Inaugural Australian Multicultural Council Lecture
- Main Committee Room, Parliament House, Canberra
Speech by Mr Frank Lowy AC - 19 September 2012
Australian multiculturalism is bigger and stronger than what happened in Sydney at the weekend.
When people come together from so many cultures, it is inevitable there will be some discord.
In Australia, we have had this in the past and we will have this in the future.
What happened at the weekend was brought about by a complex combination of factors which all countries must now deal with, not just Australia.
These include a more globalised world.
The use of the internet and social media, in this case to issue an international rallying call.
And the manipulation of sensitive issues by people who set out to provoke.
While the protest was made possible because we have a multicultural society, this eruption did not devalue the powerful dynamic of multiculturalism which has been developing here for more than 60 years.
It did, however, remind us that multiculturalism is a work in progress and needs constant attention to meet contemporary challenges.
The internet and social media can and will be used for sinister purposes.
Isolated incidents in far-away places can now quickly become international events.
The forces of globalisation are unstoppable.
But we can and should find ways to modify the way these forces impact upon us.
Our reaction, as a nation, to the weekend's events made a good start.
Consider what happened:
The police were there to monitor a peaceful protest, but met violence with resolve.
Our political leaders were united in their condemnation of the violence.
They made it clear that while Australia was a tolerant society, there would be zero-tolerance towards that kind of behaviour.
The leadership of the Muslim community, and the vast majority of Muslims in Australia, were clearly dismayed at what had occurred and also condemned the violence.
And the Australian community as a whole reacted with such revulsion that the perpetrators can be left in no doubt that there is no place for this kind of behaviour here, and never will be.
Far from being an assault on multiculturalism, last weekend can be a sign of the strength and maturity of our multicultural society.
Multiculturalism is precious to Australia, but there are ways we can improve it.
Before we talk about this, let's understand what constitutes multiculturalism.
I believe its richness comes through individual experience.
Everyone who comes to our shores is shaped by the experiences that preceded their arriva.
How they interact when they get here shapes them further and, in turn, reshapes our country.
This happens over and over again, millions of times, and slowly builds our rich multicultural society.
Every single person who comes here has a story and tonight, I would like to step away from contemporary issues for a few moments - and tell you one.
I would like to take you back in time, some 65 years, to a world broken by war.
I want to take you to Europe, to a small town in Slovakia - to a community in chaos.
Of the 250 souls who once made up this close-knit community, only 30 have survived the war.
And they have returned to their small town to find they are no longer welcome.
Among them is a boy of 15 who has survived extreme circumstances.
Most of his extended family has perished.
After being arrested by the Nazis, his father has disappeared.
His immediate family has been shattered.
The surviving members of this close family know they have become temporary residents in their town and must find somewhere else to be.
No longer wanting to remain among the sorrow and ruins of Slovakia, the boy asks for his mother's blessing to leave.
His plan was to become part of a youth group that intends to join the illegal movement of Jews from Europe to Palestine.
His plans are made on the understanding that his mother will eventually follow.
During the dark days of the Holocaust mother and son had been hiding together.
His resourcefulness had kept his mother alive, and her love had kept him going.
They had no physical home, but wherever she was, that was his home.
She was his world.
But now they must part.
She packs him a small bag and, holding himself together, he boards a train for Prague.
Although in a group with other youngsters, in reality he's alone in the world.
From Prague they take another train to Paris and then another onto Marseilles where, under the cover of darkness, they board a rickety old boat sailing for Palestine.
The boat was built to hold 70 people, but loaded on board are 700 who speak many different languages.
Conditions are unbelievably bad. There is not enough water, food or sanitation.
The boy appears to be holding up, but inside feels lonely, hungry and afraid.
One morning the shores of Palestine come into focus.
The boat breaks out in joyous singing.
Then, out of nowhere a British warship looms.
Megaphones blare, instructing the boat to stop.
There are scuffles and commotion as the British soldiers board the boat.
At gunpoint the frightened refugees are herded into the grey, steel hull of the warship.
They have no idea where they are being taken.
A day or so later they arrive at an internment camp in Cyprus.
It is surrounded by barbed wire with armed soldiers in watchtowers.
With others, the boy is directed into a tent. Soon more people arrive and the camp becomes crowded.
Some months later, under a British quota system for immigrants to Palestine, the boy is among the first to be released.
Ashore in Palestine, he feels a sense of freedom.
No one is chasing him or pointing a gun at him because he is Jewish.
But the following year he's in a makeshift uniform, back in the turmoil of war, fighting in the War of Independence for the new State of Israel.
He writes to his mother regularly, never disclosing the danger he is in.
After the war he shares a room with his brother who has since joined him.
At night, they lie in the dark and talk about the family, yearning to be reunited.
Their mother doesn't make it to Israel but manages, through unrelated circumstances, to migrate to Australia.
Letters go backwards and forwards between the boys and their mother.
Eventually the family in Australia borrows money for two airfares and sends them tickets so they can join them.
