Australia Day: occasion for collective mourning

In early January, the leader of the Opposition, Anthony Albanese, suggested the first sitting day of Federal Parliament for 2020 be devoted to marking the unprecedented bushfire crisis. That got me thinking about Australia Day.

Why not make it a day of mourning, not just for Indigenous Australians as it explicitly became on 26 January 1938 but for all those heartbroken by the devastation that has swept our land.

26 January 1938 marked the 150th anniversary of the landing of the First Fleet in Australia. On that day a group of Aboriginal men and women gathered at Australian Hall in Sydney. They moved this resolution:

“WE, representing THE ABORIGINES OF AUSTRALIA, assembled in conference at the Australian Hall, Sydney, on the 26th day of January, 1938, this being the 150th Anniversary of the Whiteman’s seizure of our country, HEREBY MAKE PROTEST against the callous treatment of our people by the whitemen during the past 150 years, AND WE APPEAL to the Australian nation of today to make new laws for the education and care of Aborigines, we ask for a new policy which will raise our people TO FULL CITIZEN STATUS and EQUALITY WITHIN THE COMMUNITY.”

After the phrase ‘callous treatment of our people’, that resolution might have carried the words ‘negligent care of our country’. In 2019/2020, that negligence has had horrific consequences.

White people have not been good at heeding advice about the treatment of this ancient land and its first peoples. Before he embarked on the Endeavour expedition in 1768, James Cook, whose arrival on Australia’s east coat 250 years ago will be widely commemorated this year, received a set of ‘hints’ from the president of The Royal Society, James Douglas, 14th Earl of Morton. Lord Morton exhorted Cook to remind the crew it was their moral responsibility to do no harm to the Indigenous inhabitants and to respect Indigenous land occupation. The British Admiralty also instructed Cook only to take possession of advantageous positions with the ‘Consent of the Natives’. Cook proceeded without any such consent.

Kevin Tolhurst, whose name became so familiar during the 2009 Victorian Bushfires Royal Commission, has pointed out that, after 57 formal public inquiries, reviews and royal commissions related to bushfires and fire management since 1939, we have also had plenty of advice about bushfire management. The problem lies more with implementing the findings from these reviews. One lesson from the Black Saturday tragedy is that ‘stay and defend’ is often not the best course of action. The ‘leave and live’ option has saved lives this bushfire season.

Other recommendations have not been adequately followed up. In 2012, the Council of Australian Governments signed off on a national policy, which listed 14 national goals. One of those was to ‘further integrate traditional burning practices and fire regimes with current practices and technologies to enhance bushfire mitigation and management in Australian landscapes’. This goal recognised the benefits of widespread, low-intensity, patchy fires across the landscape as a way to build resilience to climate extremes.

Francesca M. Beddie 

The Golden Country: review

I follow migration matters closely, so Tim Watt’s survey of the White Australia Policy and subsequent immigration policy was familiar territory. For those who don’t, there is much to recommend in the story he tells and his demonstration of the economic benefits of skilled migration. But his analysis has flaws.

Watts is a Labor MP married to a Chinese Australian. They have two children. This gives him a personal interest in how Asian Australians see their country and its history. In The Golden Country (a reference to Australia’s changing complexion), he takes us back to the 19th century. He uncovers tales of the Chinese on and off the goldfields and on the front during World War One that were absent in the history and myths he learned as a child. This biographical thread runs through the book, which traces the creation of the “Australian Legend”. To understand how a sense of Australianness comes about, Watts draws on anthropologist Benedict Anderson’s idea that nations are shaped by “an imagined political community” with a shared history, culture and values.

Australia’s national identity was forged as explicitly white and Western. The East “was seen to be home to immortality, irrationality and psychological weakness, whereas the West was the home of virtue and rationality, discipline and physical strength”. We are living, Watts says, with the hangover from that dichotomy, which saw a century of nation building defined by the exclusion of Asian Australians. He uses statistics to show how such exclusion still pervades our political institutions, the nation’s boardrooms and top echelons of our public service and universities.

