Team Australia

By September 15, 2014ABC, History, Media, Politics, Society

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.



Join the discussion 12 Comments

  • whyisitso says:

    Disappointing article, although it points to a fact that many, many Australians are either “ashamed to call themselves Australians”, or detest the notion that we have (or used to have) a set of values generally held by most of us (ie the general detestation, that I have also detected, that we no longer wish to be “one people”).

    Australia has become an island where there are multiple nationettes, populated by people with visions elsewhere and are either indifferent, or hostile, to the notion of “Australia”.

    I’m close to you in age Don, so my future years are quite limited in number. In some ways I feel that’s a good thing. I’m no doubt seen as a dinosaur in this land.

    I rather like visiting country areas, particularly non-coastal, where the feeling of the “old” Australia still exists.

    Your article does confirm my observations, and it fills me with despair.

    • Peter Kemmis says:

      I’m trying to visualise what Australian society would be today, had our substantial post-WW2 immigration not occurred. I suspect it would have been quite insular in social attitudes, wary of outsiders, and rather too self-opinionated. Like you, I do enjoy the “old Australia”, I think mainly because it is familiar, and often can remind me of my youth. Walking into an old general store that sells everything from kerosene lamps to milk buckets, is just absolutely delightful to me. Far more fun than walking into a hi-tech outlet of an electronics store chain. And quieter.

      But you will remember as well as Don and I, the general suspicion we had of those “wogs” and “dagoes” who’d run those greengrocer shops – but if we had the good fortune to have worked side by side with them, we’d have seen how hard they would work, and how much they were just like us. John O’Grady took the nom de plume of Nino Culotta in “They’re a Weird Mob” and other humorous stories. I still enjoy those books, because I did at one time work with people just like his characters. And liked them.

      Successful absorption of different cultures depends on several critical economic and social factors, such as available hosing and jobs, existing or acquired skills, community acceptance, support programs, and rates of immigration. But I would like to see considerably more effort placed on making very clear what are Australia’s social values, as Don brings out in his 4th and 3rd last paragraphs. I would also like to see greater encouragement of their integration into our communities; I have no ideas on how to limit the development of enclaves, which while providing mutual support to migrants, can all too readily foster division rather than unity within the broader community. Perhaps it is that division which appears to you, whyisitso, as a series of nationettes.

      I do not think multi-culturalism has worked well. We had this over-arching vision that each culture could retain and nurture its own distinct identity, within the broad umbrella of the Australian culture. It seems to have worked out with European, Indian and Sri Lankan migrants, but has taken longer with Asian migrants. Many of those from some African and Middle-Eastern countries come with a quite different perspective to the traditional Australian view of the role and status of women. Real tolerance of a different religious belief or of a secular position, is another point of real difference. Herein lies deep cultural conflict, and we should stop pretending it isn’t there.

      What I don’t want to see is a repeat of the stupid Protestant/Catholic divide that we inherited from the English-Irish conflicts of the 18th Century, that bedevilled this country through the whole of the 19th and a large part of the 20th – this time as a Christian/Muslim divide. We’d do well to get this out into the open now.

      • whyisitso says:

        Of course Italians used to also run fish’n’chip shops. I remember as a schoolboy regularly going into one of these (the McDonalds of my yoof), and asking for a “pis a flake an six a chips” – I was a Melburnian then.

        I went to a Catholic boys school, and we had a lot of Italian class mates. My best friend was Italian. His name was Angelo, but when I met him at a reunion about 10 years ago he had become “Jock”.

        Migrants in the post-war period fitted in very well with our culture. They played Aussie rules footy (and were extremely good at it – Sergio Silvagni, Tony Ongarello, and many others).

        Sure they were called dagoes, not always good-naturedly. Greek restaurants there were aplenty, but they never served Greek tucker – always very plain Ozzie dishes (mixed grills etc).

        My first ethnic meal was Chinese (chow-mein) which remember I really enjoyed.

        The fifties these days are viewed with contempt by the chattering classes. But it was a great decade, the first in my lifetime that had an air of optimism, after the great depression and WWII of the preceding two decades.

        • margaret says:

          whyisitso, I felt the same about the sixties, doesn’t the reason for optimism have a lot to do with being young? I see people who are the age I was then on the city streets, going about their daily lives now and note that they seem perfectly happy with the world we live in. They are young and they are adaptable.
          Meanwhile I find the tar and cement of big cities claustrophobic and long to see wide blue skies and the brilliance of starry nights in the country and ordinary friendly folk enjoying life outside the cities which they hold in contempt. A country childhood has a lot to do with this yearning I think.
          I went on holidays with my friend and her parents to Surfers Paradise in the sixties – every night for the ten days of the holiday my friend and I ate what we thought was the most exotic and delicious dish we had never before tasted. It was ravioli, in a dark, warm Italian restaurant with candles on checked tablecloths.
          Multiculturalism is not the problem – religion is – it’s religious attitudes and fundamentalism that divides people and oppresses them – even, as Peter K mentioned, protestantism versus catholicism in the first half of ‘respectable’ 20th century Australia.

