Ethnicity – another Dreamtime?

The situation for coloured ethnics is not as black as for Aborigines. White ethnics, however, have no problems of integration now. They, in spite of the earlier denigration of their dignity and status, moved to a degree of acceptance when the term ‘New Australian’ was officially coined. (The old Aussie soon modified it to ‘Bloody New Aussie’.) Later, they were not required to assimilate. You do not have to behave exactly the way we do, said the old Aussie – at least officially. The attacks in the streets for not speaking English fell away, as did the snide remarks about the accents and speech sounds of the new arrivals.

The government then constructed the concept of ethnic, which separated (rather than joined) the immigrants (then still all white) relative to their hosts. The concept and the separation were entrenched by the government claiming that the ethnic groups were suddenly in need of settlement assistance. The older European migrants must have wondered at that. Newer arrivals were somehow less self-sufficient; they needed someone to take them by the hand to the immigration office, to the post office, to the doctors, and so on.

By the time refugees were the ‘in thing’, even the European ‘refugees’ (mostly highly qualified professionals and tradesmen) were found to be yet more in need. Being in need, and attempting to satisfy that need, became growth industries. Today, many migrants, whose professional or technical qualifications are not acceptable in Australia, say that they want to study to become welfare workers to help their own people.

Behind the exposition of need stood articulate Europeans and their descendants. These said that people in high places in Australia needed to take heed of the deliverance of wisdom by spokespersons of each culture in Australia. The cultures were to become represented by community groups; the question was, what determined the boundaries of these groups?

Ethnicity became definable by the groups which arose. Hence, ethnicity became a very unclear concept, argued for years within the bureaucracy at large and, in particular, the agency whose task was to ensure that the ethnic carts rolled along the fiscal highway without hitch. Once the carts started to roll, there descended upon the taxpayer a large number of structures offering services to the ethnics. A large number of these structures were non-ethnic, often church-related or church-based.

The concept of doing good at someone else’s expense caught on. At one time, there was a church leader who asked the government to bring in more refugees because his service agency’s business was falling off. At another time, certain ethnics created their own service structure and sought to replace the mainstream structure which had serviced them; the latter was reluctant to budge, on account of the ethnics not being able to look after themselves (so it was claimed).

Years after this practice was established, there was a church-based group being funded to provide mainly spiritual services to ethnics as well as to others (the latter formed the bulk of those claimed to be in need), and without assistance from interpreters. What happened to accountability, and where was the media? The voluntary ethnic community welfare groups which had been established before the government thought of access and equity, ethnicity and multiculturalism were, of course, subsumed within the new superstructure of ethnic services.

Community development and education then became part of the service strategy. What was community development? The academics had big words for it, but the worker bees at the three levels of government had difficulty in articulating it for me in operational terms – or in terms of measurable outcomes of relevance to the taxpayer.

(This extract from ‘Destiny Will Out’ depicts a strange historical period in public policy. Ethnic empowerment in exchange for votes was the motive, said the sceptics within the bureaucracy; this is not plausible. The earlier post-war European immigrants and displaced persons (the real refugees), typifying the spirit of ‘adventure’ and self-sufficiency of those who seek to settle into a new terrain and culture, did not need their hands held on arrival. They also did not need legal protection from spoken words of prejudice.

I should know. My maternal grandfather, my father, and I were such immigrants. As well, I have met, and known, many of the early post-war immigrants referred to above; I used to seek any I could talk with. We exchanged, not only recipes, but also experiences before and after we arrived in Australia.)