Now that 13 per cent of Australia’s population, over three million people, has Asian heritage – more than the percentage of African Americans living in the United States – this bamboo ceiling must be dismantled. Before suggesting how, Watts says this change in demography is primarily the result of John Howard’s immigration policies. He has evidence to back this up. The emphasis on importing skills during the Howard years doubled the total permanent-migrant intake. Even more significant was the increase in temporary migrants deployed to address skill shortages in a booming economy.

Watts focuses on the contradiction between this policy and Howard’s insistence that Australia was neither an Asian nor a racist country and his refusal to condemn Pauline Hanson’s anti-Asian vitriol. That’s a fair observation, as is Watt’s conclusion that, by allowing the anxieties Hanson stoked to enter the political lexicon, Howard reshaped the electoral strategies of both conservatives and progressives. The latter came to see “race, immigration and national identity as dangerous political terrain”. Nevertheless, as Watts shows, most Australians have not been much influenced by the shrill, offensive “ethno-nationalism” of recent years, with the political debate about migration being fuelled by “unrepresentative conservative political parties”.

This being so, Watts goes too far when he says Howard’s culture wars “hindered our collective ability to talk openly about the implications of the societal shifts he set in train”. That has meant, he asserts, governments haven’t invested in the urban infrastructure needed to cope with more people nor anticipated problems like foreign interference with diaspora communities. He can’t shaft these unresolved matters of public policy home solely to Howard or to one side of politics.

Where Watts stays silent on John Howard is the latter’s decision to take Australia to war in Afghanistan and the Middle East and the ramifications this has had on immigration, namely the influx of refugees from Pakistan, Iraq, Syria and North Africa. This silence has two possible explanations: Watts’ focus on Asian migration; his own party’s shameful record on asylum seekers and offshore detention.

Benedict Anderson’s imagined community turns out to be more than an explanatory tool. The concept shapes Watts’ ideas for today’s multicultural Australia. He wants to reimagine Australia, starting by arguing that racism in Australia is untypical. With a nod to Noel Pearson, he wants a set of contemporary Australian values that include respect for difference and inclusiveness but otherwise embody those in the Australian legend: the fair go, egalitarianism, mateship, pragmatism and irreverence. Watts wants everyone living in the golden country to embrace these values.

Our community, he thinks, is already there (although he does concede there are significant differences between multicultural urban areas like the one he represents in Melbourne and the bush). It’s the national political imaginings that must catch up. This needs leadership but can also happen by injecting new Aussie stories, for example about Chinese Anzacs and Indian traders, into mainstream history and by elevating Asian-Australian talent into the top echelons of Australian political, business and cultural circles. Watts should also have made mention of voices from other corners of the world.

When it comes to his policy prescriptions, Watts changes his analytical hat for one full of nostalgia for Anzac, with an Asian twist. And he doesn’t do enough to link his desire to see skilled immigration continue apace for the sake of productivity with other pressing domestic problems. These include environmental sustainability, inter-generational disadvantage among Indigenous Australians and the long-term unemployed, persistently poor innovation and management in Australian enterprises.

Nor does Watts properly factor in the impact of changing patterns of labour mobility. His justified concerns about current problems in immigration – the exploitation of lower skilled temporary migrants and underfunded settlement programs – prevent him from imagining a new global citizenry who embrace not one nation’s values but who thrive by being connected across the planet.

[This review first appeared in The Weekend Australian.]

Towards cosmopolitaness

In April 2019, the American Society for Editing decided to drop hyphens in expressions denoting dual heritage, like ‘Asian-American’, ‘African-American’ and so on. ‘American Indians’ refers to those hailing from India; the first people of the American continent are called ‘Native Americans’. While a hyphen is a small thing, its use can be a sensitive matter when it touches on a person’s sense of self, especially now when public discourse revolves around ethnicity, gender and other self-selected groups rather than the -isms that used to dominate politics: socialism, liberalism, humanism. 

