Old and New Australia

I grew up in country Queensland and my family tree is about as ‘Old Australia’ as you can get, straight from the pages of Russel Ward’s ‘The Australian Legend’. My ancestor, John Watts, came to Australia in the 1840’s and by the 1860’s was a member of the first Queensland Parliament. Growing up, I was schooled with stories about our ancestors on the land and ancestors at Gallipoli. Listening to ‘Australia All Over’ on ABC Radio every Sunday, I quickly developed an uncomplicated love for what Australia represented; the myth of Australia as a new, egalitarian, country nation.

Jumping forward to my life in Melbourne, I live in Footscray in the Gellibrand electorate that I represent in Federal Parliament where two thirds of the community are either first or second generation Australians. That’s also true in my own home. My wife migrated to Australia from Hong Kong when she was in primary school, so my own children are simultaneously seventh generation Australians and second generation Australians. I think a lot about that, wanting my children to have just as passionate and uncomplicated love for Australia as I did. But when thinking about our history and about the nature of our institutions, it’s easy to see how my children could be excluded from a number of the things that I took for granted. The diaries and recorded achievements of my own ancestor, John Watts, were a talisman to my family, yet he was a member of a parliament that passed a series of extraordinarily discriminatory pieces of legislation; legislation that was designed to push the local Chinese community, now my community, to the outskirts of society. When looking at the forces shaping Australia in 1901 there is no getting around the fact that the desire for a ‘White Australia’ was a significant driving force behind the federation.

…my own children are simultaneously seventh generation Australians and second generation Australians. I think a lot about that, wanting my children to have just as passionate and uncomplicated love for Australia as I did.

For the Chinese Australian community these sentiments are recalled in a story about the opening of Australian Parliament in the Royal Exhibition Building in Carlton. Federation was, without doubt, a transformative moment of national identity for Australia; for Chinese Australians as it was for Anglo Australians. They thought this was the moment they would be recognised as equal members of the Australian nation. When the Parliament was due to be opened by the Duke and Duchess of Cornwall, the local Chinese community created a Chinese pagoda to welcome the royal couple with a sign ‘Welcome from the Chinese citizens’. They were situating themselves as citizens – as a part of this newly formed country. However, in the weeks following the parliamentary opening, the first piece of legislation passed was the Immigration Restriction Act of 1901, which formed the bedrock of the White Australia policy. That moment of national identity was used in a way that excluded a large portion of our population then and an even larger proportion today. So, with that historical backdrop in mind, and my own family too, I think a lot about the construction of national identity; what the imagined community of Australia is and who we think of when we think of Australians. My strong view is that national identity is politically constructed. It’s not purely an organic, evolving creation, but rather it’s something that flows from the way in which we talk about our national symbols and the way that our institutions, our leaders, our writers and our artists engage with the Nation.

Today, the Australian ideal holds up. I’m a strong believer in Australian exceptionalism; that we do it better here than anywhere else in the world. We do egalitarianism and we do multiculturalism better than any other country at a practical, grass-roots level. The problem is that we don’t then include the many faces of Australia when we imagine our nation or in the conceptualization of Australia that emerges from our shared stories. This national blind spot means that in the stories we tell, parts of our history end up being whitewashed.

An example is Billy Sing, who was a second generation Chinese Australian from central QLD. He was a cane cutter and a hunter, a man of the land. His upbringing was about as close to the Australian legend as you can get. He went on to become Australia’s most decorated sniper at Gallipoli, killing more enemy soldiers than any other ANZAC. Upon return he was briefly feted in his hometown but eventually died in relative obscurity and has been largely whitewashed from the collective cultural memory of Gallipoli in favour of more ‘local’ legends. You’d find a ten thousand Australians who know about Simpson and his donkey before you found one who knew Billy Sing.

Today, the Australian ideal holds up. I’m a strong believer in Australian exceptionalism; that we do it better here than anywhere else in the world.

