A decade ago I wrote a book in which I argued that all the major debates about Australia’s future could be understood by reference to one simple question: is Australia to be an open or closed society?
This question still runs through most policy debates in Australia. And it connects them with each other. Those who support open markets but not open migration, or open trade but not open government, struggle for coherence.
Open Australia reflects broad yet consistent principles about how we as a modern nation engage with each other and the world. These positions sometimes cross old ideological boundaries, turning one issue’s reformist into another issue’s reactionary. The natural coalition of reform in politics today draws in those who believe that our society, democracy and markets should operate unhindered by fear, secrecy and cronyism.
Today’s issues are different from those of ten years ago, but they still reflect the choice between open and closed. The climate change sceptics amongst our conservative opponents are the intellectual heirs of the fortress Australia mentality, for example. They want to stop the world so Australia can get off.
Tonight I want to return to the theme of open Australia. There are many dimensions to this. Some obvious examples are climate change, deregulation, reconciliation, freedom of information, and Australia’s engagement with the world. I want to focus on the way Australians engage with migrants and refugees.
I want to talk tonight about a community with whom I have a strong local connection: the African-Australian community. Their story is emblematic of both past successes and future challenges of an open Australia.
As globalisation has added to the economic and social strains experienced by our community, we’ve become a lot more interested in what makes us distinctive. While some contributions to this discussion have not been entirely coherent, it has brought a few underlying tensions and contradictions in Australian society to the surface.
Defining what makes us different is a subjective endeavour. We don’t all adhere collectively to a defined set of values. We harbour many different senses of Australian identity. As John Howard quickly found when he tried to insert a preamble into our Constitution, what is obvious to one Australian is often objectionable to another.
So my sense of Australian values may be different from yours. It’s difficult to think of values that all Australians would individually agree on. There are some things, however, that I think are deeply embedded in our collective spirit.
There is a sense of openness, energy and decency that is a very distinctive feature of the Australian character. Other words like fairness, tolerance and enterprise could be added, but I think openness, energy and decency are the words that best reflect who and what we are.
The phrases that reflect our values best are “have a go” and “give ‘em a go”.
We believe in opportunity, but we expect effort in return. We are open to all, but we demand contribution in return for participation.
Few of the leading figures from our colonial era better reflect this Australian spirit than Sir Redmond Barry. While an extraordinary achiever, he was also quick to assist others in bettering themselves. Barry even opened up his personal library to the general public, to give working people learning opportunities that weren’t easily accessible elsewhere. I am delighted to honour his memory tonight.
Given Australia’s modern history, it is hardly surprising that most debates about values quickly default to issues of race. It is no accident that the Howard Government sought to insert its version of Australian values into citizenship requirements.
While the insidious role of racism in our nation’s history can scarcely be denied, it should not be allowed to stand as a defining characteristic of who we are. In the Howard era, debate about Australian values often seemed to consist of an argument between those who would deny our racist past, and those who want to punish us for it.
I’d rather highlight the strengths of those values that I see as distinctively Australian, including values inimical to racism. Openness, energy and decency have made us what we are. Let’s ensure they’re at the heart of our effort to tackle the new challenges we face.
As a child I had some pretty unpleasant experiences at boarding school in East Gippsland. I also got an excellent academic education. And although I didn’t realise it at the time, I received some serious lessons on the evils of racism.
In those days, the White Australia policy was still in place, indigenous Australians were treated with contempt, and other peoples were portrayed through ridiculous stereotypes. Yet the Anglican church worked hard to instil a more enlightened view into me and my fellow boarders.
This went beyond complacent sermonising and glib pieties. Our boarding house of about 60 boys included Aboriginal, Thai and Indian kids. Whenever race was an issue, the message from those in authority was clear and unequivocal.
When I was thirteen, an indigenous classmate who occupied the bed next to mine got involved in a confrontation with another kid in our dormitory. Harmless horseplay turned nasty when he accidentally trod on this boy’s foot and hurt him. He was promptly hit with a volley of racist abuse, and being a good boxer, he responded with his fists.
Within minutes, both boys were in the Housemaster’s office. We were routinely caned for such trivialities as talking after lights out and dirty phys.ed gear, so I expected my indigenous mate would be caned.
Much to my surprise, he wasn’t. The message was clear. The sticks and stones rule didn’t apply to racial abuse. His physical assault was overlooked because of the racist provocation. In 1960s rural Australia, this was pretty unusual. Yet the school’s position reflected deeply entrenched values of decency and openness, a willingness to allow people to succeed or fail on their merits, not the colour of their skin. These values made it possible for us to make the transition from the world of the White Australia policy to modern multicultural Australia.
While I was experiencing this at Gippsland Grammar School, another boy my age was also experiencing boarding school elsewhere in the same town. His name was Kevin Andrews.
