Australia thinks of itself as “the most successful multicultural society in the world” — to quote the oft-repeated phrase by Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull. But now that claim is being challenged in so many ways, all at once, it seems.
For a start, there’s the current political crisis, based on a half-forgotten section of the constitution forbidding those who have dual citizenship from sitting in Parliament. So far, eight parliamentarians — including the deputy prime minister — have been thrown out of office for no greater crime than having a father who was born in New Zealander, a mother who was Italian, or some other similarly unlikely “allegiance to a foreign power”.
Nearly all these parliamentarians were born in Australia. None realised they held a second citizenship: conferred by another country, without their knowledge, usually on the basis on descent. Most Australians think the downfall of these representatives is quite peculiar — particularly in a country in which half the population were either born elsewhere or whose parents were born elsewhere.
Then there’s the unfolding human tragedy of Manus Island, a tropical hellhole in Papua New Guinea to which our government has dispatched would-be refugees who attempted to enter Australia by sea. The majority of these people have now been granted refugee status, but our government says they will never enter Australia — a policy decision that even President Trump found tough; according to leaked phone transcripts, he famously told Turnbull: “You are worse than I am”.
Because of a recent decision by the Papua New Guinea Supreme Court, the camp on Manus has now been closed, but nearly 400 asylum-seekers are still there – preferring a camp without power, water, security or food to an uncertain future if they leave.
Next, as a last exhibit, throw in an online video in which a gang of white nationalists filmed a video of themselves harassing Sam Dastyari, an Iranian-born member of Australia’s Parliament, at a university bar. The group can be seen calling him a “monkey” and a “terrorist” who should “go home”. None of the bystanders — the staff or the other customers — think to intervene as the bullies circle. “What race is Muslim?”, asks one of the menacing group after Dastyari calls them out. At this point, Dastyari’s political colleague Tim Watts speaks up, leaning into the abuser’s camera: “What race is dickhead?”, he asks, in a glorious invocation of the Australian vernacular.
Throughout it all, Dastyari is calm, quiet, cautious. He ignores the rising tone of possible violence. He goes to the bar and tries to order another beer. He is all smiles. He is like a million others — gay Australians, ethnic Australians, black Americans, disabled folks, women everywhere … all those people, in various places, who have endured.
In Australia, the video sparked widespread “debate” of the white nationalists actions. Networks even extended the white nationalists an invitation to appear on various mainstream TV and radio shows in order to put on their “case”. As one Australian political columnist, Jacqueline Maley, complained: “In any other country, if a dark-skinned man is called a ‘monkey,’ the person labeling him that doesn’t get a platform on which to further publicise his moronic views”.
For some, these stories have been examples of Australia reverting to type. This, after all, is the land of “the White Australia Policy” in which large-scale immigration was sought, especially in the aftermath of World War II, but only from countries with a white population.
Historically, migrants to Australia came in their millions — first from England, Scotland, Wales and Ireland and then, a little later — when the English-supply proved insufficient — from places such as Italy, Greece and Yugoslavia. My parents — from the north of England — were two of those post-WWII white migrants. The policy was not dismantled until 1966.
Australia is also the land in which the indigenous population — who arrived here some 65,000 years ago, the world’s longest continuing culture — were dispossessed without compensation or agreement. Unlike the British settlement of New Zealand, which led to a celebrated treaty with Maori people, Australia was taken under the legal lie of “terra nullius” — the land was supposedly empty.
And yet Australian enthusiasm for immigration is real. A recent survey found that only about a third of Australians believe the current level of immigration is too high. Most people were happy with the current level — about 200,000 immigrants a year joining a population of about 25 million — or wanted it increased. In my own city, Sydney, almost 40 percent of people speak a language other than English at home. I don’t imagine many Sydneysiders would list “racial tension” among the city’s problems. “Traffic jams” and “pathetic public transport” are much higher on the list.
For all the tensions of the moment, the truth is that Australia largely has overcome its “White Australia” past. The constitutional crisis is really little more than an accident of history — an archaic clause, ignored for decades, that has become an issue almost by accident. And the “patriots” who circled Dastyari are part of an organization with just a handful of members — one of whom has been previously charged under Australia’s Religious and Racial Tolerance Act.
The horrors of Manus Island are more difficult to explain: How can a nation so enthusiastic about immigration and so accepting of refugees watch such cruelty? The government argues the harsh arrangements were necessary in order to close down the people-smuggling trade between Asia and Australia — a trade that resulted in more than a thousand people dying at sea.
Turnbull still might be right that Australia is “the most successful multicultural society in the world”, but as Sam Dastyari now knows, the demons of its past can still circle.
Richard Glover is an Australian writer and broadcaster.