How Can Australia Rethink Its Immigration Policies?

The ongoing divergence between Canada and Australia remains, striking given how much the two countries have borrowed ideas and approaches from each other in the past:

Australia has begun having necessary public debates about its post-pandemic recovery. One of the more crucial elements of this recovery is how the country re-establishes its immigration program, which has effectively been paused for the past year and a half. In recent decades Australia’s national strategy has relied on sourcing a significant number of skilled migrants to off-set birthrates that are below the replacement level, drive economic activity, and enhance the country’s overall capabilities. That strategy proved successful.

Due to this, the Australian Chamber of Commerce and Industry has begun pushing for 200,000 skilled migrant visas to be issued annually, a return to the pre-pandemic average. However, advice provided to the new premier of New South Wales, Dominic Perrottet, indicated that Australia will require 2 million new residents over the next five years to meet labor shortages, effectively double the pre-pandemic intake. This would match Canada’s ambitious new target for its own national expansion (one it is already meeting).

In Parag Khanna’s new book, “Move,” the author argues that the post-pandemic world will see a fierce competition for young talent by migrant-accepting countries. Countries that are able to both attract and retain people will find themselves at a distinct advantage. Pre-pandemic Australia could rightly claim to be a lifestyle superpower, providing it with a serious asset for attracting these highly skilled migrants, yet the country’s highly protectionist response to the pandemic may have blunted this image.

While in recent decades Australia has offered migrants opportunities and ways of life that they otherwise may not have had, it has also not made fully accessing these opportunities particularly easy. Australia’s visa system is notoriously complex and expensive, with myriad hurdles to jump, and no clear pathway toward permanent residency. Migrants can spend a decade or more bouncing between an array of insecure short-term visas, limiting their ability to make long-term plans and subsequently limiting their ability to feel welcome and valued in the country. If Australia wishes to compete in a post-pandemic contest for skills it will need a less obstructionist visa system.

Yet there is more to this equation than just Canberra creating the administrative processes to maximize its power and potential. While states may be self-interested entities, they also face conditions that prevent them from acting perfectly in their own self-interest. Immigration can be an emotionally sensitive subject, making the politics around it difficult to navigate. There is a tension between what the country requires and what is politically achievable.

Australia, like other Western liberal democracies, is currently facing a crisis of confidence in its own ideas and values. Admittedly, Australia is not in as degraded a state as other similar countries, but a suspicion of liberalism – and its openness to the world – exists within the country and should not be ignored. This sentiment is born out of a paradox within the nation-state, where some elements within liberal societies believe that the state is undermining the nation.

The political psychologist and behavioral economist Karen Stenner has argued that liberal democracies have reached a stage of complexity that around one-third of their citizens have difficulty adjusting themselves to. These people value consistency, conformity, and homogeneity over difference and change. This disposition can tolerate changing societies under the right conditions, but it is susceptible to arousal and agitation through political demagoguery and media outlets that prey on their insecurities — leading to support for more insular and authoritarian styles of governing.

Following several decades of rapid social change, the COVID-19 pandemic could not have been a worse global-scale event for those who would like to keep this authoritarian disposition dormant. It has exacerbated the sense among some that states are acting against the interests of the public, leading to a further retreating into in-groups. The fear would be that this public sentiment now makes it far too difficult to re-establish Australia’s significant immigration program.

Yet Australia now faces not only economic conditions that require an increased labor force, but also strategic conditions that require an increase in state power. Canberra must confront the dual problem of a powerful and belligerent regional adversary in China alongside a primary security partner in the United States whose domestic instability is making it far less reliable. To negotiate this difficult terrain Australia requires more people to enhance its economic, diplomatic, defense, and cultural capabilities.

The serious question that Canberra must now ask itself is: How does it take the necessary steps to increase its capabilities without disrupting its own internal stability?

Addressing the culture of suspicion and contradictions at the heart of immigration process should be the first place to start. In recent decades Australia has asked migrants to provide the country with labor, knowledge, and taxes, but not civic engagement. Those who perceive that migrants are not “loyal” to the country have been aided in this perception by a visa system that doesn’t give migrants the opportunity to fully invest themselves in the country. There’s the potential to address both problems if handled correctly.

This would also require a change in public narrative, highlighting the courage and resilience of migrants, the honor Australia should feel at being chosen as a destination country, and the prosperity and social enhancement that flows from their contributions to society. If psychological insecurity is the political impediment to Australia’s expanded migration program, then migration as a tool to enhance national security should be emphasized.

The pandemic has offered governments the opportunity to rethink how they approach these key nation-building initiatives. It has also provided an example of what states can do when they focus their minds on a task. This should make it clear to Canberra that such necessary rethinking of immigration’s key role in Australia’s nation-building should not be deemed too difficult to pursue.

Grant Wyeth is a Melbourne-based political analyst specializing in Australia and the Pacific, India and Canada.

Source: How Can Australia Rethink Its Immigration Policies?

Australian voters rethinking immigration in wake of extended border closures, poll suggests

Interesting shifts:

Australia’s prolonged international border closure appears to have lowered the political temperature around immigration, with the number of voters believing levels are too high dropping from 56% in January 2019, and 64% the year before that, to 37% in the latest Guardian Essential survey.

While the pandemic has shifted the dynamics of the debate, the latest poll of 1,781 respondents suggests immigration remains a divisive issue. Migration is back on the political agenda because both the federal and state governments have flagged a rethink of the size and mix of Australia’s migration program once the border reopens.

In the latest Guardian Essential survey, more than half of respondents (52%) say migration levels are either too low or about right, while 37% say too high, and 11% are undecided. Just over half the sample (51%) agrees that immigration is vital for Australia’s business and economy (20% are opposed that view).

But 63% of respondents also believe that increasing immigration levels would add more pressure on the housing system and infrastructure (only 11% disagreed).

While half the Guardian Essential sample (50%) thinks boosting immigration will help businesses recover from the economic shock of the pandemic by giving them the skilled labour they need (22% disagree) – a majority of respondents are evidently not convinced that immigration helps Australia deal with skills shortages as the population ages (only 49% agree with that proposition and 22% disagreed).

Source: Australian voters rethinking immigration in wake of extended border closures, poll suggests

Australia: Immigration ‘character test’ bill to strengthen visa-cancellation powers to be reintroduced by government

Australia and Canada continue to diverge:

The federal government is again seeking greater discretionary powers to cancel or refuse immigration visas on character grounds after its initial proposal was defeated two years ago.

An amendment to strengthen the migration ‘character test’ — which would see visas cancelled or refused for people convicted of a serious crime — could be introduced in the Senate as early as today.

The Morrison government first attempted to pass the laws in 2019, but they failed to win the support of Labor or crossbench senators.

Under the proposed laws, a non-citizen who has been convicted of a ‘designated’ offence punishable by at least two years’ prison — such as violent or sexual assault crimes — could be refused a visa at the government’s discretion, regardless of the sentence they actually serve.

Currently, the power to cancel visas is only available in cases where a person was actually sentenced to serve more than 12 months’ prison.

The government also argues that people whose visas should have been cancelled have been allowed to stay thanks to technicalities, such as discounts to prison time for guilty pleas, or judges who reduced a sentence to avoid mandatory visa cancellation thresholds.