This flight takes them to their ultimate place of freedom, Australia.
Through the window, as the plane lands in Sydney, the boy looks towards the terminal, which at that time was a shed at Mascot.
He catches a glimpse of his mother waiting inside.
He knows he is finally home.
All he has is one small suitcase, a little English, and the debt for his airfare.
But his heart is full.
At 21 he is ready to embrace the new country.
By now, you obviously know I am telling my own story.
These are the experiences that shaped the young man I was, when I arrived in Sydney on Australia Day in 1952.
The way I interacted with the country and the way the country interacted with me shaped the older man I have become.
My journey from the chaos and hostility of Europe ended when I arrived in this peaceful land of Australia.
Although I didn't dwell on it at the time, I felt this country regarded me as a future citizen.
I wasn't seen as a guest worker or as potential source of cheap labour, but rather as an Australian-in-the-making.
Arthur Calwell encouraged "old Australians" to call immigrants like me "New Australians." It was a welcoming term at the time and, in retrospect, I think it was one of the first steps towards acceptance of the multicultural society we have today.
Back in the 50's and 60's, we never heard the term 'multiculturalism' but the essence of it was already operating.
My heritage, my accent and my European ways never hindered me, at any time or at any level of Australian society.
I personally didn't experience any discrimination and took to Australia naturally, helped by the re-establishment of my family unit - even though my father didn't make it.
My first job began, literally, in a basement. I worked in tool making factory where the other men, mostly Aussies, readily accepted me.
Some were kind, some were indifferent, but none were hostile.
Then I moved up to street level taking a job as a sandwich hand in a shop in a city arcade.
Now I had a lighter, different view of this country.
I was meeting people from all walks of life.
As I continued to try and improve my circumstances, being a foreigner never really got in the way.
Instead, people recognised me for what I was.
Not long after arriving I had the extraordinary good fortune to meet my life partner, who is here with us tonight.
Shirley is a first generation Australian and although I wasn't conscious of it at the time, the fact that she was a local must have accelerated my integration into the society.
For one thing, I could only speak to her in English.
By 1959, our family was growing and our flat was becoming too small.
I found a small block of land in Sydney's eastern suburbs and built a house.
The land was part of the front yard of a larger property owned by a prominent barrister.
He was typical of the era - very establishment, very respectable - and later became a judge.
Occasionally I would see him on the street in the morning, on the way to work, and I would give him a lift into the city.
As we became more familiar with each other, he confided in me one morning that 10 or 15 years earlier he would never have sold me his land because he wouldn't have wanted to live next to a foreigner.
His attitude demonstrated how rapidly Australia was changing.
Another sign that I had been made welcome came some years later when I was already in the development business and found myself being driven around the suburbs of Sydney by one of Australia's most important businessmen - Sir Edgar Coles, chairman of G J Coles.
He was a giant, in standing and stature.
I was young; probably 31 or 32, and Sir Edgar would come to town to look for sites for new supermarkets.
We'd get into his chauffeur-driven car and he'd sit in the front seat and say: "I'd like you to build me a supermarket here and I'd like you to build me a supermarket there." One day we were scouting around the eastern suburbs and it was lunchtime and he was hungry.
We were not far from my home I said: "Sir Edgar, why don't you come over to my place for something to eat." He said: "Sure, let's go." And next thing we were at our kitchen table and Shirley was making us sandwiches.
I couldn't quite believe it but for Sir Edgar it was natural, sharing a sandwich with this newcomer to Australia who was just starting out in business.
While he obviously knew I was a foreigner, it didn't stop him from fostering close business relationship between Coles and myself.
So here I was, a decade after arriving in Australia and my world had changed dramatically.
I was married and we had three sons.
I had my own house.
I was part of a group that floated a public company on the Sydney Stock Exchange.
By then I had experienced many levels of the Australian society.
I was a labourer in a factory.
I worked in a sandwich shop.
I was friendly with my neighbour the barrister.
And I was in a close business relationship with Coles.
And not once did I meet with any prejudice.
This is what Australia made possible for me.
And I remain ever grateful.
Australia is the most multicultural nation in the developed world, and we are familiar with the statistics.
27% of the population was born overseas.
Nearly 50% of the total population are either first or second generation migrants.
This works in our national interest in all sorts of ways.
Not least is the way it connects us to the rest of the world.
This is a huge resource for Australia, as we are a relatively small nation in an increasingly globalised world.
Can you imagine a modern Australia made up entirely of Anglo-Celtic stock? We would be a warmer and somewhat larger version of the Falkland Islands - a kind of British colonial left-over not in the South Atlantic, but the South Pacific.
Instead, we have here hundreds of communities, all connected with their mother countries but all contributing to the welfare of Australia.
This is the diaspora effect in reverse.
The contribution of multiculturalism to our wider national life is well understood and I don't need to revisit that here.
The evidence of that contribution - in sport, the arts, in science and medicine, in business - is there for all to see.
