Part 6 transcript

Phillip Adams:

I’m very glad you raised the refugee issue, Andrew.  And I want to return to it while we have a discussion up here amongst ourselves before I open it to questions from the floor.

In the last months of the Keating government, COAG organised a committee to report back to them on how Australia should celebrate the rapidly approaching centenary of federation and a team of us was sent around Australia to talk to people about what made them proud to be an Australian.  What was it about Australia that was worth celebrating?  Well to my astonishment, nobody, not even the RSL or the Country Women’s Association opposed the republic.  They all saw it somewhat fatalistically perhaps as an inevitability.  Let’s sign off on it and get on with the rest of our lives.  There was also a widespread agreement, I think once again a unanimous agreement that we should be doing something to formally celebrate reconciliation.  So I kept pushing all the people we spoke to, all the organisational representatives, the Lord Mayors, the State Premiers, and anyone else who came in to talk to us, what was it that made you proud to be an Australian?  In other words, get them to identify the social glue that they felt defined us.  And without exception, everyone spoke of tolerance.  It was the most astonishing thing to hear.  I thought, are these people totally deluded?  We live in a nation that was built on White Australia.  We lived in a nation which I’d experienced as a series of cycles of bigotry, as every new refugee group came to this country or immigration group came to this country.  But there it was.  Now, you’ve made it quite clear Andrew, that we’re not in fact bathed in the honey of tolerance.  But these people were not stating it as an ambit claim, they were stating it as a given.  How do you react to that Rai Gaita?  To the belief that Australians have, and this was in defiance of One Nation and the various catastrophes that befell us between that date and the centenary of federation.  How do you rationalise or understand this conviction?

Raimond Gaita:

Do you mean the gap between the conviction and the reality?

Phillip Adams:

How do people argue so passionately that they are tolerant and how can they argue that it’s central to our national identity?

Raimond Gaita:

Well, it’s certainly central to their conception of their national identity, so that’s why they would argue that.  How come they don’t see the discrepancies between what they believe and what the case is?  Well, it’s at least in part because there’s a lot of truth also to what they say.  I have another story that I often tell people in England when they ask what it is about Australia that I really care for and it was when a friend of mine, Dinny O’Hearn, who’s probably known to many people here, he’s certainly known to you.  When he died the funeral was at Newman Chapel in Melbourne and my wife and I arrived late and we sat on the steps outside and the then Foreign Minister of Australia came and maybe I just didn’t notice, but he didn’t seem to have an entourage, and he just sat on the steps near to us.  But what really struck me about it was not that he sat on the steps, but he sat on the steps as though there was nothing else for him to do.  What else should he do but sit on the steps?  And he wasn’t a Foreign Minister known for his modesty.  It was in fact Gareth Evans.  And I couldn’t think of another country than Australia where a Foreign Minister would take it as a matter of course that he would sit on the steps because he was late.  So there are those realities.  And people notice them and to some degree they respond to them.  And then they have motivated reasons, psychological reasons, all sorts of other reasons for denying the reality that is of a kind that Andrew was pointing to.

But it’s not all myth, this idea that it’s an extraordinarily tolerant country.  And I certainly know from my immigrant background how much the immigrants that I knew as a child valued the tolerance they had encountered here compared to the bitter hatreds that had turned apart Europe. 

Phillip Adams:

Marilyn, you recently won the Prime Minister’s prize with Henry Reynolds for drawing the global colour line in which you contextualised Australian bigotries and gave them a global setting.  But I put the same proposition to you.  How do you read the paradox of Australians being convinced of their tolerance versus the reality?

Marilyn Lake:

Yes, well I agree with what Raimond said to the extent that they believe that because that tradition is really strong in Australia.  I mean, there’s a really strong tradition as I said, of commitment to equality that goes right back into the nineteenth century and when groups who were  excluded from that fought for inclusion, they always fought in the name of equality.  And I think, as I said, I think that’s one of our great traditions.  So it’s not surprising that when Australians are asked about what they are most proud of or what they love about Australia, I mean, tolerance is not equality, but there’s a relationship there and I guess that in the link that you made with drawing the global colour line, the White Australia policy, one of the aspects of that that people lose sight of, and I stressed in my talk, it was about equality and exclusion, you know, the two went together and we tend to remember the exclusion part but we don’t tend to remember the equality part that underpinned it.

