In the face of Republican candidate Donald Trump’s fear-mongering calls to ‘ban’ Muslim immigration to America, it is difficult not to feel anxious about the example being set by some in positions of ‘leadership’ on a global stage.
As 2015 drew to a close, race-hate raised its ugly head again in Australia. Following on from a host of anti-immigration, anti-Islam protests across the country we saw two opposing groups clash to mark the 10-year anniversary of a truly regrettable part of our history: the Cronulla riots. That this event was a bit of a fizzer speaks to what I believe most Australians believe—that we support a tolerant multicultural society and reject those seeking to promote hatred, division or blind ideology.
Still, every time I see our Australian flag draped around the shoulders of those peddling hatred I think of how they do nothing other than to denigrate and diminish all that it stands for. While protection of freedom of speech is also a quintessential part of the fabric of Australian society, I find much agreement with our Race Discrimination Commissioner Dr Tim Soutphommasane, who delivered the John Allwright Memorial Address https://vimeo.com/147688958 at our recent graduation ceremony for the Australian Rural Leadership Program. He said recently on the ABC’s AM program “People have a right to protest peacefully, but there's absolutely no excuse for anyone to be conducting a campaign of intimidation that may be directed at anyone because of their religion or because of their background.” Here, here.
We should never give up on ensuring the peaceful progress of a multicultural society. After all, with almost 30% of Australians born overseas and 20% with at least one parent born overseas, this is who we are.
This means all of us must take some responsibility in striving to maintain and improve the diverse society we enjoy. This includes governments, NGOs and all Australians. This naturally involves an in-kind commitment from those who arrive in Australia by a range of means looking to build new lives. We should encourage a society where immigrants are proud to become Australian citizens, raise their children here and contribute to the nation.
Again from Dr Tim Soutphommosane; “Citizenship…conveys something about the standard of conduct that we have in our society. It demands that we should treat others in a certain way – that we should act towards other members of our society with forbearance and tolerance, and with respect and understanding. We shouldn’t mistake this to mean that citizenship is about agreement. Rather, a community of citizens implies that we disagree in a certain way. As citizens, we don’t resort to solving our disagreements outside the law. And ideally, we should retain a certain civility in doing so.”
This brings me to regional Australia—including rural and remote locations—and the part we can play in welcoming immigrants into our communities as part of a multicultural society, especially given Australia’s undertaking to resettle 12,000 displaced Syrians. The Regional Australia Institute suggests that the period 2001-2006 is the first time since World War 2 we have seen a faster increase in those born overseas living outside capital cities than within. They also note that in the period 2009-2012, 15 per cent of those entering the country stated regional Australia as their destination.
Of course regional Australia, from the Snowy Mountains to the Tasmanian Hydro-electric scheme and places like Whyalla, Griffith, Shepparton and Mackay, has always been a part of the immigration story in this country.
In more recent times we have seen civic leaders from Wagga Wagga to Townsville and many places in between, warmly embracing immigrants, be they refugees, skilled migrants or otherwise. So is the current wave of immigration the panacea to all that ails our regional towns? If rural areas need more workers and ways to stop population decline and new arrivals need work and place to live is this a match made in heaven? The Refugee Council of Australia acknowledges that it is not so simple.
The Council and the experience of many regional communities suggest that it is not those communities seeking a cheap source of labour that will succeed but rather those seeking to enrich the social fabric by preparing properly to assist resettlement and integration. Regional communities can benefit from gaining a flexible workforce and keeping schools at risk of closing, open. They are far more likely to do so and realise positive results from planned support spanning employment, housing, education, training and sustained support services. In other words, it is those who plan for a vibrant, multicultural society that often achieve it.
Without immigration, many of us would not be here today. My grandparents on my mother’s side were from Croatia and the strong Irish contingent on my father’s side in the 1800s also arrived looking for opportunity and ended up as strong contributors to our society. The town I called home for 15 years—that wonderfully rich melting pot called Griffith—would not have been a possibility either.
In Canada, a nation facing many challenges similar to our own, the nation’s Prime Minister, Justin Trudeau made headlines as he personally extended a welcome to some of the 25,000 Syrian refugees the country will be resettling.
Many of these new arrivals will repay the support and faith shown in them many times over, as they open businesses, work and raise their own families, enriching the Canadian economy and communities. And while it will not be without a lot of work and planning, many of these refugees will be making their homes in Canada’s regions. This approach showcases a different form of leadership at work and offers a much-needed antidote to the likes of Trump.
Australia should not give in to those who believe multiculturalism has failed and will never succeed. We should not give in to bigotry. We should not give in to a loud minority who believe that stopping immigration, or immigration from those of a particular faith, will lead to a better society. A better society will come from embracing those of different cultures and backgrounds and encouraging them to become proud Australians.
I think regional Australia has an important part to play in realising this goal, and I hope the hashtag #WelcomeRefugees that recently gained such traction in Canada, finds an equally good footing here.