Modia Minotaur

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Friday, September 15, 2006

What's UnAustralian?

Kim Beazley's notion of requiring a pledge to `Australian values' to be signed as part of obtaining an Australian visa has got to be one of the weirdest thought bubbles to emerge in quite a long time. Stranger still is the suggestion that it is Tony Burke, the Shadow Immigration Minister who had been so effective in his relatively new role, is reportedly the source of the policy. At least nine shadow backbenchers have expressed their concerns not only about the content of the policy but the fact that it was announced unilaterally.

This idea represents the worst of all that is nasty about Australian vs UnAustralian jingoism. Firstly, a terrorist is hardly going to care about signing a piece of paper that pledges him or her to use the word `mate' at the end of every sentence. Secondly, does the signing of such a pledge by people entering Australia suggest that Australians have an equal obligation to subscribe to whatever values are held by any country they enter? Singapore, perhaps? North Korea? (yes, a hypothetical, but you get my drift).

Thirdly, and most importantly - whose job is it to decide what Australian values are? Everyone seems to think they have the monopoly on Australianness, yet ask someone exactly what it is, and they'll be tonguetied. Today's newspapers were littered with cartoons depicting people being forced to sink a six pack at Customs and the like. If the best we can say for our nation is that we like to drink, like to play sport, like to eat foreign food (but not from foreign people), like to go to the beach and hate intellectuals, I don't think I should be in this country myself.

The announcement of this policy makes it all the more difficult for the party to properly frame the very touchy subject of guest workers. Labor's policy on guest workers is not racist. it's a recognition of the fact that the so-called skills shortage is a much deeper problem whose roots lie in the globalisation of industries such as manufacturing, which must be solved not by importing and exploiting low-paid foreign workers, but in seeking the reasons that skilled Australian workers are voluntarily leaving their jobs, and getting them back again or ensuring they are properly reskilled.

However, it is very easy to portray the policy as racially based, to the point that we were today treated to the spectacle of a straight-faced Amanda Vanstone accusing Labor of stirring the bee's nest of racism for political gain, which might be laughable if the Tampa incident weren't such a resoundingly low note in Australian politics. As soon as serious issues turn into simple, unshaded matters of us and them, right and wrong, Australian and unAustralian, it's not surprising that the complexities of such contentious policies are lost.

When I look back on the history of Australia, the White Australia policy is the thing I'm probably most ashamed of. It could be argued that our treatment of Indigenous Australians is worse, but to me, it's part of the same problem: I'm white and you're not, therefore I'm in charge. The notion of placing a criteria on what it is to be Australian, must less new suggestions that fluent English become the main criteria for migration to Australia, play to the worst sides of human - and, I hope, not Australian - nature.

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