Defining Moments in postwar immigration panel discussion
Race Discrimination Commissioner Dr Tim Soutphommasane, former immigration minister Amanda Vanstone, media executive Marina Go, cultural consultant Tasneem Chopra and historian Frank Bongiorno with ABC RN presenter Paul Barclay, 21 September 2016
MATHEW TRINCA: Good evening everybody. Congratulations for coming out on such a mixed night, I think we can say. I know that there’s a bit of sun just at the end of the day, but it really did come down today. Although when the rain comes down at this time of the year and you have a major exhibition on in the Museum, directors secretly smile inside –
MATHEW TRINCA: – because they think, ‘I know everybody will be searching for a nice warm space and to see something great.’ The History of the World in 100 Objects is a great show and so there was a part of me, perhaps not the best part that said, ‘Come on rain, rain, rain.’
Good evening and thanks for joining us tonight all of you intrepid souls. For those of you who don’t know me, I’m Mat Trinca, the Director of the National Museum of Australia. As always here when we commence a function at the National Museum I like to begin by acknowledging the Ngunnawal and Ngambri peoples of this land, the traditional custodians of this place on which we’re meeting, and offer my respects to their elders both past and present.
I’d also like to extend that welcome acknowledgement to all of the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples who might be joining us tonight. Good day to all of you. Thank you for coming out for this important discussion about the impact of immigration on Australian culture and identity.
This panel, as I’m sure you know by now, is part of an ongoing series in the Defining Moments in Australian History project which really aims to stimulate debate and discussion about the things that matter in our national life. As you know – we might not know but I’ll tell you – the project was launched by the NMA in 2014 with co-patrons Mr Michael Ball and the Honourable Michael Kirby.
In consultation with the panel of eminent historians, we developed an initial list of a 100 Defining Moments. You can see them down in the Main Hall. Then we asked the public to nominate their own and the response has been astonishing, really. More than 250 extra nominations that are on our website – you can have a look at them when you get the chance – about moments in our history that people think matter, that are important to us.
The Australian Government’s 1945 postwar immigration drive features in the original list of a hundred defining moments, and there’s many other moments on that list that actually have a connection or relevance when you’re thinking about the nation’s experience of immigration. I think some of you will imagine rightly that this is a subject that has special resonance for me.
My own family on both sides came from northern Italy in the course of the remarkable 20th century, in Australian life. Though, in my family’s case it was actually before World War Two. It was in the 1920s and the 1930s.
It goes without saying I think, that modern Australia is a reflection of the people from many places that have now come from abroad and joined the First Australians on this continent over the course of more than two centuries.
The new arrivals have brought their cultures and their traditions, their food and their drink – thank God – their passions and their prejudices, their histories and their stories, which over time have really come to be taken into and embedded in Australian life.
Some, like the early convicts didn’t necessarily come by choice. Others saw opportunity in a new land, probably like my family. Still, others have fled oppression or war and made their way to Australia as a safe haven.
The path to a multicultural Australia hasn’t always been smooth, as demonstrated by the ongoing public debate on immigration, but Australia, I think, is notable for having created a stable, affluent society that has successfully welcomed immigrants from more than 200 countries around the globe.
Sometimes I do think that we forget that it has been in sum, a great success. I’m looking forward to the discussion tonight, not least because of the questions that we’re still wrestling with about our immigration policy and practices.
The Museum embraces these opportunities to debate and discuss our past and in fact, the Defining Moments in Australian History project is all about debate and discussions, I think you’ll have learned by now.
Tonight, our esteemed panel will explore how Australian attitudes towards immigration have changed over the decades and how postwar immigration contributed to and changed Australia. Now, I’m going to hand over to Paul Barclay, our host from ABC Radio National to introduce our panellists and to begin the discussion. Thank you Paul.
PAUL BARCLAY: Thanks, Mat. Thanks very much. It’s a pleasure to be here at the National Museum. We are recording this discussion for my program, Big Ideas on ABC RN and it will be broadcast barring any last minute changes on Monday 3 October at 8pm, and available online via podcast etc.
Just further to what Mat was saying, I grew up in the eastern suburbs of Melbourne in the 1970s where I went to a co-ed high school. In my year was a kid called George Kapiniaris who would go on to become a member of the Wogs Out Of Work comedy troupe. George was one of my schoolmates, one of the many kids actually at my high school of Greek and Italian parents.
The children of the postwar migrants. These were the kids I grew up with in my brand new high school in East Doncaster. The Italian migrants came to Melbourne, they moved into and transformed Carlton, a suburb that I hung out in my university and post-university years that I lived in.
Most of those Italians then sold their terrace houses to the inner city yuppies at a huge profit, and moved out into the suburbs of Victoria in my case. There they became really part of the nation along with the Greeks, the Dutch, the Eastern Europeans – you name them.
The Indo-Chinese refugees came post the Vietnam War in the 1970s. Now we have Chinese, Indian, African, Middle Eastern migrants, too many ethnicities, too many cultures to name.
Tonight we are going to be talking about the contribution of migration to Australia, and perhaps some of the tensions and policy challenges as well. We have a terrific panel of guests. Let me introduce them to you. On my immediate left, Dr Tim Soutphommasane, Race Discrimination Commissioner.
Next to Tim, Amanda Vanstone, former Minister for Immigration and Multicultural Affairs from 2003–07. Next to Amanda we have Associate Professor Frank Bongiorno, author and cultural historian. Next to Frank we have Tasneem Chopra, cultural consultant, author, and prominent activist. And at the end of our panel, Marina Go, media executive and author. Please make our guests welcome.
PAUL BARCLAY: I thought we live in a modern country why don’t we get an idea of where some of our panellists came from, or where their forebears came from. My exotic migrant heritage goes back a couple of generations to Glasgow. My grandfather, the son of a blacksmith where he was one of the many Scottish immigrants. Tim, unfortunately, you missed out on Scotland.
PAUL BARCLAY: You were born in France and your parents were Chinese and refugees from Laos I understand. Tell us a bit about it briefly, about your background.
TIM SOUTPHOMMASANE: As you say my parents are from Laos. They left Laos after the Communist takeover in 1975, ended up in France via a refugee camp in Thailand. They lived in France for ten years. I was born there, but we came here when I was three years old. We settled in Sydney and I still remember as a three year old stepping off the plane, and being struck by this bright light.
I suspect it’s a feeling that many migrants would remember upon arrival, of this southern light of Australia. But my family history reflects the kind of journeys that many thousands have had coming to Australia.
We came here because we had family that had settled here in Australia, and this is how migration happens over the years. Chain migration when someone from one family settles in one place it usually draws other members of the family later on as well.
PAUL BARCLAY: Looking back to growing up in Australia as a young boy of Asian descent, what are your memories of that time, and how you felt that you fitted into this country then?
