Saturday, February 19, 2011

Saturday Morning Musings - New Zealand, Australia & multiculturalism

This illustration is from DeusExMacintosh's post Australia Sux (New Zealand, Seven). New Zealand PM John Key on the left, Australian PM Gillard on the right. As it happened, Ms Gillard did become the first foreign leader to address the New Zealand Parliament, but I had to laugh.Gillard NZ Parliament

The relationship between Australia and New Zealand is a complicated one that is probably unique in global terms, something I explored back in November 2008 in Sunday Essay - the strange case of Australia and New Zealand.

In some ways, the two countries see themselves as one, yet remain very distinct.

In her speech to the NZ Parliament, the Australian PM re-emphasised the importance of the relationship. That's important, because the bigger Australia (the population ratio between the two countries is roughly equivalent to that between Canada and the US) sometimes ignores its smaller sibling, adding venom to the NZ desire to beat Australia on the sporting field.

On-going moves to build closer economic integration between the two countries, something that featured  on the Australian PM's trip, have a long history. A New Zealand Australia Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) was signed on 31 August 1965 and came into force on 1 January 1966. In 1983 this was replaced the by the Australia New Zealand Closer Economic Relations Trade Agreement (ANZCERTA), more commonly known as Closer Economic Relations (CER).

One of the differences between the two countries lies in NZ's greater Pacific orientation, something that I explored back in August 2007 in Pacific Perspective - Pasifika and New Zealand's Future. This links to the current Australian discussions on multiculturalism, discussions that I reviewed in Multiculturalism, migration & Australian life. If you look at those discussions, you will see a total absence of references to New Zealand or indeed to the broader Pacific. That's a mistake, an example of Australian myopia.

There is free movement of residents between Australia and New Zealand. Despite the population scale differences between the two countries, this means that changes in the composition of the New Zealand population do affect the composition of the Australian population.

At the last Australian census, 389,465 Australian residents were born in New Zealand. The number of Australian residents with one or more parents born in New Zealand is far higher. In December 2009, an article in the New Zealand Herald reported estimates that 126,000 of the 765,000 people in the world with Maori ancestry, one in six, now lived in Australia. This proportion is increasing.

Like Australia, the composition of the New Zealand population is changing. If we take the forecasts that I reported in Pasifika and New Zealand's Future, forecasts for 2016 suggest that Pakeha children will be just 38 per cent of 0- to 14-year-olds in Auckland. Pacific and Asian groups will each have 23 per cent - with Maori at 16 per cent.  As I said at the time, that's a change that makes Sydney look like a pussy cat.

If we track further forward, we can expect to see a very significant rise in Australia's Pacific Islander population coming direct and via New Zealand. This reflects existing trends, but is likely to be accentuated by political developments within the Pacific including broader moves for closer economic relations. 

Some of my posts are, in fact, arguments with myself as I try to clarify issues.   This was true of Multiculturalism, migration & Australian life as it was with my earlier reporting on the On-line Opinion advertising controversy; see especially ANZ, IBM & freedom of speech. I accept that this can make for pretty turgid stuff, but it does help my thinking. This is aided by my commenters and especially KVD.

Standing back from my own emotional responses to the use of the word multiculturalism, I have two key problems with the debate. The first is that I don't actually know what it all means. The second is the apparent disconnect between the generalised principles and what is happening or might happen on the ground.

Australia is a very varied country with a great variety of experiences, including migrant experiences. Our discussions seem to polarise around, to centre on, a small number of not especially representative examples -boat people, troubles with particular groups in particular places. In doing so, we risk confusing the general and the particular. We also ignore other things; the New Zealand case is an example.

In discussions on the Australian Government's new multicultural policy, I came to realise that that I was locking myself into discussion within a particular frame, a set way of thinking. I also realised that I actually had no idea what I was talking about. Let me explain.

Start with a very basic question: what is the policy problem that the Australian Government is trying to address? It seems to be a concern that Australia needs to be prepared to accept a wide variety of peoples, that our willingness to do so has declined, that we therefore need to re-affirm our commitment to a multicultural Australia.