Phillip Adams:

Ghassan Hage, I have also lived long enough to notice that Australian nationalism, a work in progress, constantly being modified in response to change in realities, that every wave of migrants are resented at the time, but once they fit in, the Italians, the Greeks etc, then the new Australians defend the status quo against the next wave of immigrants.  You must notice this constantly.

Ghassan Hage:

I’ll just quickly say something about Australian tolerance and that is that while there is a tradition of Australian tolerance, there is also a tradition of essentialising and using, that is you construct the Australian as essentially tolerant, which means even though we are intolerant now, don’t worry about it, because we’re really tolerant.  And I think the Howard era was full of this ideology whereby, look, just be nasty, don’t worry about it because we’re really good, and no matter how nasty we are, it doesn’t matter, because we’re really good.  And so there’s one thing about what we are and another about what we use what we are and I think one of the things about the history of migration in Australia is that migrants develop a sensitivity towards both what Australians are and how they use what they are sometimes in a racist way.

Phillip Adams:

Rai, the Sydney Olympics coincided more or less to the hour with the centenary of Federation, and you’re sitting up there watching the people come in behind the flags and you realise that many of those nations, quite a few, hadn’t existed at the time of the Melbourne Olympics and that some of the nations that had been at Melbourne no longer existed.  Now, we live in a world which, as you pointed out, where nationalism is under a barrage from various manifestations of globalising.  Look at Europe, the national barriers are coming down, there’s a common Europe.  There’s a lot of agreements on central tenets of human rights for example.  Surely the intensification of nationalism on the one hand is enormously offset by the yielding, the giving up, of national identity on the other. 

Raimond Gaita:

Yeah, I don’t know what the outcome will be of that, but it’s pretty alarming the way in which Europe is now experiencing a resurgence of really ugly forms of nationalism, despite all the talk about the European Union and so on.  My basic thought is the one that I expressed, which is it seems to be that certain kinds of feelings of belonging that are just contingently historically as a matter of fact expressed in nationhood are not going to go away.  And it certainly has been my experience of always feeling my sympathies to be on the left, that whenever there’s a really nasty outbreak of nationalism, and certainly when it has terrible consequences like in a war and people are massacred and so on, there’s a lot of thinking, a lot of breast-beating and then as soon as that goes, people stop thinking about this.  So part of my plea has been, since this is not going to go away, that we have to think very, very hard about the ways in which we might prevent ugly forms of nationalism, well, the instinct for love of country and the kind of instinct that Ghassan was talking about actually, from becoming one good kind of thing as opposed to one vicious kind of thing, because it’s here despite all the talk about the death of the nation state, it’s here to stay for a very long time.  And armies are here to stay for a very long time.  And there’s no reason to think that Australians won’t be caught up in all sorts of wars, and therefore the plea I made is we have to strengthen our allegiance to a sense of the community, the nations of the world being a community through our allegiance to international law. 

Phillip Adams:

Before I open up to questions from the audience, I want to come back to you Andrew and … you got quite forensic in your discussion of racial attitudes in Australia, looking at the poll figures, and I seem to recall you saying that there hasn’t been a profound change during the decades it’s been measured. 

Andrew Markus:

No, like one very significant change obviously is that the racial ideas that underpinned the White Australia Policy and the affirmation of those which were very strong in the 1950s and 1960s, they’re no longer with us today.  Interestingly the current debates that are going on about population are not about ethnicity, they’re about numbers.  And that actually marks quite a significant departure.  But as for the distribution of intolerance and tolerance within a community, that hasn’t changed very much. 

Phillip Adams:

Ladies and gentlemen, there is a microphone here which I would like you to approach and use.  It’s not often you get four people up here as bright as this bunch, so if you could come forward and ask questions and while you do that, the social glue in the United States Rai, doesn’t seem to be particularly adhesive at the moment.  Here’s a nation which suddenly seems on the brink of catastrophe, becoming ungovernable.  To some extent, one can sense a potential for the same problems here.

Raimond Gaita:

I doubt that.  But I pass on that.  My instinct is is that’s not the case.  I’m a philosopher, not a social scientist but I can’t imagine that.

Phillip Adams:

Even the One Nation phenomenon, you didn’t think presaged something like this.