Immigration Minister Alex Hawke said the current laws leave a gap that allows for people who are a risk to the community to stay in the country.

“Holding an Australian visa is a privilege that dangerous and violent non-citizens do not deserve,” Mr Hawke said in a statement.

“Anthony Albanese needs to back these new laws this week for the safety of the community — or explain to all Australians why he will not.”

Labor is considering the proposed amendments.

However, Shadow Immigration Minister Kristina Keneally has previously expressed concern that low-level offenders could unintentionally be caught up in the changed laws and be deported unnecessarily.

The laws have caused tension with New Zealand, whose Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern has repeatedly pleaded with Australia to drop the practice of deporting its criminals.

Ms Keneally has previously called for retrospective offenders to be excluded from legislation, and for extra consideration to be given to New Zealanders.

Minister less likely to be overturned under new laws

The proposed laws would also make it harder for decisions to deport people to be defeated on appeal, the government has argued.

Currently, the immigration minister — or a delegate of the minister — have discretionary power to cancel a visa on character grounds, but the decision can be appealed.

In the past, ministerial decisions have been overturned by the courts, such as when former home affairs minister Peter Dutton attempted to deport murderer Frederick Chetcuti, who had lived in Australia since he was two years old.

Mr Dutton’s decision to cancel the 73-year-old Maltese man’s visa was overturned after he was unable to prove that he spent more than 11 minutes considering the case.

The government expects its bill to make those situations less common, as a more “objective” test of conviction, rather than time sentenced, would leave less room for appeal.

Mr Hawke said the amendments would be introduced in the Senate this week, and as early as today.

Source: Immigration ‘character test’ bill to strengthen visa-cancellation powers to be reintroduced by government

A Sea of White Faces in Australia’s ‘Party of Multiculturalism’

More on Australia:

She seemed an ideal political candidate in a country that likes to call itself the world’s “most successful multicultural nation.”

Tu Le, a young Australian lawyer who is the daughter of Vietnamese refugees, was set to become the opposition Labor Party’s candidate for Parliament in one of Sydney’s most diverse districts. She grew up nearby, works as an advocate for exploited migrant workers and had the backing of the incumbent.

Then Ms. Le was passed over. The leaders of the center-left party, which casts itself as a bastion of diversity, instead chose a white American-born senator, Kristina Keneally, from Sydney’s wealthy eastern suburbs to run for the safe Labor seat in the city’s impoverished southwest.

But Ms. Le, unlike many before her, did not go quietly. She and other young members of the political left have pushed into the open a debate over the near absence of cultural diversity in Australia’s halls of power, which has persisted even as the country has been transformed by non-European migration.

While about a quarter of the population is nonwhite, members of minority groups make up only about 6 percent of the federal Parliament, according to a 2018 study. That figure has barely budged since, leaving Australia far behind comparable democracies like Britain, Canada and the United States.

In Australia, migrant communities are often seen but not heard: courted for photo opportunities and as fund-raising bases or voting blocs, but largely shut out of electoral power, elected officials and party members said. Now, more are demanding change after global reckonings on race like the Black Lives Matter movement and a pandemic that has crystallized Australia’s class and racial inequalities.

“The Australia that I live in and the one that I work in, Parliament, are two completely different worlds,” said Mehreen Faruqi, a Greens party senator who in 2013 became Australia’s first female Muslim member of Parliament. “And we now know why they are two completely different worlds. It’s because people are not willing to step aside and actually make room for this representation.”

The backlash has reached the highest levels of the Labor Party, which is hoping to unseat Prime Minister Scott Morrison in a federal election that must be held by May.

The Labor leader, Anthony Albanese, faced criticism when he held up the white senator, Ms. Keneally, 52, as a migrant “success story” because she had been born in the United States. Some party members called the comment tone deaf, a charge they also leveled at former Prime Minister Paul Keating after he said local candidates “would take years to scramble” to Ms. Keneally’s “level of executive ability, if they can ever get there at all.”

Ms. Keneally, one of the Labor Party’s most senior members, told a radio interviewer that she had “made a deliberate decision” to seek the southwestern Sydney seat. She did so, she said, because it represents an overlooked community that had “never had a local member who sits at the highest level of government, at a senior level at the cabinet table, and I think they deserve that.”

She plans to move to the district, she said. In the Australian political system, candidates for parliamentary seats are decided either by party leaders or through an internal vote of party members from that district. Candidates do not have to live in the district they seek to represent.

When contacted for comment, Ms. Keneally’s office referred The New York Times to previous media interviews.

Chris Hayes, the veteran lawmaker who is vacating the southwestern Sydney seat, said he had endorsed Ms. Le because of her deep connections with the community.

“It would be sensational to be able to not only say that we in Labor are the party of multiculturalism, but to actually show it in our faces,” he told the Australian Broadcasting Corporation in March.

Ms. Le, 30, said she believed the party leadership sidelined her because it saw her as a “tick-the-box exercise” instead of a viable contender.

As an outsider, “the system was stacked against me,” she said. “I haven’t ‘paid my dues,’ I haven’t ‘served my time’ or been in with the faceless men or factional bosses for years.”

What she finds especially disappointing about Labor’s decision, she said, is the message it sends: that the party takes for granted the working-class and migrant communities it relies on for votes.

Australia has not experienced the same sorts of fights over political representation that have resulted in growing electoral clout for minority groups in other countries, said Tim Soutphommasane, a former national racial discrimination commissioner, in part because it introduced a “top down” policy of multiculturalism in the 1970s.

That has generated recognition of minority groups, though often in the form of “celebratory” multiculturalism, he said, that uses food and cultural festivals as stand-ins for genuine engagement.

When ethnic minorities get involved in Australian politics, they are often pushed to become their communities’ de facto representatives — expected to speak on multiculturalism issues, or relegated to recruiting party members from the same cultural background — and then are punished for supposedly not having broader appeal.

“The expectation from inside the parties as well as the community is that you’re there to represent the minority, the small portion of your community that’s from the same ethnic background as you,” said Elizabeth Lee, a Korean Australian who is the leader of the Australian Capital Territory’s Liberal Party. “It’s very hard to break through that mold.”

Many ethnically diverse candidates never make it to Parliament because their parties do not put them in winnable races, said Peter Khalil, a Labor member of Parliament.

During his own election half a decade ago, he was told to shave his goatee because it made him “look like a Muslim,” he said. (Mr. Khalil is a Coptic Christian.)

“They want to bleach you, whiten you,” he added, “because there’s a fear that you’ll scare people off.”

In the Australian political system, the displacement of a local candidate by a higher-ranking party insider is not unusual. Mr. Morrison was chosen to run for a seat in 2007 after a more popular Lebanese Australian candidate, Michael Towke, said he was forced to withdraw by leaders of the center-right Liberal Party.

Ms. Keneally moved to the safe Labor seat, with the backing of party leaders, because she was in danger of losing her current seat. Her backers also note that she has been endorsed by a handful of Vietnamese, Cambodian and Middle Eastern community leaders.

Joseph Haweil, 32, the mayor of a municipality in Melbourne and a Labor Party member, said that as a political aspirant from a refugee background, he saw in the controversy over Ms. Le a glimpse of his possible future. Mr. Haweil is Assyrian, a minority group from the Middle East.

