I Am / We Are / You May or May Not Be, Depending

The concept of ‘Multicultural Australia’ is surrounded by hype. It’s something the Federal Government pumps into the tourist propaganda it sends overseas and even tries to sell to its general public. The idea is that Australia is the original refugee island, a place where everyone from everywhere can come together in a ‘paradise of dissent’. Aboriginal genocide and the Stolen Generation, hostilities towards the Chinese at Lambing Flat during the Gold Rush, the post-World War II White Australia Policy, the Tampa incident and the Children Overboard, are mere road bumps in our history of a fair go for all. On every Australia Day, accompanied by a stirring rendition of the Seekers’ “I Am Australian” (which repeats ‘I am / You are / We are Australian’ to drive home the point of unity in variety), these episodes are treated as past tense and so become easier to deal with.

The theory behind ‘looking forward’ involves Australia using its postcolonial history of racism, as David Brooks suggests in his essay, ‘On the Road Again’ [Meanjin 56.3&4 (1997)], “to build, to construct our own sense of ourselves and our situation”. With such a rich founding tradition of European-inspired monoculturalism, this theory practically assures Australia a harmonious future. “Perhaps Australians, the vast majority of whom are immigrants still coming to terms with a strange land and their own decracination, their own voluntary or involuntary severing of pasts, have always been a little ahead in the game,” Brooks continues in the same hopeful vein. Yet while our political leaders evoke racial harmony in the construction of Australia’s national identity, the very same politicians buried their heads in the sand of Cronulla beach at recent evidence to the contrary. And with these actions, true multiculturalism — the ethnic and racial acceptance and equality of a non-homogenous community — has been granted permission to swerve off the main road, Mel-Gibson style, and continue on a route to the Far Right. A brief look at the history of immigration to Australia certainly backs up our claim to be a melting pot nation. The indigenous population saw the arrival of the Anglo-Celts and Europeans with the First Fleet, then more Anglo-Celts and Europeans during the Gold Rush, a period which also brought Chinese immigrants into the mix. After World War II Australia became home to the displaced thousands of Greece, Italy, Yugoslavia, Turkey and Lebanon, as well as a large number of Jewish migrants. Indo-Chinese refugees became the major group of immigrants in the ’70s and after that, Australia has pretty much left the door propped open (although it has been slammed in the faces of more than a few boat people). Every capital city can now boast a particular ethnic or cultural tradition — Adelaide has distinct German, Italian, Greek, Vietnamese and Sudanese threads running through it. The Jewish population plays a similar role in Melbourne, and in Sydney it is the Lebanese community that has made its mark — so strongly that “Arabic has become the third-most commonly spoken language after English and Chinese” in New South Wales (MigrationInformation.org). It is because of Australia’s significant Lebanese population that the conflict between Israel and Hezbollah has become, in some ways, a domestic one. Aussie-based supporters were able to set a fire under Foreign Affairs Minister Alexander Downer when it seemed Australia was falling behind the US and France in its bid to evacuate nationals in southern Lebanon. With the airport down, land routes bombed, and a glut of departing international ships in Beirut’s port, Downer stressed that waiting for a safe atmosphere in which to evacuate nationals is crucial: “There’s no point in providing buses and ships for [Australians] to get out if those buses are going to end up being attacked and people killed.” (See “Doorstop, Stirling, Adelaide“, on MP Alexander Downer’s website)

The Australian media and families of Lebanese-Australians stranded in the conflict have condemned select politicians for being, as they see it, behind the eight ball (lagging) and of needing to “pull their fingers out.” Even in this reluctant-to-rally era, 800 Melbournians took to the streets in mid-July to protest the Israeli offensive amid concerns for the safety of Lebanese-Australians working, visiting, or holidaying in Lebanon. In one of the many testimonials flooding our press at the moment, Rosemary Haddad, recently returned to Australia from Lebanon (via Syria), related her feelings of abandonment and disgust: “We are Australians and we were in a foreign country. We had no idea what to do or where to go… the only people that helped us were the local travel agents.” (The EpochTimes.com)