Writing in 2010 (when hyphens were still de rigeur), Tony Judt said:

today we are all hyphenated—Irish-Americans, Native Americans (sic), African-Americans, and the like. Most people no longer speak the language of their forebears or know much about their country of origin, especially if their family started out in Europe. But in the wake of a generation of boastful victimhood, they wear what little they do know as a proud badge of identity: you are what your grandparents suffered. 

I saw that sentiment on display at the Sydney Writers Festival  last week. A panel of successful writers lamented their split identities. What a pity they had to put themselves into boxes! What a shame not all had learned a second language!

I know the awkwardness a ‘foreign’ name can cause: how do you spell ‘Francesca’? Where do you come from? I always say just Australia, even though my mother was a Pom, one grandfather a German and one great grandmother a Spaniard. That heritage has enriched me, because we are, to quote Stan Grant, ‘a human symphony, the songs of so many lands’. Grant argues in his new book, On Identity, that it’s time to leave identity behind and to embrace cosmopolitanism. Perhaps dropping the hyphen is a step in that direction.

Teaching + research = tertiary education

In the new world of work, which heralds machines doing routine tasks and people solving problems, learning the how without the why is not enough. In other words, inquiry and evaluation must be integral to all tertiary teaching and learning. This is precisely the time not to break the teaching-research nexus. Good teachers are scholars.

This is a quotation from Francesca’s response to the Productivity Commission’s five-year review, Shifting the Dial.  Read the full article in Pearls and Irritations

What does MBS stand for?

The world loves acronyms – abbreviations from the initial letter or sometimes syllables in phrase or a word. How much easier to text three letters than spell out three words? But will the reader know what MBS stands for? Melbourne Business School, Mind Body Spirit? It depends on the context, of course.

In this case, it is neither. MBS is the nickname of the Saudi Crown Prince, Mohammad bin Salman. I prefer MbS, following the use of upper and lower case in the spelt-out name (‘bin’ meaning ‘son of’) but the Style Manual says  initialisms, which are not pronounced as a word as are acronyms (for example, OPEC*), should be all capitals. That said, I don’t think they had Arabic names in mind when they made this ruling.

So what does The Crown Prince stand for? To read more on this go to Peter Rodgers’ blog post Mohammad bin Salman – Saudi Arabia’s reformer or wrecker? in Pearls and Irritations.

*Organization of the Petroleum Exporting Countries (note the ‘z’ in organisation: in proper nouns following the preferred spelling of the entity or person)

Evolution

Are the cicadas deafening you this spring? Where we live they are out in force, causing people to talk. Some mention ‘si-KAH-da’, other say ‘si-KAY-da’. Why the difference, I wondered. And here, in an extract from the Boston Globe, is the explanation. It’s all about evolution, not of the species but of the English language.

In classical Latin, “cicada” was pronounced as “ki-KAH-da,” with hard c’s. The first “c” changed to a “ts” sound around the fifth century A.D., and the consonant further softened to “s” in Old French. When English speakers began importing Latin words, they looked to the French model, so words beginning with “ci-” like “circle,” “civil,” and “cicada” all took on the initial “s” sound.

But why would the second syllable of “cicada” be pronounced like “kay”? For that we can blame the Great Vowel Shift that marked the transition from Middle English to Modern English. Words with the stressed “a” sound, including borrowings from Latin, shifted from “ah” to “ay,” which you can hear in countless words like “table,” “radio,” and “stadium.”

For centuries, the “ay” pronunciation ruled for stressed “a” words regardless of their source. It even applied to words brought in from Spanish like “armada,” originally pronounced in English as “ar-MAY-da.” But eventually, “armada” fell prey to what the British phonetician John C. Wells calls “continental vowelism”: “Ar-MAH-da” displaced the older pronunciation because English speakers thought the “ah” sound was more appropriate for a Spanish import.

… By the turn of the 21st century, most British references gave “kah” as the primary variant, with “kay” still holding sway across the Atlantic.