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Transformation of a nation.

In a little over 50 years, Australia changed from a dull, arid, insular monoculture into one of the most diverse nations on earth. It hasn’t been easy and it’s not over yet. I lived through it all, so it’s my story too.

Wednesday, 17 April, 1957 was not one of the big days of history. Elvis Presley was top of the pops with All Shook Up. The Canberra Times reported that the Prime Minister, Mr Menzies, was resting after “a strenuous visit to Japan”. The basic wage fell in five states. The show trial of the leaders of the Hungarian uprising against Communist rule continued in Budapest.

And I tottered down the gangplank from the RMS Oronsay on to the wharf at Pyrmont in Sydney. I was eight.

There to greet me and my parents were two large relatives, Uncle Oscar and Auntie Lovey, who’d come down from Newcastle. They were enormous. “I’ll bet I’m the biggest auntie you’ve got,” she said. She was, too. They were spherical but very friendly. I thought they were lovely.

Populate or perish?

We were Ten Pound Poms. That was the fare charged by the Australian government to white people brought out from Britain (when there weren’t enough of us) northern Europe, to populate Australia. I wasn’t even ten quid: kids like me came for nothing.

On board: Dad, Mum, me
Assisted migration was not new to Australia. As early as the 1830s, British governments paid the passage of their poorer, less desirable elements to emigrate as a handy adjunct to convict transportation. The death rate on the voyage back then was around five per cent: tourist class on the Oronsay was pretty basic but at least nobody died.

The scheme was introduced by the Immigration Minister in the Curtin and Chifley Labor governments as part of its post-war reconstruction program, an initiative that rivalled Roosevelt’s New Deal in scale and ambition. Between 1945 and 1983, well over a million Brits came to Australia under the scheme.

White, English-speaking people were one thing, but post-war Australia was an insular, deeply racist place and there weren’t enough Poms to go round. People from other nationalities, deeply suspect types like Germans (haven’t we just been fighting them?) and – even more sinister – Italians and Greeks.

The minister, Arthur Calwell, understood that prejudice and sold the scheme under the slogan “Populate or Perish”. For every person coming from a non-British background, he promised, there would be ten from Britain.

The White Australia Policy was safe under Calwell. The extent of his own anti-Asian bias has been questioned: he spoke Mandarin and had deep friendships in Melbourne’s Chinese community. But in her infamous maiden speech in 1996, Pauline Hanson lauded and quoted him:

“Arthur Calwell was a great Australian and Labor leader, and it is a pity that there are not men of his stature sitting on the opposition benches today. Arthur Calwell said: ‘Japan, India, Burma, Ceylon and every new African nation are fiercely anti-white and anti one another. Do we want or need any of these people here? I am one red-blooded Australian who says no and who speaks for 90 per cent of Australians’.”

Graham Freudenberg, who had been Calwell’s speechwriter, described him in his biography of Gough Whitlam as a red-blooded racist:

“Arthur Calwell was the last, as he had been the greatest and the most articulate, of the red-blooded Australian racists in the early tradition of the Australian Labor Party. He was racist in the tradition of Deakin, Watson, the Australian Workers’ Union, Henry Lawson and The Bulletin. ‘Red-blooded’ was his chosen word – a fascinating choice, describing exquisitely the whole nature of racism: it is not after all the colour of the blood which is the problem.”

It didn’t seem like it at the time but Poms like me were in fact the government’s chosen people, preferred to all the other nationalities on earth. It shows in the figures. For 25 years after the end of the second world war, the number of British migrants rose and rose until, by the seventies, it stalled.

Changing a culture is a slow, painful process that by 1957 had barely begun. For a kid fresh from London, it was a different world. This was still the era of the Australian Bloke – trilby hat on the back of his head, a roll-your-own in a corner of his mouth, the turf guide in a jacket pocket and a glass of beer in his hand. Everyone looked middle-aged.

Fitting in. Or not.

