Celebrating diversity on Australia Day


'Australia Day and Chinese New Year' by Chris Johnston shows a man dismissing a Chinese family from his property while a girl, presumably his daughter, allows a Chinese boy to climb under their back fenceThis week began with Australia Day and ends with the Chinese New Year. The juxtaposition suggests pertinent questions about Australian identity, especially the ways in which Australians have alternately included and excluded those seen as outsiders. This is most evident in the relationship between Australian settlers' attitudes to Indigenous Australians, but it is also seen in Australian attitudes to Chinese and other Asian peoples.

Chinese people first came to Australia in considerable numbers during the Gold Rush, and for a time formed up to seven per cent of the population. They came first as miners, and later supported themselves by farming and small business.

From the beginning their position was precarious. The colonies passed laws to exclude Asian immigration; on the gold fields there were anti-Chinese riots. The grounds of hostility lay in their virtues, not their vices: they worked so hard and were so thrifty that others found them difficult to compete with.

After Federation, hostility found expression in the White Australia policy. It was based on the threat posed by cheap imported labour to Australian workers but also reflected the belief that the Chinese and other races were inferior. In speaking to the 1901 immigration restriction bill Edmund Barton, the first Australian prime minister, was explicit on this point:

I do not think (either) that the doctrine of the equality of man was really ever intended to include racial equality. There is no racial equality. There is basic inequality. These races are, in comparison with white races — I think no one wants convincing of this fact — unequal and inferior.

The doctrine of the equality of man was never intended to apply to the equality of the Englishman and the Chinaman. There is deep-set difference, and we see no prospect and no promise of its ever being effaced. Nothing in this world can put these two races upon an equality. Nothing we can do by cultivation, by refinement, or by anything else will make some races equal to others.

British opposition to measures that would inflame its relationship with its colonies deterred the legislators from explicitly excluding immigrants on the grounds of race. But the dictation test provided a genteel mechanism for exclusion, the forerunner of such smarmy devices as the exclusion of the Australian mainland from the immigration zone.

In the 1960s the policy of exclusion changed to one of inclusion as Australians began to realise that their prosperity depended on building good relationships with their Asian neighbours. The abolition of the White Australia Policy and the later grant of citizenship to Chinese students after the Tiananmen Square massacre established complex circular patterns of immigration and belonging. Chinese migrated to Australia, established citizenship and residence and then returned to China, sending their children in turn to study and gain residence.

These exchanges benefited both societies.

The alternation between exclusion and inclusion characteristic of Australian attitudes to the Chinese reflects an ambivalence in Australian identity. Many groups have been the targets of the language and measures of exclusion: Indigenous Australians, Irish, Italians, Germans, Muslims and asylum seekers.

But there have also been instances of great hospitality. The European immigration and settlement program after 1945, the popular pressure that pushed the Fraser Government to expand its intake of Indochinese refugees, and the acceptance of African immigrants have all led to a broader sense of Australian identity. Australia Day allows us to celebrate this.

The tension between a narrow and a hospitable definition of Australian identity also invites us to celebrate the lives of those who worked to establish a more generous and self-assured Australia. These include neighbours who have helped people settle in Australia and befriended them, the teachers and social workers who have honoured the gift that differences in faith, race and culture bring to our society, and the nurses and civil servants who have worked to respect cultural and linguistic differences when tending to immigrants' needs.

In times of anxiety it is never easy to argue for a hospitable and respectful society. Those who argued against the White Australia Policy, who insisted during wartime that Australians of German birth and descent were worthy of respect and freedom, who welcomed the gift that Jewish and Muslim refugees are to Australia, and who insist that people who seek asylum in Australia be received with respect, swam against the riptide and were mocked for their tenacity. But they preserved, and in so doing they sowed the seeds of a better society.

Australia Day is an occasion for celebrating those whose lives have encouraged our better selves and for renewing our commitment to a better society. The experience and presence of Chinese immigrants to our land remind us how important that commitment is and what a gift our differences are to our nation.

Andrew Hamilton headshotAndrew Hamilton is consulting editor of Eureka Street.

