King William Street was closed for a parade. Children and parents in red folk costumes were marching down the main street of Adelaide, South Australia’s capital city, flanked by the banner of the Macedonian Ethnic School. Close behind came the Maltese Guild Language and Folk Dancing School with its own band.
Group upon group followed, each identified by its banner: Korean Ethnic School, Punjabi School Adelaide, Alliance Francaise de l’Australie du Sud, Vietnamese Community in Australia, Uzbek Ethnic School, the Arabic Language School, Greek Schools of Adelaide. The insistent sound of Scottish bagpipes filled the air as a band of young pipers in kilts went by. What was the occasion?
To find out I joined the edge of the parade. We crossed the bridge that spans the narrow Torrens River, went by the city’s performing arts center and stopped at a park whose grassy slopes descended to the water. A woman handing out programs told me what was happening: this was the fifth annual Parade and Concert of South Australia’s Ethnic Schools Association, she said. Children of immigrants attended these schools on Saturday morning or after school to learn the language and customs of their people. After the parade ended the children would dance and sing for their families and each other.
A few minutes later as I watched a group of young Ethiopian dancers in white, I was struck by the changes in Australia. After once seeing itself as an Anglo Saxon preserve and trying to exclude people of color, at least a third of its citizens now have ancestries other than British or Irish. They come from some 240 countries and places, with the largest numbers coming from Asia in recent years. Australia absorbed this new population in less than half a century and did it so peacefully and uneventfully that people in some parts of the world are unaware that it happened.
Nor were these the only changes. By the early 1990s increasing numbers of Australians were reassessing their national identity. Although some still saw Australia as welded to the British crown, others were leading a movement to become a republic. The country was also busy forging ties with nearby Asian nations it had once ignored.
Watching that parade in 1994, Australia seemed to me a model of how a country could adapt to changing circumstances and thrive. Yet two years later a series of ethnic and political troubles erupted. They continued through the final years of the century and spilled into the next, bringing to the surface a deep-seated conflict that has long bedeviled the nation.
Two opposing factions have been fighting for political dominance there. Those on one side see their country as a Western nation—displaced in the East by historical happenstance—that must cling to its British heritage for cultural and political survival. These days they worry that refugees from the Middle East might inundate the country. Their opponents on the other side see Australia as a country of the Asia Pacific region and want to participate actively in its affairs. For them the nation’s multiethnic population is an asset.
Along with an emphasis on multicultural Australia, this book also explores the related conflicts over the country’s identity and its place in the world. The narrative centers around the nation’s peoples, with several chapters telling the stories of its three main groups: the large base of citizens of British or Irish descent who initially came out while the country was a penal colony, descendants of the indigenous people who were already there, and all the other immigrants, who continue coming in from around the globe.
Two events changed the course of modern Australian history. The first was the penal colony Britain set up at Botany Bay (Sydney) in 1788. The second was the discovery of gold in Australia in 1851. People poured in from around the world but the large numbers of gold seekers from China set off the panic button. Fears that hordes of desperately poor Chinese peasants would swoop down and engulf Australia if it didn’t watch out—and that poor people from other Asian nations might follow suit—led the colonies to enact legislation baring people of color. When the colonies became a federation of states in 1901, its new Parliament passed the restrictive law that became known as the White Australia policy.
After the second world war the country gradually opened its doors to peoples from around the world and became a model of multiculturalism. But memories of the old restrictive law remain fixed in minds around the world. Nor is this the only misconception. Although Australia became a social innovator in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, passing legislation in several areas that improved the lives of its people, the country’s progressive social heritage is little known abroad or has been forgotten. Yet the egalitarian tradition established in colonial times helped immigrants and the indigenous people in the second half of the twentieth century. Later chapters fill in the details: the brief account below gives the gist of what happened.
During the penal period, British jailers assumed that prisoners who finished their sentences would remain at the bottom of Australian society, forming a low-paid work force with neither stature nor clout. But former prisoners, finding themselves in a spacious land with a labor shortage, refused to stay down. They joined force with poor immigrants and turned the country into the “fair go” society. This meant that every person should have the chance for a pleasant life. For the most part workers did not expect to become rich, but they wanted to be comfortable and to make sure that old age would not plunge them into poverty as in the old country.
Australia was among the first nations to provide old-age pensions and set a “fair and reasonable” wage. By the early twentieth century, Australian workers enjoyed a rate of pay and standard of living that made labor groups in Europe view the country as a workers’ paradise. Australia had the first secret ballot in the world. Women were given the vote in 1902.
These benefits were for whites only at that time. Australia began to change in this regard in 1947 when it inaugurated a massive immigration program, centered at first on war-torn Europe. In the ensuing years the scope of the program expanded to include nations from other continents, including Asia. The country did more than just open the door to peoples of every background. Drawing on the strong tradition of a fair go for all, it extended that mandate to recent immigrants and devised practical services to help them make the transition. It also promoted a national multicultural policy that encouraged immigrants to retain their cultural traditions while becoming loyal Australians.
This new policy included the indigenous people. For nearly two centuries the government had denied them the basic rights of other Australians. It also tried to force them to live like Europeans. But starting in the 1960s Australia did a turnaround on this and other policies that affect the Aborigines. Along with now encouraging them to follow their traditions, the country set up programs, run mainly by indigenous people, to try to help improve their peoples’ lives and economic prospects. But the indigenous people, currently 2.4 percent of the population, are still the poorest Australians.
From 1973 through 1995 four successive governments encouraged acceptance of Australia’s increasingly mixed population. Many citizens applauded the change but others were dismayed and wanted the country to go back to the way it used to be. After a coalition of two conservative parties came to power in 1996, the new prime minister and his administration re-emphasized ties with Britain and the West. In 1999 they helped defeat a referendum measure that would have made Australia a republic. Two years later the prime minister refused to let a boatload of refugees from Afghanistan and Iraq land on Australian soil. The country was so swamped by refugees, he declared, that it had to stop illegal boats from coming.
At the same time, events closer to home were moving the country in a different direction. China emerged as the powerhouse of Asia. It’s industrial success is helping other countries in the region as well. Australia has benefited as a major supplier of the iron ore and several other raw materials that China needs for its development. By the beginning of the twenty-first century nearly two thirds of Australia’s exports were going to countries in Asia
The belief that Australia was isolated gave its citizens a sense of security, because it meant that the country was far from violent conflicts in trouble spots like the Middle East. Likewise, recent immigrants and refugees viewed Australia as a quiet safe haven. That illusion was shattered in 2002 when bombs exploded on the tropical Indonesian island of Bali. Investigations led to members of Jemaah Islamiah, an organization with a link to Al Qaeda, operating in Malaysia, Indonesia and the Philippines. Of the 202 people the bombs killed, 88 were Australians. In the aftermath of the tragedy, officials from both major political parties stressed the importance of building closer relationships with nations in the region.
A handful of leaders and analysts abroad with detailed knowledge of Australia have suggested it might play a larger role in its region. So have some within the country itself. Noting the nation’s connections with both East and West, along with its location, development and multiethnic population, they see Australia as a potential negotiator that might help ease tensions between nations with different cultures and outlooks. But to do this effectively, Australians need to recognize their assets and reconcile the opposing views that divide the nation.
The roots of the controversy are embedded in the past so the narrative reaches back in time and then moves forward to concentrate on recent happenings. We start with the period before the British arrived. This in turn takes us to two distant continents.
* [This is the Prologue from the book Multiethnic Australia: Its History and Future by Celeste Lipow MacLeod. Copyright 2006, Celeste Lipow MacLeod. All rights reserved.]