Cultural change in Australia has been driven by generations of immigrants. But the generous spirit towards new arrivals has grown cold and now we stand at a crossroads.
There was a time when you needed to be a convicted felon to get a residence permit to enter Australia on any kind of long-term basis. Being a prison guard was another occupation that would qualify. Now that genealogy is all the rage, Australians are delighted to find a convict in their ancestral family mix, or even better an indigenous forebear.
There have been countless waves of immigration since the days of transportation, each contributing its own peculiar enrichment to what we know today as our distinctive Australian culture.
As my friend, the Barada elder Frank Budby, says whenever he hears people speak of the dispossession, ”The story’s not over yet, old mate.” And of course, Frank’s right. The story of the making of Australia’s culture is an ongoing process, each generation encountering and creating change, some of which sticks to the ribs of the country and a great deal of other stuff that looks good for a minute or two then falls away.
Ridiculously when you think of it, I’ve always prided myself not on being a sixth-generation Australian but on being an exemplary outsider. I’ve even been called an outsider by native-born white Australians, an outsider, a foreigner, a low-profile £10 Pom, and various other amusing and well-meant little gibes from a time now long past.
The currency of Australia’s contemporary culture struggles to bear these terms with any sense of authenticity. They are part of the detritus that is falling away and losing its meaning as we experience the realities of a fast-moving digital world that redesigns itself overnight while we’re sleeping.
My own claim to being an exemplary outsider, which for some existential reason I thought was a wonderful thing for a writer to be, was itself knocked on the head recently when my sister sent me the results of her Ancestry.com researches.
Ancestry was something I had never taken any interest in. My sister said in her letter, ”This will get your interest, Al!” It did. Among her information was a great-great-great-aunt of mine who was married in Castlemaine in 1870 and proceeded to produce a generation of Millers. The place is now crawling with Millers and Millars. So it turned out that by sneaking away from the metropolis 13 years ago to live the perfect life of the outsider in Castlemaine, I’d really only been coming home. What can you do?
If we live long enough, everything we learnt when we were kids is reversed and there comes a time when instead of knowing everything, as our wise elders once did, we know almost nothing and must rely on our children for information about our own society and how it works. I will make only one prediction about the future – for we all know that no matter how tempting it is, predicting the future is a fool’s game. My one prediction is that Australia tomorrow will not be the Australia of today, any more than the Australia of today is the same as that old white Australia of yesterday. If we hang on to our steady old verities we end up talking to ourselves and a few stodgy old mates just like ourselves, because everyone else has moved on.
Friends visiting from overseas often ask me if the Aborigines are ever going to make a comeback. My answer is, ”Go north, young woman, and see for yourself.” The Aboriginal comeback is well under way and it is only a matter of a generation at most before they are in control of the north the way the native Americans are in control of that beautiful city of Santa Fe.
The economic historians tell me we’ve had 20 years of a consistent increase in the net wealth of individuals in this country and that this is a record that makes us the leading country in the world for consistent net increase of wealth. Which all means, I suppose, that we are, or most of us are, worth a lot more today in real terms than we were 20 years ago. We are rich, it seems, by any world standard. Once upon a time, in fact a good deal more than 20 years ago, when we were a lot less rich than we are today, we threw open our borders to thousands of Vietnamese and Cambodian people who were seeking refuge from tyrannies.
Although we were poorer in those days, we nevertheless seemed to have enough to share around. Or we thought we did. And no one today, looking at the cultural enrichment that followed from this act of neighbourly largesse, would suggest we were mistaken in making these people welcome among us back then; people who have, of course, since then become ”us”.
That arrival of thousands of Asian people into Australia in fact turned out to be one of the great modern movements of immigration into this country, a movement from which they and their descendants, and this country as a whole, are still reaping the benefits. It was cultural change on a grand scale.
It was a good thing to do and we did it well back then. There wasn’t a lot of opposition to it. We felt some responsibility for those people and their needs. My dear friend Jacob Rosenberg, a hero of our time and a great Australian writer, was himself, along with his darling wife Esther, a refugee from tyranny when he first found a home and a welcome here. Jacob always remembered the generosity of Australians, the openness and the comradely spirit of the people he met and who made him welcome. And Jacob and Esther often said they had never encountered any sign of anti-Semitism in this country. This was something that made us all feel proud to be Australians. And our pride in this, I believe, was justified.
Thinking about such things, and remembering the extraordinary openness and generosity of people to me when I arrived here alone as a boy of 16, always made me feel that in choosing to spend my life doing my best to make a contribution to the culture of this great country, I had chosen a good life that was worth something. Whenever I received an award for my writing, which in its citation contained the words ”For an outstanding contribution to Australian cultural life” I felt confirmed in the rightness of my decision to commit my life to this great ongoing story of Australia’s immigrant culture, and I was proud to know myself a part of it.
When I saw Kevin Rudd on the television and heard him say in that bitter tone words to the effect that refugees who sought sanctuary here by boat would never set foot on Australian soil, but would be banished to a prison camp in a country that had no tradition of dealing with immigrants or refugees, and when no one resigned from the Labor Party in protest, I wanted to go into a state of denial. I didn’t want to deal with it, but wanted to go on as I had been, believing in the generosity of this rich country towards those who over the past two centuries have sought refuge here.
I am still trying to go on believing in what was once our genuine acceptance of a common humanity with those in need of our protection and care, a great Australian quality if ever there was one. Somehow, I tell myself, surely there has been a misunderstanding. Surely Australians are still the generous people I once knew. I want to believe we will turn around and admit our mistake and be big enough to offer a gracious apology and go ahead and build centres here in our own country, as we once did for migrants from the Baltic countries and other far-flung places from which they had fled.
Surely we will find the decency to deal with the problem of refugees arriving here by boat? Surely we can’t go on deciding not who comes to Australia, but who goes to Manus Island? It is a Guantanamo solution and we all know it is immoral and deeply un-Australian in its meanness. A great irony in this situation is of course that Afghans were some of the earliest successful settlers in this country.
But does all this really concern you and me? I mean, we’re a rich country, so can’t we just enjoy our good fortune and get on with our beautiful lives without castigating ourselves over the fate of these poor folk we’ve sent off to Manus Island and other concentration camps? I mean, clearly they made the wrong decision when they gave their money to the smugglers and stepped on board those leaky old boats. Is it our fault they did that? Why spoil such beautiful beach weather with all this soul-searching and questioning of where we stand morally today as a nation compared to where we once stood, in those good old days when we made refugees from tyranny welcome among us no matter how they got here?
Or is that too much of a golden age myth? Were we really ever like that, or are we just kidding ourselves? God, I hope we were really like that, and I hope we can be like that again. No, I believe we can be again. I have to believe it. I’ve seen cultural change here and I’m ready for some more.
I’m ready to give up a lot of things and let them slip into the past but I’m not ready yet to give up that great old idea of Australians as a humane and generous people. I’ve given my life and my best endeavours to the cultural realities of this country and I want to go on seeing myself as part of that story, the story Frank Budby tells us is not over yet. And, who knows, maybe one of these days some Afghan refugee will discover a great-great-great aunt who was married here back in 1870 and who mothered a brood of little Aussies way back then. What a homecoming that would be. For all of us.
Alex Miller is an author and essayist.