Mass migration in Australia

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In my view the basic ethical outlook of Marxist and Catholic philosophy about the relationship between the human race and the material environment are quite similar despite the apparent conflict between them. Over the course of my own life both have contributed to the formation of my attitude to the migration question.

Both ethical systems regard the human species as the highest development of evolution and start with the notion that the interests of human beings are the primary point of departure in judging most ethical questions. Marxists would have it that human consciousness is the highest product so far of material development and Thomists and Catholics would have it that the human soul and humanity are the peak of God’s creation.

While both ethical systems would not neglect at all the importance of the rest of the material world the animal world etc they would regard the interests of the human species viewed as a totality as the primary point of departure in developing an ethical framework for migration policy.

In this they would both be different for instance to the ethics of Peter Singer who would rate the interests of the animal world as being on the same plane as the interests of humanity. The ethical standpoint of deep ecologists and people like Tim Flannery Ted Trainer and Mark O’Connor would I believe in practice give greater weight to the interests of the natural world than to those of the humans that use it.

These two moral standpoints the Marxist one expressed in the slogans of socialist internationalism: “the unity of labour is the hope of the world” and “workers of the world unite” and the similar Catholic moral view that all humans are brothers and sisters under God have been major defining ideological influences sometimes in conflict but surprisingly often reinforcing each other in the evolution of the labour movement in Australia.

The eventual relatively recent emergence in the labour movement of the idea of the unity of the human race as the dominant ideology is really a kind of flowering of the ethical views of both the above streams. This flowering of humanism is one of the main reasons why the labour movement’s attitude to migration has so dramatically changed in the 20th century from entrenched British Australia racism to support for non-discriminatory migration and multiculturalism.

In Australian cultural terms I am a Marxist atheist of mainly Irish Catholic cultural background. All the original ancestors of the human population of Australia including the indigenous population are migrants. The migration history of Australia has been one in which from the beginning indigenous Australians the Irish Catholics and the secular working class of British origin initially convicts were in constant conflict with the British ruling class of the new colony.

I’m mainly descended from the Irish and I identify totally with the conflict against the British ruling class in 19th century Australia in which my ancestors participated.

From my standpoint every additional wave of migration has helped to undermine the cultural and political hegemony of the British ruling class and this is unambiguously a good thing. I celebrate a healthy plebian popular Australian nationalism which is necessarily and has been historically in conflict with the reactionary British-Astralian nationalism of the Australian ruling class.

The desperate nostalgia of someone like Miriam Dixson about the passing of what she calls the “Anglo-Celtic core culture” produces in me a certain bitter amusement. I celebrate the passing of that culture. It wasn’t my culture at all.

The new diverse and cosmopolitan Australia in which we all have a stake: indigenous Australians Irish Catholics the secular working class and middle class of British origin and each wave of non-British migration including the recent and spectacular Asian wave has produced and is constantly reproducing a robust modern Australian culture of great diversity and strength which I enjoy and celebrate.

Many of the most stimulating features of this modern culture are the product of in particular the post-war waves of mass migration. My Irish Catholic forebears and the secular working class took the process of humanising brutal British Imperial Australia a fair distance in the conflicts of the 19th century and the early 20th century and the recent waves of migration have further civilised Australia.

Even the unquestionably important contribution of the civilised and humane strand within the British cultural tradition as exemplified by a scholar such as Manning Clark or a writer like Patrick White can only really come to full fruition within the framework of a healthy multicultural Australian polity cleansed of the bigoted ethnocentrism of the old British ruling class Australia.

Anyone who has lived as I have from 1937 to now has only to reflect on and remember the claustrophobic cultural atmosphere of British-Australia in the 1950s to understand what I mean in this context. It is hard for any young person now to even imagine the tension created in a cinema in 1960 if you didn’t stand up for God Save the Queen.

The most conservative forces in society which hark back nostalgically to the useful cement provided for the preservation of class privilege by all the ridiculous and unpleasant cultural impedimenta of British-Australia are at the centre of the sporadic attacks on multiculturalism. Their political motivation in these attacks is quite clear.

Cultural diversity and multiculturalism incorporated as they are into a new modern plebian Australian national identity are a far more civilised human environment for us all to live in.

Those who disagree with me on this can try to reverse these developments but I don’t rate their prospects of success very highly. We have already gone a very long way in this very healthy direction.

I don’t intend to spend too much time celebrating the immense advantages produced by all our past mass migrations. They are obvious and they are most strikingly noticeable in the global city of Australasia Sydney where we are holding this conference.

Despite the Sodom and Gomorrah weepings and gnashings of teeth about Sydney that you get from the likes of Miriam Dixson Robert Birrell and Katharine Betts the extraordinary and workable cultural diversity of Sydney is the small model of what life will be like throughout Australasia within the next 20 or 30 years.

The constant Jeremiad of the Monash anti-migrationists over the last 25 years about ethnic ghettoes particularly in Sydney is emerging ever more clearly as time goes on as merely anti-migration propaganda. These so-called ethnic ghettoes are in fact constantly changing and evolving.

In practice in Australia and particularly in Sydney there are very few “unmeltable ethnics” to use Michael Novak’s term from the United States of 30 years ago. While multiculturalists battles to preserve the useful aspects of discrete ethnic identities nevertheless the evolving Australian national identity which is quite real remains the major cultural force into which the other ethnic identities tend to feed and blend while the discrete contribution of the individual ethnic identities is often renewed by continued migration.

This whole process is accelerated by an increasing amount of exogamy (intermarriage between ethnic groups). The latest wave of mass migration the Asian wave has produced an enormous amount of this kind of intermarriage.