John Wing is another example, a young Chinese Australian child living in the official White Australia of the mid 1950’s. John took it upon himself to write to the International Olympic Committee during the Melbourne Olympics suggesting that the athletes walk together in the closing ceremony rather than march separately. His suggestion was taken up, marked as a defining moment of the 1956 ‘friendly games’ and adopted at each Olympic Games since. This was a contribution to shaping our national identity, the egalitarian Australian spirit, that came from a young man who couldn’t, by law, be an Australian citizen at the time.

No less an Australian hero than Cathy Freeman has Chinese heritage. As indigenous communities in Queensland were pushed to the outskirts they inevitably intermingled with Chinese communities. Joe Byrne, from the Kelly Gang, grew up speaking rudimentary Cantonese as the Irish and Chinese goldminers knocked around in the same parts of country Victoria at the time. These are the stories that we don’t talk about when we imagine what it is to be Australian because we still have a conception of Australia built on the legend of the white man working the land. It doesn’t match with reality, but that’s the default conception we have.

The Australia we live in today, the New Australia, has seen extremely high levels of migration in recent decades, primarily from India and Asia. Some people get anxious about that and believe this will change Australia but the reality is there is nothing in a person’s DNA that ties them to a particular culture. Billy Sing and countless others show that when you drop people into Australia from anywhere in the world, it is they who change and become part of that Australian exceptionalism. They retain respect for their culture and traditions, but inevitably they buy into the great Australian egalitarianism. I see that first hand in my local communities where the 2nd generation and certainly the 3rd generation Australians are just as ocker as anyone else.

Again, when I look to my own electorate I see the intersection of cultures striving for that Australian ideal every day of the week. I see the local soccer club where Polish, Eritrean and Sudanese families from multiple generations of refugees unite within a club to build an entirely new culture.

While there is ample statistical evidence of migrants integrating into Australian society, our institutions still haven’t found a way to let them in at the highest levels. Our parliaments, the boards of our public companies, the executive levels of our public service, the management positions of our universities, our defence forces…in any of the institutions that could be conceived of as representing Australia you will see an underrepresentation of Asian Australians. Just below the executive level such as Senior Associate in a law firm or General Managers in industry, Asian people are prominent. But not at the leadership level. The bamboo ceiling, as Tim Soutphommasane calls it, is undeniable, yet I’m optimistic about our ability to remove that barrier for the very reason that New Australia isn’t seeking a change from Old Australia. The idea that we’re building something new in this country, something free from the hierarchies of the old world, where everyone can reach their full potential regardless of who their parents are, or what their religion is, are the very values that new Australians come to this country seeking. New Australians don’t want to change Australia they just want more people to be part of it!

Again, when I look to my own electorate I see the intersection of cultures striving for that Australian ideal every day of the week. I see the local soccer club where Polish, Eritrean and Sudanese families from multiple generations of refugees unite within a club to build an entirely new culture. I see the newly constructed Newport Mosque, designed in partnership between the local Imams and one of Australia’s leading architects Glenn Murcutt; a consciously and uniquely Australian mosque with verandas and wings that open and invite the community in, sliding doors that allow a cool breeze to blow through. And I see the local Indian community, who, as part of their charitable ‘Let’s Feed’ program, have just served their 250,000th breakfast to school children in the west who otherwise might not have had the start to the day that the rest of us take for granted.

Contributions from each of these communities easily leads one to a vision of Australia as a country that is better placed to thrive in the new world than perhaps any other nation on earth. We have the great blessing of the Westminster tradition and liberal democratic institutions, bequeathed to us from the British, but we also have a demographic profile that is perfectly placed to engage with the greatest growth engine in the world, in the Indo-Pacific region. To realise that vision, we need to confront the conception of what it means to be Australian head on and make sure it reflects the reality. I don’t see the conception of Australia as an esoteric or immaterial thing. The prism through which we see ourselves matters. Is that prism the Australia of 1901, of Edmund Barton, the White Australia Policy and Dukes and Duchesses of Europe or is it through the prism of the much greater nation that generations of Australians, old and new, have built over the past 100 years? I think I know the answer and it’s one that I’m willing to fight for to ensure that it’s recognised.