A few days after I got off the ship, I showed up at the Wyong Public School wearing the blazer, cap, tie and satchel that had been usual – compulsory, actually – at Christ Church School in Streatham. I was not only the sole Pom in the place but the only person, adult or child, not born in Australia. I was clad as described: the other kids had bare feet, shorts and open-necked shirts.

I was at that school for two-and-a-half years and for all that time I was bullied and ridiculed. No matter how hard I tried to fit in (and I tried very hard) nothing worked. I was useless at cricket and I still talked funny. I had no idea what a poofter was but that’s what they called me.

The teachers were quite something too. Classrooms were silent because any boy (girls were immune) uttering the merest whispered syllable was hit three times on each hand with a cane. I wasn’t hit but that’s because I was catatonic.

Those teachers had no trouble at classroom discipline but didn’t seem to know much about actually teaching. In those two-and-a-half years, I don’t believe I learnt anything at all. I didn’t say much either.

There were bright spots. I quickly struck up a relationship of mutual satisfaction with a couple of the neighbourhood dogs, who were pleasanter and far more intelligent than most of the humans. A kookaburra and a magpie came around regularly to take food from my hand. The kookaburra wouldn’t sit on my fingers but the magpie always did. It was very rewarding.

There were other distractions. There was a once-a-week movie show (Are youse goin to the fillums Satdee?) and there was the ABC Children’s Hour. Every afternoon at five o’clock it summoned its audience with song, rather as a muezzin calls the faithful to prayers, only jollier:

The wireless says to hurry and run

To leave your games and toys;

The wireless says the time has come

For all the girls and boys.

So come with a hop, a skip and a run,

It's time for the Session, it's time for the fun!

Within this overall framework were subordinate attractions: the Argonauts Club, which had its own hearty song (Row, Row, Merry Oarsmen, Row) and the Muddle-Headed Wombat, a chronicle of the innocent adventures of a group of bush creatures notable for their miraculous command of English. I’ve been rather fond of the ABC ever since.

Learning to drive
At school, I spent a lot of time with a couple of other outcasts: a kid called Milton, who was no good at cricket either and, well, called Milton; and George Mullins, whom I realised much later was aboriginal (or, in the vocabulary of the time, half-caste). George lived with his parents and older sister in a shack made from bush timber and fire-blackened corrugated iron. Our fibro cottage in the bush, well outside Wyong, wasn’t much (no mains water, electricity or flushing toilet) but it was better than that.

My father, who’d been an insurance agent in London, took the only job on offer: shovelling coal, 16 tons at a time, at the Sulphide Junction Railway Workshops near Newcastle. It paid the basic wage, which was enough for a family to live on but not much more. After while, he got a promotion to Blacksmith’s Striker: he was the one in front of the furnace swinging the hammer.

My parents bought a car – unthinkable at that time in Britain for people like us – a 1946 Austin in which, at the age of nine and on conveniently uninhabited bush roads, I learnt to drive.

What’s your poison?

Not far from where we lived in the bush, there was a landmark: a giant effigy, three storeys high, of a bottle of Penfolds Cream Sherry. It was known locally as the plonk bottle, and when I asked about the meaning of “plonk”, I was told: “Get into that stuff and you fall down plonk”.

Much of Australia’s wine production in the 1950s went into sweet, cheap fortified wines sold in bottles and half-gallon flagons. It was regarded as the drink of “deros” – homeless alcoholic men – or ladies who, with great daring, had a small port every Christmas.

You can trace the modern social history of Australia in just two things: migration and booze. In those years immediately after the second world war, Australians were white and overwhelmingly Anglo. They disliked and feared wogs and “Asiatics”, and regarded anyone drinking wine with a meal as suspect (at best) or homosexual (at worst).

In 1957-58, the year I arrived, Australians drank 149 litres of beer per head, most of it by men and a great deal of that between the hours of five and six in the evening, when the pubs shut.