“You can spend years and years doing the groundwork, the most important thing in politics — assisting local communities, understanding your local community with a view to help them as a public policy maker — and that’s not still enough to get you over the line,” he said.

Osmond Chiu, 34, a party member who is Chinese Australian, said “the message it sent was that culturally diverse representation is an afterthought in Labor, and it will always be sacrificed whenever it is politically inconvenient.”

Ms. Le spoke out in a way that others in the past have avoided, perhaps to preserve future political opportunities. She said that she was uncertain what she would do next, but that she hoped political parties would now think twice before making a decision like the one that shut her out.

“It’s definitely tapped into something quite uncomfortable to discuss, but I think it needs to be out in the open,” she said. “I don’t think people will stand for it anymore.”

Source: A Sea of White Faces in Australia’s ‘Party of Multiculturalism’

Australia: Why Diversity Seems Easier Said Than Done in Politics

Australia’s political representation is much worse than Canada (haven’t yet seen the final 2021 numbers for Canada which a number of researchers are working on):

Recently, I’ve been reporting on the controversy over Labor’s pick to represent Fowler, where Tu Le, a young lawyer and the daughter of Vietnamese migrants, was passed over, with the party instead choosing Kristina Keneally, a party leader and white woman. I’ve been using it as a starting point to examine why Australia’s Parliament lags behind other English-speaking countries when it comes to cultural diversity.

I’ve talked to people from across the political spectrum, including many young people of color within the Labor Party who have led the debate. For them, the controversy is just the latest example of the dissonance between a country that claims to be the most successful nation when it comes to multiculturalism and a governing elite that is reluctant to address diversity at the cost of political convenience.

What I wasn’t able to go into much in my article (coming soon) was the details that party members shared about the barriers they faced on every rung of the political ladder. It all added up to a picture of a two-tiered political system that sees people of color as fine community representatives or liaisons but not cut out for higher leadership positions, and treats immigrant communities as expandable membership bases or voting blocs.

A few caveats: they had differing views about the Fowler preselection. They had nothing against Kristina Keneally and her qualifications for office. They stressed that underrepresentation is a problem across all parties, not unique to Labor — it’s just particularly disappointing when the party that purports to champion diversity doesn’t make good on its promise.

Ethnically diverse members regularly have their worth tied to their communities, said Joseph Haweil, 30, mayor of Hume City in Melbourne. “Very often there’s a feeling if you’re someone from a multicultural background and you walk into a branch meeting without already having signed up five or 10 people from your community, you’re a nobody.”

Migrant communities are courted for fund-raising and to build a base for internal power struggles, but afforded little genuine engagement, said Tu Le. “When you go to a Cabramatta branch meeting, half the people there have no idea what you’re talking about, they’re just there because someone signed them up,” she said. “How parties engage with local communities — it’s one-sided, it’s not participatory.”

There’s a huge pool of untapped talent within the Labor party, she added, that gets overlooked because “we’re just seen or categorized in certain ways that don’t let people see our full potential.”

“There’s two different set of rules,” said Kun Huang, 30, a Cumberland councilor in Sydney. A person of color needs to simultaneously demonstrate that “you can bring along your community” and that they have appeal to those outside their own ethnicity, he said, but if you’re not a minority, “you just need to know the right set of people and you’re in.”

The system privileges party insiders who spend their time around other party members, shoring up support for internal preselections and ballots, said Charishma Kaliyanda, 33, a Liverpool councilor in Sydney. If you’re busy engaging with or volunteering for cultural or community organizations, “you have less time to do the organizational work that you need to do to build up that support.”

“There’s a really disjointed relationship between the skills you may have being from a different cultural background or being a community advocate, and how they’re valued in a political sense,” she added.Sign up for the Australia Letter Newsletter  Conversation starters about Australia and insight on the global stories that matter most, sent weekly by the Times’s Australia bureau. Plus: heaps of local recommendations. Get it sent to your inbox.

The other question I’ve been asking is: what needs to change?

It seems that the first step is acknowledging the issue. In N.S.W., party members are putting forward a platform change at the next state Labor conference to formally recognize the underrepresentation of racial minorities in leadership positions, including Parliament, and commit to improving representation in the party.

Party members also said change needs to happen at every level — from how members are recruited, to who is given staff positions, to who gets preselected.

I don’t want to see a situation where the party just randomly picks, say, a Chinese Australian so that it fulfills the diversity image,” said Mr. Huang. “I want the party to select good local candidates who have been contributing to the party and who have been active.”

If there aren’t candidates who fulfill both those criteria, he added, “our job is to recruit more culturally diverse members into the party.”

Tim Soutphommasane, Australia’s former racial discrimination commissioner, theorized that we may be starting to see two different understandings of “multiculturalism.” There’s the one celebrated by the majority of the political class that “would see things as pretty good the way they are and would understand any underrepresentation as an issue that’d be fixed with time,” he said.

Then, there’s a more political form that sees underrepresentation as a matter of urgency and asks: “If we really are the most successful multicultural country in the world, why does the leadership of our society look much like it did during the era of White Australia?”

“The lesson here should be clear,” he added. “Multicultural voices will need to be more assertive. Power is rarely shared or gifted. It needs to be contested and won. But that’s not easy, especially when there is a strong social pressure for our multiculturalism to be nice, polite, compliant — anything basically but disruptive.”

My article about why Australia’s halls of power don’t look like our population will be out in the next few days.

Source: https://www.nytimes.com/2021/10/01/world/australia/why-diversity-seems-easier-said-than-done-in-politics.html

How COVID has shone a light on the ugly face of Australian antisemitism

Of note, along with the message that antisemitism needs to be considered and addressed in the context of all discrimination, bias and hate:

The increased prominence of antisemitic incidents during the COVID pandemic may leave you wondering: has antisemitism always been part of the Australian social fabric, or are we facing a new, sinister trend?

Members of Melbourne’s Jewish community have been subjected to a surge of antisemitic abuse in recent weeks, following breaches of public health orders by ultra-Orthodox Jewish worshippers.

And Victoria’s proposed law to ban Nazi symbols — a first for any state or territory — further reinforces how antisemitism is becoming an increasingly visible problem in Australia.

Understanding the origins of modern antisemitism requires looking back at Australia’s history. Both antisemitism and right-wing extremism are linked with the rise of nationalism from the colonial era through the 20th century.

Because of this, it’s impossible to address antisemitism without also taking into account Australia’s colonial history marred with white supremacy.

How COVID conspiracies are fuelling antisemitism

We have recently seen federal and state politicians cautioning against rising rates of antisemitism, but one can’t help but wonder if these comments are merely lip service.

After all, what good is it to acknowledge antisemitism without taking meaningful action to prevent it?

Consider the following: in 2004, federal parliament expressed its

“unequivocal condemnation of antisemitism, of violence directed against Jews and Jewish religious and cultural institutions, and all forms of racial and ethnic hatred, persecution and discrimination on ethnic or religious grounds, whenever and wherever it occurs.”

Despite that, antisemitic incidents persist: graffiti on Jewish businesses and kindergartens, threats targeting synagogues, and bullying of Jewish children.

The Executive Council of Australian Jewry releases a yearly report on antisemitism in Australia. In the 2020 report, it found a 10% decrease in reported antisemitic incidents compared to the previous year — likely attributable, in part, to COVID lockdowns.