Many years later, as Minister for Immigration in 2007 announcing a cut in the African component off the humanitarian immigration program, he said in a press release: “recent refugee and humanitarian arrivals from the region of Africa are continuing to experience difficulty in successfully settling in Australia, and the result is high levels of community concern”.
The reduction in the African share of the humanitarian program was actually driven by other factors, particularly increased need from other source countries such as Burma. This was entirely unremarkable. The African share of the program was 13 per cent in 1996-97. It peaked briefly at 70 per cent in 2004-5, and fell to 50 per cent in 2006-07. Andrews’ announcement envisaged a further fall to 30 per cent.
By explaining a reduction in African immigration as a response to community concerns about immigration, Andrews sent shock-waves through African-Australian communities. I don’t wish to add to the debate about his motivation. That’s for a different discussion. My concern this evening is the impact experienced by African-Australians.
African-Australians are used to being attacked publicly. An obscure Sydney academic named Andrew Fraser attacked African immigration in 2005 as a recipe for crime, violence and other social problems. That’s just one of many examples. An Immigration Minister suggesting a particular community isn’t integrating properly into our society is even more serious.
People who have fled from war and persecution and settled in a new, very different country inevitably feel extremely vulnerable. They receive “why don’t you go back to where you came from?” messages regularly. They can feel their difference from others in their new country very acutely. The challenges of settlement and integration are magnified by the sense that many people in their new country don’t welcome them.
When an Immigration Minister says they aren’t integrating adequately and uses this as a justification for reducing the immigration intake from their region, the message it sends is absolutely chilling. For people accustomed to the arbitrary and capricious behaviour of authoritarian governments, being told they aren’t really welcome by a government minister is extremely serious. As Lawrence Udo-Ekpo explains in his study of Africans in Australia, fear of deportation heavily influences the lives of many African-Australians.
Black Africans have lived in Australia for much longer than most of us realise. There were black convicts in the First Fleet, and more arrived later until the British Government restricted their entry in 1838. Two of the thirteen Eureka rebels tried for high treason, John Joseph and James Campbell, were of African descent. Notwithstanding the White Australia policy and restricted immigration opportunities, we have had African-Australians living among us for many years.
Now they are here in tens of thousands. Most come from Ethiopia, Eritrea, Sudan and Somalia. There are many others, from countries such as Kenya, Nigeria, Liberia, Sierra Leone, Ghana and Zimbabwe. There are also many Africans from nations like Egypt, that tend to be seen more as Middle Eastern than African. And of course there are large numbers of white Africans from countries like South Africa and Zimbabwe in Australia. Needless to say, those who face the toughest challenges are black Africans.
African-Australians are citizens, workers, students, parents and business owners. They are a significant part of our community.
Many African-Australians have spent years living in refugee camps after escaping famine, war and torture. Many have lost close relatives including parents, siblings and children. Some don’t know whether their families are alive or dead. Last year The Age interviewed a 17 year old Sudanese student at Noble Park Secondary College who spent an extended time in a refugee camp after watching his father shot dead in front of his family. Stories like this are common.
While the security and opportunity that settlement in Australia offers are obviously embraced with enormous gratitude, many African-Australians face major challenges adapting to life in Australia. In April I conducted an African Community Summit as part of the 2020 Summit process, where I explored these issues with African community representatives.
Many young African-Australians have had little schooling. In countries like Sudan there are no driver’s licences. Traditional African family and communal structures perform functions undertaken by the state in western societies.
African-Australian parents struggle to adapt to Australia’s individualistic culture, which in their eyes sets children against their parents and undermines parental authority. African kids with little formal schooling and modest English skills sometimes struggle in classes with better educated kids of the same age. They lack facilities in the home and the wider community, and in some cases end up in trouble with the police. They very rarely encounter a police officer who looks and sounds like them.
Black African-Australians experience petty racism often. Some also have to cope with antagonism towards Muslims. Such experiences are the ugly punctuation marks of an often painful and difficult adaptation process that is hard for Australians of Anglo origin to understand.
The Victorian Foundation for Survivors of Torture provides vital assistance to the most traumatised refugees. The Foundation understands these settlement challenges acutely:
...the resettlement of the Dinka people from southern Sudan may mean the transition from a pastoral to an urban environment, from a communal to an individualistic culture, from a reliance on strong customary law and tribal traditions around marriage, children and family to diverse, multicultural society underpinned by values associated with individualism ... The changing roles and loss of status of men, the isolation of women bringing up children alone, and the tendency of children to rapidly acquire attitudes that challenge their parents, generates tension and dysfunction within families.
The strengthening of connections within a community helps to restore attachments that are vital to the recovery of people who have experienced the deliberate destruction of the bonds that bind communities together. Building relationships among the community helps to restore a sense of belonging and trust and provides natural networks of friendship and care that reduce the debilitating effects of fear and anxiety.