Six o’clock closing had been introduced in 1916 to preserve sober family life and because drinking in the evening was somehow unpatriotic when there was a war on. It ended in 1937 in Tasmania and 1955 in NSW but kept going everywhere else. The result was the Six O’Clock Swill when, for 50 years in most of Australia, men drank as much beer as they could in the shortest possible time. A correspondent for The New York Times wrote: “The six o’clock swill is a charming folk custom which requires saloons to stop serving liquor at 6 pm. This creates a challenge which no Aussie worth his malt will take lying down, or at least not as long as he can stand.”

It came to be regarded as unsophisticated and uncivilised, so there was great rejoicing when it stopped, and predictions that it would create a more sober nation. It didn’t. The problem with that theory was that when the pubs didn’t shut, the men didn’t go home but kept on drinking; and they could put much more away at moderate pace in the five hours between 5pm and 10pm than they possibly could in a single hour.

Beer consumption went on rising until, by the mid-1970s, a real social revolution was in place.

But then they ran out of Poms

The Pom supply, as it turned out, was limited. Calwell’s promise – that there would be ten British migrants for every one from somewhere else – was never realistic. There weren’t even enough Germans, Dutch and Hungarians to satisfy the Immigration Department’s ambitions, so Australia turned to Italy and Greece. It was a difficult political decision – Australia was an even more overtly racist nation than it is now – but it changed the nation deeply and overwhelmingly for the better.

Greeks and, particularly, Italians brought their food with them. There was more to food, Australia discovered, than corned beef, spaghetti in tins and the Sunday roast.

One of the sad paradoxes of migration was that so many low-grade fast-food joints were run by Greek people who would never have eaten the awful stuff they sold: stuff like Chicko rolls and fried dim-sims. McDonald’s and Hungry Jack’s represent a massive improvement, which gives you some idea.

The Chicko roll was principally composed of lovingly fermented grass clippings contained within a cunningly crafted cylinder of carpet offcuts, the whole deep-fried in rancid sump oil. Fried dim-sims bore a disquieting resemblance to the fossilised droppings of those giant wombats they used to have around here.

Eventually, some of those Greek people opened proper Greek restaurants and served actual food. But the real work was done by Italians, who colonised whole city precincts like Lygon Street in Melbourne.

Those steaming monsters in Italian caf├ęs might have looked like a 1793 design for a moon landing module but they produced coffee that tasted like, you know, coffee. We had our first pizzas.

In the early seventies, eating a bowl of spaghetti bolognese with a plausible parmesan substitute and a glass of drinkable red was really bloody sophisticated. Spaghetti didn’t come in tins after all.

Pellegrini's. It's still there.

The transition didn’t come quickly or easily. In 1954, the year Lido and Vildo Pellegrini established their now-beloved restaurant in Melbourne’s Bourke Street, a crowd of 2,000 attended a protest in the Sydney Town Hall against “the irreparable harm being done to our social structure and national culture by the immigration policy of the federal government”.

Italian and Greek schoolkids were still called dagos and wogs. A mortadella sandwich was donkey meat. “The people treated us as if we were backward,” recalls one woman, a child migrant at the time, “but we were not. On the contrary, we were rather in front.”

Something like this has happened to each new wave of immigrants: Poms, Germans, Italians, Greeks, Turks, Lebanese, Vietnamese, Chinese and African. The pattern is always the same: loud, opportunistic politicians and other professional bigots arouse the latent racism that exists in every country, including this one. Careers are made. Money is made. Then, when the threat is finally seen to be hollow and imaginary, a new target is found and the process begins again.

Wave after wave after wave

Never in the postwar era has there been a steady stream of migration. The Immigration Department ran campaigns targeting particular groups and nationalities; there was a lull between the end of each campaign and the beginning of the next.

