Published on Webdiary - Founded and Inspired by Margo Kingston (/cms)

Successful migrant settlement

By Raja Ratnam
Created 27/10/2006 - 01:28

Raja Ratnam [1] is a Webdiarist who worked, at the level of Director, for about 9 years, in the Department of Immigration in the 1980s, on policy on ethnic affairs, citizenship, refugee and humanitarian entry. Under the name Arasa, he is the author of Destiny Will Out, a personal narrative based on his own work and settlement experience, The Karma of Culture‚ (Trafford Publishing, Canada) and Hidden Footprints of Unity (Sidharta Publishers, Melbourne). His previous piece for Webdiary was What is this citizenship kerfuffle about? [1].

by Raja Ratnam

Now that the significance of Australian citizenship has been diminished by government policy, ie by permitting dual citizenship, no amount of official waffle will dissuade immigrant residents from exercising their own judgment about the value to them of this citizenship. Unless they wish to travel overseas, an Aussie citizenship with passport will be of limited relevance to their lives. Without citizenship, they will not, of course, have a vote. On the other hand, one might ask whether exercising one’s vote makes any real difference to the way one is governed. The Tweedledum and Tweedledee political parties are quite interchangeable, are they not? In any event, it will not be long before compulsory voting is replaced by voluntary voting, enabling politicians to focus on a more predictable electorate.

The recent official focus on using an application for the grant of citizenship to inculcate an adequate appreciation of the nation’s civic and cultural structures and values, and to enhance the learning of English, whilst admirable in intent, is akin to attempting to shut the stable door after the horse has bolted.

The time to stress the need for immigrants and refugees to understand and accept Australia’s constitutional, political and civic institutions, the ethos of the nation, the values upheld by the Australian people, and English as not only the national language, but also as the main medium of communication, is before they are granted residence rights. In the event, the official approach would ideally be three-fold.

Applicants for residence in Australia, whether immigrant or refugee, would formally agree to accept and abide by Australia’s institutions (easily spelt out), the ethos of the nation (not that difficult to enunciate), the values of the people (this might need some public consultation), and English as the national language, before they can be considered for entry. As ever, Australia has the right of choice, from a pool of applicants far, far greater then any annual target. The crucial test for entry should be – that the entrants should contribute more to the nation than they take out of it, more than their entry costs the nation. These costs have been identified by experts for years, but probably ignored in the haste to satisfy those prattling about Australia being able to afford a population of 100 million asap, or Sydney coping comfortably with a population of 20 million any minute. This sort of thinking reflects what could be described as a ‘shopkeeper’ mentality, ie the more customers, the better; and to hell with the any adverse consequences (no offence intended to real shop keepers).

How could anyone argue that such a policy would be discriminatory, when it would clearly improve the entrants’ chances of successful adaptation, and thence integration? After arrival, entrants would be encouraged to attend appropriate courses in order to qualify for the grant of citizenship. The qualifying period would be long enough (say, five years) to enable the necessary learning. No one with the nation’s interest at heart will consider this approach to be discriminatory.

Non-citizen resident immigrants, especially those who want Australia’s institutions and cultural mores to be changed to suit them, would be targeted for a citizenship qualification test. The objective would be obvious. Foreigners would be permitted citizenship rights only if they were willing to adapt to the nation to which they sought, and achieved, entry – presumably to improve their life chances. They would also be required to accept that any changes to Australia’s institutions, mores and values can only be through evolution, ie by all those legally in the nation contributing, almost by a process akin to osmosis, to gradual change. Those who want something which is only available elsewhere are obviously free to move there. Sitting comfortably in Australia, whilst shouting at the rest of us to change the country to suit them is also somewhat rude. How could this gradualist approach seeking the evolution of unity out of diversity be considered discriminatory?

The third approach would involve an adequate education in all schools (starting from primary), both public and private, about Australia’s institutions, mores and values; and the long-term objective of people of diverse origins seeking the unity of an Australian nationality.

These three approaches should not diminish the cultural integrity of those who feel that their culture is sufficiently different and important to warrant its maintenance through successive generations in Australia. Respect for Australia’s institutions, mores and values would not deny anyone the right to pray as they wish, to dress as they wish, to eat as they wish, and to celebrate their festivals as they wish – provided that this does not damage the right of any other cultural community to do the same; and provided that this practice of cultural diversity does not disturb the peace of an ethnically diverse nation, where no religion, no culture, no ancestry is superior to any other.

