept that the finer detail of Australia’s freedom of expression laws should be left not to politicians, but to a law reform commission. And if we are to revisit the issue of freedom of expression, why not a discussion on whether Australia should have a bill of rights?

As for France, the true test starts now. It must now confront the many realities of a nation with huge challenges ahead.

Although much of the focus in Paris has fallen on the horrors of the Charlie Hebdo massacre, there was also the murder of four French Jews killed by a third jihadist at a kosher supermarket.

Anti-Semitism on the rise

This will have been a chilling development for France’s 550,000 Jews – especially as rising anti-Semitism was already a problem in France, without having the additional burden of being targeted by Islamic fundamentalists.

Israel Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has offered France’s Jews – and Europe’s Jews – safe haven in Israel:

“To all the Jews of France and all the Jews of Europe, I wish to say: the state of Israel is not only the place to which you pray, the state of Israel is also your home. Any Jew who wants to immigrate to Israel will be received with open arms.”

Netanyahu’s offer may well resonate with some. In 2013, 7,000 French Jews migrated to Israel, according to the Jewish Agency, and the year before that 3,400. But the idea that Jews must flee their own country will surely not sit well with most. It seems extraordinary that Europe’s Jews are even today having to make such contemplations.

France’s Prime Minister Manuel Valls sought to reassure Jewish citizens: “France without the Jews of France is not France.” In the Sunday marches, many held placards declaring “Je Suis Juif”,or “I am Jewish”, in solidarity. The government has also heightened military and police security at Jewish schools and synagogues – an act of support but which must also be unnerving.

In addition to its Jewish citizens feeling under siege, France has the challenge of reassuring the nation’s 5 to 6 million Muslims that they are embraced as citizens of the Republic: but France has a long way to go in convincing even second and third-generation French Muslims let alone recent arrivals of this.

Anti-Muslim racism, entrenched social disadvantage, long-term unemployment – including a 25% youth unemployment rate – and decrepit housing estates make for a colossal challenge. Already, since last week’s jihadist attacks, there have been several incidents of violence against Muslims and mosques in France and elsewhere in Europe.

Rather than treating the events of Charlie Hebdo as a political opportunity to make it easier to express extreme views – and given a less than convincing case that the Act presently contains unreasonable curbs on freedom of expression – some of Australia’s more colourful politicians might want to concentrate on how to make Australia’s vibrant and cohesive multicultural society an even more prominent beacon of what is possible in an enlightened democracy.

Liberté, egalité, fraternité

Canberra wants to stop the boats, Bendigo wants to stop the mosques: this is what happens when leaders stop leading

Comments on social media reflect the shame and heartbreak that many Australians feel over the Abbott government’s hard-line asylum seeker policies: the inhumanity of Manus Island and Nauru detention centres; the intransigence and belligerence of Immigration Minister Scott Morrison; and most recently Tony Abbott’s egregious inducement of $10,000 for detention centre detainees to return to their countries of origin.

It’s not just the Abbott government that has maintained its rigid stance on asylum seekers.

The federal Labor caucus recently squibbed its chance to set right Australia’s internationally decried refugee policy when it voted against WA MP Melissa Parke’s motion to abandon offshore processing.

Former Prime Minister Kevin Rudd didn’t want to be seen as soft on asylum seekers either. He devised the “PNG solution” on the eve of the 2013 election, vowing to send all future asylum seekers to PNG for resettlement. “From now on, any asylum seeker who arrives in Australia by boat will have no chance of being settled in Australia as refugees,” said Rudd who three years earlier lamented that Australia’s asylum seeker policy would shift to the right under his successor Julia Gillard.

Under Gillard’s ill-conceived and unrealised East Timor and Malaysian “solutions” Labor’s asylum seeker policy did lurch to the right, but by the time Rudd returned to office last year, he declined to assert his much trumpeted Labor values.

To understand why Australia’s asylum seeker policy is so fixedly skewed on such an inhumane course, it’s necessary to return to the operative word in the opening paragraph: “many” Australians feel uncomfortable with Canberra’s treatment of refugees. But not most.

Since John Howard hit a rich electoral vein with his unabashed demonisation of asylum seekers, successive governments have dared not tamper (or Tampa) with his formula for political success. The deeply unpopular Howard government seemed set for defeat at the 2001 election, when along came the Norwegian freighter the MV Tampa and its cargo of 438 refugees rescued from international waters.

Tampa’s captain Arne Rinnan was refused permission by the Howard government to land the refugees on Australian soil. Within days the government introduced the Border Protection Bill to lend legislative confirmation to action which had been condemned internationally, and devised the “Pacific Solution”, whereby asylum seekers would be sent to Nauru for processing.

Howard’s “border protection” mantra

Right on cue followed the September 11 terrorist bombings in the US – which the Howard government used as vindication for its tough stance on Tampa; and in October came the “Children Overboard” affair, with senior ministers falsely claiming that asylum seekers intercepted by the Navy near Christmas Island had thrown children overboard from their stricken vessel in order to be rescued and taken to Australia.

Howard knew that his “border protection” mantra had struck a chord and that public opinion was on his side. “These are people we do not want, people who throw their children overboard,” said Howard at his most un-prime ministerial.

Howard stuck to the theme in the lead up to the November election. During his campaign launch speech on 28 October 2001, he delivered this infamous line, since parroted by the Abbott government: “[W]e will decide who comes to this country and the circumstances in which they come.”

These events are a black stain on Australian politics, but they accorded with the views of most Australians.

