Community Integration and Universal Values

Politics, essentially, is about the expression of values. A large party like the Labor Party encompasses a number of different traditions, whereas smaller parties might draw on a single tradition, but whatever the case, we’re all driven by values.

…their values were Labor values; the view that every person has a fundamental right to dignity and to enjoy a life that allows them to develop their talents and be treated with the respect that all people deserve.

I was raised in a household where my mother had us quite young. She was nineteen when she had my brother and twenty-one when I was born. Later in life she went to university after earlier dropping out of high school, and became a speech pathologist with a PhD. Her speciality was treating the terminally ill. She helped people communicate through a painful period of their lives, those with motor neurone disease and other degenerative neurological illnesses. My father was a teacher who gave a generation of young people access to the world of music, particularly instrumental music. So through those family and life experiences the values I developed were ones of community supported by an active role for the public service in facilitating rich and dignified lives.

My grandparents, on my mother’s side, were committed Labor people. They were Party members for a significant period of time. In their older years they didn’t stay involved, but their values were Labor values; the view that every person has a fundamental right to dignity and to enjoy a life that allows them to develop their talents and be treated with the respect that all people deserve.

During my formative years (i.e. high school in the ‘80s) I followed the Asian immigration debates when John Howard, as leader of the opposition, raised the spectre of Asian immigration as an attack on, or threat to, Australian society. My aunt, who is not particularly political, is from Japan and hence I was mortified. I sensed that this was simple bigotry based on race. I also had a West Indian uncle who’s passed away, sadly, so the idea that people were somehow a threat because they were different was something that I rejected out of hand.

The struggle that exists within a community to look past fear of a different other and to embrace them as a fellow human being who deserves empathy and understanding and who reflects a common humanity, is the struggle against bigotry in all of its forms. If people are fearful of another person it’s much harder for them to empathise with the group that they fear. And fear usually has a grounding in a lived experience of some form, whether it’s something they’ve experienced themselves or something they’ve observed in the media. So it’s very important not to completely dismiss and delegitimise people’s fears, but rather to empathise with why they’re fearful, and seek to understand the underlying triggers. We must recognise that there is a reality in the risk of a terror attack, for example and there’s a reality of violent crime. These are things that exist in people’s lives.

A core element of what works in expanding the remit of empathy and understanding is contribution to society. When someone enters a society, the most natural thing in the world is to want to contribute and have a sense of belonging. People want to make a life for themselves and their family which by its nature involves something more than themselves; they want to have a place. Importantly, it works in the reverse too. When people see a newcomer contributing, someone who might look different and might have a different cultural background, they quickly accord them the right to belong, which is a complex moral construct but true. If you see a person who’s contributing you extend them the hand of friendship, and you quickly see them as part of the community.

When looking to develop an integrated multicultural society, one of the issues to guard against is the creation of a sort of mini-nationalism and a fragmentation of society into a mosaic of mini-nations.

Contributing can mean many things, it could be in creating wealth and employing people in a small business, it could be working professionally, it could be volunteering in a sporting or religious organisation or it could be through successfully raising a family and contributing at the local school. When people feel they’ve been able to contribute, they feel that society is welcoming them and that they belong and when people are contributing they are more readily accepted by the community.

When looking to develop an integrated multicultural society, one of the issues to guard against is the creation of a sort of mini-nationalism and a fragmentation of society into a mosaic of mini-nations. In contrast, we need to have underpinning universal values that unite people as well as a commitment from newcomers to those values. Universal values are things like the rule of law, a fair go for all and equality of opportunity. An underpinning value is that discrimination is never acceptable. And there’s also a communitarian value that we all should contribute. There’s an expectation in Australia that people should pitch in during a time of trouble, coming together to help each other.

One of the mistakes that can be made by the left, is a postmodern rejection of universal values. The left of politics should not shy away from asserting universal values within society because it’s precisely those values that are a prerequisite for diversity to flourish. It’s not an attack on anyone to assert that universal values underpin freedom and if the left doesn’t embrace universal values, such as patriotism, then they will be appropriated by the right for political purposes. Patriotism is love of country, so the progressive side of politics should be equally as patriotic as the conservatives. We should love the society we belong to and assert that the only reason we want to change things is because we want a better community.

Another issue that can’t be ignored is that some of the societies that migrants have left behind are not progressive in their views on women. There’s a tension in all societies between cultural practice and individual rights, but cultural tradition should never be a license for discrimination. The universal value that we treat women equally trumps the cultural values that come from societies that don’t treat women equally which is why I don’t support something like female genital mutilation as a cultural practice. It’s practiced in countries around the world, not usually tied so much to religion as culture. In this case I would assert the right of young girls not to be mutilated vastly outweighs any cultural tradition. We assert that value as an Australian value and not a particularly onerous one at that.

There will always be challenges in creating an integrated society. We don’t seek to ever get to the point where there is utopia and every social problem is fixed and that integration from people with different backgrounds is perfect, but we seek to create the circumstances in which most people will treat others with the dignity and respect that they’d like to receive themselves. We’re a very successful multicultural society comparatively, not perfect but certainly successful compared to many others. There are challenges and there are issues that require constant vigilance, but I remain optimistic because people are fundamentally much the same; they hope for a better future, they love their children, they want a life that is better for their kids than themselves and they want the opportunity to contribute and belong. For progressive politicians, creating a society that can enable them to do that is both our mission and our constant struggle.