The composition of each new wave was different and, as the migrant net widened, the society gradually changed. Old attitudes to different cultures were challenged: newer and more accepting attitudes eventually prevailed because they had to. Objections to newcomers are inevitable and predictable but most of us eventually realise that we all have to live together and that those strange and scary people aren’t scary after all, and not even strange.

1957, the year I and my parents arrived, was a mini-peak in a longer immigration lull that lasted well into the 1960s. On-and-off-again policy decisions altered the lives of millions.

Near the end of 1959, we moved from rural Wyong on the NSW central coast to outer-suburban Melbourne. It was a different world: for me, a different planet.

At school, I was still for a while a minor curiosity – but that was because the other kids were interested and friendly. Soon, at the start of the 1960 school year, I began my six years at Croydon High School.

This school, and many others like it around the country, was an example of how  unprepared state governments were for the huge increase in children and teenagers – migrants plus baby boomers – needing education. In those pre-Whitlam years, the federal government contributed almost nothing to school education.

My school had opened only two years before and already there weren’t nearly enough classrooms. My form was taught in a corridor for the whole of the first year. The place was fairly grim: those now-familiar buildings cheaply built and clad in grey concrete tiles.

In a central place where it could have the most impact there was a large, square, black incinerator. It was never fully alight but never went out either, so the stench of damp smouldering garbage pervaded every corridor, classroom and cupboard until it became the central, symbolic fact of that school.

Most of our teachers were hurriedly recruited, untrained, inexperienced and incapable. Perhaps one in three knew how to teach: the rest were divided into those who tried and failed, and those who didn’t try and failed. Some were plain deadbeats who made no effort beyond standing in the front reading out a textbook for 40 minutes. They did that, were allowed to do that, and went on being paid for it, year after year.

We despised them. We educated ourselves in subjects that interested us but exam failure rates were scandalous.

In Melbourne, though, coming to Australia suddenly made sense. At school I no longer tried to fit in because I already did. I made friends, some of whom became friends for life.

My father got a job in the printing trade he’d been well trained for in the British army  during the war, but he’d been shut out of the industry in Britain by the closed-shop print unions. Over many years, those corrupt unions had forced collaboration from employers, so the officials controlled who was allowed to work. If you wanted a union ticket, you had to have a job. But you couldn’t get a job without a union ticket.

Jobs were handed down between generations. Newcomers like my father were kept out. Thousands of union members on full pay didn’t come to work at all but were immune from the sack.

In Australia, the system didn’t work like that. Dad got a job and then joined the Australian union, the Printing and Allied Trades Federation.

We bought a house. It was the first property owned by anyone in my family for generations.

But none of this meant Australia was a fair place. It was better than Britain but a lot still needed to change.

A new era

Change happens all the time but about twice in every century, the process speeds up and whole societies are transformed. We’re in one of those eras now. The last one began in the middle sixties and petered out in the eighties.

Those periods can produce chaos, improvement or both at once. The changes that began around 1965 brought both.

All around the world, people started to live differently and to see each other anew. The civil rights movement in the United States brought ideas of freedom and decency that spilled into a revived feminist movement and a wholly new movement for gay rights. Human rights became a concept.

But we lived differently too. You can trace that, or at least significant aspects of it, by looking at the booze we drank. A predominantly male-oriented, beer-drinking society changed when people sat down to eat and wanted something other than beer to accompany it. Wine became a proxy for something much more significant.

At first, beer and wine drinking rose together, producing a massive increase in the total amount Australians put away. In 1974-75, there so much pure alcohol consumed that it amounted to over 13 litres for every man, woman and child in the country.

But from then on, beer drinking declined and wine more than took its place. By now, our total per capita alcohol consumption is back to where it was in 1960 – though it’s now shared more equally by men and women. Each of us is therefore drinking less than the average bloke was back then.

The wine business boomed and went on booming. It now comprises almost half of all alcohol consumption – and that, of course, doesn’t include the huge amount we sell overseas.

