Australian Ways of Life

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Pham Dinh came to Australia as a 21-year-old refugee in the early 1980s. The eldest son of an important family, he was educated at a French Catholic school and about to go to university in Paris on a scholarship when Saigon fell, and he and his family were on the wrong side of the new regime. Eventually he escaped on a boat with 80 others.

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Pham is one of the people interviewed for Ordinary People’s Politics a book that I co-authored with Anthony Moran and the story he tells about how he made sure he was selected as a refugee is one that would warm the hearts of John Howard and Andrew Robb.

Here is how he prepared for his interview with the Australian Immigration officer:

I thought I would practise before the interview. I did my homework, I asked other people ‘What questions she ask?’ She a big woman. Everyone in the camp call her Madam Big. We don’t know her name. I had read an article, ‘Australia and its people’. It’s talking about people and life, even slang, so I had a rough idea. So at the interview I try to impress her, I say, ‘Look madam, I try to talk to you in English, my English not good, please speak slowly.’

She asked me what I knew about Australia. She asked people that before, so I was ready, ‘Madam’, I said, ‘Australia is the land of opportunity.’ She liked that, ‘Oh everybody equal, everybody have a chance if they work hard.’ She liked that. And I used a big word I didn’t even know how to pronounce properly “ ‘The only country in the world know about egalitarianism.’ ‘What do you mean by that?’ ‘Oh, everybody equal madam.’ I knew she’d like it because she’d think I’m interested.

‘So do you know anything else?’ So I started talking about ‘the real Aussie ocker.’ I tried to impress her with what I learn from the article very good article. ‘What do you mean?’ ‘Oh a typical Australian madam, he’s got a big belly, and zinc cream here and there’ I point to my cheek ‘And they love football, go to football with esky full of beer.’ I remember that I tried to impress her, because I know the jargon. She laughed, ‘Oh and they love gambling madam. They can gamble on a fly on a wall.’ And she laughed.

Pham is one of the hundreds of thousands of people who have come to Australia since World War II and built themselves new lives. He describes himself as ‘a living example of the success of multicultural policy.’ He would have done well on any multiple choice test on Australian values, but would this have revealed what has made his life here a success? More than anything else, his interview showed that he was intelligent and quick witted, that he could charm people by making them laugh and so establish human contact across the barriers of language and culture. How would a multiple choice test discover that?

The current debate on values and citizenship seems to me to be extraordinarily confused as it slides around between political and social values and collapses the polity into the nation. This should not surprise us, coming from a government where the Prime Minister puts himself forward as the leader of the nation as much as the leader of the government, but it is not helpful in thinking through the tough questions about what governments can legitimately ask of new settlers, and what the answers are likely to reveal.

Governments are entitled to demand allegiance to the rule of law (what country would not? And what intending criminal is likely to own up?), and to the processes and institutions of the political system.

I think they are entitled to demand some level of English so that people can participate in public political life, although of course for many refugees the government will even then need to provide them with realistic assistance to learn English. (A sustained commitment to the public education system, where most of the children of new migrants learn basic English literacy, would increase confidence in the government’s motives for launching this debate.)

But I am much less sure about the demand for adherence to social values, particularly when the notion of social values is allowed to slide into that nebulous but powerful term, ‘the Australian way of life’. Australian society is changing in response to all sorts of forces, and only one of them is immigration. Changes to technology and the labour market, to the media, to the availability of water even, are changing the texture and possibilities of everyday life in Australia just as much as immigration.

Pham is very politically engaged. He has been active in local politics, is a member of the Liberal Party, and is interested in the possibility of gaining preselection for a winnable seat at some future date.

Business never interested Pham, nor the acquisition of material wealth. Rather he wanted to establish in Australia the sort of respected position of social and political authority he would have had in Vietnam. And the more accepted he became in Australia, the more connected he felt to his Vietnamese past, to his family’s social position, and to the sense of civic responsibility he was taught at school.

Ordinary People’s Politics includes other portraits of immigrants and the children of immigrants, alongside portraits of Australian-born people from families established here before World War II. All of them love Australia, and all of them associated Australia with freedom.

Where there was a difference was in the range and depth of other associations to Australia. For those whose families had been here since before World War II, childhood holidays, grandparents’ farms, school history lessons, fathers’ and uncles’ war experiences, and so on, gave them feelings of being Australian which were unavailable to more recent immigrants. The immigrants’ images of Australia were less filled out, thinner in their associations, supported by fewer memories and family connections, and with almost no connection to Australia’s rural past or present.

Ordinary People’s Politics, by Judith Brett and Anthony Moran (Pluto Press)

This is hardly surprising, but I think it is important to notice the difference. For newcomers, Australia begins as a space and it takes time and experience for it to become a place. For many it was a space of opportunity and becoming.

The book includes a portrait of an Italian woman, Frieda, who came here in 1950 in her early 20s. She is fierce in her claim to be Australian and her commitment to Australia, but this does not mean that she took on the identifiable characteristics of the Australian legend. Rather, Australia was the place in which she had been free to realise her potential and so become who she felt she really was.

Two young Asian-born girls who came here as very young children had the lowest investment in Australia of the people in the book. One was born in Sri Lanka, the other in Singapore. For them Australia was space more than place.

The Singapore-born woman, Dora, liked the way ‘People in Australia seem to go off and do their own thing’ and thought that there was ‘space for being an individual here.’ But, unlike Frieda, this sense of space and possibility had not made her feel particularly Australian. She lived in the inner city, and had hardly ever been to the country. Australia was where she lived, and she felt lucky to have landed up in such an easy society, but she had little sense of the public world or of a broader collective.

‘I just feel like a person really, not an Australian’ she said. But she
didn’t break the law, she paid her taxes, and she voted in elections. Is it legitimate for a government to ask more?

Pham, Frieda and Dora are all Australian citizens. They participate in the polity and the economy, though with differing degrees of enthusiasm. Frieda has worked all her life with an almost manic energy, whereas Dora worked just as much as she needed; and neither shared Pham’s commitment to public politics. Yet all have found their own ways into that complex and many-layered abstraction we call Australian society.

In writing the portraits for Ordinary People’s Politics Anthony Moran and I wanted to take readers inside the political skins of people whose lives and experiences are very different from theirs. During the 10 years of the Howard Government, there has been a lot of suspicion and ill-will among Australians. The confused discussion of the citizen test seems to be raising the heat again for no good reason.

As our portraits show, there are many different ways to become Australian.

New Matilda

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