MORE than half a century ago, before and especially after the Second World War, many thousands of Europeans and others were involved in a migration flow to Australia that transformed our country very much for the better.

The migrants came from all parts of Europe — the Balkans, central Europe, the Mediterranean, and the Baltic — as well as from other parts of the world. I was taught German by Paul Mink who, with his wife and sister, escaped Germany at the eleventh hour lest they were consigned to Hitler’s gas chambers because they were of Jewish extraction.

Then there was Freddy Dayan who came with his wife from Cairo, initially to Melbourne where he worked as a labourer and then to the sad fate of being required to teach me French at Hobart High School. (I would have preferred the French way of learning a language: “On apprend une langue sur l’oreiller” which translated means that you learn a language on the pillow!) There was also the Kuplis family, a couple of doors from where we lived initially in Hobart after migrating from the north-west coast,  who were among the most decent, diligent, contributing citizens one could wish to meet.

Overwhelmingly, these people and many thousands in subsequent waves of migration,  made largely seamless transitions to life in a “new”, raw nation notwithstanding initial barriers of language, customs and various idiosyncrasies that are unique to the Australian ethos. I know this because, like most young Australians of that period, I went to school and university with them, played sport with them, went to parties with them, did national service with them and applauded their victories in everything from under-ten hurdle races to Rhodes Scholarships. To this day I have fond memories of all sorts of contacts with a wide range of emigrant Australians of that period. These people and their descendents were and are no less Australian than I am and my lineage reaches back to the early years of the colony. Indeed, the non-Anglo-Saxon waves of migrants have enriched our nation in all sorts of positive and enduring ways. The way we live and eat and play and conduct ourselves and better understand the world around us owes a great deal to the contribution of successive waves of migration to our shores.

For all that, however, I am now informed that all these migrants over all those years had one critical deficiency — that is that not one of them ever swore allegiance to a code of Australian values. Isn’t it awful? It is akin to having a bastard in the extended family. (Who hasn’t, somewhere?!)

Over-paid minder

As I understand it, Prime Minister John Howard is canvassing the notion that this appalling gap can be addressed by ensuring that future migrants will swear allegiance —– or acknowledge or formally affirm or kiss or offer blood to — a code of Australian values. I think this is a load of old poppycock. It is an insult to those millions of Australians, and their descendents, who came here as migrants. It infers that, in some way, they are the lesser as citizens because they didn’t swear to respect our values. The fact is that they have enhanced our values. They are an integral part of our values.

I think there are two wings to this new, legless bird that the Prime Minister or some over-paid minder has hatched. First, and consistent with the Prime Minister’s record,  it is a gesture of crude populism. “Everyone who wants to come here must be a true blue, fair dinkum, bonzer, ‘ave a beer, suntanned Aussie from day one.” There may well be people in Howard-land who endorse this sentiment but they wouldn’t have thought about it if Howard hadn’t reminded them. It is a matter of creating an issue to win a vote — “Jeez, Little Johnny really looks after us battlers, don’t he?” — rather than achieve some substantive policy objective that will enhance the lives of those who live here and those who will come here in future.

Secondly, you can be assured that in some oblique way the Prime Minister will link the “values” issue to that of national security and, specifically, to the threat of terrorism.  Terrorism is indeed a real, present and doubtless increasing threat to many countries, including Australia. However, it will not effectively be addressed by such vacuous proposals as a code of national values, however it is framed. Its principal contribution would be as grist to the mill of cartoonists and columnists. Our security will be best addressed by consummate professionals using all the contemporary intelligence and related tools available to maximise the safety of all our citizens.

Then, of course, there is the awesome challenge of settling on what our values actually are. In this context I was interested to read a piece in The Australian of 23-24 September, 2006 by Kenneth Wiltshire, a respected academic, who was writing about the teaching of English, in the course of which he made the following observation: “… but national governments play a key role in setting national standards in a range of measures, including core curriculum, if only to achieve adherence to national values and goals.” I think Professor Wiltshire is also off the track unless, like me, he believes that any national values in Australia are transitory assertions that float past us from time to time reflecting the bright idea or off-the-cuff comment of a politician posing as a philosopher.

I expect that if we ferreted about for a while in our arts, our pioneering, our sporting achievements, our military record and other areas we would come up with some elements of a catalogue of values but I wonder how it would accommodate the other side of the ledger — like our appalling treatment of aboriginal Australians over two centuries; the fact that nearly 40% of Tasmanian households are receiving some form of welfare payment and that nearly 90,000 Tasmanians worry about how to feed their families each day; the rival gangs which went for each other with enthusiastic venality in a Sydney beachside suburb earlier this year; the gross incompetence of our bureaucrats and ministers in sagas like the Cornelia Rau and AWB scandals; and much, much more.

I believe that we Australians — all of us, whoever and wherever we are and whenever we arrived — have enormous love and respect for our country, for all sorts of reasons. That is a given and we should leave it at that. If John Howard wants to take the matter further I recommend that he set up an inter-departmental committee on the matter. That should bury it for a decade or so.

 

 

 

 

Nick Evers

I think there are two wings to this new, legless bird that the Prime Minister or some over-paid minder has hatched. First, and consistent with the Prime Minister’s record,  it is a gesture of crude populism. “Everyone who wants to come here must be a true blue, fair dinkum, bonzer, ‘ave a beer, suntanned Aussie from day one.” There may well be people in Howard-land who endorse this sentiment but they wouldn’t have thought about it if Howard hadn’t reminded them. It is a matter of creating an issue to win a vote — “Jeez, Little Johnny really looks after us battlers, don’t he?” — rather than achieve some substantive policy objective that will enhance the lives of those who live here and those who will come here in future.