The striking feature of modern Australian society is the way the repeated predictions over many years of communal strife by the likes of Birrell Geoffrey Blainey and Pauline Hanson are completely contradicted by the reality of Australian life. The further you get into the diversity in the heart of Sydney for instance the smaller the amount of noticeable ethnic conflict which is far less overt now than it was in the 1940s or the 1950s.

We are well over the hump so to speak in these matters. Large-scale violent ethnic conflicts are very unlikely in Australia in the future. Most of us are now too civilised and we – in this context a comfortable majority of the population – will beat all xenophobia and racism even when it is disguised as nostalgia for the “Anglo-Celtic core culture” back into its cave whenever it shows its ugly head.

The benefits of past migrations from the point of view of the migrants themselves and of the other citizens of the developing Australian society

Up to the gold rushes of the 1850s Australia was mainly a series of brutal penal colonies of British imperialism. But paradoxically many convicts stayed voluntarily in the colony after their release because in many ways even then it was a better place to live than Britain Scotland or Ireland.The origins of the convicts were relatively diverse. Although most of them were drawn from the English urban underclass around London about 20 per cent of them were Irish and almost 50 per cent of the smaller number of women convicts were Irish Catholics.

Over the whole period of convictism about 1 per cent were black convicts from West Africa and the West Indies and there were also about 1000 Jewish convicts. The gold rushes brought an accelleration of mass migration from Great Britain and Ireland China and Germany and later in the century a large forced labour component the “Kanakas” from the “South Sea Islands” (mainly the Solomons and New Hebrides now Vanuatu).

The gold rushes and the shortage of labour that caused the mass migration both assisted and voluntary resulted in a high price for labour in the Australian colonies making settlement in Australia very attractive for workers. British working class migrants and Irish migrants contributed to the development of the country and were beneficiaries of the high price of labour in the Australian colonies as were the Chinese the Germans and others.

From the point of view of most of the participants in these migrations Australia was a much better place economically than where they came from. Much historical research has been done on letters back home from Irish migrants in Australia. They were gathered mainly by the historian Patrick O’Farrell.

The overwhelming majority of these letters speak of the better standard of living in the new country than in famine-ridden Britain-pillaged Ireland. The Irish were particularly motivated by the possibility of taking up land in Australia.

Even the “South Sea Islanders” who had been “blackbirded” to Australia and the Chinese who had been at the bottom end of the Australian social ladder were very reluctant to leave after the imposition of the White Australia Policy in 1900. There were more economic opportunities in Australia than in China or the Pacific Islands.

The migration to Australia was always much more heterogenous than British Australian mythology allows and in the early 20th century particularly there were constant chain migrations from Russia the southern Slav lands Italy Greece and Malta despite occasional brutal outbursts of racism against these migrations. One of the worst examples of such racism was the forcible deportation of 6000 Germans and southern Slavs after the First World War.

A large number of Jewish people migrated to Australia just before the Second World War escaping fascism in Europe. They were very glad to get here and many prospered in Australia.

Some parts of northern Australia such as the Cairns area the Townsville area and particularly the Northern Territory always had a much more diverse ethnic and cultural mix than many other parts of Australia even despite the White Australia Policy.

For much of its history for instance the Northern Territory had a larger proportion of people of Asian origin Aboriginal origin and mixed race origin than whites. A recent very useful article in Labor History by Maria Martinez underlines the complex interplay between the racial composition of the population in the Northern Territory and attitudes in the labour movement that helped to undermine the White Australia Policy even on a national scale.

After the Second World War another wave of mass migration commenced including people from the Baltic states Eastern Europeans Greeks Italians and Dutch. They were very glad to get here away from war-devastated Europe and they participated in building the Snowy Mountains Scheme and developing modern Australia. In the 1960s and 1970s more people came from Arab countries and Turkey and they too contributed to the development of Australia and did well here compared with the then relative poverty of the places they came from.

There are now 300 000 people in Australia of Indochinese origin who are here because of Australia’s involvement in support of the United States intervention in the civil war in Vietnam. Although most of the Indochinese came here as refugees they show no signs of wanting to leave and they have contributed to the development of modern Australia. Historically Australia has been a haven for refugees from many countries including now Bosnian Muslims Kosovars and East Timorese. They too have contributed to the development of modern Australia.

The latest wave of migration has been very varied mainly from Asia and this has pushed the number of people with some Asian background up to 1.4 million in the past 15 years. This migration has included both hard-working poorer people highly trained young people and energetic business migrants bringing modest packages of capital with them.

This Asian migration is particularly obvious as a major factor in economic development has served as a buffer against economic depression and has particularly contributed to development in Sydney Brisbane and Perth and to reducing unemployment in those cities.

The striking thing about these migrations is that particularly since the Second World War when our rate of migration has been by far the highest in the world (except for Israel) it has in fact been achieved at the same time as a substantial and obvious reduction in racial and cultural tensions compared say with the 1950s. This is in fact the opposite of the exaggerated conflict that the chauvinist opponents of migration constantly predict even now despite all the evidence in front of their eyes.

In Australian conditions the more diverse the migration and the larger it is the more it undermines stupid xenophobic practices and attitudes.

Anyone with an eye to see walking around this laid-back tough intense Sydney of ours can’t avoid being struck by the way the cultural diversity that is now dominant in our city works so effectively. It has been very moving to me in the last couple of weeks attending demonstrations which rapidly grew in cynical old Sydney to 30 000 people in support of the people of East Timor to observe the wonderful cultural diversity of the Australians in those demonstrations.

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