TIM SOUTPHOMMASANE: I had really two phases in primary school. I went to a school in south west Sydney that was predominantly Asian and non-English speaking background in composition, but when I went to high school I was one of only handful of Asian boys in my year. I really got to grow up in a way such that identity became a very central part of my process of coming to grips with living here and getting a sense of who I was.
This was all happening as well in high school in the 1990s when we did have debates about Asian immigration, and when of course there were references to Australia being swamped by Asians. The question of what it meant to be Australian was something that I had to grapple with as a teenager in school and in the midst of some ugliness as well, politically and socially.
PAUL BARCLAY: We’ll talk a bit about that later on. Marina, we could, of course, spend the entire night talking about your family’s story. Your mother is northern Italian, your father is Chinese, though his family moved to Indonesia to flee Communism, and he grew up in Hong Kong. Briefly give us an idea [laughs] of your family history and how you got here?
MARINA GO: Both of my parents are boat people. I like to say that because the words boat people, or the term boat people is used in a negative connotation, but it was very positive for my parents because they arrived here by boat. Mum came from Italy postwar, and she was part of the exodus from Italy in 1950, and she ended up in Newcastle in Greta camp.
My grandmother was a nurse in the war, but obviously there was a time in history in Italy, because their own internal wars where their borders moved between old Yugoslavia and Italy. A lot of Mum’s family live in Slovenia, [laughs] so I have family in Slovenia, Croatia, and also throughout Italy. Mum was from Trieste. They arrived here when Mum was four.
It was just her and her mother, because her father was a soldier in the Italian army and he died during the war. They arrived and set up their life here. Mum had to go to boarding school in Maitland because her mother had to work in a factory, because she couldn’t speak English. Mum was interpreter from the age of four.
That’s Mum’s side of the story. My father came here as a student from Hong Kong. His family history was already quite challenged because they’d already escaped communism, and then to find themselves in a challenging environment where Dad was living in Hong Kong with foster parents, he’s got a whole world, history at his family. My Dad was actually given away to another family as a result of a gambling incident where his grandfather lost him in a game of mahjong because –
PAUL BARCLAY: I told you we can talk about this whole night of a story.
MARINA GO: – because his foster mother couldn’t have sons, and sons were everything in Chinese culture, and unfortunately, probably still are today. Dad was the fourth son of his mother. When his grandfather lost the gambling incident, he basically agreed to hand over his next unborn child that happened to be my Dad.
That’s how Dad ended up in Hong Kong living with a different family. Of course, he was living with a foster father who just didn’t love him. He wanted to escape that and so he came to Australia. But interestingly, the reason my Mum and her mother came here was that they actually had intended to go to America.
They had passports, and then their passports were stolen. Australia was the only country that would take them without a passport, so that’s how they ended up here. Then my parents met in the early 1960s, fell in love, were a very rare mixed race couple as you might imagine. Their early history was one of horrendous racism. That’s the beginnings of my family. [laughs]
PAUL BARCLAY: You’ll need to read the first chapter of Marina’s book to get the full story, I recommend it, actually.
MARINA GO: Yes.
PAUL BARCLAY: Tasneem, you grew up in Bendigo, in Victoria in the 1980s. You are a fifth generation East African born Muslim of Indian origin. What was it like growing up in Bendigo in the 1980s, given your background?
TASNEEM CHOPRA: Sure. I should probably be honest and tell you it was the 1970s not the 1980s, to start with.
PAUL BARCLAY: You look impossibly young to be growing up in the 1970s.
TASNEEM CHOPRA: We can edit that out and you could put it together, that’s fine. At that time, back in the 1970s, Bendigo then, not as much as it is now was a 99 per cent Anglo-Saxon small, little class country town, so I did grow up as the brown paint on white pod, I used to say. I went to the local state school, then in high school, I moved on to the local Anglican school.
I had a very, I guess, sheltered community upbringing and I think my parents deliberately chose moving to Bendigo after leaving Nairobi because they were coming to a new country, new culture, coming from an eastern to a western concept and had three daughters. I think it was a no-brainer, they weren’t going to go to the city when they could go to a country town and definitely have a greater control on what was happening there.
I grew up my entire life wanting to leave Bendigo and move to Melbourne, as you do, as a country child. They did consequently move to Melbourne, probably towards the end of the 1980s, and by the 1990s I was there. I think I mentioned this to you earlier when we spoke, life at that time and racism per se, when I did experience it was very much centred on the superficial. It was, ‘You look different.’ I got called ‘Abo’, ‘Blackie’.
I got questioned to why I was brown. I did respond to the kid who said that, ‘God put me in a toaster.’
TASNEEM CHOPRA: That’s all I could think of at the time. That was the extent of the racism that I experienced. It was never centred on my ethnicity per se, my faith. It was never centered on my spiritual beliefs.
Though I was raised Muslim, that never came to the fore because at that time, and I’d say fairly much until 2001, if you were a Muslim in this country, the associations with Islam were quite unoffensive to the point where you were exotic, you were different. Everyone thought Arabs were Muslims, and Muslims were Arabs and they had four wives and flying carpets.
It was a very exotic innocuous racism compared to the shift, the seismic shift after 2001, when you suddenly went from being something strange to something to be feared.
PAUL BARCLAY: Significant that you grew up in Bendigo because that, of course in more recent times, has been the site of hostile protests, so I should say, against the construction of a mosque. We’ll talk about maybe not that directly but some of the issues that are fueling that throughout the discussion.
Frank, with the surname like Bongiorno, no prizes for guessing where your Mum came from.
FRANK BONGIORNO: Yeah, I’m not from Dublin, no.
PAUL BARCLAY: But you didn’t come in the postwar period surprisingly. Your Mum …
FRANK BONGIORNO: No, I’m not the Director of the National Museum, Mat Trinca. All my grandparents, all four of them, came before the Second World War, 1890s to 1920s. All four are from the Aeolian Islands, which is a group of volcanic islands off the coast of Sicily, near Messina. We number amongst of our diaspora in Australia, Bob Santamaria, Natalie Imbruglia , I could go on naming.
FRANK BONGIORNO: There’s a full spectrum. I guess an interesting case in that I’m probably, I suspect, among a minority of Australians now who have two parents born in Australia certainly, a very large number of Australians have at least one parent born oversees, and yet, of course all four of my grandparents were from Italy.
Particularly, my mother’s side, they were enemy aliens in the Second World War. My mother obviously had some really interesting tales of growing up in Australia. They hadn’t taken out naturalisation when they arrived in the 1920s.
I’ve actually found an application for naturalisation from my grandfather on that side in early 1940. Too late. Italy entered into the war, of course, midway through that year and it was sent back to him.
PAUL BARCLAY: Reminds us that everyone has a story, don’t they? A migrant story. It’s incredible. Amanda, just briefly, what’s yours? You have been around. Both your parents were born in Australia, is that right? Yes.
