May 30, 2013
Our Anglo-centric identity is a threat to social cohesion.
As Britain reels from another terrorist attack by a British-born citizen, countries around the world need to be looking at how we build cohesion and social solidarity among our increasingly diverse populations. This debate is particularly important in Australia, as one of the world’s great immigration nations, and a country with a predisposition towards a truly dangerous cultural policy.
During the Howard years, a peculiar policy mix developed in which we reasserted an Anglo- centred account of Australian identity, and at the same time had a major expansion of non-white immigration.
At one level the policy rationale is clear enough. As the economy boomed there were strong business and economic demands for high immigration. Howard sought to alleviate Anglo-identified Australians’ anxiety at the change, by reaffirming their primacy in Australia’s society and culture.
Implicit in the Howard narrative is that the real Australians are British-derived, and everyone else is just the supporting cast who should keep their heads down. The multicultural Australian narrative of the 1980s and ’90s gave way to a story of white mateship, barbecues, and an increasing emphasis on the Anzac myth as defining Australian identity.
The signs of the cultural change he created are everywhere. You have probably noticed how in the 1980s the crowd at the cricket was doused in green and gold. In those days, Australian flags were rare and seemed anachronistic, yet now Australian flags with their Union Jacks are all pervasive.
The impact is most marked on our television screens. The Australia of our imaginations is projected onto the small screen. It is an overwhelmingly white world that looks nothing like our city streets.
It is a strategy that worked to a point. There are Australian Electoral Studies poll data that indicates people’s concern about immigration dropped in the Howard years, even as the number of migrants increased. However, it is a policy that is remarkably short-sighted.
The danger is inviting migrants to this country and then creating a cultural policy which locks them into being outsiders. This is not a huge problem for the first generation who usually feel like outsiders anyway, and are grateful for the opportunities their adopted home offers. The bigger problem is for the second generation, who are born here but continue to be treated as on the margins.
For kids of Caucasian appearance the problem is an internal one. Anglo-Australians don’t notice them. They merge into the landscape and don’t appear to be different. However, the young person themselves feels the exclusion of knowing the national story does not apply to them.
The bigger problem is for kids whose skin marks them as outside the Anglo tradition. These kids will grow up being treated like foreigners in the only country they have ever known. This compounds their internal sense of alienation. It creates a sense that they will never be truly accepted, and that the doors open to others are not open to them.
Social fragmentation and threats to stability do not occur because a society has different cultural groups. Every free society has that. We already have a range of subcultures, from corporate high-flyers, to footy-heads, to greenies, to conservative Christians and gay dance clubs. What is dangerous is when group identities become aligned with grievance.
The true threats to social cohesion arise when whole subgroups feel that they are not able to achieve their life goals and ambitions through hard work and playing by the rules – when they feel that, irrespective of merit, they will be sidelined.
The question of how we create a cohesive society in which everyone feels able to fulfil their dreams is a national security issue. The disenfranchised of the past simply became isolated Marxists or anarchists. These days, an increasing number are becoming jihadis with an ideology of violence and an internet of resources on how to take out their vengeance.
This is an issue on which our political leadership has been missing in action. The Labor government has continued singing from Howard’s song sheet, reinforcing rather than challenging the approach. Recent comments by Christopher Pyne suggest an Abbott government is lining up for more of the same.
With 50 per cent of Australians having at least one parent born overseas, this shouldn’t be a party political issue. It needs to be above short-term political stunts.
We need political leadership with the maturity to realise that for the Anglo-identified population there is a tension between their short and long-term interests. In the short term they benefit from preserving their privilege, but in the long term their interests lie in social stability, peace and cohesion.
We need the kind of leadership that can grasp the magnitude of the challenge and bring us together by focusing on the long term.
Lindy Edwards is a senior lecturer in politics at the University of NSW and the author of The Passion of Politics (Allen & Unwin, 2013).