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Making arguments on race

Nick Bryant | 03:25 UK time, Sunday, 19 April 2009

Researching a film on the end of the resources boom, I've been reading a little more of the history of the mining industry in Australia. Like those gold mines themselves, its a real treasure-trove of anecdotes, reminiscences and fables, many of which help make sense of the Australia of the present. As Guy Pearse notes in his recent Quarterly Essay, Quarry Vision, much of Australia's "cultural furniture" was put in place by the gold rush of the 1850s.

First off, Australia's population trebled. It "sowed the seeds multiculturalism," as he puts its, by attracting so many workers from so many different countries. The arrival of Chinese immigrants also led to a wave of xenophobia and nativism, encapsulated by the Bulletin's infamous masthead slogan, "Australia for the white man and China for the chow," and enshrined in the "White Australia" policy.

All of which brings us to the last blog on the surge in asylum seekers. Thanks for your comments, especially those which were so detailed, considered and insightful. Wollemi noted: "I don't buy the accusations that Australia as a society is xenophobic" - which is the subject I want to open up for fresh comment.

I suppose if you wanted to construct an argument that Australia was and is unusually racist and xenophobic then here is you where might start. You would remind people that the White Australia policy lasted until the late-1960s, and enjoyed bipartisan and popular support. You would raise the treatment of the Stolen Generations and the gap in living standards between black and white Australians. You might highlight the rise of Pauline Hanson, and note that John Howard won the 2001 election by arousing xenophobic fears after the Tampa and inaptly-named "children overboard affair" (no children were thrown overboard). The Cronulla riots would feature, and it's always easy to co-opt a sound-bite from daft people saying daft things - like the woman in Camden, New South Wales, who said she was opposed to the opening of an Islamic school in her neighbourhood because she was worried that local children would end up speaking "Islamic". You could make the argument that some of the commentary during the latest asylum seekers debate has been paranoiac and disproportionate.

And here's how you might begin to construct the counter-argument. Australia is one of the most multicultural countries in the world, with a polyglot population which lives in relative harmony. Given the fast-paced demographic changes after the war, and the massive influx of immigrants, you could make the argument that the process of assimilation has been remarkably smooth and the backlash reassuringly weak. You would note that Hansonism was a short-lived political phenomenon and its one-time figurehead is now a figure of fun. You could argue that John Howard would not have remained a viable national politician had he not apologised for his comments back in 1988, during his time on the opposition benches, when he called for Asian immigration to be 'slowed down a little.' You would highlight the big-screen turn-out across the country and the scenes of big-screen joy when Kevin Rudd said "Sorry". And you could make the case that Cronulla was an aberration: one of the reasons it was so shocking was because it was so unexpected, the argument would run.

Over to you...

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