AMANDA VANSTONE: Well, I’m three-quarters Irish. One-quarter German-Austrian. The Irish were not ‘lace curtain’,my mother advised me, they were bog potato farmers or agricultural workers and I’m not sure that’s true either actually because you got a bit of assisted passage if you’re in agricultural worker and there might have been a different embroidery of the truth by people wanting to get out here in an inexpensive way.
On the German side, I think the one I am most fascinated by is a guy who was in his 50s. He was a hat maker and came from Bremen, with his wife and daughter in her 20s, who was, I’m not sure, widowed or divorced or whatever. I know she had been married. They came to Adelaide and met her brother, who’d, obviously, come ahead.
I just think coming from Bremen in the 1800s to Australia, that’s a big step. Perhaps, those of us who are here, because we were discussing earlier, at least, you’re full-blood, indigenous Australian. You’ve got modern blood in your veins and it’s just a question of timing. Did your granny come ten years ago, 20 years ago, 50 years ago, whatever. It’s only timing that really makes a difference.
We are an immigration country, that’s what we are.
PAUL BARCLAY: The story of Australia is the story of any other immigration nation.
AMANDA VANSTONE: It’s the story of immigration. That’s who we are.
PAUL BARCLAY: An essentially, positive story, do you think?
AMANDA VANSTONE: Yes, absolutely. Not essentially. Primarily. There’s always a bit of bruising here and there on the carcass if you like, but the guts of the story is a fantastic story. We’ve had, predominantly, English migration, as Tim says. Because once some people come, then the next generation wants to go somewhere and they’re mothers is all, ‘Well go there. Your cousin’s there.’
We ended up with a lot of morally English people for that reason. Back in 2009–10, India and China, who were 2nd and 3rd, became 1st and 2nd and the UK went to being the 3rd source of our permanent migration.
Our migration story has changed dramatically over time but it is, nonetheless, one of people with migrant blood. The DNA of people who are prepared to get up and leave somewhere, family and friends, to make a better life. That’s a good story.
PAUL BARCLAY: Tim, I don’t want to suggest that immigration has been entirely without tension and some periods of fear and some pockets of racism but what’s at the root, do you think, of the immigration success story in Australia? The fact that we haven’t seen the type of racial conflict that’s plagued other countries in Europe, plagued the UK in the 1970s and 1980s, and France, and so forth.
TIM SOUTPHOMMASANE: If we confine our attention to the experience since the end of the Second World War, it’s the nation-building dynamic of immigration. The fact that, in the immediate years after the Second World War, we had political leadership that said, ‘we had to populate or perish.’ There was a clear rationale for it. Immigration was understood as something that was to strengthen Australia and was beneficial to Australia.
It became part of the story of reconstruction after the war. You had the long, economic boom in the postwar years. Then, you had it evolving, as well. You, obviously, had primarily European migrants and refugees coming in the late 1940s, 1950s, and 1960s. Then, you had the demise of White Australia. You had non-European migrants coming in greater number.
But, again, throughout, you’ve had this nation building rationale for immigration. It’s been something that’s meant to strengthen Australia. The other part of the success has been the citizenship that is underpinned our immigration program.
People who come here, in general, have become citizens. The expectation has been that if you come here as an immigrant, you will take out Australian citizenship and you will become a full member of our society and contribute to the life of the nation. We made them feel welcome, essentially.
PAUL BARCLAY: Well, sometimes it took longer than you might have liked but in the long view of history, yes. It’s been a very different experience to what we’ve had in Europe, where there have been many countries who’ve had significant immigration programs but have considered their migrants to be guest workers or temporary visitors.
You think of Germany, for instance, where there have been millions of people of Turkish extraction, who, for a long time, were unable to claim German nationality. Here, you can be an Australian citizen, regardless of your race or your background. That’s been, emphatically, the case, especially, since the end of the White Australia policy.
Frank, you’re an historian, so you’ve seen the various historic trends of immigration to Australia. What’s been the impact, overall, especially of postwar immigration on Australia? We’ve become fussy about our coffee. The food’s improved. I don’t want to be too trivial but how has it changed us, do you think?
FRANK BONGIORNO: The term that was used in, certainly, the 1980s, for that aspect of multiculturalism was ‘spaghetti and polka.’ It was carted often as a criticism that multiculturalism should be something more substantial, I guess, more diverse in leisure or restaurants or whatever. It has produced a much more, obviously, ethnically diverse country. But, it’s shifted our identity, too. It is entangled in the process by which we cease to be British, I think.
A really interesting point that’s been made by the late John Hurst. He said, ‘In some ways, those postwar migrants who came here in the 1940s, 1950s, and 1960s, they weren’t being taught to be British. They were actually being told to be Australian. They were being told they should fit into the Australian community. Since that was different from the mainstream population, the old Australians of the 1950s still saw themselves as British.’
I think that’s a really interesting point. It’s almost as if those migrants, particularly the 1950s, were almost pioneers in being Australian. To come back to the point Tim just made and he’s absolutely right, I think, about Australia having a sort of a talent, I think, for being able to absorb significant numbers of migrants with relatively limited conflict.
The politicians were also very successful in convincing the existing population they wouldn’t have to change that much. I think that’s happened at a number of points along the way. It happened, certainly, with the postwar migration. The whole idea of assimilation. That you’d be able to bring in all these migrants from Europe and they’d fit in, they’d be absorbed.
That wonderful piece of, I guess, assimilationist propaganda, They’re a Weird Mob, which some people might have read as the popular novel or perhaps seen as the 1960s film …
PAUL BARCLAY: Which wasn’t written by a migrant.
PRE-RECORDED CARTOON VOICE: Can you make a hanky hat?
FRANK BONGIORNO: Yes, I can’t, I’m afraid. [laughs] But, he does a brilliant job, Nino [Culotta], doesn’t he, in the film? The wonderful Michael Powell film. You know, he marries an Australian girl, called Kay. He’s from Piedmont. You couldn’t get a more northern European Italian. The whole thing is to show that, ‘Look, he’s going to be just like us.’
Of course, by the end of the book, he’s getting as drunk as his Australian friends and he’s using the same sorts of vernacular. He’s a real Aussie by then.
PAUL BARCLAY: He’s a real Aussie by the end of the book.
FRANK BONGIORNO: I think that politicians, at different points along the way, have been very good at convincing us that you could have migration on a large scale, from quite diverse sources but that they’d fit in.
PAUL BARCLAY: Amanda?
AMANDA VANSTONE: I think to side reviews about Arthur Calwell. He did start the first immigration department so you got to give him great credit for that. To say, ‘We’ve got to plan this. It’s an essential part of who we are and put a tremendous effort into it.’ He was, nonetheless, quite stuck with the White Australia policy.