Topic tags: Andrew Hamilton, Australia Day, Chinese New Year



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Existing comments

Australia Day should be a celebration of the diversity of our nation, a celebration of the often extraordinary efforts made by 'outsiders' not only to survive but to live well in the face of exclusion. People find inclusion within relationships - genuine relationships based not on master/slave or ruler/subject, but on equality. That Australia Day is still celebrated on 26th January is more than a little unsettling to me - I believe another date should be chosen. There are many who would disagree with me, I'm sure. Australia will not only survive, but thrive, by acknowledging that each person has a significant role to play and that racism, prejudice and exclusion have no place in Australia.

Pam | 22 January 2014  

Belonging to Australia means people integrating rather than remain apart through deliberate choice. Australians are being made to put themselves down over alleged racism through daily media and corporate messaging. This strategy is part of a deliberate breaking down of the the wills of Aussies. It is a disdainful thing that should be resisted. I trust my own judgment in this matter and do not feel the need to go along with this agenda.

Michael Webb | 23 January 2014  

I suspect most people in the world, would, like the boat people, much prefer to live in Australia than where they do now. Going further: I suspect most people who have ever lived in history would choose to live in Australia circa 2014 than where they were planted. Why? It's nothing to do with "tolerance" and "diversity", as if these were standalone concepts. It's everything to do with the fact that Australia is a nation even now imbued with the values of the West, of Christendom, including its definitions of tolerance and diversty : values such as free enterprise, the rule of law, and human rights ... except, tragically, for the unborn. And that exception proves the rule: it's where we've turned our eyes from our Christian lodestar that we've become the most intolerant: we're now incapable of seeing, as does Christianity, a tiny embryo as a card-carrying member of the human race. And we're in peril of blurring the idea that marriage, for the good of everyone (including homosexuals), can only ever be between one man and one woman. Like most Western countries, Australia is currently heeding voices urging self-loathing and a spurning of its blessed Christian heritage ... often in the name of a false "tolerance". She needs now to name and exorcise these satanic whispers, and bend the knee to Christ the King lest, under a banner of "tolerance" and "diversity", she is carted away in chains to Babylon.

HH | 23 January 2014  

Having been based in Hong Kong and China for the past 29 years, I am deeply appreciative of this fine article. Thank you Michael. Happy LNY!

John Wotherspoon | 23 January 2014  

Thank you Andrew for putting the issue so clearly for all.

Bev Smith | 23 January 2014  

An interesting and balanced article which should make people think. The word "Australia" would connote different things, good and bad, to both locally and overseas born readers. There is no static perfection available here. Without humans the word would be meaningless. I would suggest that what we need to celebrate on Australia Day are the archetypal optimism and vision, as well as that unquenchable human resilience, without which the convict colony at Botany Bay may well have perished. We should also celebrate the fact that the Indigenous Australians did not perish but are making a comeback. They should be fully integrated into our concept of what Australia means as should anyone who chose to make a home here since 1788. I would not want an Australia rigidly segmented into neat racial, ethnic or religious enclaves: the laager mentality. Therein lie the sort of problems that have bedevilled the Old World, whether West or East. I would see Australia optimistically as a work in progress which requires everyone's intput.

Edward F | 23 January 2014  

Racism should never have been included in the White Australia Policy, and it should not have been based on skin colour or narrow English language dictation tests. Now, we are being threatened by foreign, cheap labour, and our living standards are declining due to high rates of immigration - something we benefited from the past but our governments are locked into. It's time to move on from the state sanctioned "multiculturalism" and onto a united and fully-fledged and mature nation. Australia Day is being used to support political growth/immigration agendas rather than really celebrate our heritage and culture.

VivKay | 23 January 2014  

Andrew Hamilton has succinctly dealt with a valid point in relation to "white" Australia's attitude to the Chinese but let us also remember that "white" Australia has also discriminated against other ethnic groups over the years. As a migrant of the 1950's I can recall strong open and institutional discrimination against the Newstralians arriving in post-war Australia. The second last paragraph of the article sums up the situation.

nick agocs | 23 January 2014  

"I suspect most people in the world, would, like the boat people, much prefer to live in Australia than where they do now. " And I suspect that they wouldn't.. I suspect most people are deeply attached to their families, friends and customs, to their familiar landscapes and history. "Australia is currently heeding voices urging self-loathing". What HH, instead of pushing the self-loathing on to gays and others, it's being pushed onto the mainstream? Terrible, how will they cope? The changes in abortion, gay marriage (it's coming, along with voluntary euthanasia) are as much as result of Christian principles working their way in the culture as anything else. Let's hope that this Australia Day people also think about the environment that sustains us.