Whether it stems from concern or putting as big a distance between Australia and the Middle East as possible, or the opportunity to berate Howard’s government for its allegedly laissez-faire stance on intervention, the popular response from within Australia was that it wanted its people back. But media reports telling of a concerned Australia are difficult to conscionably absorb, particularly when put into context with the riots that took place in Sydney’s beachside suburb of Cronulla last December. Widely regarded as sparked by the bashing of a two white lifesavers by a group of “Arabic speaking” men, the altercation flamed into full-scale rioting around racial, cultural, territorial and gender issues.

Wielding one of the biggest pair of fire bellows amongst the action was the mainstream media. During the week preceding the riots, talkback radio host Alan Jones commented on the fight at Cronulla with his usual insight and subtlety: he repeated to his listeners the text message urging believers to “Come to Cronulla this weekend to take revenge. This Sunday every Aussie in the Shire get down to North Cronulla to support the Leb and wog bashing day…” Jones did little less than incite those among his audience who had even the smallest desire to purge the white sands of Sydney of “Middle Eastern grubs,” adding, “…you’re not allowed to say it. But I’m saying it.” (ABC.net.au)

It is strange that Jones, an early speechwriter for John Howard, was so willing to name what his former boss did not. The Prime Minister began by strongly condemning the violence, and correctly went on to say that “attacking people on the basis of their race, their appearance, their ethnicity, is totally unacceptable…” That aside, Howard reasoned the incident principally concerned “law and order” rather than general racist sentiment among Australians-an opinion shared by Federal Opposition leader Kim Beazley. Instead it was Morris Iemma, the Premier of New South Wales, who said the riots showed “the ugly face of racism in this country,” in which opinion he was joined by Kuranda Seyit, the director of the Forum on Australian-Islamic Relations. Seyit stated that the riots were the ultimate expression of the racism “running deeply in the Australian psyche. It’s been simmering for a few years but I think the latest incident here-people have really let loose their inherent racism and violence…”

At the time of these riots in Australia I was in France, arriving in Paris in time to witness the end of the civil unrest that occurred in November. No doubt my location at the time of hearing the news about Cronulla skewed my own way of looking at it. On the surface, the incidents are linked: both began with a specific attack which came to express each nation’s fear and frustration with issues of race and immigration. Now, I continue to see the riots in terms of racist nationalism, and how the conservative media broke the original story up and manipulated the pieces into two main, inflammatory images: that of the local, white as bread, iconic Aussie lifesaver and the insidious pack of ‘Middle Eastern’ youths, characterised by their ethnicity and the fact they were non-locals, visitors to the beach from the Western suburbs. Logic and reasoning do little to stop me from thinking these things, although they do at least suggest there is a much bigger and more complex story to Cronulla than a few short paragraphs.

What Cronulla started out as is different from what it became, and it is what it turned into that contrasts against the call to ‘bring them back’ from Lebanon. Those ‘individuals of Middle Eastern appearance’ attacking and under attack in Sydney last year belong to the same cultural group, and may even be the same people as those victims of circumstance trying to reunite with their families in the midst of someone else’s battle. This entire, diverse group of people are labelled ‘Australian nationals’ when overseas but ‘Arabic-speaking’ when at home; they are tolerated as victims of ethnic violence when removed by oceans, and universally condemned as its perpetrators at their local beach.

Maybe it’s quite enough to try to sell the idea of Australia as a ‘somewhat tolerant’ country rather than a ‘multicultural’ one, with all the latter’s suggestions of unity. Because if the idea of ‘I am / We are’ is accurate, then by race I am part of Cronulla, and part of all Australia’s dark past, no matter how much I am separated personally. And in all my confusion, that is an idea I cannot embrace with tolerance or acceptance.