I hadn’t realised just how serious that was. There was a rule, ‘One alien for every ten UK.’ Alien meant someone from Europe. The probate on my great or great, great grandfather’s will says, ‘No proceeds of this will go to an alien.’ That’s how we regarded European migration at that time. He promoted it as a defence of the country. We need more people to defend ourselves against Asians in the north.
There was a very famous case of a Mrs [Annie] O’Keefe. She was Ambonese. Her name wasn’t O’Keefe. Her husband was an intelligence worker, Ambonese, for the Dutch Intelligence who had a unit here in Australia. He died and Arthur Calwell wanted to kick her out.
There is a tremendous wealth of material, from letters from, what you would call ordinary Australians, writing and saying, ‘Look, mate. Get real here. This is not on. You can’t send this woman back.’ It’s the O’Keefe’s case that, I think, starts the view in Australia that we will accept everybody.
Our great success is, sure it’s primarily UK, China, India in varying ranks over the last ten years. But, it’s about, I don’t want to put a percentage on it but it might be 60, 70 per cent, come from hundreds of other countries. So, it’s a big mix that is an essential part of us being as strong as we are.
PAUL BARCLAY: It was Arthur Calwell who advocated a surge in immigration to protect us against the threat of the ‘yellow races,’ as he called them. His words, not mine, I should say. In the mid to late 1940s –
AMANDA VANSTONE: He didn’t want servicemen to be able to bring back their Japanese wives. He said, ‘They can go live in Japan.’ But, bear in mind, he started the immigration department. He’s the father of the great immigration to Australia. And, I think we need to always understand people in terms of the times that they were in.
PAUL BARCLAY: It’s a mixed story because the ‘populate or perish’ attitude that led to the mass immigration post of Second World War was driven in large part by the fear, the vulnerability that Australians felt during the Second World War. The fear of invasion by the Japanese.
So, we needed more people to secure the nation, didn’t we, Frank? But, the flip side of that was there was still some fear of the Japanese and of the Asian races generally, at the time.
FRANK BONGIORNO: The postwar scheme is utterly bound up in the sense of a near-miss in 1942. The sense that Australia had been fortunate not to be invaded. It must build up its population and build up its industry, too. Things like the Snowy Mountain Scheme were intimately related to defence planning.
They weren’t just about irrigation and hydro [electric] power, they were also, about atomic power, at the time. It was very much about building up the population and ensuring that you’d never have another near-miss like that. That next time around, Australia would be in a much better position to defend itself. It wasn’t about creating a more ethnically diverse Australia. That wasn’t the motivation behind that scheme.
AMANDA VANSTONE: But it became that.
FRANK BONGIORNO: But it became that.
PAUL BARCLAY: Because you couldn’t get enough migrants coming from Britain at the time, which is why the Government in the postwar years, had to take in migrants from Europe. But, even then –
AMANDA VANSTONE: Yeah, but one in ten got dumped.
PAUL BARCLAY: Even then, the first migrants who arrived from Europe in that postwar program were from the Baltic states and they were chosen specifically because they would have blonde hair and blue eyes and very Nordic features.
The thinking, at the time, was that they would be better assimilated as a result. What you see here is an unintended consequence of the mission ‘populate or perish.’ You couldn’t sustain that mission with just British migrants through assisted passage. You had to take in European migrants and then –
TIM SOUTPHOMMASANE: Assisted passage, we should say, was the ten pound Pom, wasn’t it?
AMANDA VANSTONE: Don’t forget, not only did you have to take in European people.
The response to Mrs O’Keefe, she became O’Keefe because her landlord said, ‘Well, I’ll marry her. If you’re going to kick her out, I’ll marry her.’ That’s how she became Mrs O’Keefe. That is, I think, the point at which lots of normal Australians said, ‘Look, you know,’ and demanded a broader approach.
PAUL BARCLAY: Tasneem, let me bring you back into the discussion. We can tend to get a little misty-eyed about the Australian immigration project and what it’s delivered to Australia.
Of course, it has delivered a prosperous and on-the-whole tolerant country but you believe that what we’re seeing in more recent times, the conventional wisdom is waves of people come here, first the Europeans then, the Asians, gradually, over time, we get used to them and it’s all okay.
You think, though, we’ve seen a bit more of a shift in recent times, a bit more of a worrying shift in attitudes towards, in particular, those people from Muslim backgrounds. Talk to that a bit if you could please.
TASNEEM CHOPRA: Look, on that sociological concept of the cultural bogeyman, that the new migrant who has to undergo the rights of passage which are – alienation, discrimination, and whatnot – we look at the textbooks and yes, that happened with the Greeks. It happened with the Italians. It happened with the Vietnamese.
People would look to the Middle Easterners and the Arabs and the Muslims and say, ‘Well, it’s your turn now.’ ‘I think it’s been our turn for a long, long, long time.’ Pretty much since the Gulf War onward and it certainly escalated after 9/11.
It’s different, in a sense, that with those other communities, when they were arriving postwar, it was postwar. Australia was not involved or embroiled in any incursion or occupation of those lands as it is now, with Iraq, with Afghanistan, and with Syria.
There’s a difference when we look at migrants from Europe, who came before, after the 1970s and 1980s, and we look at the migrants coming in from Afghanistan and Iraq – even Lebanon, for that matter – and we associate them with, ‘We were at war with those people. We’ve been at loggerheads with those people.’
There’s an economic imperative here that’s, actually, quite nasty, quite malicious. So, the association’s negative. The European associations tend to be a lot lighter and fluffier, if I could for want of a simplistic term.
So, Muslims have to carry the baggage then, of being the boogeyman, for being associated with who we are at war with and representing, apparently, an ideology, not a religion, when it’s clearly a religion. There’s a whole host of labels thrown and thrust upon them, which they continually expect to defend, and explain or apologise for, through no fault of their own.
That is a stark difference, I think, to the passage of settlement for new migrants compared to their predecessors.
PAUL BARCLAY: Okay, so there has been a bit of tension that has been the result of that. How much tension? As a member of the Muslim community, you were telling me, for example, that you worry about your kids going out at night, at the moment.
TASNEEM CHOPRA: Literally, every day, there’s a new worry. Today’s latest worry would have been the poll that was released, which I’m sure many of you would have read. I forget the name of the source of the poll –
PAUL BARCLAY: The Essential Media Poll.
TASNEEM CHOPRA: – The Essential Media Poll.
PAUL BARCLAY: We’ll talk about that. Just very briefly in parenthesis, a poll of Australians asking, ‘Do you support or oppose a ban on Muslim immigration?’ Forty-nine per cent of Australians support a ban on Muslim immigration.
TASNEEM CHOPRA: Yes, now, my first reaction to that was, ‘Well, you know, politicians ignore polls. I’m going to ignore this poll, as well.’ No offence is meant. But, on further examination, I realise this is what happens. This is where we’re at.