Tackling these challenges involves all of us. We have to allow African-Australians to be Australians. They are part of us. Udo-Ekpo quotes Dorinda Hafner, who migrated to Australia from Ghana: “I have Australian citizenship and consider myself an African-Australian. Australians won’t let me be Australian, and that’s my frustration. Every time I say I’m from Australia they say ‘No, but originally?’ ”This sense of separateness is inevitably accentuated by the media. African-Australians are often subject to strident attack or patronising curiosity. Almost inevitably they are in the media because they are African and black, not because they are Australian.
The wider community sometimes gets a glimpse of the contribution African-Australians are making to our society, but much of that contribution goes largely unnoticed. And while it is important to assist African communities to tackle the enormous challenges they face, it is even more important to recognise and celebrate their achievements. Success stories are vital to progress.
I’ve encountered many success stories personally, and I’ve read about others. Like Abdulla Ahmed, a Somali of Ethiopian origin I first met in 1993 who has spent years raising money to build a hospital in the Ethiopian city of Raaso.
Abdi Farah, a Somali who spent five years in a refugee camp, earned a Social Work degree from RMIT, set up the Horn of African Young People’s Network, and now serves on the Victorian Drug and Alcohol Prevention Council. Munira who runs the Sorghum Sisters catering company in Melbourne after leaving Eritrea and living for years in Sudan. The United Somali Women’s Association of Victoria which helps people with mental health problems, youth issues and runs homework clubs. Akoch Manheim, who runs the Sudanese Lost Boys Association, set up the Sudanese Australian Youth Justice Project, and ran a Day of Appreciation for Sudanese young people to thank Australians for accepting them. Charles Ogada-Osir, a Kenyan medical specialist who lectured at Melbourne University and until his recent passing was for many years a mainstay of community organisations and activities at the Atherton Gardens public housing estate in Fitzroy.
There are many broader integration success stories too. In January 2007 the Tamworth City Council refused a request to help settle Sudanese refugees in Tamworth. The local community reacted, and 1600 people formally pledged to help Sudanese refugees integrate into the community. Six months later, young Sudanese refugee Diktor Malok observed “there is no more negativity now.”
BDS Pty Ltd, a shelving manufacturer in southern Brisbane, employs about 35 Sudanese workers. Their experience has been so positive that they use informal networks in the Sudanese community to recruit new staff. I encountered this success story several years ago when I visited BDS with a Parliamentary Committee. When I spoke to the manager last week he said the Sudanese workers were still doing well, and joked that he was worried about them learning Aussie work habits like sickies.
In many parts of country Australia, African-Australian refugees are working in tough low-paid jobs that employers find difficult to fill. Abattoirs from Colac to Tamworth rely on Sudanese workers to keep operating. Aged care facilities now employ numerous African-Australian nurses.
In my electorate Debney Park Secondary College is running a successful program aimed at breaking down prejudice among parents fearful of sending their children to a school with a large African-Australian population. The proportion of local primary school kids moving on to the high school has increased substantially.
There are many good things happening for African refugees in Australia. And there are many non-African-Australians helping them to settle and find opportunities.
Yet big challenges still remain. African-Australians still endure prejudice and discrimination in their daily lives. Adapting to different rules and cultural norms isn’t easy. And difficulties in education and employment threaten to undermine all the wonderful progress that is occurring.
The biggest challenge of all is ensuring that African-Australian kids stay in school. And that challenge involves much more than just the things that happen in schools.
Education has been the pathway to long-term integration for previous waves of migrants. Most professionals of southern European origin have parents who worked in factories and made great sacrifices to ensure their kids enjoyed genuine opportunity in life. The integration of migrants from Asia has followed a similar pattern.
Whether or not African-Australian migration will follow this pattern is in the balance. Some of the dynamics are different. Patterns of the past don’t automatically replicate themselves.
Everyone has heard of Somali taxi-drivers with Ph Ds. There are countless African-Australian refugees with high-level qualifications who’ve found it virtually impossible to work in their field of expertise in Australia. Our system of recognition of overseas qualifications is quite tough.
This is hardly a new problem. Earlier migrant groups have had similar experiences. A close friend of mine from university was the son of central European refugees. His father had a Doctorate in Law from his home country, but worked as a psychiatric nurse in Australia.
Now this problem has a new dimension. I am now encountering African-Australians with high-level qualifications from Australian universities who can’t find jobs. Even in the midst of dire skills shortages. Their degrees are from Melbourne, not Mogadishu, but they’re finding it just as hard to find employment.
Recently I launched a community program specifically designed to assist people in this situation. A list of examples was handed around. It made for sobering reading. One man had a Bachelor of Business (Electronic Commerce) and Master of Business (Enterprise Resources Planning Systems) from RMIT. He’s an Australian citizen and speaks fluent English. He drives taxis part time and has been looking for work in his field of expertise since 2004. I’ve met a number of people like him in my electorate.