Inevitably, any discussion of our multicultural society gets entangled with immigration policy which is a related but separate issue.
And most of the entanglement happens around illegal arrivals - the so-called 'boat people.' I don't want to stumble into a discussion about this tonight, even though I was a boat person myself - in a different era and in a different place.
My personal story is not intended to be read in any way as a commentary on the contemporary challenges we face in dealing with illegal immigration.
Our government is charged with a sacred duty to protect our national borders while at the same time honouring our humanitarian obligations.
And we know that there are no easy ways to strike a balance in striving to meet those twin obligations.
This address is about the multicultural experience which occurs after a newcomer has settled in Australia.
The fact is that once here, having been granted asylum or arrived through regular means, migrants do demonstrate a willingness to take on Australian values - in the main.
I add that qualification not just because of what we witnessed at the weekend.
I do so because I am a realist.
While I confess to being sentimental about my personal experience of coming to Australia, I have seen enough of life to know that the mass movement and resettlement of people can be a difficult business.
Individuals can take decades to feel at home in a new country. Some never feel at home.
Some communities with a culture and experience vastly different to our own struggle with questions of identity and belonging.
And while my personal experience was positive, it was not the same for everyone.
It was not the same for all immigrants, and it wasn't always a positive experience for those Australians who were already here.
This is why we should resist the temptation to view Australia's multicultural experience through rose-coloured glasses.
And it is why I think it's time to move the discussion about multiculturalism to a new phase, beyond the recognition that it makes for a more vibrant community, or that we now have a wider choice of restaurants.
I think there are deeper questions worthy of our consideration, especially in light of recent events.
One such question involves the concept of citizenship.
A survey carried out several years ago found then, and I expect would find today, widespread ignorance and misconception about Australia's system of government and the ways in which it can serve the needs of its citizens.
When asked what makes a good citizen, most respondents suggested the chief attribute is obeying laws, which of course is essential.
A minority mentioned care and consideration for others, or involvement in civic affairs.
Many were engaged in a wide range of voluntary activities yet did not perceive this to be an attribute of citizenship.
Only a third claimed at least a moderate knowledge of the rights and responsibilities of citizenship.
And these were not just newly arrived immigrants. They were all Australians.
When I speak about what it means to be an Australian citizen I am not referring to a checklist of Australian historical and cultural reference points.
It might be handy for a newcomer to know that Don Bradman was our greatest cricketer.
Or that we like the beach, the barbeque, and the long weekend.
Far more useful though would be a bedrock understanding of what it means to be a citizen.
Central to this would be an acceptance of the fundamental tenet of citizenship - that with privileges and rights come obligations.
An obligation to learn about our system of government.
Our respect for rule of law.
To actively participate in our civic institutions.
As a long-time visitor to the United States, I have often admired how that country encourages new arrivals to make its institutions the focus of loyalty.
They have developed a civic faith built on their Constitution, their Bill of Rights and their flag.
They seem to have a way of projecting their national values through institutions like these - rather than just their lifestyle.
Of course, despite sharing many things in common, Australia is not America.
But I think we can still develop a more muscular approach to our civic life, in a distinctly Australian way, a re-invigorated focus on civics education, not just for new arrivals but for all of us.
The Multicultural Council of Australia itself has made recommendations along these lines and I add my support to them.
I am not promoting this approach out of lofty or idealistic motives.
I am merely being pragmatic.
Newcomers should know that our liberal democracy provides impartial processes to air grievances and right wrongs.
They should know that there is a place for peaceful and lawful protest.
Australians generally are pragmatic about this too.
They say to newcomers: you are welcome; you are free to worship; you are free to honour your heritage; and, we will respect the differences between us.
And in return, you should agree to live by the standards and values of this society, the one you have chosen to be a part of.
And agree to conscientiously pass on these values to your children.
To ensure that they receive a broad and balanced education, untainted by the ideology of hate.
This has been the great unwritten deal between Australians and newcomers to this country for the past 60 years.
It is because the vast majority of newcomers have honoured this deal that we can say with conviction that multiculturalism has been a triumph of tolerance.
Of course, we should not assume that past success guarantees success in the future.
We will be faced with new challenges, and last weekend's violence is just one of a continuation of challenges we have faced over the past 60 years or so.
We will be called upon to demonstrate patience, and to show by example what we mean when we talk about Australian values.
We should take positive steps, like some of those I've suggested tonight, to do everything possible to help new communities become familiar with Australian values and our way of life.
We should do this because we know that multiculturalism has made Australia a stronger and better nation.
And all our lives are richer for it.
In closing I want to say that the starting point for any discussion about our multicultural society must be the recognition that migration is an act of ambition and imagination.
And an act of bravery too.
To imagine a better life for you and your family and to make the leap of faith required to leave behind all that is familiar calls for a special kind of courage.
If we look at new arrivals to Australia from this perspective, our capacity will be greater to welcome them warmly and to help them make a new home here as one of us.
That is, as Australians.