Thursday, January 27, 2011

immigration, words and concepts

I have been working away on a follow up to Sunday Essay - Immigration Nation fails the test taking comments here and elsewhere into account, as well as thoughts generated by Australia Day. I ended up with a far larger, more complicated and less controlled task than I had expected. I have therefore put the matter aside for the moment. While I have done this, I thought that I would briefly explain the problems I discovered.

The first thing I wanted to do was to properly document the changes that had taken place up to 1972. The policy was effectively dead when I ran for Country Party pre-selection in 1972. The ALP took White Australia from its platform in 1965, the Country Party did so the following year. I wanted to trace the changes at both political and policy levels. This one was not too hard, just collecting dates and actions in order to put them into a table.

The second thing I wanted to do was to put the progressive changes into a context, something that I thought that Immigration Nation had failed properly to do. Here I focused on two things: I wanted to show that Australia faced very particular geo-political pressures in its immediate region that extended well beyond the issue of the communist threat; I also wanted to show that at least some of the changes in Australian attitudes were part of broader global trends linked, among other things, to the US Civil Rights Movement. In both cases, my focus remained on the 1950s and 1960s.

Creating a context was a bigger task, but not impossible.

I then decided to look at immigration policies in other countries. If I was right about broader international trends, then they should be reflected elsewhere. I also had a feel that the title of the Australian SBS program Immigration Nation might be generalised to Immigration Nations. That is, Australia and a small number of other countries shared attributes that made something like the concept of multiculturalism or the Canadian equivalent possible.

In thinking about this, I was influenced by my previous thought and writing about certain trends including the rise of countries based on ethnicity in circumstances of formal and informal ethnic cleansing. There are very few countries that can truly be classified as multicultural, far more that are in one way or another mono-cultural. Measured by numbers of countries, mono-culture not multiculture  is appears dominant.

Now I found myself in very real trouble. My problem lay in words and the relationships between words and changing labels.

Every word we use has a particular meaning at a particular time. Further, in addition to the formal meaning, many words have bundles of attributes attached to them that extend beyond the formal meaning.

One modern example is our use of the term code words to describe words that actually have a very different meaning, a loaded meaning. A second modern example is spin, the conscious selection of words to describe something in a way that will appeal to a target audience. 

To do what I wanted to do, I needed to take the meaning of words at a point in time and then look beyond to any code word elements.

In case this sounds too abstract, take the word nondiscriminatory.

Australia operates a nondiscriminatory migration policy. This is what we say and what we believe.

The reality is quite different. We actually have a highly discriminatory migration policy, at least as discriminatory as at any time in the past.

Sound extreme? Well, sixty years ago we would basically take any migrant so long as they were European. Today, we will take most migrants so long as they have a family connection or bring skills. All that has changed is the grounds of selection. We still discriminate. In fact. we discriminate on many more grounds!

Or take the concept of homogeneity.

In 1966, a senior official warned the Government that admission of Asian migrants risked breaking down the homogeneity of Australian society. Cabinet went ahead anyway because Australia really had little choice.

Homogeneity sounds dreadful in a multicultural world, yet the principle is still there.

We try to knock out from the migrant intake anybody who might create a problem. Our two biggest migrant groups - family reunion and skilled migrants - are just those groups likely to fit in. A truly non-discriminatory immigration policy would say that we admit anyone.

I am not saying that we shouldn't have rules. I am saying that in something like immigration we need to recognise that we do discriminate and that the way we discriminate will change with time.  We just have to recognise what we are doing.

Thus type of word issue bedevils all immigration discussions. It derailed my proposed post because I had neither the time nor energy to go through the semantic tracking that was required to properly present the issues.        


Anonymous said...


This is very much off topic, but I just wanted to record my amazement and despair at the misunderstanding demonstrated by the public after today's "Flood Levy" announcement.

I am not asking for a comment on the economic outcomes, or possible alternative measures.

If you have time, have a look at the comment stream attached to

Just really - how does a government actually govern in the face of such basic public ignorance as to what is proposed?


Jim Belshaw said...

Hi KVD. Have responded -