At the same time, however, there was an increase in serious incidents, such as physical assaults, verbal abuse and intimidation.

These figures should be taken with caution. The report doesn’t distinguish between legitimate critiques of Israel’s occupation of Palestine and antisemitism. It also cites a problematic and contested definition of antisemitism as a guiding concept.

Nonetheless, the increase in serious incidents speaks to a dangerous antisemitic sentiment being fuelled by COVID-19 propaganda, namely, that Jews are “responsible for coronavirus”.

This conspiracy theory, originating in extreme right-wing corners of the internet, has quickly become mainstream, circulating through message boards and social media. Now, antisemitic signs and behaviours are increasingly showing up at anti-lockdown and anti-vax rallies across Australia.

For instance, stickers were placed around Melbourne during “freedom” rallies last month bearing a Star of David, the numbers 911 and a QR code. When scanned, it led to a website that blamed the September 11 terror attacks on Jewish people.

An anti-vax group called White Rose, meanwhile, has plastered Jewish neighbourhoods in Melbourne with stickers bearing swastikas and the words, “No Jab, No Job.” The group has likened mandatory vaccines and lockdowns to the rise of Adolf Hitler in Germany in the 1930s.

And a recent investigation by The Age, The Sydney Morning Herald and 60 Minutes revealed the extent of neo-Nazi operations in Australia, including connections between COVID disinformation and conspiracies.

A brief history of Australian Jewry

The history of Australian Jewry dates to the start of white colonisation and settlement of this continent. Records in the National Archives show at least eight of the 571 convicts in the First Fleet were Jewish.

While the first waves of free Jewish settlers were largely English speaking, Anglo, and loyal to the “mother country”, subsequent Jewish migration came largely from Germany during the gold rush and as refugees from Tsarist Russia.

After that, the next large wave of Jews migrated from Europe in response to rising fascism.

The Anglo Jewish community, which had largely assimilated by the second world war, was concerned the Jewish community’s standing would be negatively affected by these Eastern European refugees who could be easily marked as “foreign” due to their language, dress and manners.

These concerns were rooted in the historical antisemitism of politicians and trade unions. As historian Malcolm J. Turnbull writes:

“sections of the labour movement promoted stereotypes of Jews as manipulative bankers, usurers and profiteers.”

And describing the experiences of early Jewish settlers, author Rodney Gouttman writes

“negative cultural connotations of the word ‘Jew’ encouraged many Jews to avoid it as a descriptive term for themselves, and ‘Hebrew congregations’ became the preferred name for their faith collectives.”

It might seem contradictory that Jews, some of whom came to Australia as part of a colonial project, experienced hatred grounded in colonial racism. However, this is part-and-parcel of the experience of the ever-foreign Jew, needing to assimilate but always seen as “other”.

Is Australia doing enough?

To address this question, we have to recognise that antisemitism cannot be disentangled from other forms of colonial and racial violence and xenophobia.

When we talk about white supremacy and antisemitism, we must talk about racism in all its forms.

In a 2017 study, one-third of respondents said they had experienced racism in the workplace.

The 2020 Mapping Social Cohesion Report, meanwhile, found 37% of respondents had a negative view towards people of the Muslim faith, compared with 9% who held a negative attitude towards Jews. This report demonstrates the urgent need to address antisemitism alongside other forms of racism

Recently, the Australian Jewish News published an opinion piece calling on the government to appoint an Australian commissioner for antisemitism.

This position would ideally be accompanied by new legislation targeting antisemitism to compensate for what the editorial called the “inadequate” protections under the Racial Discrimination Act.

But this approach segregates the plight of Jews from all other minorities facing daily violence and discrimination. As race critical scholar Alana Lentin says,

“the elevation of antisemitism as the racism above all racisms […] constrains solidarity between Jews and other racialised people, thwarting a fuller understanding of race as a colonial mechanism and a technology of power for the maintenance of white supremacy.”

So, in order to address antisemitism, we must do two things: understand the Jewish presence in Australia in relation to the country’s brutal colonial history, and understand antisemitism alongside other forms of racial violence.

In these urgent times, we must take a united approach to respond to rising rates of white supremacy and racial violence. Without serious efforts to address the problem of racism as a whole, gestures such as banning the swastika are unlikely to have much material impact.

Source: How COVID has shone a light on the ugly face of Australian antisemitism

Australia: ‘Be less of a white boys’ club’: How to address Parliament’s lack of diversity

Of note (Canadian Parliament and Senate are much more diverse than Australia):

“Stale, pale and male” has become a shorthand for the lack of diversity of all kinds across society’s institutions. Parliament has not escaped its accusations and even federal politicians have levelled the tag at it.

Labor frequently pats itself on the back for achieving near-gender parity in its caucus room but this week it has been beset by criticism it has not done enough to address other types of diversity.

The decision to parachute senator Kristina Keneally into the safe lower house seat of Fowler, in Sydney’s west, at the expense of local, young, Vietnamese lawyer Tu Le has led to calls for diversity quotas and divisions over “token” multiculturalism.

But it’s not only Labor’s politicians who are overwhelmingly white.

Out of the 226 men and women who make up Federal Parliament, 23 were born overseas but only five in non-European countries to parents who weren’t Australian. Another 52 have parents who were born overseas, overwhelmingly in the UK.

Contrast this with the general population. Just under half of all Australians were either born overseas or their parents were. Nearly three times more people in the wider Australian community were born overseas than their parliamentary representatives.

However, Parliament this week hit a milestone of proportionate representation of Indigenous people. There are now seven Indigenous members after the Greens’ newest senator Dorinda Cox, a Yamatji-Noongar woman, replaced Rachel Siewert.

Tim Soutphommasane, a professor at the University of Sydney and a former race discrimination commissioner, says Parliament “fails dismally” on cultural diversity.

“It doesn’t look remotely like today’s multicultural Australia. It might make some uncomfortable, but our political class looks like it’s stuck in the White Australia era,” he says.

“If you don’t have cultural diversity in our politics, you don’t have a politics that’s representative. That’s a pretty basic problem.”

Dr Blair Williams from the Global Institute for Women’s Leadership at ANU says while an exact representation of the community isn’t possible, “it just needs to be a bit more focused on being less of a white boys’ club from a certain background”.

There has been a strong focus for some time now on increasing the number of women elected, but Williams says there also should have been thought put into improving cultural diversity. She’d also like to see more young people, people with disabilities and those from different class backgrounds.

The problem is self-perpetuating, says Race Discrimination Commissioner Chin Tan. If people don’t see anyone like them in Parliament, they’re less likely to get involved in the political process.

“The lack of diverse and inclusive parliaments means certain groups are poorly represented and their interests are not well spoken for,” he says.

“Even aside from the importance of involving diverse voices in the legislative process, Parliament provides a tremendous platform for engaging in public debate. We have often seen that when politicians from diverse backgrounds enter Parliament, they achieve great outcomes by focusing attention on issues that might otherwise be overlooked.”

Soutphommasane points to the agitation in some quarters for abolishing section 18C of the Race Discrimination Act, which protects against hate speech, saying the lack of diversity can contribute to a distorted political debate.

“A monochrome political class will have some blind spots,” he says.

