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Political lessons

A university subject about contemporary politics in Australia for international students—many of them in the country for only a semester—is an education indeed. For me, the tutor. I always tell them (partly in the hope of getting them talking from the beginning) that I learn at least as much about Australia through their eyes as they do. I have always lived here, I tell them, aside from some brief sojourns in Western Europe. Perhaps I have an overly benign attitude to Australia’s perceived egalitarianism, relatively trouble-free multiculturalism, and longstanding democracy. Perhaps, I tell them, I need to have this problematised by an outsider’s eyes.

For the most part polite and respectful, the last thing this mélange of Asian, American and Northern European twenty-somethings would wish to do is cause a problem, much less problematise. However, they do it by default.

In a subject that spans a lot of recent issues, Pauline Hanson is of course one hurdle. Curiously, 2004’s batch of internationals (proportionally, pretty much the same groupings) brought Hanson up as a phenomenon. They’d heard of her and were worried about her influence on Australians’ attitude to race (an Asian student was adamant that she had made a proclamation on television early in 2004 that she had become a lesbian, a claim I took merely to indicate the degree of her celebrity in the Asia-Pacific).

Last year I adjusted the course to pre-empt their queries. None of the new group even claimed to have heard of her.

Irritated (I see her as a blip we had to have, and a manifestation of perceived disenfranchisement among the lower-educated and/or regionals, rather than as an important indicator of Australian attitudes on race), I was stuck with Hanson over my shoulder for the rest of the semester. Students later wrote in essays about the ‘Hanson government’ or about her introduction of racist ideas to Australia; as I feared, they quickly came to ascribe her too much importance. Or did they? In one class, they passionately argued with me that her clear electoral appeal in the late ’90s—not to mention the way Howard has adopted a number of her ideas—shows that Anglo-Australians are racist. I retreated into entreaties that one should not generalise.

All students—including some Australians—have a major difficulty with the appellation ‘Liberal’ on a major conservative political party. By a process of elimination, they tend to assume that since the Liberal Party must be liberal (it’s like gay pride: why would you claim such a title if you weren’t?) then the Labor Party must be conservative. Faced with a whole lot of concepts that don’t correlate to America—Democrats, Republicans, and the aforementioned Liberals—the Americans tend to zone out on political matters, apart from one student who declared preferential voting to be ‘really lame’. They are, however, largely intrigued by the system of compulsory voting.

The American and European students are distinctly different from the Asians, in interesting ways. The Asians have often been in Australia longer, know how to engage with it on a day-to-day basis, and are, in some measure, respectful of what they see as an interface with the West equal to and interchangeable with the US or Europe. The Europeans and Americans are far less forgiving. It is in their interests to identify elements of Australian culture they see as ludicrously derivative, such as the young Danish men who claimed every 20th-century Australian painting in the art gallery was an imitation of a well-known European artist (in their defence, they did not mean to be derisive but found this ‘interesting’).

Others claimed that Australian television was besotted with American television and that Australian television—of which they could not name examples—would soon be swamped under globalisation. Another student wrote an essay condemning Australian cities for imitating the US; still another claimed that Australian communities are ‘close-knit’ and that this is the reason Schapelle Corby is a cause célèbre in Australia in a way that would never happen in the US.

Aboriginal Australians are regarded with fascination, though different students react very differently to discussion of their culture or their disadvantaged state. One south-east Asian student spent a few pages of an essay proving that Aborigines are ‘actually human’. Others were very matter-of-fact in discussing a deteriorated culture, or a lack of civilisation. Most of them had not heard of Captain Cook, but once they had, he seemed to be unassailable as the ‘discoverer’ of Australia, however much one emphasised that this is an outmoded concept.

In this kind of environment, one hopes that students’ preconceptions have been challenged. More commonly, they expressed disappointment that the subject was largely about non-indigenous Australia’s politics rather than Aboriginal issues, which they naturally saw as unique to this country.

Additionally, they used the subject to express some of the frustrations they felt during their time in Australia. This was not, strictly speaking, part of the syllabus, but in the context of discussion about their Australian experiences it seemed relevant. In some cases their complaints were about the way the university itself had lured them, or had treated them since their arrival. Some students told me they were paying $200 a week for shared-room accommodation run by private interests near, and recommended by, the university—located in outer suburban Sydney—in institutions that must surely have been making $20,000 or more a week for providing absurdly little.

Perhaps this is the most important lesson they can teach us in the tertiary sector: the little things matter a lot for the international students who provide so much income for the nation’s universities.

Ian Slater has taught in several Australian universities.


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