We have reached a point in the juncture where discussion of the location of the Muslim migrant in Australia, is a topic that we can tick on a tick box. The fact that we are negotiable citizens, that our identity here is questionable, it has to meet certain parameters. Who writes what those parameters are? Who decides if I have a place in my own home?
And, the fact that we can, actually, be at a point we’re having this conversation, is frightening. Because I grew up here. Yes, I was Kenyan-born and of Indian origin but I grew up in country Victoria. My roots are here. My identity is here. I have children born here. And, as you mentioned, I worry for my children because they identify as Australian but they also identify as Muslim.
But, they can’t pick and choose which one they’re supposed to be when they walk out of the house. One can, because, I guess, to an extent, she doesn’t have her head. But, the second one, she does cover her head and I worry for her. I worry for a teenage girl travelling on a train in Melbourne in 2016. Because that’s what we’ve become.
Where it’s all going and how it’s all spiralling forth, I think, has a lot to do with who gets media platform. How much political backbone do we have in this country, where we can, actually, call out racism for what it is?
Yes, we have free speech. But, with free speech comes responsibility. We’ve heard that before. But, there is a responsibility when comments are made, calls for banning migration of Muslims. Calls for questioning the religiosity and the validity of a particular group in our society as ones that fit in, because I say so.
When people have those platforms and they make those allegations – there’s no counterpoint to respond to them – because Muslims are silenced. They’re not given an opportunity and when they are, it’ll be on page 12 at the bottom on a little comment or in some obscure radio program somewhere or some channel at 3am in the morning.
There just is not the same opportunities to counter that. I’m not excusing it but I’m saying if you’re constantly dealt with a 24/7 news cycle of ‘Muslims don’t fit in. Muslims are part of the problem, they won’t integrate.’
And Muslims are saying, ‘You know what, we’ve actually been here since before Cook. Muslims in this country pre-date Captain Cook. They were the Macassan fishermen. They came here in the 1600s. They were pearl divers. We’ve had business people. We have CEOs of Australia Post. We have a gold Logie winner, for God sakes.
TASNEEM CHOPRA: We have people doing all manner of things but you’ll pick and choose who suits your agenda because that’s what sells. That’s what rates. That’s what’s politically popular. Meanwhile, the average Australian Muslim is collateral damage.
PAUL BARCLAY: It still strikes me, though, Marina, that when you walk outside, catch the bus, catch the train in any part of Australia, really, you are instantly made aware of the multicultural, diverse nation that we live in.
But, if you look at say, the Australian Parliament, if you look at the mainstream media or if you look at CEOs of major companies, if you look at board members of major companies, it still seems to be the case that there’s a lot of Anglo men. Not many Asian faces. Not many African faces on those boards. I know that this is something that is of interest to you.
Why is it the case that, after so many years, of migration that we haven’t seen that filtering to the top of the upper echelons of society if you like?
MARINA GO: Because, unfortunately, people appoint their own likeness and there’s an unconscious bias or conscious because sometimes, it is conscious and it’s explained away as unconscious. That’s gender, race, everything. Religion, what you look like and the need for diversity at board level and I speak out about this a lot.
Because the best ideas come from a diverse viewpoint. People who sit around and all look the same and have come from the same background, it’s group think. And, it’s the reason why things don’t progress. It’s the main reason. It’s that people often fear what’s different and so they actually appoint in their own likeness. There’s a lot of work that’s being done, particularly with gender.
Now, panels, board appointments will, actually, have a woman on the panel because, apparently, if you have a woman on the panel, you’re more likely to allow a woman onto a board, which is just extraordinary that you have to do that.
But, I think, increasingly, we need to ensure that we have people from different backgrounds on boards and not just gender. It has to be people from … you need to reflect the population, actually. That’s what we need to do. At the moment, that doesn’t happen and it is because of the appointment process, purely.
TIM SOUTPHOMMASANE: It’s also to do with a default that we have with our assumptions about leadership. We have this certain assumption about what leadership should look and sound like and, unfortunately, our multiculturalism is something that is celebrated at the level of food and festivals, with a lot of ease and triumphal-ism. But, we also need to be open to having cultural diversity in our corridors of power.
It’s not good enough just to have it in the lunch room or the lobby. If we put the hard numbers on it and we did this recently, with some research, more than ten per cent of our population would have a non-European cultural background, it could be as high as 17 per cent but only five per cent of 86,200 CEOs have a non-European background.
Less than five per cent in our Federal Parliament. Less than one per cent among our Federal and State government departmental secretaries and directors general. And, two per cent of our university vice chancellors. That does raise questions about whether we’re doing well enough on this.
PAUL BARCLAY: Amanda, this discussion is also about the history of migration, as well. If we go back and look at central points in our history. We’ve touched on the postwar migration but, of course, Asian migration in the 1980s caused some tensions in Australia.
I think it was 1988, when John Howard, before becoming Prime Minister, suggested that the pace of Asian immigration had outstripped community tolerance. A view, I should point out, that he doesn’t hold now. A view that he regrets having at the time.
What do you remember about that time in the 1980s where the debates around Asian immigration were rather similar to some of the debates we’re having now, actually?
AMANDA VANSTONE: Well, I remember that not being a unanimous view.
AMANDA VANSTONE: Very clearly remember that. I think it is worth mentioning in that context, though, as a very new Senator, I went to a Vietnamese refugee association meeting in Adelaide. Mick Young, the famous Labor guy – I think immigration was under Special Administrator of State or something then – I remember this meeting because he specifically acknowledged me.
That doesn’t usually happen for new senators. You’re just the bottom of the pile of nobody. He went on and made the point that, ‘if you’re in favour of immigration’ – I think that one’s been making his point recently in New York – ‘if you’re in favour of immigration, you will keep it at a level where it has public support.’
Where it’s going to fall over is, maybe, too much of one group perceived to be but more likely, people with low income jobs worried that someone’s going to come take their job.
You’re not worried about your job or your kid’s job because you went to university and everything’s hunky dory. But, if you are in a family where you are worried about whether your kids are going to get a job, that is a relevant issue. Support for immigration is always higher when the country’s going gang busters and it tapers off a bit when we hit a bit of an economic problem.
I think that we need to understand and accept that. We are this fabulous experiment. I think we’re the best in the world, better than the United States, maybe level with Canada, in terms of having created a peaceful country and we’ll keep doing that.
That means that we’ll have to keep our ear to the ground and not say to people, ‘Oh, you’re wrong. You’re an idiot. Blah, blah, blah. It’s all right. Bring more in.’ Just got to keep your hand on that lever, keep pushing it up but not so far that you lose support for it because it’s the essential Australian characteristic.
MARINA GO: Can I just add to that that my … so, when I grew up, my Dad, obviously, escaped Communism and when he arrived in Australia, was absolutely a Liberal voter. Was terrified of Labor because of the whole campaign that Labor was Communism. While I was growing up, Dad was, actually, handing out the cards, ‘How to vote,’ cards at the local school.
