Sometimes a particular question or comment can stick in your mind. Last year on Q&A (an Australian talk-show), an audience member expressed concern that the character of Australia was changing because of the number of immigrants who did not speak English. She felt that her seven-generations of family and Australian history had been pushed aside and asked how we ensure the Aussie spirit and culture that made this country great is not lost?
By implication, the questioner placed her family’s history, and others’ like her family, above the First Australians and migrants who contributed so much to Australia’s prosperity. I was perplexed as to what it was about the Aussie spirit and culture that made Australia great? Do they really go together? Here are a few suggestions that I came up with.
The first thing that sprung to mind is that we have great beaches. Apparently, they are up there with the best beaches in the world. Unfortunately, I don’t think our Aussie spirit or culture made the beaches great, although it is possible that the beaches did influence the Aussie spirit and culture. So while we continue to have good beaches, then maybe our Aussie beach culture won’t be lost?
The second thing that sprung to mind is that Australia is a country rich in natural resources. There have been several times in our history when Australia has benefited from a resources boom. For example, during the global financial crisis, the continued development of the Chinese economy and the associated demand for Australian resources, as well as unrelated government infrastructure spending, provided a soft landing for the Australian economy. I’m not sure that the Aussie spirit or culture had much to do with Australia’s good fortune. It struck me as more good luck than good planning.
Well it must be the Aussie spirit of mateship then? It’s great, mate! We are there for one another through thick and thin, even while we take the piss out of each other. It’s the Aussie spirit — the enduring ANZAC spirit — that was first forged during conflict and hardship on the shores of Gallipoli. Meanwhile on the home front, that spirit of mateship can also be represented by the continuing cuts to foreign aid, because we need to care for our own first. Or perhaps, it is best illustrated by the time the wheel-nuts locked on my car, and my car spun out of control up an embankment at 100ks an hour, whereupon a dozen cars drove past, failing to provide assistance. The only people who stopped to help me were an ex-pat American couple. Well, they could speak English so it figures. Or maybe it’s best illustrated by the time I tripped and fell flat on my face in the carpark, right next to a parked car with the driver inside and that driver then proceeded to drive around me so he could exit the carpark. Clearly the driver could not speak English otherwise he would have stopped to help me, right?
I could go on, but I’m sure you get my point. Proficiency in English does not guarantee that you are a decent human being. There are kind and gracious people in all cultures. I really think it is time that we Aussies stopped falling for our own advertising.
Yes, the ethnic and cultural make-up of our country is changing. But, people’s attitudes and views are influenced by a broader range of factors than just culture, like their education, their income, their view of their social status, their upbringing, whether they live in the city or the country, how much exposure they have had to people of other cultures, etc. Notwithstanding this, there will be a clash of cultures from time to time as Aussies from different ethnic backgrounds learn from one another. The question is can we, all Australians, work together with goodwill to reconcile our differences within the constraints of the law?
I appreciate that there are forces at work that make people anxious. Our income/wages have declined in real terms, the casualization of the workforce continues unabated, our GDP per capita has declined and people feel, not unsurprisingly, that they are worse off. Infrastructure development has been inadequate to cope with population growth, which has largely been driven by immigrants and temporary residents. However, it is unfair to blame people, who have applied and been accepted as residents, for these pressures. This is a broader issue of the appropriateness of government policy.
Each of us should examine our conscience about how we treat people of different cultures. And while we are at it, we should be big enough to pay tribute to all those migrants, as well as the First Australians, who we often treated appallingly, and yet without whom Australia would not be as strong and vibrant as it is today. We should also not take every suggestion for historical clarification as a personal affront, or as a re-writing of history.
I think we owe it to ourselves to decide what sort of country we really want to be. Do we want to be a compassionate or a racist one? If we value compassion over fear, we should definitely call out racism and xenophobia when we see it. I recall the occasion when my husband and I went to the local supermarket wearing our ‘ethnic’ clothing that we had worn to a folk festival. We got ‘the look’. If that is all it takes, then god help us! I think we are braver than that. At least, I hope so.