The question of how to fix the problem is not easy, nor will it happen quickly. Those who advocate a quota arrangement point to Labor’s gains in gender diversity.

It has taken the party more than 30 years from its first quota to reach equal representation. Former cabinet minister and deputy leader Jenny Macklin says quotas are still contested and there continues to be male resistance.

Emily’s List, an organisation that backs progressive women running for Parliament, published a paper in 2019 that recommended Labor introduce “tandem quotas” for women and cultural diversity with different targets for safe seats, marginal seats and the party executive.

Williams says these types of tandem quotas benefit culturally diverse women but are less good for “majority men and majority women”. An alternative could be a kind of reverse quota.

“So you only have a certain amount of white men in Parliament and when you hit that number, then you have to diversify,” Williams says.

“If you do look at other styles of quotas, like the tandem quotas … you do run the risk of having, say, 30 per cent of people preselected who are women and culturally diverse, that still means that the other 70 per cent can be white men.”

Labor MP Peter Khalil, whose parents migrated from Egypt to Australia in the 1970s, said this week MPs with diverse backgrounds “should not be token or just be making up the numbers”. Rather, parties had to show a real commitment.

His colleague Anne Aly, who was herself born in Egypt, also called on her party to do more than just pay lip service to multiculturalism.

Other MPs also called for action, with Ed Husic saying Labor had to do a stocktake of its membership and have a serious conversation about how to reflect the community, and senator Jenny McAllister saying it was time for “bold actions”.

But not everyone thinks quotas are the answer.

Osmond Chiu, an ALP member and research fellow at the Per Capita think tank, says the party needs to work out the extent of its problem with diversity before it can address it.

Any talk of quotas to improve cultural diversity or candidates “is putting the cart before the horse” when change throughout the whole party organisation is needed.

“A lot of the focus has been on Fowler because it’s symptomatic, it symbolises this wider systemic problem that exists, that Australia has become a much more diverse country … but our institutions, such as Parliament, haven’t really kept up,” he says.

Liberal MP Dave Sharma says there’s no doubt all parties including his own have to more actively recruit people with different backgrounds instead of continuing the “pretty laissez-faire attitude” they have now.

Since his election – replacing Labor’s Lisa Singh as the only person of Indian heritage in Parliament – he has often heard from people in the Indian Australian community asking how they can become involved in politics.

He doesn’t believe in quotas but points to the work of the Conservatives in the UK to transform from a “very stuffy, traditional party” to the more diverse outfit after the party machinery actively sought “people from outside the usual breeding grounds of politics”.

It is as much as smart politics as the right thing to do.

“People are much more inclined to vote and support for, empathise with or have a connection with people that have a similar life experience,” Sharma says.

“That doesn’t just mean ethnically, it can be religiously, it can be professionally, it can be if you’ve got a disability, all those sorts of things … help your political brand strength.”

Tan says this is why parties must look beyond candidate preselection and make sure there are people from diverse backgrounds welcomed and involved at grassroots and administrative levels too.

“Parties stand to gain from this by broadening their base, widening their gaze, and attracting the additional talents that exist within diverse communities,” he says.

“I think this would in turn lead to more diverse candidates being preselected.”

Changing the face of Parliament will require hard calls from political leaders, Soutphommasane says.

“You can’t conjure up more diversity in your parliamentary ranks simply by saying you like multiculturalism. Or by saying that it’ll come next election.”

Source: ‘Be less of a white boys’ club’: How to address Parliament’s lack of diversity

Australia:University students will be trained to spot foreign interference

Will be interesting to see how the training works in practice and possible lessons learned for Canada:

University students will be trained to spot foreign interference threats on campus and report them to authorities under proposed new rules aimed at significantly beefing up universities’ responsibilities for countering Chinese government influence on campuses.

Academics and students involved in research collaborations with overseas institutions will also get specific training on how to “recognise, mitigate and handle concerns of foreign interference”, following security agencies’ concerns about critical research being stolen.

The measures are contained in new draft foreign interference guidelines for universities, which are being furiously debated among university leaders and government officials. The federal government has already been forced to review a key element of the guidelines, which would have required all academics to disclose their membership of foreign political parties over the past decade, following a fierce backlash from university chiefs.

Following growing concerns from Australia’s security agencies about the risk of research theft by China and other foreign actors, the guidelines state that students and staff are to “receive training on, and have access to information about how foreign interference can manifest on campus and how to raise concerns in the university or with appropriate authorities”.

The measures are also aimed at addressing reports of students and academics being harassed by pro-Beijing groups on campuses. They propose that orientation programs should be used to “promote to all staff and students ways to report within their university concerns of foreign interference, intimidation and harassment that can lead to self-censorship”. Universities will also be required to have policies that set out how reported “concerns are tracked, resolved and recorded and shared” internally and when they should be reported to outside authorities.

To oversee these measures, the guidelines state that universities must have an “accountable authority” – either a senior executive or executive body – that will have responsibility for research collaborations with overseas institutions, and reviewing security risks and communicating them with the government.

The guidelines have been drafted by the Universities Foreign Interference Taskforce (UFIT), a collaborative body that includes university vice-chancellors and government officials. The final version will replace existing guidelines, which are far less prescriptive. The proposal has prompted considerable concern among academic leaders about the mandatory language underpinning the new requirements, and what consequences, if any, universities will face from government if they fail to implement them.

Federal Education Minister Alan Tudge has declined to comment on “what is and isn’t in the draft guidelines”, but said earlier this year he was deeply concerned by a Human Rights Watch report that revealed accounts of Chinese international students being surveilled and harassed by their pro-Beijing classmates.

The report found that students were self-censoring in class out of fear comments critical of the Chinese Communist Party would be reported to authorities, with several students saying their parents in China had been hauled into police stations over their campus activities. Academics interviewed by Human Rights Watch also reported self-censorship practices, saying sensitive topics such as Taiwan had become too difficult to teach without a backlash from pro-Beijing students.

The report’s author, Sophie McNeill, said the draft guidelines indicated the government had taken the report’s findings into account.

“This focus had been missing from the previous guidelines, so it is very welcome these issues are now being recognised and addressed. It is critical the final guidelines include practical measures to safeguard academic freedom and address issues of harassment, surveillance and self-censorship faced by international students and staff,” Ms McNeill said.

Some universities have already taken steps to respond to the issues highlighted by Human Rights Watch. The University of Technology Sydney, for example, updated its orientation program for international students this semester to include guidance on acceptable behaviour and how students could report intimidation or surveillance by other students.

“We have certainly made it clear to students that what is discussed in classrooms is not something that should be reported on to the embassy,” Mr Watt, UTS deputy vice-chancellor, said.

“We’re not encouraging students to spy on each other. But rather, it’s saying: if you get doxxed or bullied or feel unable to express your views in a lecture here is the support available to you and here’s what you should do.”

The university’s misconduct rules allow for a range of penalties in response to unacceptable behaviour, including potential expulsion in serious cases.

Source: https://www.smh.com.au/politics/federal/university-students-will-be-trained-to-spot-foreign-interference-20210830-p58n3s.html

Friday essay: Our utopia … careful what you wish for

While arguably Canada has done better than Australia in recent times, some unfortunate common elements in our early history, ranging from our anti-Indigenous policies and practices to immigration and wartime restrictions against minority groups.