When John Howard made those comments, he immediately changed his vote. That’s how powerful that was and he still has a real horrible feeling towards him as a politician, purely because of that particular comment around Asian immigration.
PAUL BARCLAY: And, of course, the irony being that John Howard’s seat ended up being populated by a very high proportion of Asians. It was an interesting part of our history, though, Frank, wasn’t it? The 1980s. I was just thinking about how much the attitude in the 1980s presaged some of the comments of Pauline Hanson in 1996 about being swamped by Asians.
Just remind people of historian Geoffrey Blainey’s speech in 1984, where he spoke of how regrettable it was that the Hawke Government bringing in new migrants into areas of high unemployment, he criticised the levels of Asian immigration and said, ‘I do not accept the view, widely held in the Federal Cabinet, that some kind of slow, Asian take over of Australia, is inevitable.’
This really triggered a massive debate didn’t it, in the 1980s?
FRANK BONGIORNO: It did. To be fair to John Howard, of course, who was quite critical in 1984, in lowering the temperature of that debate. There was a moment in the Federal Parliament in May 1984, where one when Labor men were actually heard, spent the Second World War in Yugoslavia under Nazi occupation.
Actually, got very excited and started jumping over the seats to have a more physical confrontation with the Liberal members on the other side over this very issue. It was a debate over, essentially, the issues that have been raised by Blainey. But, yes, he did. He made a speech to a Rotary meeting in Warrnambool in early 1984, March, I think, in which he described Asian migrants as ‘the favoured majority.’
It wasn’t accurate because Asians weren’t, of course, the majority of the migrant intake at that stage but it did provoke a very, a debate that, I think, exposed many of the anxieties in Australian society about the shifting profile of the immigration intake. We need to keep in mind, I think, that this was the first time for a century that there’d been substantial Asian migration to Australia.
I think the previous large intake had been in the 1870s on the Palmer River, gold rushes in Queensland in Northern Australia. This was – if we’re talking about defining moments, that period from about 1976 onwards – was very much a defining moment in Australian history. One of the ways in which people thought about being an Australian up until then was, you weren’t Asian.
To be not Asian was kind of to be Australian. I think, obviously, that the shifting nature of immigration intake in the 1970s and early 1980s really challenged that idea. In a lot of ways, the politicians, again, they’d abolish the White Australia policy but had they been, perhaps, not very forthcoming in explaining what this would actually mean for the country. This would mean, in fact, a very different form of national identity.
I think the debates in 1984 and, again, in 1988 and, indeed, you could argue 1996 with Hanson and beyond, were very much about the playing out of those sorts of tensions and a lot of unspoken things about what this change means.
PAUL BARCLAY: Fast forward to today and Indian and Chinese migration to Australia right now is greater than UK immigration, which gives you an idea of quite how profoundly the country has changed. I think, Amanda, you wanted to make a point.
AMANDA VANSTONE: I asked the Parliamentary Library if they could find a cartoon. I swear I didn’t invent this in my head, I’ve seen this cartoon. I’d pay a reasonable amount of money of someone could find it. Because Fraser has set up the multicultural blah blah, so there he is … what do you call it, a Burns Night? That Scottish thing.
PAUL BARCLAY: I think it’s called the Burns.
AMANDA VANSTONE: So, there they are. There’s two guys Fraser and some other old geezer standing there in their kilts, the frilly shirts, the velvet jackets done up sort of like girls sort of thing and one guy is saying to Fraser, ‘I don’t know about letting all these people bring all their different customs in here, you know?’
AMANDA VANSTONE: It was a fabulous cartoon. I would just love to have it. It’s true that the white Anglo Saxons didn’t see themselves as bringing new customs here. They were just in charge. It took some time to adjust to the fact that yes, they did bring new customs and to realise that our strength is in welcoming all of them.
PAUL BARCLAY: That’s a really good point because multiculturalism assumes that migrants will come here. Sure, they will contribute and they will become part of the nation. But, they will also, over time, change the nation. That their culture, by its very presence here, will make us a different country.
That’s a very delicate balancing act, isn’t it, Tim, that we have to get right. Because Australians like the country they live in now. They don’t want too much change. But, by the same token, I don’t know if there are too many Australians that would want to go back to the 1950s either. How well have we done at striking that balance?
TIM SOUTPHOMMASANE: We’ve done really well. The key to that is with how multiculturalism has evolved. How multiculturalism hasn’t meant open slather. It hasn’t given people license to do whatever they like and justify it in the name of their culture. It’s meant, very clearly, the rights and responsibilities of citizenship.
Everyone has a right to express their cultural identity and heritage but that’s accompanied by civic responsibilities. A commitment to that parliamentary democracy. Acceptance of the rule of law. Equality of the sexes. The other point to add here is that it can take time before we can appreciate the two way street of cultural diversity and multicultural reality.
If you think about – and I hate to go to the culinary aspects of multiculturalism but indulge me for a brief moment – the cappuccino is the most commonly consumed hot beverage in our country. The most popular take-out option is, arguably, Thai. These would have been inconceivable for any Australian living here in 1947.
To think that these cultural changes would have occurred and would be accepted and celebrated as part of everyday life. But, the challenge here is to get beyond superficialities and to ensure that if we are learning from other cultures, it is something that has depth to it and is something that involves us reflecting on our values as a society that takes fairness seriously, that thinks very seriously about ourselves as egalitarian and is open to welcoming people from all quarters.
PAUL BARCLAY: Look, there is so much to talk about under the banner of immigration. I’m realising that there’s so much I won’t have time to talk about. I’m not even sure whether we’ll be able to get on to discuss refugees, just given the time. Maybe we will.
But I do want to come to that Essential Media Poll that was just published. Essential Media have published a poll that appears, I think, in the newspapers today. Forty-nine per cent, as I said, of Australians support a ban on Muslim immigration to Australia. What’s interesting is that 40 per cent of Labor voters support a ban, 60 per cent of LNP voters support a ban, 34 per cent of Green voters support a ban on Muslim immigration.
The reasons that they support the ban? 41 per cent of respondents say that Muslims don’t integrate into Australian society. 22 per cent say that they don’t share our values. There you have 63 per cent of respondents basically saying that Muslims don’t either integrate or share our values. 27 per cent say that they support the ban because of the terrorist threat.
Tasneem, what did you make of those figures? For so long the discussion around Pauline Hanson since she was re-elected into the senate was that she was supported by a tiny rump of people in Australia. Do these figures give lie to that do you think?
TASNEEM CHOPRA: What those figures suggest to me is that propaganda is a popular thing. It also suggests if you say a lie enough times people will believe it. If you tell people enough times, on enough platforms, enough times in a day, enough times in a week and enough times in a month repeatedly that, Australian Muslims don’t integrate, they don’t fit in, their values don’t accord with ours.’ That is all that you are hearing because you’re not hearing a counter point.