Russell | 23 January 2014  

No, BibKay, not English language dictation tests. You would get a family coming from, say, Russia, and you didn't want them, so you'd give them a dictation test in, say, Quechua, or Aleut, or Zulu. And if they failed (surprise surprise) they're out.

Gavan | 23 January 2014  

Most of the post-war migrants who have settled in Australia celebrate 26 January, Australia Day and are proud of our National Australian flag of stars and crosses

Ron Cini | 23 January 2014  

SOS AUSTRALIA Day 2014 We contemplate our current Australian story this Australia Day weekend, and what it means now to be “your average Aussie." Are we part of the majority twenty first century Aussies, who though lacking nothing materially, have voted in and followed the lead of more and more hostile angry fearful and uncaring Aussies? Today's average Aussies differ from their forebears of the twentieth century, who welcomed refugees from around the world. Last century, in turn, these grateful refugees helped build up Australia even further as a truly great responsible and caring nation. This century, the average Aussie more likely " couldn’t care less” about today’s refugees and their children seeking refuge with us. So many Aussies don’t care that we cruelly push back the boats as far as possible, despite these people on board fleeing the hell of their homelands. Alternatively, in detention, we Aussies are driving these persecuted people to a place of no hope, despair, and suicide. We Aussies who still care about others must come together urgently to act. END NOW the cruel abusive acts that we now inflict, daily refusing to care or protect desperate asylum seeker men women and children on boats.

Barbara Loh | 24 January 2014  

Australia Day is celebrating "diversity"? A nation should be united, and celebrate the one culture and ideals. No matter what background people have they should leave their excess baggage at home and become part of the mainstream community once here. Australia Day should be about celebrating our landscape, biodiversity, pioneers, our progress and our history. Diversity simply dilutes it. Unity is strength.

Tony B | 25 January 2014  

HH, you are shamelessly trying to drive an artificial political wedge between economic progress and two currently non-political areas (abortion and same-sex marriage). Good luck with that, because I don't believes Australians will ever be that fickle and superficial. The work of Satan appears to be alive and well in these lies spun by so-called conservative fundamentalists.

AURELIUS | 25 January 2014  

Far from a "wedge", I thought my obvious point was that Christianity grounds BOTH our recipe for economic success - (free enterprise, rule of law, &c) AND our lately held beliefs, outlandish as they seem to some these days, that innocents should not be directly killed and that marriage is between a man and a woman. Apparently it's now "satanic" to assert this. When did the slippery slope become a sheer cliff?

HH | 28 January 2014  

Once again you are creating an artificial wedge - nobody has ever stated that they want to kill the unborn. And nobody has ever stated that marriage should not be between a man and a woman.

AURELIUS | 28 January 2014  

Well, I suppose if one seriously thinks that my statements above that "marriage ... can only ever be between one man and one woman" and "marriage is between a man and a woman" logically entail the proposition "someone has stated that marriage should not be between a man and a woman" then there's no end to the ridiculous propositions one can put into my mouth.

HH | 28 January 2014  

Of course you could never forget what we have done, but we adapt. We carry on. And me? I still believe in paradise. But now at least I'll know it's not some place you can look for because it's not where you go, it's how you feel for a moment in your life when you're a part of something. And if you find that moment.....it lasts forever. Richard's monologue at the end of the film 'The Beach'.

Annoying Orange | 29 January 2014  

"Diversity" should remain that- like the Chinese were historically in Australia, consisting of minority groups. Now, Australia is being ruined by mass immigration, through the state-sponsored Multiculturalism policy - to support on-going immigration and "big Australia". Australia Day has become politicized to promote this agenda, of "diversity", that should encourage tolerance of other society, but is being used to support high rates of population growth. Australia is a desert island, a big land, but with only a small area suitable for long term habitation. Only 6% is arable farmland. Australia cannot support 45 more million people.

ecoeingine | 29 January 2014  

Yes, you have put it so eloquently, HH! No end to ridiculous propositions!

AURELIUS | 29 January 2014  

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