And, a memory from a high school English class where we looked at utopias in literature, Thomas More “coined the word ‘utopia’ from the Greek ou-topos meaning ‘no place’ or ‘nowhere’. It was a pun – the almost identical Greek word eu-topos means ‘a good place’.”

Roman Quaedvlieg standing tall in his smart black suit — medals glistening, insignia flashing — looked every bit the man-in-uniform from central casting when he posed between then Prime Minister Tony Abbott and Immigration Minister Peter Dutton on 1 July 2015 to launch a new paramilitary unit to protect Australia’s borders.

Australian Border Force was modelled on a similar agency created in Britain two years earlier but with a distinctive accent. Its Operation Sovereign Borders had changed the culture of military, policing and customs agencies in Australia as they were pushed out of their silos with a new shared priority: stop refugees arriving by boat.

Just 14 months earlier Scott Morrison, then the Immigration Minister, had announced the formation of the new armed and uniformed force, describing it as the “reform dividend from stopping the boats”.

The 70 year-old department had gained a new role: “Border Protection”. The old tags — “Multiculturalism”, “Citizenship” and “Ethnic Affairs” — were artefacts of other ages when population growth coupled with social cohesion had been the goal. The armed Border Force that had emerged out of the chrysalis of the old customs service, complete with new uniforms, ranks and insignia, on that mid-winter day was another sign of Canberra’s increasing preoccupation with security and militarisation.

Fear and safety were still at the heart of the political narrative just as they had been for most of the time since 2001, when Prime Minister John Howard won an unlikely election victory by declaring over and over: “We will decide who comes to this country and the circumstances under which they come”.

He liked to reassure people that Australia would still be taking more than its share of refugees, but the proportion of overseas-born residents fell over the early years of his prime ministership. After decades of multiculturalism the Australian ear was once again being attuned to new arrivals as threat.


Taking it to the streets

By 2015, Australia’s proportion of overseas-born residents was nudging the all-time high of 30% reached in the 1890s, but multiculturalism was still a grubby word.

Without irony, Commissioner Quaedvlieg cut to the chase, reducing the new nearly 6,000-strong agency’s role to its essence: “to protect our utopia”. Decades before, the political philosopher Isaiah Berlin had elegantly demolished the idea of utopias, suggesting they were “a fiction deliberately constructed as satires intended to shame those who control existing regimes”.

A month after the launch of Border Force, its first big public exercise, Operation Fortitude, was announced. Officers were to walk the streets of Melbourne and seek proof of the right of residence of “any individual we cross paths with”. The warning was clear: If you commit border fraud you should know it’s only a matter of time before you are caught.

The residents of the Melbourne branch of “our utopia” fought back with a dose of theatricality, to prove Berlin’s point, and the joint operation with the Victorian Police was abandoned in a flurry of protests and press releases. Prime Minister Abbott declared, “Nothing happened here except the issue of a poorly worded press release”.

Within a couple of years, the uniformed commissioner from central casting had gone. The intent, however, remained clear. Immigration might be at an all-time high, but exclusion was still the key, and national security was at the centre of Australian public life.

Ills of the past and present

Deciding who could come and the circumstances under which they could enter the country has, as we have been again reminded during COVID times, been central to the management of the Australian utopia since 1901.

Again Isaiah Berlin notes the:

[…] idea of the perfect society is a very old dream, whether because of the ills of the present which lead men to conceive what their world would be like without them … or perhaps they are social fantasies – simple exercises in the poetical imagination.

Australia at the time of Federation was awash with bad poetry by mediocre poets. So if conceiving the nation as a utopia was an exercise of the poetical imagination, it was inevitably flawed.

The first step towards the creation of Australia’s white utopia was brutal and relentless. It depended on the humiliation and elimination, by design and neglect, of the million First Nations people who in 1788 still called the continent home as they had done for countless generations, managed with an elaborate, ancient patchwork of languages, social relations, trade and lore.

Although the Australian Constitution explicitly excluded them from the census, by the time the 3.7 million new arrivals became Australians in 1901, the First Nations population had been reduced, systematically and deliberately, to about 90,000 people.

The men who debated the legislation that would shape the new nation preferred to avert their eyes. They were not, however, ignorant of what had gone before.

Even in a world shaped by race there was argument, opposition and some shame. Months after Australia became legally, unequivocally white, the parliament debated whether to recognise the survivors who preceded them.

The senate leader and future High Court justice Richard O’Connor argued that just as the right to vote was being extended to women — because in some states, they already had the franchise — the same principle should apply to Aboriginal people who had the right to vote in four of the former colonies. “It would be a monstrous thing, an unheard-of piece of savagery”, he declared, “to treat the Aboriginals whose land we were occupying to deprive them absolutely of any right to vote in their own country”.

Not everyone agreed. The former Tasmanian premier Edward Braddon summed up the majority sentiment:

We are told we have taken their country from them. But it seems a poor sort of justice to recompense those people for the loss of the country by giving them votes.

This argument prevailed. White women and Maori were the only exceptions: “no aboriginal native of Australia, Asia, Africa or the Islands of the Pacific” could enrol to vote. Within its first two years, the parliament had failed two moral tests.

At the heart of the Australia embraced by those who met in Melbourne in the Federation Parliament was the idea of a model society populated by men like them. Utopian dreams had played out in many ways in shaping the new nation. A decade earlier, nearly 300 colonialists sailed to Paraguay in a flawed attempt to create a more perfect, and even whiter, society called New Australia.

Prime Minister Edmund Barton, in the middle of the first year of the century, firmly grounded the new nation in the “instinct of self-preservation quickened by experience”. Optimism tempered by fear.

What became known as the White Australia policy was necessary, he said, because “we know that coloured and white labour cannot exist side by side; we are well aware that China can swamp us with a single year’s surplus population”.

Future prime minister Billy Hughes spelt out the two steps of this dance when he candidly observed that having “killed everybody else to get it”, the inauguration of Canberra — which they considered calling Utopia — as the national capital “was unfolding without the slightest trace of the race we have banished from the face of the earth […] we should not be too proud lest we should too in time disappear. We must take steps to safeguard the foothold we now have”.

Fresh eyes

In 1923 Myra Willard — a recent graduate of the University of Sydney — paid Melbourne University Press to publish its first monograph, her book History of the White Australia Policy to 1920. She wrote with a contemporaneous eye.

The debates in the colonies before Federation were still close enough for the lines between them and the 1901 legislation to be thickly etched with detail. She grimly recounted the way each colony penalised and excluded “coolies” and “celestials”.

“The desire to guard themselves effectively against the dangers of Asiatic immigration was one of the most powerful influences which drew the Colonies together,” she wrote. She quoted with approval the now infamous speech by Attorney-General Alfred Deakin in which he described the principle of white Australia as the “universal motive power” that had dissolved colonial opposition to Federation. At heart, he declared, was “the desire that we should be one people and remain one people without the admixture of other races”.

The Australian utopia depended on a “united race”. This would be ensured by “prohibiting the intermarriage and association that could degrade”. As Deakin declaimed in September that year, “inspired by the same ideas and an aspiration towards the same ideals of a people possessing a cast of character, tone of thought … unity of race is an absolute essential to the unity of Australia”.

