Part 3 transcript

Belinda Probert:

Thank  you very much Henry, and he’s set a very good example, exactly 15 minutes,  tick. The (laughing) ... our second speaker is John Hirst who many of you will  know, who was until recently reader at La Trobe University and widely regarded  as one of Australia’s pre-eminent political historians, his books include,  Convict Society and its Enemies, The Strange Birth of Colonial Democracy, The  Sentimental Nation and Sense and Nonsense in Australian History. John (audience  clapping).

John Hirst:

Well  I begin by agreeing with Henry, you’ll see some disagreements as we go along  and in our discussion at the end, we can have more explicit exchange I hope,  about those. So, definitely Australia at its foundation in 1901, was a racist  nation. Its policy was to include ... exclude non-white immigrants and its  sense of identity was tied closely to whiteness. White Australia was the  national slogan, which was seen as the way to make the nation healthy, pure and  progressive.

The White Australia policy was abandoned in  the 1960s and from the 1970s Australia widened its larger scale migration  program to include all peoples of the world, without distinction of race. If  there are still people who argue that Australia is a racist nation, they will  have to concede that it is less racist than it was. I think it’s wise to regard  racism not as a fixed entity, in societies and in individuals its strength and  form vary according to time and circumstance. A person may not be a racist in  Melbourne but transferred to a country town where there are Aborigines leaving  in a degraded way, they well may become racist.

Let’s continue with comparisons. Australia  is obviously a less racist nation than Malaysia. In the 1970s, just as  Australians were moving to accept Chinese as migrants, Malaysia moved to remove  the Chinese from the prominence they had in business and in the professions,  which they did so by discriminating in favour of the Malays. The Chinese  accepted this legal discrimination as preferable to having their persons and  property attacked in communal riots, to which the Chinese are also liable in  Indonesia and East Timor. Malaysian racism was to the advantage of Australia,  because some of the Chinese came here to get a university education and a  secure place in the professions. In Australian medicine, as you all know the  Chinese and then the Vietnamese are very prominent. Australia is a less racist  nation than Fiji, where the native Fijians stage military coups if it looks  like the Indians are going to gain some power. It is less racist than Germany  where Turkish migrants, after three generations cannot gain German citizenship  which depends on German ancestry, the social democrats were planning to change  this, I’m not sure that they succeeded. It is less racist than Italy, where all  gypsies are to be finger printed. In fact in Australia, all forms of racial  discrimination are outlawed and closely policed. But we live with the legacies  of White Australia, it is remembered against us in Asia which we have to bear,  even when our Asian critics are in no positions to throw stones.

The racism of White Australia made the  exclusion and oppression of the Aborigines much worse. As owners of the land  the Aborigines had to be cast aside to make European settlement possible but  the very existence of Aborigines, however small their numbers, was a threat to  the purity of the white race, which became the national ideal late in the 19th  century. So, Aborigines lost their civil rights and their lives were closely  controlled. These oppressions and humiliations were suffered by those  Aborigines mostly of mixed blood who lived in the settled parts of the country.  Whatever inducements are now held out to them to join Australian society, some  of them are not interested in doing so, their sense of identity as Aborigines  lies in they’re not being like us and who can blame them? When sympathetic  outsiders see Aborigines still living on the margins, they conclude that white  racism must still be operating. The problem is, rather that generosity, good  will, government spending of the last 30 years cannot quickly overcome the  effects of past racism. With Aborigines in the outback still on their own land  and following some traditional ways, the situation is complex in a different  way. Many of these societies are dysfunctional as a result of the antiracism  policies of the last 30 years. Equal wages made Aboriginal labour less  attractive in the outback, Aborigines received the dole on a permanent basis  without having to look for work while having little or nothing to do, they regained  the right to drink. Fortunately there are now Aboriginal leaders who  acknowledge how destructive these policies have been but traditional life and  practices themselves stand in the way of Aborigines enjoying the same standard  of health as the rest of the population. If Aborigines attribute illness and  misfortune to the sorcery of their neighbours, they will not take the  precautions that we do.

Recently there was a report highlighting  the extent of blindness and eye disease in the Aborigines. The common first  response is to claim the government should be doing more but Peter Sutton, now  an honest anthropologist, pointed out that the chief problem is not lack of  government programs but the failure of Aborigines to keep their faces clean and  to follow prescribed medication. Western standards of health, require our  Western ways of health maintenance, this is a truth that needs to be  acknowledged by those who think that white racism alone explains Aboriginal  disadvantage.