If Sonia Kruger was on primetime television telling you that as a mother she’s worried for her children, when there’s no opportunity for an Australian Muslim mother to say, ‘You know Sonia, I’m worried as well. I’m worried because my kid can’t get on a train safely. Yes, I’m also worried about a terrorist threat but I’m also worried that the day to day realities and hostilities that as a second and third and fourth generation migrant I will now have to counter because I look different to you and that is all.’
The outcomes of this poll say that the media propaganda are a very convincing machine and they can dictate between headlines and soundbites and opportunities, who is marginalised, who is pilloried and who is not.
I don’t get to write the media but someone out there, an Anglo-Saxon middle class male does . I’m going to occupy 98 per cent of the new space and make up two per cent of the population. I’m just used to that.
MARINA GO: Diversity of editors, that’s what we need.
PAUL BARCLAY: Yes.
TIM SOUTPHOMMASANE: We also need political leadership.
TASNEEM CHOPRA: Yes, absolutely.
TIM SOUTPHOMMASANE: It’s fundamentally important that we stay true to our values as a society. We are a liberal democracy. We should be committed to a principle of non-discrimination. We should be committed to tolerance. If political leaders are looking at this poll today, they should be thinking about leading and shaping public opinion and not following it.
We will have periods in our national life when our multiculturalism and our status as an immigration nation will come under challenge. We’ve seen that with Geoffrey Blainey and John Howard in the 1980s, we’ve seen it with Pauline Hanson, Mark One in the 1990s.
We are perhaps seeing it again, but think about this, in 1947, 58 per cent of people polled in Australia said that Australia should not accept Jewish refugees. If we were to have followed public opinion we may not have had the kind of nation building experience and project that we’ve enjoyed in the past eight decades.
This is the time for political leadership to reassert itself and ensure that there isn’t a vacuum when it concerns race, immigration and multiculturalism. There’s too much at stake.
TASNEEM CHOPRA: Can I just say –
PAUL BARCLAY: Tasneem then Amanda.
TASNEEM CHOPRA: I think that’s a very important point, Tim. I made a comment earlier this week that during that maiden speech, if that particular MP, a senator rather had made the comments of, ‘We should ban immigration. We should question the integrity of integration of these people et cetera.’ If she had used the word ‘Jewish,’ and not ‘Muslim,’ I’m just saying hypothetically, the backlash against her for anti-Semitism would have been profound. It would have been across all levels.
But somehow, Islamophobia doesn’t rate. In some quarters there were responses from Labor backbenchers and certainly some Greens. From Government, I’m yet to hear a strong condemnation of that. You know what, you’re entitled to your views, but they’re racist and they’re bigoted. That’s not what this country was built on.
In fact those kinds of comments will incite violence, will incite hatred and will incite results to a poll that we’ve just seen.
TIM SOUTPHOMMASANE: Whether Pauline Hanson still thinks that Australians are being swamped by Asians? It’s an obvious question to ask isn’t it, given that essentially it’s the same template and she’s just substituted – ?
TASNEEM CHOPRA: I think they’re Asians Muslims so she’s probably terrified.
TIM SOUTPHOMMASANE: – other Asian Muslims.
TASNEEM CHOPRA: Absolutely.
PAUL BARCLAY: Amanda, I won’t get you to speak for the Government obviously.
AMANDA VANSTONE: I don’t.
PAUL BARCLAY: Would you like to respond?
AMANDA VANSTONE: I think I’ve forgotten what I was going to say. Really because it’s such a lot –
PAUL BARCLAY: That’s okay.
AMANDA VANSTONE: I do agree with Tim that it’s important to show leadership and not just follow an opinion poll. Albeit this is a divided poll, it’s a very worrying one. It is time to show leadership but I also think we don’t want to pretend that there aren’t people who are genuinely apprehensive about terrorist attacks.
We don’t want to pretend that they are largely perpetrated by people who want to join ISIS or get hooked up with and of Islamic faith. That’s, if you like, the elephant in the room that people don’t like to address. I’m not going to the grand final this year, but I remember last year thinking, ‘Gee, if I was a terrorist, this is where I would do it.’
I agree we need to show leadership for all the right reasons, I agree entirely with you. It is a mistake to say to the people who have those genuine apprehensions about big public events and big public places, ‘You’re an idiot, there’s nothing wrong.’ We need to address those fears, understand them and work with them to show leadership that way.
My own view is it’s by the putting down of people who have that genuine apprehension, Hilary [Clinton] calling the Trump people, a basket of, what do you call …?
PAUL BARCLAY: Deplorables.
AMANDA VANSTONE: … deplorables. It just shows the condescension that some people have towards citizens who have a different view. If you keep treating people that way, you know what they’ll do? They’ll go and support someone like Trump. I think that that’s what’s happened.
They have these people just sick of not being listened to, not being treated as if they’ve got a genuine view and so they go and let some pressure out of that valve and you’ll get a Trump.
PAUL BARCLAY: I’m determined to finish on a positive note before we finish with some questions. Marina, I thought I’d come to you. Migrants have come to Australia for a better life for decades and decades, for a better life for their kids in particular. Frequently it’s the Australian-born kids of these migrants who outperform the local kids.
We’re seeing that. Frequently you see them grasp the nettle of the opportunities that are in front of them because their parents made the decision to come here.
You are a prime example, I think, of that – your parents and the adversity that they experienced. Do you see a direct line between that adversity and the drive and the success that you’ve managed to achieve in Australia?
MARINA GO: I’ve always said that my personal drive – and I do have a crazy personal drive – has come from my father. He always had this drive and he always had this determination to make something from nothing because both of my parents had absolutely nothing when they got married. They created a life for themselves and they were determined that their children would be well educated and have the opportunities that they didn’t have.
We grew up in the western suburbs of Sydney, so we didn’t come from an affluent background. We worked really hard. My Dad is really proud of the fact that I not only went to university but I also did postgraduate studies. I have a MBA. For him it was all about making sure that his children did better than he did.
I think I saw how hard they worked. My Dad worked three jobs when I was young. He was hardly ever around, and I just never forget that. I really appreciate it. I think so did my siblings. We really value what our parents have done for us.
PAUL BARCLAY: A fabulous point I think to end the discussion on. I think I’ve taken up too much time so we have scarcely no time left for questions but we do have some time for one or two. I think we have a microphone around that someone can bring to you if you’d like to ask a question in the short amount of time we have left, whack up your hand.
I think we had one of the two in the front. Okay. We’ll take the question here and then maybe up the back.
AUDIENCE MEMBER: I’d like to make one point and then a question if I could.
PAUL BARCLAY: Briefly if you can.