The Howard government won in a landslide, John Howard the warrior PM was born, and the template was set for asylum seeker policy in Australia: “illegal immigrants” and “queue jumpers” were demonised as potential terrorists and any political party soft on asylum seekers was decried as a danger to national security.

Australia’s inhumane policy on asylum seekers has bipartisan foundations: the Liberal National Coalition, despite some internal disquiet, is at home with its warlike posturing; and Labor, in particular Bill Shorten, is too afraid to show leadership on the issue.

This immovable stalemate – a connivance of political will and political cowardice – has led to the unspeakable suffering, anguish, mental deterioration, suicide and unlawful death of asylum seekers in faraway detention centres. While many Australians feel disquiet, even disgust, most are prepared to look the other way.

Australia has the policy it does on asylum seekers because focus groups and polls tell the major parties that they are in sync with popular opinion. Or it may be just a collective wink of the eye – Tony Abbott would understand that signal – but it gives the government the confidence to proceed with its inhumane policy.

There remains a strong thread of xenophobia, if not racism, that runs through the community. Witness the current highly organised protest against the building of a mosque in the Victorian regional city of Bendigo.

Bendigo: Australia on show

What began as a grassroots campaign has attracted the organisational and financial muscle of various right-wing and anti-Islamic groups from around Australia. The CEO of Restore Australia, Mike Holt, is unapologetic about his support for the Bendigo stop-the-mosque campaign: “They use the mosques as a centre for jihad. These things are not like the tea and coffee churches,” he told Fairfax Media.

These groups, and the Bendigo residents who support them, are the public face of the secret focus groups that stiffen the resolve of governments on asylum seekers. Rather than show leadership on the issue – as perhaps Malcolm Fraser or Paul Keating might do – Abbott and his immediate predecessors govern with an eye on the opinion polls.

And yet something seems amiss here. Walk down the street of any capital city or major regional centre – including Bendigo – and it seems impossible that Australia’s official response to asylum seekers could be so brutal.

Every colour, culture, creed and ethnicity is represented on the streets of Australia, which is rightly held up around the world as a model of multiculturalism. To see the peaceful harmony and vibrant co-existence of people in all their diversity on our streets and in our workplaces is to see Australia at its best.

But Australia’s relationship with diversity has never been straightforward. From the unambiguous racism that underpinned the White Australia policy to the tolerance (if not always embrace) of immigration which has given modern Australia its multicultural hue, ours has been an ambivalent relationship with race.

The gold rush era of the 1850s was an early example of multiculturalism in Australia, in which many races and creeds lived in harmony on the goldfields. Yet there was unspeakable racism and violence against Chinese gold diggers; and while African-Americans were welcome on the goldfields, Aborigines were being dispossessed and exterminated.

Between 1901 and 1939 the first large movements of non-British Europeans to Australia began. However, these mostly Italians, Greeks, Yugoslavs and Poles were only reluctantly permitted entry as “white aliens”.  

Australia opened its doors, if not its arms, to large-scale European migration after WWII, but always on the understanding that these “new Australians” would leave their histories and cultures behind and assimilate with the predominant “British Australian” population.

A question of leadership

It was not until the Whitlam government (1972-1975) that immigration was celebrated, as a matter of government emphasis, for its diversity and cultural enrichment and it was the Fraser government (1975-1983) that formalised and entrenched multiculturalism as a feature of Australian life, including the infusion of other “races”.

As well as increasing Australia’s immigration intake, with an 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.

Fraser’s point has always been that if he had relied on popular opinion or focus groups neither his refugee policy nor his admission of large numbers of Vietnamese and other Asians to Australia would have occurred.

Which returns us to 2014 and Australia’s mean-hearted asylum seeker policy.

While the current policy may be in accord with the popular mood and racist attitudes – and not just of the white Anglo population – it does not excuse the absence of leadership on the issue. In fact, such leadership is all the more urgent.

The onus falls on our political (and community) leaders to respond with humanity and compassion to the refugee crisis. The primary issue is not how many refugees Australia can or should take, but how we treat those who seek refuge. And the responsibility falls on our political leaders to engage with the wider population not just on the issue of asylum seekers, but on matters of race, tolerance and harmony.

It may or may not cost taxpayers more to treat asylum seekers with decency, respect and compassion, but it is costing the soul of the nation dearly to lock these people in faraway detention centres and throw away the key by way of “sending a message” to other would-be asylum seekers.

But that is not the only message this policy is sending, as retiring Liberal senator Sue Boyce notes: ”I think the whole asylum seeker issue is…fraught with dog whistling.”

It is plainly too late to expect leadership from Tony Abbott on asylum seekers; he is more mindful of hanging on to whatever electoral support he still has than any desire to take a principled stand. And it is too much to expect Abbott, or Shorten, to visit Bendigo and urge residents to pull their heads in and show some decency towards fellow citizens who wish to build a place of worship in their community: they lack both the moral authority and political courage for such action.

Gough Whitlam, Malcolm Fraser, Bob Hawke or Paul Keating would have made the trip to Bendigo as prime ministers. They would have done so for reasons of symbolism, but also because they believed in a certain Australia and were prepared to stand up for it. They would have appealed to people’s best natures; they would have occupied a platform with Islamic and other community leaders; they would have spoken with vision and clarity about Australia as a vibrant, welcoming, open democracy.

That’s how much politics – and political leadership – has changed in Australia in such a short time.

 

 

If George Megalogenis is an ‘ethnic commentator’, maybe we’re not as multicultural as we think

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.