Now look at the migration statistics. They show that we are admitting very large numbers of migrants from a multiplicity of countries. The actual number of arrivals is far higher than appears at first sight because the usually quoted figures are net figures, new arrivals less a large and increasing number of Australian residents leaving on a long term basis.

Is there any evidence that the new arrivals as a whole aren't fitting in however we define that? I am not aware of any. There are all sorts of frictions, I have written of some of them, but I think that the general statement remains true. So if things are okay in a general sense, what's the problem?

If you now look at the detail of what ministers have said and at the responses including comments on all forms of media, you find that the focus is on particular groups (those of the Muslim faith, those from certain countries). These groups are only a small proportion of our overall migrant intake or indeed of people living in this country. However, they and reactions to them have gained an importance far beyond their relative size.

Take Lebanese Muslim spokesman Keysar Trad as an example. Mr Trad represents a slice of an insignificant slice of the Australian population measured by numbers. Yet, for a period, he featured day after day in the Australian media. This is not a criticism of Mr Trad; I am talking about responses to him. He became important because he was perceived to be important, because many Australians and the Government had become concerned about certain issues in the context of the War on Terror, because the media reflected and fed the discussion. The issues discussed had very little to do with migration as such.

At the end of 2006, a national controversy broke out over the treatment by Sudanese refugees by Tamworth Regional Council, a controversy that went global. I was in South West Rocks on holidays at the time. Knowing Tamworth and some of the people, I did some digging. For those who are interested, Tamworth and Refugees - follow up note will provide an entry point to the posts I wrote.

Initial media reporting, the reporting that was picked up globally, presented this issue as a matter of simple racism, of blind community opposition to a new migrant group. The reality was totally different.

You had a local group concerned about refugees who wanted to bring a Sudanese group to Tamworth. So we already have part of the Tamworth community proactively working for what we could call a multicultural Australia.

The Tamworth Regional Council, a body that needed to support the program if it were to gain official approval, had reservations. This included questions about the capacity of the refugees to fit in. Importantly, it also included reservations about the capacity of the Immigration Department to actually provide support that the refugees needed. Council needed comfort on the question of Departmental support. Those supporting the Sudanese refugee intake reacted angrily.

From this point, the whole thing blew up into a media storm. Council and all the various local protagonists had to work through the issues under the un-relenting glare of national and international media coverage. In all this, those who wanted to see migration restricted attempted but failed to take advantage of the situation. Later, when the glare had gone away, it became clear that an over-stretched Immigration Department was indeed struggling to provide the required support. 

The first point about the Tamworth case is that it shows just how sensitive and divisive migration issues can become.

Accepting that it became a cause célèbre because of the initial stance adopted by the national media, it still showed some of the sensitivities within the Australian community. To the degree that the Government has formed a view that those sensitivities are now of sufficient level to warrant action, then a general reaffirmation of principles may be required even though it remains clear that there is not a problem so far as the mass of the migrant intake is concerned.

The second point about the Tamworth case is that it demonstrates the need to consider the relationship, the nexus, between general statements and particular cases. If migrants as a whole do not seem to be experiencing particular problems, this is not the case for Sudanese refugees where problems of war trauma and limited education are significant. 

Earlier I said in the context of the discussion on the new multicultural policy, I realised that I actually had no idea what I was talking about. The point is that I was talking at a general level. It was only after I dropped to look at detail that I realised just how difficult generalised statements were. In fact, we have a generalised policy statement that actually appears to be trying to address very specific concerns. Further, if the Tamworth case is any guide, we may well not have in place the very specific targeted measures required to make the policy really effective.

I would argue that we need a lot more thought not on the generalities of multicultural or multiculturalism, but on the specific underpinnings required to make it work now and in the future.


Neil said...

You know what I think, deep down? This is all much ado about nothing.

When real people become their neighbours most Australians cope with matters of cultural diversity rather well.

Maybe if we just got back to the idea of a fair go... And that there are, and always have been, many many ways to be an Australian.