The legislation was finally, if somewhat reluctantly, signed by Governor General Lord Hopetoun just before Christmas 1901. London was discomfited by the determination of the new nation to exclude and proposed amendments to save face with her imperial allies in Europe and Japan. Willard wrote in 1923, “Australia’s policy does not as yet seem to be generally understood or sanctioned by world opinion”. It was, she maintained, despite the negative connotations, really a positive policy that ensured Australia would be a productive global contributor of resources and supplies.

By the time the legislation passed, those with Chinese heritage were fewer than they had been in the 19th century. It did not take long before Indian residents who had lived in Fremantle for years, as British subjects, were denied the right to return to Australia after visiting their homeland. Those of German heritage, who made up about 5% of the population at the turn of the century, soon became pariahs — wartime internment was followed by the deportation of 6,000 Australians of German heritage.

Gough Whitlam revoked the policy as one of his first acts as prime minister.

“Right up to our election in 1972”, he recalled, “there had to be, from any country outside Europe, an application for entry referred to Canberra and a confidential report on their appearance […] The photograph wasn’t enough, because by a strong light or powdering you could reduce the colour of your exposed parts. It was said that the test was in extreme cases, ‘Drop your daks’ because you can’t change the colour of your bum’.”

For Michael Wesley, now deputy vice chancellor international at the University of Melbourne, and thousands of others, this meant that his Australian-born mother could return home with her Indian husband and brown babies without fear of deportation.


The echoes still resonate. Fast forward to this year, when the average time in immigration detention rose to 627 days and the then Minister for Home Affairs, Peter Dutton, describeddeporting New Zealand-born long-term Australian residents who had been jailed as “taking the trash out”.

The suite of bills passed in that first parliament — at least as much as the Constitution — determined the social nature of Australia for much of the 20th century. As Deakin said a couple of years after the White Australia policy was adopted, “it goes down to the roots of our national existence, the roots from which the British social system has sprung”.

By the time he was prime minister, the bureaucratic method of exclusion was even clearer: “the object of the [language] test is not to allow persons to enter the Commonwealth, but to keep them out”. John Howard could not have asked for a better crib sheet than the speeches of the Federation Parliament when preparing his 2001 election campaign.


Survival against the odds

That Australia has emerged as a cohesive multicultural society, with people drawn from hundreds of different countries — and increasingly from those that were once explicitly excluded — is a remarkable achievement. That the First Nations people have survived is in many ways even more remarkable.

But the foundation story of our notional utopia is still undigested and recurs unwittingly in policy language and political rhetoric, in legal and administrative practice and personal abuse.

The brutal speed and wilful political rejection of the Uluru Statement from the Heart would have shamed even the members of the Federation Parliament; the failure to turn enquiry into action on the oldest issue in the land — treaty, truth-telling and settlement with the descendants of those who have always been here — is unconscionable.

Methods of border control are now more likely to be couched in the convoluted small print attached to visas, employment conditions and bureaucratic processes, but at some level the old order prevails — there has been no national apology to those who were humiliated by the White Australia policy, no formal truth-telling to address these sins of the past at a national level. It has taken 23 years for the compensation recommended by Stolen Children inquiry to be parsimoniously granted.

Hands are thrown up in mock astonishment when another example of institutional or official racism, discrimination or maltreatment makes the headlines. Over a decade, the cost of detaining (and breaking) those refugees who felt compelled to leave their homeland reached double-digit billions. International criticism is once again worn with bravado as a badge of honour rather than a mark of shame. It was surprisingly easy to jettison 50 years of careful relationship-building with China.

Ever since those first debates in the Federation Parliament there has been a moral deficit in Australian politics, a reluctance to go back to first principles, to meaningfully make amends. Until this is addressed there will always be an action deficit. The big public health campaigns have not extended to addressing the lingering racism that has equally pernicious consequences.

No national political leaders rose to the defence of Adam Goodes when the 2014 Australian of the Year was called “an ape” and booed off the footy field. None came to the defence of Yassmin Abdel-Magied when she sought to contribute to public life. The response to the never-ending list of Aboriginal deaths in custody is couched in mealy-mouthed administrivia.

When Prime Minister Julia Gillard was battered by misogynist hectoring, the message to other women was clear: don’t get ideas above your station. Almost every week a woman dies at the hands of her intimate partner, but overwhelmed police seem powerless to help.

Our treatment of refugees attracts a global condemnation that is dismissed as readily today as it was in 1901. Behrouz Boochani will probably never set foot in the country he described so searingly in his much awarded No Friend but the Mountains, and despite public support, the Murugappans — the Biloela family — spent nearly three years in costly detention on Christmas Island.

Yet when the government banned Australian citizens and permanent residents who happened to be in India as COVID raged from returning home under threat of fines and jail terms, the outcry was impossible to ignore.

The brutality of the old ways still lives in the memory. A colleague recalled her traumatic fear, during the family’s first trip to India with their Pakistani-born father, that the White Australia policy would be reintroduced and they would be denied re-entry. It had happened to those returning to Fremantle Harbour a century earlier — and, astonishingly, again in 2021.

Utopia out of step

Public sentiment is at odds with that of those who are most committed to the old status quo. Survey after survey shows a populace willing to embrace change that means people are treated better. But there are few leaders willing to make the case, fearful of an imagined backlash, rather than embracing the need for big tough conversation. Transformation is left to the slow accretion of a new normal.

Tens of thousands turned up at the football waving “I stand with Adam” banners years before the AFL officially apologised to Goodes.

Those affronted by official treatment of refugees engage in endless protest campaigns, travel to detention centres, provide support and lobby. The Black Lives Matter movement has galvanised some of the biggest demonstrations seen in the country, despite COVID, and the calls for action on the unfinished business of the 33-old Royal Commission into Aboriginal Deaths in Custody and the other inquiries are becoming impossible to ignore.

There is much to be learnt from First Nations people. Their survival and generosity is an inspiration that needs to be taken seriously and acted upon. Without righting this foundational wrong, this country will be forever stuck on a political treadmill, running but going nowhere.

Art speaks volumes

It is striking that one of the most important Aboriginal artists to have captivated the world came from a place called Utopia. Hers was the land of the Alyawarr people for millennia before its brief life as a cattle station. It is a place as impoverished as any of the remote settlements in northern Australia, returned to their traditional owners with only grudging support from the state. But the semi-arid country is the source of dreaming and a culture that speaks to the world when brought to life on canvas. Emily Kame Kngwarreye’s paintings are displayed in galleries, palaces and private collections around the world.

They are more than great works of art. It is what Australian art always aspired to be. In the words of the influential Aboriginal scholar and advocate Marcia Langton, Emily’s paintings

[…] fulfil the primary historical function of Australian art by showing the settler Australian audience, caught ambiguously between old and new lands, a new way to belong in this place rather than another […]

Creating a utopia, or at least an aspiration to do better, requires more imagination and courage than our current system of professional politics permits.

It needs more art and better faith. Politics, like everything else, is now in thrall to corporate modes of organisation and communication.

The emphasis is on the mission (to get elected) and KPIs (to deliver on promises). The headline of every corporate plan is the “vision”. It is always the hardest thing to define. But without a vision, any plan is meaningless. Our utopia needs a new vision, one not tinged by shame. The old ones have failed the test of time.