Raimond Gaita:

No, no.  Not the way in which you get such radical division.  I was in the States when Bush was elected, the second time, at a conference and it was the mostly liberals on the left, and they were all wanting to go to Canada … you don’t get that kind … I didn’t hear of Australians really wanting to leave Australia when Pauline Hanson was around.

Phillip Adams:

They wanted others to leave.  Sir.

Dean:

Hi, my name’s Dean, I’m a student here, but I was wanting to ask though about a lot of the equivocation.  I think that a number of speakers have answered in the yes or no fashion that Marilyn Lake described, but most of the things people have been talking about are examples more recently the attacks on refugees and asylum seekers and all the rest, but we’ve mentioned White Australia, we’ve mentioned the racism towards immigrants that’s been a feature fairly constantly of Australia.  You think about how Japan was depicted during the Second World War and everything.  How do you reconcile that?  You’ve answered yes and no about whether Australian nationalism is a problem, yet the overwhelming bulk of examples people have given is an overwhelming problem distinctly tied up with racism.  It seems to me that, you know, that there’s an attempt going on not to throw the baby out with the bathwater in a sense, but the bulk of what people have said has proven that the baby wasn’t in the bath in the first place, to ruin the analogy.

Phillip Adams:

Are you a fence sitter in that sense, Marilyn?

Marilyn Lake:

I think you want to answer that don’t you?  You were reaching forward.  Well, yes, you said the examples we’ve talked about such as refugees, racism, exclusions, tend to argue a case for nationalism being a problem.  But, we have all talked about what binds people together, and I mean I talked about also, if you like, the good positive things that come out of people feeling that they’re bound together as a nation such as Australia being a very progressive welfare state, and I linked that quite crucially to that sense of oneness and that sense of nation.  So, what more can one say?  I think that nations are for good and for ill.

Phillip Adams:

Andrew …

Andrew Markus:

There’s always an issue of what you measure yourself against.  What does a tolerant society look like?  What does a tolerant society score?  I always make the point that no country gets ten out of ten on that.  What Australia does, it gets like three and a half out of ten.  And when we look around the world and we find so many countries struggling to get up to one out of ten, it doesn’t do so badly.  So, for example, the previous government sought to take us very much along the path of the free market and then what happened in the last election?  The Rudd Labor government was elected.  With regard to refugees, we have a program which admits thirteen to fourteen thousand people every year under its humanitarian intake.  That’s not to be lightly dismissed.  We have a situation where we have over half a million overseas students in this country.  So when you talk about the intolerance etc in that context, the surveys indicate that eighty percent or more of those students are very happy to be in Australia.  So sure, there’s negatives, but negatives have to be seen in the broader context.  And the huge challenges that this society’s facing and the way that this society has responded to those challenges, many of us, all of us would like to see us scoring ten out of ten.  We’re not.  Because that is not achievable. 

Phillip Adams:

A comment, Rai?

Raimond Gaita:

Well I don’t think I was equivocating on this because I wasn’t in fact talking about it.  When I was first invited I misread the whole thing and I thought it was about nationalism and I didn’t realise until the other day that it was about Australians.  But it’s not as though was I was saying was irrelevant either because any discussion about nationalism in any country now … I mean, there are big discussions especially because of the outbreak of really nasty forms of nationalism in Europe, as to what we should value in nationalism or whether we should value it at all, so that is what I was talking about.  I think there was a terrible aggressive nationalism in Australia during the Howard years.  It’s by no means as visible now.  I don’t believe it’s gone away.

Phillip Adams:

Before we headed off on COAG to ask these questions of Australians, I rang David Malouf, and I said: “David, what will people say?”  And he said: “Well, one of the things they will do is they will talk to you about the landscape as though it was a great metaphor for freedom, as though there was a sort of eucalyptic democracy.”  And he was right.  When I asked people what made them proud to be an Australian, before they came out with “tolerance” there was “I love a sunburnt country, a land of sweeping plains” protestation.  And I think that’s unusually Australian.  I suppose the United States has it as well.  Isn’t that right Marilyn?

Marilyn Lake:

Yeah, I think the United States … it’s central to its culture, on the road again.  You know, the road movies, I think the culture is all about its freedom.  And that’s actually, I guess, what the German journalist was picking up on, that we had the same narratives, the same cultural narratives, yeah.

Phillip Adams:

Except that one has a dead skunk on the road, and the other a dead kangaroo.

Marilyn Lake:

I love that story.

