Inside Story

White Australia’s hangover

Books | A Labor MP offers an optimistic view of what multicultural Australia could become

Peter Mares 2 December 2019 2170 words

Reimagined community: Labor MP Tim Watts (right) with senator Penny Wong and her father, Francis Wong, during a campaign event in Melbourne in April this year. Ellen Smith/AAP Image

The Golden Country: Australia’s Changing Identity
By Tim Watts | Text | $32.99 | 231 pages

In 1962 prime minister Robert Menzies contemplated the impact migration would have on the nation in fifty years’ time — the era we now live in. He imagined that Australians would be “a different people — not detached from our old anchors, not detached from our old traditions, but enriched by new ones.” He anticipated that Australia would become something “rich and strange.”

As a hold-out defender of the White Australia policy in its dying decade, Menzies might find contemporary Australia very strange indeed. But he was right to predict that we haven’t detached ourselves from our old anchors and traditions; in fact, we are weighed down by them.

That, in large part, is the thesis of Tim Watts’s book. Watts celebrates Australia as “a nation that combines stable Westminster institutions, an open economy, and a liberal society with a young, dynamic and diverse population.” But it is held back, he says, by the “psychological hangover” of the White Australia policy:

The Australian identity of the past excludes too many of us and doesn’t speak to many others. It doesn’t bind us together in a sense of common purpose, a sense that what happens to one of us should matter to all of us. And our national symbols are increasingly used by people who want to divide us, rather than bring us together.

The ill effects of our hangover are felt in executive suites, courts, lecture theatres, newsrooms and parliaments. There are more CEOs called Peter in the ASX 200 companies than there are Asian Australians. Australians with an Asian heritage make up about 15 per cent of the population but account for just 3.1 per cent of partners in law firms, 1.6 per cent of barristers and 0.8 per cent of judges. Australia’s thirty-nine universities host more than a quarter of a million students from Asia, but there is only one vice-chancellor from a non-European background. All members of the ABC board are white, and the national broadcaster’s senior executives and content-makers don’t reflect the diversity of Australian society either. Asian Australians hold just five out of the 226 seats in the national parliament, and the top ranks of the public service are even less representative.

As Watts notes, this is not a uniquely Australian problem, but the statistics suggest that we perform far worse than comparable settler societies like the United States and Canada, and even former colonial powers like Britain. It seems little has changed since we attempted to become Asia-literate under Bob Hawke and debated whether Australia was an Asian nation under Paul Keating. In 2010, academics Andrew Markus, James Jupp and Peter McDonald wrote of the “paradox” that contemporary Australia is “a multicultural society with monocultural institutions.” As Watts puts it, we have “practically dismantled, but never quite symbolically disowned, the White Australia policy” and “the way we shaped our national identity in the past shapes our national symbols and institutions today.”

Tim Watts is Labor’s shadow assistant communications and cyber security minister and represents the federal seat of Gellibrand in Melbourne’s west. As he says proudly on his website, this is “one of the most diverse electorates in the country” with nearly two-thirds of residents born overseas or having a parent born overseas.

It is refreshing to find a serving politician writing a book that is not a naked exercise in self-promotion. It is especially welcome when that politician engages with complex and contested areas of public policy — national identity, immigration, multiculturalism — that carry significant electoral risk. Despite the obligatory genuflection to Australia as “the best country in the world,” his approach is open and critical. What is more, Watts writes clearly and engagingly. He deftly weaves his own family history into the narrative, opening with a visit to the Gum San (Gold Mountain) Chinese Heritage Centre in Ararat with his four-year-old Hong Kong Chinese–Australian son, and soberly documenting the darker exploits of his pioneering ancestors: Charles Nantes, a nineteen-year-old member of South Australia’s first fleet who arrived on the Africaine, and John Watts, the first MP to represent the Darling Downs in Queensland’s colonial parliament.

Nantes later moved to Geelong, became a member of the local Anti-Chinese Committee and helped lobby for the introduction of prohibitive poll taxes to deter Chinese migrants from landing in Victoria during the gold rush. The Chinese were forced to land at Robe in South Australia instead, and walk hundreds of kilometres overland to the diggings. John Watts, meanwhile, spent some of his brief stint in parliament justifying the atrocities committed against Indigenous Australians by Queensland’s Native Police.

Watts is attempting to grapple constructively with this past:

There is value in speaking about the legacy of the racism of White Australia in our national identity as a member of a family that’s participated in creating, and benefited from, that structure. Taking responsibility and seeking to make amends is an important symbolic act in itself.

Watts’s larger project is to reconcile “our national imaginings” with “our national realities.” He references Noel Pearson’s vision of weaving together the disparate strands of Indigenous heritage, British institutions and multicultural migration into a strong cord of shared identity. This would be the foundation of “the Golden Country,” a nation that offers the best of all worlds.

Watts thoughtfully mines Australia’s past for forgotten riches in support of this project. His title draws on an article published in Blackwood’s Edinburgh Magazine at the time when anti-Chinese sentiment in the colonies was at its height. Running counter to the prevailing sentiment of “Australia for the White Man” — the Bulletin’s strapline from 1886 until Donald Horne became editor in the 1960s — the Blackwood’s article envisaged Chinese and Europeans mixing in the goldfields to create a “Golden Australia.” This strand of “alternative tradition” deserves honouring, as do the lone voices of senator James Macfarlane and Bruce Smith MP, the only federal politicians who objected to the Immigration Restriction Act 1901 on the grounds that it “denied the Christian doctrine of common humanity.”

