When Tony Abbott first referred to the need for all of us to be part of ‘Team Australia’ one of my former colleagues noted that he felt like asking that he not be selected for the team. Quite a few people seemed to agree, and by and large public opinion has not swung the PM’s way. Now that we are involved in hostilities again in Iraq (and elsewhere, no doubt) it will be somewhat harder to speak against the metaphor, even though we are once again in a conflict that has no exit strategy nor, as far as I can see, any clear sense of what victory might mean and how we would know if we had reached it.
I’ll set all that aside for another post at another time, and return to the original reason for ‘Team Australia’ — the need to enjoin the Muslim community, especially those recently arrived, to leave their former sectarian animosities behind now that they are in the world’s best and most prosperous country, as Mr Abbott proclaimed over the weekend.
I don’t know who thought up the Team metaphor, but it is far too blunt to be useful in what is a subtle and difficult process. Nor do I think the PM is the right person to take charge of the process. He has trouble in speaking publicly, grinding out sentences in a voice that lacks nuance, accompanied only with repeated chopping actions with his hands. That can be useful from time to time when you’re the Leader of the Opposition, but not when you’re PM, and speaking to everyone as the elected leader of the whole nation.
The real problem is that all immigrants to a new country, no matter how desperately they wanted to get there, will bring with them histories, beliefs and habits that to some degree will seem odd or even discordant to the country’s citizens. But these values cannot change overnight: the new arrivals need the comfort and security of fellow immigrants from their part of the world, they will tend to live close together, if only because the right shops, meeting venues and religious places will be there for them. They will form a community, and it will have spokespeople, and we will see them on television.
The children of the new arrivals will learn English and new habits when they go to school, and their grandchildren will be a further stage distant from those who came from the old country. The great grandchildren will be indistinguishable from the society at large, and the society at large will long ago have shifted to accommodate some of the immigrants’ values. We are talking about a process that will go on for fifty to a hundred years.
Australian history demonstrates all this in abundance, and there have been times in the past when one or other group of immigrants has been effectively demonised, as were Croatian immigrants in the 1970s. Not only that, some of the immigrants, and some of their children, who find it hard to assimilate into the new society, can find a lucrative living through crime, as was true for a time with the Vietnamese. But the Vietnamese now can display a large proportion of professionals, especially doctors. Greeks were once at the bottom of the immigrant ladder; not any more, they include some of Australia’s wealthiest people.
I don’t know that it would have been much good for the PM to go down this path, but it is the path that our society has developed and explored over the past hundred years. In my view, it has given us an exceptionally interesting and pleasant society compared to the one I grew up in during and after the second world war.
But I think that what I have written above ought to be the centre of the message that the Australian Government provides to new arrivals and to the organisations that represent them. One could go further. If it is the case that many new arrivals are fixated on decent wages, social services and security, we need to explain also that this is a secular society that allows freedom of religion, and freedom to have no religion. It insists that girls are not the property of their fathers or husbands, but have the same validity as people that men have.
Immigrants may wish to preserve their own values in these two respects, but in this country, our values have the force of law, and they must be respected. I could add other matters, like free, compulsory and secular public education, or that dress forms are a matter for individual decision. None of this is easy stuff, and there will be battles between immigrant families and the wider society, and within immigrant families as well. Nor is it clear to me who should be advancing these views from within the Australian Government.
In the long run, however, the outcome is a better society for everyone. Australia, like Canada, has both benefited from, and learned a great deal from, its 20th century experience of admitting people from other countries who have the right to become citizens in due time. I do not want to see that process terminated, or jeopardised by a hard line with our Muslim community.
Yes, there are risks associated with the return of young men who went off to fight in somebody else’s war. But that has also happened in the past — and it is a risk that has to be run. Running that kind of risk in the interests of a better society is what distinguishes democracies from other kinds of political systems.