This is an edited extract of Facing foundational wrongs — careful what you wish for, republished with permission from GriffithReview73: Hey Utopia!, edited by Ashley Hay.

Source: Friday essay: Our utopia … careful what you wish for

Australia Census 2021 seeks to understand what it means to be Australian, but ignores the complexities of ancestry

Of note. Canadian parallel with 2016 census that no longer included Jewish under ethnic ancestry given not in top 50 (see Technical report on changes in response related to the census ethnic origin question: Focus on Jewish origins, 2016 Census integrated with 2011 National Household Survey):

According to tradition, in 16th century BC, Cecrops, the mythical first king of Athens, conducted a census of his subjects. Each Athenian was compelled to provide a single stone and when these were counted, it was determined that the city contained 20,000 inhabitants.

The 2021 Australian Census is much more complicated in that it asks questions about income, qualifications, education, hours worked, hours assisting those with a disability, hours expended looking after children and significantly, considering the purported multicultural nature of Australian society, questions as to ancestry and language.

It is these latter two questions that give rise to concern. Firstly, there appears to be no question as to ethnic and/or cultural identity on the Census. There is an apparent lack of understanding by those conducting or commissioning the Census that ethnic identity is an issue separate, though ancillary to that of ancestry. For instance, one can be of diverse ancestry and yet identify ethnically in a different manner altogether, according to religious, cultural, linguistic or political factors.

Even if one accepts this lack of appreciation as to the importance of ethnic identity in understanding the Australian population, and its incorrect conflation with ancestry, the ancestry question on the Census provides cause for grave disquiet. In scrolling down the various ancestries listed, ranging from the Anglo-Celtic, to Chinese, Italian and beyond, I was interested to note this time, the omission of Greek. While it is not expedient for a government to list every ancestral group on a census form, it would be interesting to know the reason for the omission of the Greeks, being one of the oldest, historically and numerically significant communities in this country. It may well be that demographic change has seen our numbers (as counted by a census which usually is conducted during a month when significant members of our community are traditionally holidaying in the motherland en masse) diminish. To diminish our prominence and importance is quite another matter altogether, a cursory tale about the use and misuse of statistics in interpreting our multifaceted nature.

There is something deeply disquieting about being compelled to participate in a Census in a multicultural country that involves scrolling down the prescribed list of ancestries and then having to choose a box labelled “Other.” Reinforcing to people of diverse ancestry that they are “Other,” tacitly conveys to them the message that they are considered to be not truly an organic part of this nation’s society, regardless of their citizenship status or place of birth. It would be infinitely more respectful then, if in future censuses, either all known ancestral groups were listed, or better still, that participants, rather than choose from government sanctioned ancestries, are permitted to merely record their ancestral affiliations themselves, instead of being officially termed outsiders and thus by implication, subversive.

Conversely, in permitting the free expression of ancestry under the option “Other,” the government is allowing for a Pandora’s Box of affiliations to emerge. With a debate raging in certain sections of our community with regards to expressing our ancestry as “Hellenic” rather than “Greek,” which is considered by some to be a western imposed term, a course of action that is not recommended given that it will mystify the statisticians of the Australian Bureau of Statistics, who presumably do not have training in cultural anthropology and hinder a true depiction of our numbers, the option “Other,” is also giving rise to a debate about the constituent parts of what it means to be Greek. Some people I have spoken to feel passionately about their Arvanite, Pontian or Vlach ancestry and wonder whether they should record this aspect of their “Greekness” in the census. How are we to interpret the ancestry of someone who claims that they are Cypriot? Do we not need to understand whether they interpret this as being part of the Turkish, Greek, Maronite or Armenian cultural world? Do we consider this as evidence of an emerging identity that contains all, or none of these components? This is precisely the reason why culture and ancestry must be addressed separately in the Census, and why not doing so is problematic, to say the least.

Scrolling down the Census

While I was scrolling down the Census form, seeking to record my Greek ancestry, I noted mentally, the entries for English, Scottish and Irish (but not Welsh), the main ancestries for the dominant group within Australian society. I also noted the term Aboriginal and found this too, disturbing, in that the dominant group appears to be attempting to pigeonhole and compartmentalise a vast and intricately diverse number of cultural and ethnic groups under one blanket term that does nothing to highlight their own uniqueness and if anything, serves to obfuscate their existence. Whether intentional or not, this is a form of racism that should not have any place in any sector of modern Australia, let alone its governing institutions.

To my utmost perplexity, below the entry for Torres Strait Islander, I discovered the term “Australian.” Given the previous entries for “Aboriginals” and “Torres Strait Islanders” what are we to understand from this term? Is it suggesting that our native peoples are not

“Australian?” Considering that all of us except for our native peoples draw their ancestry from outside the Australian continent, the inexplicable inclusion of this contentious term merely serves to highlight the dispossession of our native peoples and the appropriation of their sovereignty and affiliation to the land. Further, it again subtly reminds those who do not share the same ancestry as the members of the dominant group, that they are not “Australian.” The dysphoria and sense of alienation created by such a clumsy rendering of terms again reinforces the need for cultural identity to be distinguished from ancestry on future Census forms and raises questions about the manner in which our governments view our communities.

As was the case in the 2016 Census, in its current iteration, the Australian Bureau of Statistics has made no provision in the question regarding which languages other than English the population speaks, for the possibility that some Australian citizens are multilingual and use a number of languages on a daily basis. Instead, participants may only choose to list one language other than English. This obscures and restricts the gleaning of a true picture of the linguistic heterogeneity of this country. For example, on any given day, my children will be speaking to each other and to me, in Greek. As they move from the kitchen down the hallway towards my wife, they call to her in Assyrian. My wife, on the phone to her mother, will be speaking to her in Arabic, so that the children will not understand a conversation relating to their grandfather’s declining health. Through the telephone, my wife will hear my father-in-law address my mother-in-law in Kurdish, so that in turn, my wife won’t understand what he is saying. Back on the other side of the house, I will be speaking to a client in Mandarin Chinese. Linguistic polyphonies of this nature form part and parcel of the polyglot reality of Multiculturalism and the reason as to why there is an official attempt not to capture this statistically is at best, incomprehensible. Furthermore, there is no follow up question as to the level of one’s proficiency in the language claimed to be spoken or indeed, as to which language is the primary language in use. These are both important aspects in interpreting the linguistic demography in this country. For example, while someone may be fluent in English, which language do they use more often and when? How proficient is someone in the language they claim to speak, especially if this is the language of an important political or trading partner? Questions of these nature, vital for the creation of coherent language policy, are completely ignored, suggesting that despite the rhetoric, officials see themselves as presiding over a benign, monolingual monoculture.

Ultimately, the Census says just as much about those who fashion it, as those who participate in it. It is difficult not to conclude that the carefully calibrated narrowness of the questions referring to culture, ancestry and linguistic identity, seem calculated to reinforce a narrative imposed and perpetuated by the ruling echelons of the dominant class. As such, we can be justified in harbouring a lack of confidence in the 2021 Census’ ability to provide us with an accurate depiction of the intricate complexities of our social make up and in being concerned as to the use made of any such flawed statistics, by legislators.

Source: Census Censure: Census 2021 seeks to understand what it means to be Australian, but ignores the complexities of ancestry