Phillip Adams:

Madam. 

Sue Turnbull:

Sue Turnbull, La Trobe University.  Given the obvious need for the long weekend, and given the need to re-imagine Australian nationalism and ideas of belonging, I wonder if the members of the panel would like to nominate a new national holiday and what it would be.

Phillip Adams:

A very, very coming question.  Rai, let’s start with you.

Raimond Gaita:

I didn’t hear it.

Phillip Adams:

Nominate a new Australian …

Marilyn Lake:

Imagine a new national day.

Raimond Gaita:

Oh no, well, I agreed with at least the suggestion that Marilyn was making, that we might be like the States and have many days, rather than the one day.  I think that’s the best.

Phillip Adams:

Your view?

Andrew Markus :

Well obviously I can’t, such as Martin Luther King and people will all have their nominations, but a couple of figures like that who basically work their lives to improve society, improve community, improve their groups within that society.  If we had those people on it, it would not be a bad thing.

Phillip Adams:

Marilyn?

Marilyn Lake:

Well, I’ve already said my bit.  But, yes, I’ve been thinking about this a lot.  And I was saying before this session actually that you can do research so easily these days and I’ve also googled and looked up Wikipedia for national days in other countries, and it’s extremely interesting to think about national days.  And of course, most places that have been colonies, all former colonies will have an Independence Day, you know, whether it’s the United States or Latin American countries or India or African countries … and then of course if they’ve changed from an imperial or monarchical order to a republic they’ll have a Republican Day, such as Turkey actually does, or France, for example.  So, yeah, I think though now, at this moment, it should be pluralistic, but how now is that?

Ghassan Hage:

I think one of the issues to think about is not alternative dates, I think to think about an alternative nationalism is to think about celebrating ambivalence.  It is like, it’s about how to be proud and guilty at the same time.  And be able to live with both, so it’s about celebrating Australia Day and the fact that it was Invasion Day.  It’s this ability to do both that will be really radical.

Phillip Adams:

Three cheers for mixed emotions.  Sir?

Audience member:

Given that Rai alluded to the disturbing outbreaks of rampant nationalism in Europe, and the way in which our own Australian has xenophobically sensationalised the issue of the asylum seekers in recent times, surely we need to be asking ourselves questions about the overly monopolised nature of the media and the kind of vested interests that control a lot of public debate in this country.

Phillip Adams:

I think we’ll prolong the discussion for another hour to deal with that topic.  Because you’re dead right, it certainly deserves an airing.  We’ve got time for one more question.  Sir?

Paul Ramus:

Hello.  My name is Paul Ramus.  Before I ask my question I just wanted to say in relation to Marilyn Lake’s commentary, that this is an anecdote, Queen Victoria almost didn’t sign our national constitution when she saw the word “Commonwealth” in it. 

Marilyn Lake:

It had republican connotations.

Paul Ramus:

Now, what might not be apparent to the panel is that I’m an Australian born of Greek descent, my surname doesn’t sound so Greek of course, but it has occurred to me over the past few years that this country, unlike maybe some in Europe, doesn’t have a national surname, so to speak, or a national dish in that sense.  To use the tennis anecdote, Hewitt, Dellacqua, Tomic.  So the question is, can we really talk about an Australian nationalism, given how multicultural we are now?

Phillip Adams:

Wash your mouth out.  You used the word, the term we no longer mention, in  multiculturalism.  Panel?

Ghassan Hage:

I think the search for nationalism is always a search for distinction.  It’s not necessarily to be, to find something ?? [85.03].  I mean, I work in comparative racism and I’ve done field work with David Duke and like, real white racists, I’ve done field work with the followers of Lapin in France, I’ve done field work with the anti Nazis.  And I would say that Australian racism has a specificity which is a national specificity.  So it’s not necessarily … I mean, you don’t have to think of nationalism as being englobing glorification or anything.  But I think when you look at Hansonite sensitivity, there’s an element of egalitarianism if you like in Australian racism which you won’t find in other racism.  So nationalism creeps in as a mode of distinction in all kinds of cultural forms.

Phillip Adams:

I think we’ll wrap it.  I congratulate the panel in being so tolerant of each other’s views.  And would you be kind enough to give them a round of applause.  And finally, let me thank La Trobe University, are you there Robert Manne?  For organising this event.  It’s been a privilege to attend it.