AUDIENCE MEMBER: The point is that up until the 1980s, most immigration that came through Australia was directed to projects such as the Snowy Scheme or inland or other areas. They didn’t enclave themselves in the major cities. That therefore allowed more people to accept them because they were not really in the cities.
My question is this. People want to come to Australia because of our values and our culture and our system. Why, therefore, would they want to impose their values on us, which has recently been done when they tried to change the Family Court Act?
PAUL BARCLAY: Tim, do you want to have a go at that?
TIM SOUTPHOMMASANE: I’m not aware of the legal reform to which you refer, but can I say, when there’s talk about migrants imposing their values on Australia. I think of my own experience. My family naturalised as Australian citizens after being here for three years.
I can tell you, I grew up with my parents telling me constantly that I am an Australian. ‘You are an Australian.’ That’s what they used to say to me and we became Australian when we got our citizenship certificate
I think of all those Australians who become citizens and they take a loyalty pledge to this country, which native-born Australians do not take. They become Australian by choice.
They say, ‘I pledge my loyalty to Australia and its people whose democratic beliefs I share, whose rights and liberties I respect, who’s laws I will uphold and obey.’ That’s the contract.
In my view, if we appreciated that reality of migration and the challenge of leaving your country, leaving everything behind, making a new start here and thinking about the future of your children and your grandchildren, I suspect many of the anxieties that may be out there would be very easily allayed.
TASNEEM CHOPRA: Thank you, Tim. Can I also add to that when you talk about this particular migrant groups, if hypothetically you’re speaking about Muslims, I would say to that that people have constantly made this allegation of, ‘Muslims want to bring their values.’
I have yet to see a chart of what those values are, but from the way that I was brought up and the nuances and understandings I’ve had with the Muslims in this country that I know, which I would venture to say are a lot more than most of the people in this room, is that the values they share are the same as yours.
Universal goodwill, understanding, peace, tolerance, respect for authority and respect for the country in which you live. If you’re talking about the imposition of Sharia and Sharia values – again I have yet myself to meet a Muslim who wants to introduce Sharia – it sounds very sensational. It sounds scary. I’d be scared too.
Having said that, if you look at the minutiae of Sharia, it isn’t just a pocket book of rules and laws. It maintains that you have to follow the law of the land you live in.
If you are a Muslim and you are following Sharia, you are following the code book of the Australian constitution, by definition of being a good Muslim. That’s what following the values means.
PAUL BARCLAY: OK, one more question. I think that we should take the question at the back so that we have one from the front and one from the back.
AUDIENCE MEMBER: This is mainly for Tim, Tasneem, and Mariana but the others as well. What do you think of the question, ‘Where are you from?’ and what are your strategies to answer? For Mariana specifically, how do you feel about being called mixed?
MARINA GO: Well, I guess I’ve become used to it, actually. [laughs] I just think that people don’t understand. People do say that to me all the time, ‘Where are you from?’ and also my children.
My husband is Scottish Irish Australian so I have one child who is blonde hair, blue eyes and I have one child who looks quite very Asian actually, more Asian than me. People used to say to me, ‘Do they have different Dads’, that sort of thing which is really rude.
That’s more offensive actually. I just say I was born here and I just assume that people don’t really understand and I try not to take too offence to it. Yes, just try and educate people.
TASNEEM CHOPRA: It really depends on the context and who’s asking and where. I usually play with it. If people ask me where I’m from, I tell them Fawkner, which is a suburb of Melbourne and if they go, ‘Where are you really from?’ and I’m like, ‘Bendigo’ and they’re like, ‘No, where are you from?’
So then I’ll tell them. It depends, I used to work for governments and government services and I’d have clients that would come to the door and if they were Indian looking and they could see me and I could tell, oh this is going to end up in a situation and they ask me where I’m from, I’d tell them Kenya.
When I’ve had east African clients and they’ve asked where I’m from, I’m from India. I do throw it around. I guess I am ethnically ambiguous to that extent. When I worked for an MP in parliament, I used to be there during sitting week in Kew and Canberra I should say, there were many times I’d be walking through the halls of parliament and I would actually be stopped and ask if I was lost with my delegation and my tour from the Middle East.
PAUL BARCLAY: Okay, quickly Tim.
TIM SOUTPHOMMASANE: It really depends on, and most of the time when people ask that question, it’s born of curiosity and it’s asked in goodwill and I wouldn’t want us to be punishing goodwill or curiously but of course, a lot depends on the manner in which it’s asked, and when it’s asked.
If it’s the first thing that people ask of you, I can understand why people may feel like ‘Why don’t you want to ask other aspects about who I am before you get that to that?’ We’re all very happy having to share information and tell people where our family is from, but let’s have a normal conversation [laughs] as well and not be bogged down by that.
PAUL BARCLAY: Okay, look, it’s been a terrific conversation. We managed to talk about immigration for an hour and a quarter without talking about refugees which is pretty impressive. I think that’s probably worth a whole discussion of itself. Look, It’s been a terrific evening and I want to thank the National Museum for putting it on yet again, and I’ll hand back to Mat to wrap up the evening.
MATHEW TRINCA: Thanks, Paul and thanks to our great panellists. I’m reminded just listening to that last question that in my own experience, when I’m in Australia, I’m Italian and when I’m in Italy, I’m Australian. I figured, it’s terribly useful, I have to say, at certain times.
I’d just like to thank the Honourable Amanda Vanstone, Dr Tim Soutphommasane, Marina Go, Tasneem Chopra, Frank Bongiorno and of course Paul Barclay.
We’re giving our panellists a catalogue to A History of the World in 100 Objects and some free tickets, can’t hand them out to all of you of course, but special thanks to them. Can I encourage you to visit the show though? Thank you for being such an attentive and great audience.
This is a subject truly that you could speak about all night. I do think it’s one of the great strengths of this society that we talk about these matters that we discuss and we wrangle about them. Often we disagree, but just as often we come to some resolution and move forward.
We’re a terribly pragmatic nation ultimately I think, in Australia. I think we should rely on that especially at times of stress and concern like this when we see the results of a poll of this sort that we’ve seen today.
This panel, just to remind you, will be broadcast on Monday 3 October 2016 on RN’s *Big Ideas’s * program at 8pm, so listen in.
I’d like to invite you all now to join our panel members downstairs in the bay window for complimentary refreshments. Thanks very much to our wines sponsors, Capital Wines who always sponsor these events.
If you enjoyed tonight’s discussion, please join us again here on 11 October for another Radio National panel, that one themed around the current exhibition The History of the World in 100 Objects from the British Museum, sadly hosted by another great Radio National talent, Fran Kelly but missing our favoured son here, Paul Barclay, who’s been so good to the National Museum. Thanks again Paul.
MATHEW TRINCA: Thank you and goodnight.
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Date published: 21 March 2017