It is wonderful that Australia has finally joined the world of multicultural nations. However, ethnic diversity has no intrinsic value by itself, unless one focuses somewhat excessively on cuisine and restaurants. There will, of course, be a place for the display of difference through ‘spaghetti and polka’ presentations at annual multicultural fairs; and these are of great community interest. Such fairs do bring people out to look at some aspects of the diversity of origins within the nation. Cosmopolitan middle class people do not, however, take readily to peasant costumes, as evinced by some of the more strident supporters of ethnic difference amongst the second (and subsequent) generation Aussies. What then is the point of stressing difference?

In the end, no matter how superior or separate the first and second generations feel about their ancestry, religion or culture, by the next generation, at the latest, youngsters will pay less and less respect to any fulminations by their elders, and possibly their priests, about their allegedly unique cultural identity. Over half a century, many immigrants have changed their views about returning ‘home’ and about Australia, simply by realizing that, to their children and grandchildren, Australia is home. The peer groups of successive generations will ensure a merging of minds, and the emergence of a new Australian identity. Who will want to deny this evolution: and why?

This lovely end-scene will, however, be destroyed or delayed by officialdom paying inadequate attention to community cohesion, as well as to the capacity of the host nation people (even after a widened ethno-cultural diversity) to accommodate excessive changes to their perceptions of who they are. The arrival of large numbers of able-bodied Europeans in the first twenty-five years after the end of World War Two required a tolerance not needed in earlier times from Anglo-Australians. Just as a field of wheat remains what it is, notwithstanding the admixture of a few other grains of value, so Anglo-Australia remained white and British until the influx of the postwar arrivals. The second twenty-five years of heavy immigration, reflecting an (almost) open-door policy, required white European Australia to change to a multi-coloured, multi-ethnic cosmopolitan nation. The Pauline Hanson episode showed that many in the host nation felt that the country was then being changed too much, too soon. It was a legitimate view. How much change can one take in one’s lifetime, many asked.

The introduction of black African, and Muslim Middle Eastern refugees seems, because of the strong divergence of skin colour and religious faith they introduced, to have irritated the more chauvinistic members of the host population. It is also a truism that the initially unwanted ‘wogs’ of yesteryear can have an antipathy to later, and more divergent, arrivals. Tribal, and even class, differences amongst new arrivals from any one country of origin can cause difficulty in both acceptance by host peoples and adaptation and integration by the entrants.

Since more than six million Australians are already in receipt of official welfare, ie are recipients of Centrelink payments, the wisdom of accepting refugees (and some immigrants) who cannot speak English, who cannot learn English because they are illiterate in their own language or are too old, who are therefore unable to find work, and who will remain on welfare, possibly indefinitely, is questionable. Further, were their cultural traditions to conflict powerfully with Aussie traditions, how and when will they adapt to Australia, and hope to integrate? What of the reaction of the host people into whose domain they are placed, especially in rural districts? What sort of policy is this? Should one seek the unseen hand of a religious institution behind some of the entry policies?

In any event, the host people need time to change their perceptions, in order to accept new peoples and their new ways. The new arrivals too need time to accept that a change of their behaviour might be desirable, in order to become fully accepted; and that Australia is not part of the Middle East, East Africa, East Asia, or anywhere else. What is appropriate behaviour in those places is not necessarily acceptable or even sensible in Australia. Access to equal opportunity in Australia also requires the new arrivals to be sensitive to, and to accept, that they need to reduce the differences they brought into the country. That is, to lessen the gulf between ‘them and us’, because it is the new arrivals who introduced this gulf by their behaviour. Any and every host nation has the legal and moral right to set out what it expects from new arrivals who chose to join the host nation.

Whilst UN conventions require Australia to treat all its residents equally, it is surely incumbent upon new arrivals to conform to the nation’s institutions, mores and values. Australia is entitled to say not only who will enter, but how they will behave after entry. Were this to be carried out with greater regard to community cohesion than hitherto, the end-scene posited above, the emergence of a new Australian identity reflecting the contribution of all its ethno-cultural components, will be smoothly achievable. Whilst the nation is global in perspective, it is indeed unique in not wishing to entrench the tribal or ethno-cultural differences found in those multicultural nations which do not offer equal opportunity.

Source URL: