4.2Retreat from Tolerance: Australia and the new Millenium

I always wondered what are the criteria of tolerance, and how individual nations would fare if compared with each other on an arbitrary scale. At one end we find countries like Australia that boast of an open society with liberal ideas that allow the expression of a diversity of opinions and beliefs. On the other hand there are countries characterised by a rigidity of thinking which sees as correct only one way of life, namely, one's own.

It is unfortunate that over the past decade, all over Europe we have witnessed a retreat to a less tolerant form of existence, with strengthening of fences and closing of gates. We have seen the establishment of new republics that proclaim and defend this fencing off. We have seen right-wing political parties all over Europe strengthening their positions and attracting a larger proportion of the voting public that would have normally rejected such extreme views.

In Malta we have been spared agonising decisions, not because we are particularly tolerant, but because our society is much more homogenous and therefore we have to a large extent been spared the tensions that can result when different people with different ethnic or religious backgrounds come face to face with each other.

Compared to this, Australia has been a nation which has always had to face a mixture of peoples, a conglomeration of ethnicities, a plethora of beliefs and convictions. Even before white man ever appeared, there were some 200 aboriginal languages spoken by tribes that roamed this enormous landmass.

For the last couple of hundred years, however, the only culture that mattered was that imported from Great Britain. It is only in the last half-century that the challenge to the Anglo-Celtic way of life has become obvious. An aggressive post-war immigration policy ensured that waves of Europeans, from the South as well as from the UK and Ireland, settled in Australia. In the 1950s, the number of migrants from Malta alone reached the figure of 10,000 a year, and the total number overall was in the region of 150,000. In spite of the "White Australia Policy" extant at that time, there was a considerable mix of persons with different religious and political beliefs, even though the colour of their skin was roughly white.

More importantly perhaps, the assimilationist philosophy of the time emphasised the need for everyone to copy the dominant (largely British) way of life. Diversity was just about tolerated, but certainly not encouraged.

A breath of fresh air came in the seventies when multiculturalism became the agenda of the day. This philosophy encouraged diversity, celebrated individual differences, tolerated different beliefs. It was based on the conviction that migrants like leopards will never change their spots, and that they can only develop to their utmost if their ethnicity was recognised and their contribution was identified as different and desirable.

It was also soon recognised that in a tolerant society there is no place for a 'white' Australia. Moreover, in a country some of whose cities are closer to an Asian country than to each other, it would be ridiculous to exclude migration from the surrounding countries in an effort to maintain homogeneity, particularly since migration from Europe was drying up as a source of migrants anyway. Soon the proportion of migrants from South East Asia started to climb to the current level of 50,000 a year, or nearly 50 per cent of the total migrant intake

This was bound to produce tensions, and it did. Many hankered for the good old times when there were fewer challenges to the accepted norms, and believed that the old ways were best. Even the current prime minister, Mr. John Howard has expressed this Rousseau-esque yearning: "We are losing something" he said "which has been indelibly Australian for as long as we have thought of ourselves as Australians and that is the sense of community and mateship and looking after each other in adversity, which you find in rural Australia." (Howard, 1996). While making politically correct statements and wooing the ethnic vote prior to the elections of 1996, the Howard government made it clear soon after being elected that the halcyon days of multiculturalism were over. "I'm a one nation man," he declared. Drastic measures to curb facilities such as the Bureau of Immigration and Ethnic Affairs heralded a dry season for ethnic communities and multiculturalism.

Then came a bombshell in the form of Pauline Hanson. Although rejected by the Liberal party, she managed to win a seat in Parliament beating a sitting labour member with a 19 per cent swing. Her notorious maiden speech announced her 'One People, One Nation, One Flag' programme. "I believe we are in danger of being swamped by Asians", she shrilled. "They have their own culture and religion, form ghettos and do not assimilate…"Quoting Mr. Arthur Calwell, a post-war immigration minister who insisted on a 'white Australia policy' she added: "Do we want or need any of these people here? I am one red-blooded Australian who say NO and who speaks for 90% of Australians."

For a time her views were considered to be those of a blinkered feminazi offering simplistic solutions to complex problems. What was grossly underestimated was the ground swell of support by a large number of the population who, while they would never agree completely with her, would however admit that she is at least partly right. Ethnic communities were up in arms, marching along the streets of the cities and objecting to this radical philosophy. The papers were brimming with comments about this new phenomenon coming like a drying desert wind from the north. But most damning of all, the Howard Government was ominously silent, refusing to condemn publicly the views coming out of the right-wing closet. Few of those who supported her were aware that during the elections she directed preferences to a well-known neo-Nazi extremist (Mr. Victor Robb), and he in turn returned the favour. She has also been adopted by the League of Rights (an extreme-right wing group equivalent to the National Front in the UK).

Many who were too discreet to admit to these extremes were still, however, happy to have their gut feelings expressed with all their smells and stinks. They were happy that at last someone was doing their battles, throwing stones which they would never have had the courage to do openly.

The climax to this sordid story occurred when Hanson 's 'One Nation Party' won nearly a quarter of the votes in a recent election in Queensland. This result shook the nation and is bound to have considerable and lasting repercussions. In her 'One Nation Policy document: Immigration, population and social cohesion" (July 2) Pauline Hanson outlined her agenda which included the following::

  • Zero net migration policy;
  • Migrants will not be eligible for unemployment benefits until after the first two years of residence;
  • Refugees will be offered only temporary asylum in Australia;
  • Funding policies of multiculturalism would be stopped;
  • Five years' permanent residence will be required prior to granting of citizenship;
  • Only citizens can sponsor migrants.

The major political parties have to decide whether to condemn this programme outright, or to pander to the right-wing voters by reducing the perception of fear from 'the yellow peril'. In this respect Australia is no different from other countries, such as England, France or Germany where similar right-wing sentiment has unfortunately reared its ugly head.

In a recent monograph, "The Retreat from Tolerance" (Adams, 1987) the point is made repeatedly that this is only a symptom of the general trend, namely that Australia is retreating to a position of intolerance. In this monograph we find Kalantzis and Cope expressing the fear that "The language of pluralism is to be replaced by a revived language of a singular and unitary nation". Likewise, Chris Puplick claims that "The recent attacks on what somewhat nebulously has been called 'political correctness' signal a retreat by our entire society from fundamental notion of tolerance".

It is not however correct to conclude that Australia is a divided nation as was claimed in a recent article (Perry, 1998). It is no more divided than other nations who are struggling to find a solution to the immense problems associated with massive movements across nations of migrants and refugees seeking a better existence in a foreign land. The solution is not to deny the realities of today and hanker for a past which appeared idyllic to those that were better off.

Former New South Wales' Premier Mr. Nick Greiner put it in a nutshell: "We have a multicultural society, we will continue to have a multicultural society in our life-times - there's almost no decision that anyone can make to change that". Australia has to face the fact that its future is closely tied with its Asian neighbours, and when they sneeze Australia catches a cold, as the recent economic downturn in the region has shown. The strengths of this emerging nation/continent lie in the mosaic of its people, with all their diversity. Any effort to destroy this concept and attempt to homogenise Australian culture and way of life is bound to produce enormous tensions which will be counterproductive and self-destructive.

It is only now that leaders of the community are coming out with their condemnation of racist and extreme-right wing policies. The catholic Archbishop of Melbourne Dr George Pell at a mass in St Patrick's Cathedral condemned the racist policies of Pauline Hanson, describing the One Nation party as "political opportunists and adventurers". It could perhaps have saved a lot of problems if the Prime Minister Mr John Howard had clearly condemned these policies in the same way that the Premier of Victoria Mr Jeff Kenneth and the Opposition Leader Mr John Brumby had done. Months of indecision have done incalculable harm to Australia's reputation with its neighbours.


Adams, Phillip (Ed). 1997: The Retreat from Tolerance ABC Books.

Howard, John, 1966: Transcript of address to Youth Futures Conference, 1996.

Perry, Michael, 1998: The Times of Malta, June 30, p 16.

[From: The Times, July 22 1998, p 9-10]

Source: Maurice N.Cauchi - The Maltese Migrant Experience, Malta 1999

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