I have been assuming that White Australia  is long gone, you’ve already heard from Henry and I’m sure you’ll hear from  Ghassan that they think it is not gone. They and many other commentators see a  revival of White Australia sentiment in the Howard government’s policies to  protect the nation’s border and the widespread support for them. The asylum  seekers arriving by boat were non-whites, Iraqis and Afghanis, but the  government which stopped them coming was at the same time bringing into the country black African refugees at  public expense and making the usual provisions to settle them into Australian  society. The notion that the Australian government and people have turned  xenophobic or racist is absurd, given the maintenance and continuing public  support for a massive immigration and refugee program operating on a non-racial  basis. Border protection, is that, the protection of the border, so that  migration can continue as a scheme controlled by the government. Having stopped  the unauthorised arrivals, the Howard government actually increased the rate of  authorised migration, it almost doubled, this is something the critics of the  Howard government have difficulty in recognising, let alone explaining.

The migration program started just after  the Second World War, has been a great success. Migrants and their families  have generally done well and by no means constitute an underclass, the role  predicted for them by left wing critics of the scheme. Integration of migrants  has proceeded apace with few lasting residential enclaves and a high degree of  intermarriage. Of course there has been some communal tension and racist  hostility; it would be silly to assume that there would be none. One way to  avoid tension and hostility is to keep the nation homogenous, homogenous sorry  and not have a migration program; most countries do not have a migration  program. Australia has set itself a very severe test of its tolerance by  running a program which has resulted in its having the highest proportion of  its people born outside the country, of all nations on earth except Israel.  Recently three experts on Australian immigration, Andrew Marcus, James Jupp and  Peter McDonald produced a book which includes a rating of Australian level of  tolerance, compared with other peoples. Australians rate very high, that is they  are a very tolerant people, there is only a small proportion of the people who  are actively intolerant towards migrants. There is also only a small proportion  at the other end of the spectrum, those who are positively tolerant and want  the government to support the maintenance of migrant cultures. The authors  appear to regard the smallness of this last category with regret, to me it is  another indication of social health. The key test of our social health as a  immigrant nation is the nature of the response when nasty incidents of racial  hostility occur, which fortunately happens only rarely. Take the Cronulla riot,  the police to their great credit, protected the Lebanese which is what we would  expect but does not always happen. Small as this event was in the league of  communal rioting, there was widespread dismay that such an event should occur,  immediately there were efforts to bring the Lebanese and the SKIP lifesavers  together, soon we were presented with the image of a Lebanese, Muslim girl  kitted out as a lifesaver including headscarf.

The great challenge is not to explain the  persistence of racism in Australia, which is weak and controllable, but how a  formerly racist nation has run such a successful migration program. Here in brief, is my attempt to explain this miracle; you  will notice that it does ... does not depend on finding any extraordinary  virtue in the Australian people. The great program, begun after the war was a  government initiative, which for the first time included Europeans and not simply  Britons. The non-British were meant to constitute only 10% of the intake but  the first migrants under the scheme were displaced persons from the war,  Europeans not British. The scheme was heavily promoted as necessary to build up  Australia’s population which was then only seven million, so the migrants did  not simply arrive or be reluctantly accepted as an obligation, the program was  part of nation building, necessary to defend Australia against the Asian hordes.  So, the appeal to Australians was to their self-interest, a more reliable  support than benevolence. The trade unions, suspicious of any migrants as a  threat to jobs, were promised that migrants would work at award wages, which in  a highly controlled economy was easily achieved. Contrary to expectation, the  post war economy boomed, so there could be no scare about migrants taking local  jobs. Migrants, fresh off the boat, speaking little or no English were at work  at Holden’s next day, at full award wages and though they probably did not know  it, they had also joined the union. The official protection of migrant earnings  meant that they were rapidly able to afford to buy a house and so join the  Australian mainstream, moving out within one generation from the initial  enclaves into suburbia at large. The early success of the scheme emboldened  governments to widen the countries from which migrants were drawn, after all of  Europe came Turkey and then the big jump in the 1960s to Asia. By this time,  the notions of differences in race had been totally discredited and Australia  was being damaged in its neighbourhood by the maintenance of the White  Australia policy. So, Australians were again told by their government that they  had to accept Asians.

The success of the migration scheme  depended in part on there being multiple sources of migration. Australia would  probably be a less cohesive society if all the migrants had come from one  country, with such a mixture of peoples, there was no question that only  English would be the official language. The downside ... downside of multiple  sources, is that Australia imported world enmities of greater intensity than  the Australian people feel towards any other race or people. I recall a Greek  student here telling me that when his mother saw on TV dead children being pulled  from earthquake ruins in Turkey, she cheered. Australians having been told  authoritatively that migrants were necessary, accommodated them by applying  their usual relaxed style of social intercourse. The test for membership of  this community are not goals difficult to achieve, like blood, breeding, wealth  or education but simply whether you fit in, are friendly and don’t make a fuss.  Not all migrants were happy with this chummy egalitarianism, but it was not  hostility. Racism is a strong force in human affairs, within the circumstances  I have outlined, some designed, some not, Australians were brought to set aside  racism and create our harmonious multiracial society. The puzzle is, why some  people in the face of this success think Australians have a particular problem  with racism. Thank you (audience clapping).