Why is this happening? Racial discrimination is undoubtedly one factor. A recent Victorian Equal Opportunity and Human Rights Commission report concludes: “While much of the blatant racism and name-calling is a thing of the past, the discrimination people face today is more subtle, entrenched and much more difficult to identify and deal with.”
African-Australians with professional qualifications report that lack of experience is a huge barrier to finding a job. Unemployment therefore becomes self-perpetuating, as no-one will give them a go.
Beneath these factors is a more general problem. Black African-Australians have very limited networks in the wider community. The old school tie may not be quite as powerful as it once was, but professional employment opportunities are still heavily influenced by the informal connections of familiarity that attach to people who are well integrated into our society. Outsiders are subtly excluded by a complex web of invisible barriers. As Tamunu, a Nigerian-Australian of middle-class origins observes: “Here, social connections are the be-all and end-all, the key to getting a decent job. Highly qualified Africans are unemployed because they don’t know people in high places, they haven’t got connections…”
It is not easy for any government to address this problem. And it seems strange to suggest that those African-Australians who should have the widest access to economic opportunity need assistance. Shouldn’t we focus on those with limited skills and poor English?
The answer is of course yes, but we need to do both. The successful integration of African-Australians into our society depends on it. If African kids see highly-qualified African-Australians routinely denied employment opportunities, they’ll draw a very simple conclusion: there’s no point staying in school. Therein lies the path to major long-term social problems.
The Rudd Government is doing many important things to assist the integration of refugee and humanitarian migrants into our community. The 2008 Budget extended an additional $49 million to the Adult Migrant English Program, and allocated over $30 million to the Settlement Grants Program for 2008-09. The humanitarian immigration intake has been increased. The Integrated Humanitarian Settlement Strategy offers intensive settlement support to newly arrived humanitarian migrants. This program assisted almost 10,000 people in 2007-08, approximately 35 per cent of them of African origin. Critically, the Government has drawn a line under the divisive rhetoric of the past. In a recent speech to the United Nations High Commission on Refugees, Immigration Minister Senator Chris Evans said: “the Rudd Government rejects the provocative remarks made by the former Minister for Immigration and Citizenship, Kevin Andrews, about the settlement prospects of Sudanese refugees... the Rudd Labor Government is firmly committed to supporting African refugees and others from that continent in humanitarian need.”
While barriers to employment for African-Australians with professional qualifications are difficult to tackle, we have to make an effort. It’s difficult for government to interfere in the staff selection decisions of private companies, and even within our own agencies, it’s not easy to envisage ways to address this problem. There are no simple solutions available.
The recent work of the Victorian Equal Opportunity and Human Rights Commission suggests some possibilities. The Commission argues: “migrant job seekers need to be actively supported through initiatives such as professional bridging programs, workplace mentoring and work experience.”
Australian business is treating its wider social responsibilities seriously. The business community is now pursuing a wide range of social programs to assist disadvantaged Australians, particularly those of indigenous background.
I’m not aware of any such programs focused on African-Australians. So I’m contacting a range of major businesses and professional bodies seeking their thoughts on how to help. And I’ll be raising the issue within the Government. I don’t want to displace any existing effort helping others, but even if only one company steps forward to help, it will be a big thing for the African-Australian community.
This issue is about how we see ourselves and how we see new arrivals in our community. More than most new arrivals, black African-Australians look different and sound different. They have different social customs and family patterns. Yet they want to be Australians. They shouldn’t have to erase their backgrounds in order to do so.
I return to my initial thoughts about Australian values. I’ve got no doubt African-Australians will have a go, if we give them a go. Just listen to the words of Akoch Manheim on the joys of being Australian: “there are no words to truly express how it feels for a stateless person to receive the privilege of citizenship in a country like Australia. It is a gift from God of priceless value.”
The question for other Australians is simple. Are we prepared to give them a go?
I say yes. I know countless other Australians say yes. I’m pretty sure Sir Redmond Barry, who as a barrister regularly represented indigenous clients for no fee, would say yes.
There will be plenty of set-backs along the way, but I’m absolutely confident of the longer-term outcome. I believe the ultimate Australian values, the positive values of have a go and give ‘em a go, will triumph. Black African Australians need our support and understanding. If we’re tr to our values we’ll give that support and understanding.
An open Australia must be truly open. Open to people of all backgrounds. The strength and vitality of our society comes from this openness.
Our nation won’t be socially and culturally open unless we embrace African-Australian migrants in the same way we’ve previously embraced people from southern Europe, Latin America, Asia and the Middle East. We have to make an effort, not just sit back and allow them to sink or swim. If we do, the rewards for all of us will be overwhelming.