Jim Belshaw said...

I think that you are pretty right on this one, Neil. In my case, it's a bit of a grinding away while I work things out in my own mind. It's time to let it drop!

Winton Bates said...

Jim, This time I agree with you about the need to focus on the specifics rather than trying to specify general principles more clearly.
I suspect it is possible for one person to be advocating multiculturalism and someone else to be opposing it, while both advocate the same policies.
I just think everyone who lives in this country (including people who are born here) should learn English and stop beating their wives (or whatever the words the Minister used). I also think I should get the opportunity to go to a multicultural festival now and then to enjoy the variety of food on offer. (I haven't been to one for a few years.)
By the way, I also liked the cartoon.

Jim Belshaw said...

I loved the cartoon, Winton. I wish I had the skills. I think that you are right on all points, although I see that I still have to convince you on the specifics. In fact, my argument is that we need to do both, pointing and counterpointing bewteen the general and the specific.

Legal Eagle said...

I'm not sure what multiculturalism means either, Jim. It seems to have multiple meanings. The simplest is that we have multiple cultures in our society. But there seems to be a suggestion by some that multiculturalism has turned into something whereby people come to a new country and stay in ethnic groups, refusing to fit in with the broader culture and social mores.

As someone who has lived overseas, I think you have to be flexible when you live in someone else's country. You have to respect their traditions to an extent. You have to integrate somewhat. Some people criticise integration as arrogant and as privileging Western culture over other cultures. I do not think so. I don't think someone has to become totally mainstream and drop all their culture to integrate with broader society. Of course, the mainstream also has to adapt and understand too. And hopefully, the sum total will mean that we are all better people.

It is inevitable, though, that sometimes there will be misunderstandings and difficulties. If these are faced honestly (rather than people trying to pretend they are not there) I think difficulties can be overcome.

Anonymous said...


I keep wondering just how successful I might have been if, say, 20 years ago I had force-migrated to Brazil with wife and young kids. No language skills, qualifications unrecognised, children yearning for home but far more flexible in fitting into a new country, than their father who would probably hold to "old ways" and seek out similar company. It must be very difficult.

I have a lovely client - a Portuguese lady, and a beautiful soul. She introduced me to Fado music for which I will ever be grateful, but her science engineering degree is not directly recognised in Australia, so while her husband works, she assists at the local preschool - for want of something better to do.

Then overlay those basic difficulties with the trauma of escaping from a warzone, and I wonder how any of us would cope, without keeping close to those of our own community? Earlier comments and you yourself have said how well Australia seems to cope - and I agree - but life at times must be difficult for these people however supportive we try to be.

I think integration just happens "organically", neighbour to neighbour, without the need for facile policy positions - which is how I view the initiatives of that restated policy you quoted in your earlier post. Earlier comments here make a lot of sense to me, and I'm sure they are representative of most of us, despite what the press and pollies spout.

wv=mizestio, which for some reason makes me hungry.

Jim Belshaw said...

Thanks, LE. We are in furious agreement. KVD, that's an interesting story.

Have you ever read Nevil Shute's A Far Country? This is an early example of the type of thing you are talking about. It also captures rather well the early interaction (immediate post WWII) between migrant and new community.

Anonymous said...

Hello Jim

Thanks for the Greek respite. Yes I have read that book, and enjoyed it. By sheer coincidence these past few days I've been reading a quite wonderful fiction, about a young Jew and his wife escaping to England just before WWII, and his attempts to "become an Englishman" based firstly on a list he was handed on arrival as to how to "fit in".

It's called "Mr Rosenblum's List" and I would highly recommend it for its gentle appreciation of the mundane, and the English character and countryside.

On a more general note, the story of "fitting in" to a new community is almost a separate genre in films don't you think. Must have seen that basic story line dozens of times on film over the years.


Jim Belshaw said...

KVd, I hadn't heard of Mr Rosenblum's list. Will try to find it. And yes, you are right re films about fitting in.

By thw way, I really laughed at your comment on SL. I am bringing up a new post connectad with that.