          • DaveW says:

            Hi Margaret,
            I highly recommend living in the country, at least in Queensland. Starry skies with the Milky Way (and Magellanic Clouds) and dawns infused with bird songs are infinitely superior to street lights and traffic. I disagree about multiculturalism though. As currently practiced multiculturalism is really a kind of slavery for recent migrants – keep them from integrating and Labor can harvest them as likely voters. That is all it is – if the Coalition thought they could import more voters, then they would be welcoming the boats ashore. It won’t be until the second or third generation, once they’ve had a chance to make their own lives, that they will understand the importance of political freedom. (I say this as a first generation migrant).

          • margaret says:

            Where you live does sound beautiful DaveW. Well the friend I went to Surfers Paradise with had Hungarian jewish parents (I must say I also had wonderful meals at their home in Tamarama). It was an interesting era prior to the invention of the word multiculturalism – (Al Grasby had something to do with that I believe) – my friends parents had many many jewish friends but they themselves chose not to practice their religion and sent their children to anglican schools. They also named their children after Vivien Leigh and Leslie Howard from Gone With the Wind. The rich tapestry.

    • PeterE says:

      I agree. I once worked in the Department of Immigration. There were guidelines about who was eligible to enter Australia (based on who would fit in and put their shoulders to the wheel) and these were administered politely but firmly. Immigrants were ‘New Australians’. They came in a wonderful variety and were glad to be here. We gained much from them. Then came the ghastly phrase ‘multiculturalism’. (see post below). The idea of nationhood was devalued. The old values, though, are still very much there. You can’t destroy Australia. It just keeps rolling along. Treasure the old ways. Dump Gramsci-esque multiculturalism. Those who don’t want to join Team Australia should be invited to go to the country of their choice, the sooner the better.

    • Don Aitkin says:

      Since I like what you have written, and generally agree with it, I want to believe that you are disappointed because I haven’t shown that return to the past would be a good thing. Like you, I enjoy the distant bush, and greatly appreciated the few days we had in Innamincka recently, where you did feel close to the real roots of the country.

      But we can’t return to those days, and the general amenity of life today, for everybody, is a good deal better than it was. Of course, it comes with its own costs.

      My first Chinese meal, in 1954, was an ‘omelette’ (various bits and pieces with soy sauce and glued together with egg). And my first real dish of spaghetti bolognaise was in 1955. Until then, spaghetti came in tins with tomato sauce, and I tried a small can of it the other day — not good.

  • margaret says:

    Friends visiting from New Zealand told us last week that Team Australia may well have come from their country where John Key has used Team Key and Team NZ at various times.
    Not many recognise that PM Abbott is himself an immigrant albeit an Engilsh speaking one. No doubt his own family, as PM Gillard’s also, brought “histories, beliefs and habits that to some degree will seem odd or even discordant to the country’s citizens.”
    I have read that PM Abbott did not become an Australian citizen until his departure for Oxford to take up a Rhodes scholarship was imminent. Since his father settled on Sydney’s north shore and built up one of Australia’s largest orthodontic practices, whereas former PM Gillard’s father did not attend university and became a psychiatric nurse I think it is possibly evident that the nature of Australian society is set to be ideologically reframed.
    Neither of these occupations are of themselves better than the other – they both help people – but which of them helps the provider of the service the most?

    • dlb says:

      Margaret, I think few people in previous generations got into jobs for altruistic reasons, they were doing the best they could with limited education and training.

      I have no idea why Abbott’s father became an orthodontist , perhaps he originally started off in some lowly job, then managed to get to University? Perhaps he came to Australia to escape the class system and find better opportunities here? But I could be wrong, he could come from a privileged background, but does it matter? Many business people may be rich but be time poor for their families.

      Speaking of Team Australia, one of the things I have noticed is that many people from the UK seem to carry this class baggage. I don’t know if it is all that important for those born here, let’s hope so.

      • margaret says:

        No, it doesn’t matter dlb – I admit to bias towards the former woman PM and prejudices against the current one. Some of it is cemented by pure anecdote. For example just meeting by accident a melbourne sculptor outside his warehouse and admiring his work on the footpath. A conversation ensued where he described the seminary that the current PM attended giving him catering duties at one stage during his training (to teach him humility perhaps). According to this man the trainee priest (I’m scared of section 18c), ensured that everyone higher than him was served their meal (not by him obviously, but by his “team” (haha) – in a dining situation but everyone below him in (rank? importance? – how do seminaries operate) was told to go to the kitchen and make their own arrangements.
        I know, that sounds SO … anecdotal and playing the man – but it was funny nonetheless.

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