Watts would also like us to be as familiar with the exploits of sniper Billy Sing at Anzac Cove as we are with Simpson and his donkey. Simpson lived in Australia for just four years, having jumped ship from the British merchant navy in 1910, and enlisted in the hope of getting free passage home to England. None of this diminishes his bravery, but it does raise the question of why Billy Sing only rates on mention in Charles Bean’s official history of Australia’s Great War (in the caption to a photograph), given that Sing was apparently Australia’s best sniper, credited with killing 300 Turkish soldiers.

Born in Clermont in outback Queensland, Sing was a joker and a larrikin who had worked as a stockman, cane cutter, cricketer and kangaroo shooter. His commanding officer described him as “a good-hearted, well-behaved fellow” and said that “a braver soldier never shouldered a gun.” He had all the trappings of a stereotypical Australian hero, bar one — as his surname suggests, he was not white. By contrast, the white and newly dead Simpson was drafted into legend status during the war as part of a propaganda effort to overcome a recruitment crisis and to bolster the Yes campaign in the fierce debate over conscription. “The veneration of Simpson and the near obliteration of Sing tell us a lot about the power of the Australian Legend,” writes Watts, “and the way it perpetuated a narrow image of Australian identity.”

Watts navigates cogently through the history of Australia’s (dis)engagement with Asian migration: the gold rush, Federation, White Australia, the first world war, the mass settlement of displaced Europeans after the second world war, the arrival of refugees from Vietnam and Cambodia in the late 1970s and early 1980s, the subsequent calls by historian Geoffrey Blainey and opposition leader John Howard for a cut in the rate of Asian migration, the Howard era and the rise and fall of Pauline Hanson, the 2016 election and Hanson’s resurgence.

He writes tellingly about recent policy failings: the “creeping securitisation of immigration policy” symbolised in departmental name changes from Immigration and Citizenship to Immigration and Border Protection; the “symbolic downgrading” of the department’s nation-building role when it was subsumed into Home Affairs, and the associated loss of expertise in settlement services; the shocking exploitation of international students, working holiday-makers and other temporary visa holders.

He poses important questions, pondering, for example, what questions we would be asking today if we returned nation-building to the heart of immigration policy. He contemplates how we might come to terms with our past, perhaps by apologising to Chinese Australians, Pacific Islanders and others for the impact of the Immigration Restriction Act on their families and communities, as Victoria has apologised for the gold rush–era poll tax.

The book is not without its weaknesses, though. First, Howard looms too large in Watts’s reckoning of responsibility for our current problems. Howard “crippled our symbolic nation-building capacity when we most needed it,” he writes, with disastrous results. “Unfortunately, the revanchism of the Howard era on matters of race and identity have allowed the unconscious assumptions underpinning the [White Australia] policy to stumble on, zombie-like, in the symbols and institutions of our national identity.” The imagery is compelling, but while I don’t want to diminish Howard’s “weaponisation of race and immigration in the culture wars,” strategies like his only bear fruit if they fall on fertile ground. The resistance to attitudinal and systemic change runs deeper and is much harder to dislodge than a single prime minister.

Howard certainly combined high-level immigration with a tough-on-borders rhetoric and a careless dismissal of multicultural policy. On his watch Australia also shifted away from an assumption of permanent settlement and towards high levels of temporary entry, but there were larger demographic and economic forces at work too.

Watts also fails to resolve the tension between his desire to reimagine the Australian character by populating our history with forgotten characters like Billy Sing and the fact that the dominant strand in Australian identity emerged from the violent processes of expropriation and expulsion that shaped the nation.

Watts puts his finger on a substantial issue here. He argues that a strong sense of national identity is a necessary condition for a flourishing of the core institutions of a progressive society. Active participation in a representative electoral system, public investment in education and healthcare, and redistributive tax polices rely on “the mutual regard and obligation between citizens that underpins national identity.” But this thesis prompts another question: is it possible to create a unifying sense of national identity — an “imagined community,” to use Benedict Anderson’s famous phrase — that is not also simultaneously exclusionary and limiting in its definition of who belongs?

Watts attempt to resolve this tension is to rescue something called “Australian values” from the ashes of our past; the egalitarianism that underpinned the Australian Settlement after federation and helped create a “working man’s paradise”; the mateship that enabled Australian soldiers to survive Japanese prison camps; the democratic temperament that saw Australia lead the world in delivering a universal franchise and electoral innovations like the secret ballot and compulsory voting. He writes, “Many of the values underpinning the Australian Legend — the fair go, egalitarianism, mateship, pragmatism, irreverence — haven’t lost their potency on our journey to the Golden Country.” The question is whether such things can be so easily disentangled. Can these values be recast, untainted by the fires in which they were forged?

The philosopher Charles W. Mills has called out his academic colleagues for teaching Immanuel Kant’s theories of inherent human dignity yet failing to mention that Kant was also one of the founding thinkers behind scientific racism. Kant formulated a hierarchy of race that had whites at the top, Africans and Native Americans at the bottom, and Asians somewhere in between. It is not sufficient, Mills argues, to sanitise Kant by bracketing out his embarrassing and inconvenient racism and sexism as if they were an aberration or somehow peripheral to Kant’s core thinking. Nor can we simply replace Kant’s Eurocentric definition of person with a more inclusive one. In his essay “Kant’s Untermenschen,” Mills argues that we must take on a much larger philosophical challenge:

Instead of pretending that Kant was arguing for equal respect to be extended to everybody, we should be asking how Kant’s theory needs to be rethought in the light not merely of his own racism but of a modern world with a normative architecture based on racist Kant-like principles. How is “respect” to be cashed out, for example, for a population that has historically been seen as less than persons?… How is cosmopolitanism to be realised on a globe shaped by hundreds of years of European expansionism?

I suspect that coming to terms with Australia’s history in order to chart our way to a golden future is an intellectual and moral task of similarly daunting proportions. •