The path by which Australians joined the world of modern, jet-setting, wine-imbibing sophistication was not entirely smooth. First there came Barossa Pearl, Porphyry Pearl, Sparkling Rinegold, Starwine and Gala Spumante. These substances had bubbles to impart a sense of festivity. They possessed all the vices of battery acid and none of its virtues. They sold it by the tanker-load.

A bit later came Cold Duck, which was much the same. It was very popular. I admit to drinking Cold Duck.

The peak of oenological creativity in this period was perhaps Pineapple Pearl. The Kaiser Stuhl co-operative in the Barossa Valley, which was responsible for many of these concoctions, employed a young German winemaker called Wolfgang Blass to make a product that tasted of pineapples. Pineapple Pearl was sold in a bottle intended to look like a pineapple. It didn’t look much like a pineapple but it was frequently mistaken for a large hand grenade.

“I signed the contract not knowing what the company was all about,” Blass said much later. “I thought it was a highly sophisticated technical company which it wasn’t. The company was broke, the co-operative was in big trouble.”

After a few years, Wolf Blass became one of the central figures in the booming, and increasingly competent, Australian wine industry, establishing his own eponymous brand.

Finally, the Lindemans company marketed an actual table wine that was meant to be drunk with food. It was semi-sweet, devoid of nuance but designed for young people and introduced a generation to the idea of wine with food. That generation – mine – later moved on to more serious wine later. But this was where we began.

Ben Ean Moselle was made from sultana grapes in a vast winery at Karadoc, over the Murray from Mildura. I filmed there once for an ABC program called Countrywide. It was more like a refinery than a winery: dozens of vast stainless steel tanks three storeys high glinting in the hot sun. The wine at the top of these monsters, I was told, was the temperature of a hot cup of tea so they had to keep it circulating.

Ben Ean Moselle bore as much resemblance to real Mosel as I do to Leonardo da Vinci but for a decade or more it was by far Australia’s most popular wine. As tastes developed its popularity faded, and now the huge Karadoc plant, designed only for the production of cheap bulk wine, is no longer needed. Its owner, the Treasury Wine Estates corporation, will close it down next year.

It may be no great loss. Wine exports have helped change the international image of this country. Increasingly world markets and Australian producers have gravitated to the mid-to-high quality markets. Cheap, bulk wine is in long-term and probably terminal retreat.

Before the late 1980s, Australia’s wine exports were negligible. Now, this country ranks fifth among the wine-exporting nations of the world.

Then there was a war

In the sixties and seventies, the Vietnam War dominated almost everything. The hot issue was conscription: there was a lottery, in which every 20-year-old male whose birthday was on a marble drawn out of a barrel was called up for two years to help fight in Vietnam.

In November 1968, I turned 20.

I wanted no part of any war, particularly not this one. It was a civil war which posed no threat to Australia, though – for a time – the conservative parties convinced the electorate that it did.

My birthday came out of the barrel. I had two options – refuse to comply and go underground like some of the draft resisters I knew, or seek a medical exemption. It may have been the coward’s way out, but I chose the latter.

Two years earlier, upon leaving school at 17, I applied for and got a journalism cadetship with the Melbourne Sun News-Pictorial but the managing director’s nephew decided he wanted to be a journalist so he got the job instead. I was taken on as a copy boy in the features department.

In the staff canteen six weeks later, I had a seizure. It’s something that can happen to the developing teenage brain under stress and there haven’t been any since; but it ended my career with the Sun. An executive, Peter Game, told me: “What would happen if we sent you to a cliff rescue?”

They didn’t actually sack me but made it clear I would either have to leave or stay a copy boy for life. It would be illegal now, but back then they just did it.

I’d also applied for a cadetship at the ABC, and by mid-year that came up. I stayed at the ABC for most of the next 25 years.

That seizure and its aftermath were traumatic at the time. But it got me out of the army.

Somewhere in that exhilarating crowd was me
The Vietnam war was popular until it wasn’t. The Labor Party, led courageously but fatally by Arthur Calwell, campaigned hard against conscription but was thrashed in the 1966 election because of a cynically racist campaign by the conservatives manipulating fear of China and the Chinese. But by 1970, the peace movement’s domination of political discussion peaked when 100,000 of us marched up Bourke Street in Melbourne to Parliament House. The sense of power and purpose in that peaceful, diverse crowd was palpable and exhilarating. It had become clear that there was only one way for all this to end.

Within days after being elected to government in December 1973, Gough Whitlam and his deputy, Lance Barnard, ceased Australia’s involvement in the war, ended conscription and released the seven draft resisters who were still in prison.

When the South Vietnamese army collapsed in chaos in 1975, thousands of people sought lives in other countries, including Australia. In the absence of an organised refugee program, they came by sea: first in cargo ships like the Southern Cross, which dumped its 1,200 passengers on an uninhabited Indonesian island; and the Hai Hong, which tried to disembark 2,500 people in Malaysia. They were refused admittance and had to stay on board, anchored offshore, until third-country settlements could be arranged.

Vietnamese refugees in Darwin Harbour
Big-boat transit failed. Then, many thousands of people took to small boats, risking piracy and drowning in an attempt to surreptitiously reach somewhere that would accept them. An unknown number – certainly hundreds and probably thousands – died on the way.

Malcolm Fraser had been complicit in the nearest thing Australia has seen to a coup, and he destroyed Medibank; but with the Vietnamese exodus, he did the right thing. Unlike his successors in the Liberal Party, Fraser was a humanitarian. Under his leadership, Australia accepted around 60,000 Vietnamese refugees between 1976 and 1982.

The vast majority – 95% – settled in cities, preferring to group together in suburbs like Cabramatta in Sydney’s outer west and Abbotsford in inner Melbourne.

Once again, conservatives marketed racist fear and suspicion, this time directed not at Greeks and Italians but at Asians. Asia’s a big place, but there was no nuance in this stuff.

In 1984 Professor Geoffrey Blainey, a famous and well-regarded historian from the University of Melbourne, gave a speech to the Warrnambool Rotary Club attacking the Labor government’s non-discriminatory immigration policy which, he said, had resulted in too many Asians settling here.

“In the last few years - especially in the last year - we have given powerful preference to Asian migrants,” he said. “More than half our immigrants are now from Asia, and many come from a peasant background, which is very different to the typical Asian immigrant of recent years. It is almost as if we have turned the White Australia policy inside out.”

Later, he elaborated. Our very culture was being changed, he said, and we haven’t been asked whether we want that to happen.

John Howard, then the deputy leader of the recently defeated Liberal Party, amplified and further politicised Blainey’s line: “If it is in the eyes of some in the community too great, it would be in our immediate term interests and supportive of social cohesion if it were slowed down a little so that the capacity of the community to absorb were greater.”

That was enough to spur a furious backlash in the right-wing papers and among radio shock-jocks. By 1988, the bicentennial year, people of Asian appearance were being spat on and assaulted. Many were Australian citizens; some had been born here; but they suddenly felt this was not their country.

The Prime Minister, Bob Hawke, stood up for non-discrimination. Speaking to the Ethnic Affairs Council, he said this:

“I do not, nor I believe do you, ask any unfair advantage for immigrants. We do not seek special preference for ethnic groups. Rather, multicultural policies seek equal opportunity for all.

“The economic dimension of multiculturalism seeks to ensure that the goodwill and talents of all Australians are utilised and harnessed in the interests of all of us; that our human resources are not wasted by barriers of language, indifference or prejudice. The cultural dimension of the policy asserts and seeks to ensure that all Australians are free to develop, adapt and share their individual cultural heritage.”

Just a year later, Hawke spoke again at a memorial to the young people slain by their own government in the democracy protests at Tiananmen Square in Beijing.

Tears started in the Prime Minister’s eyes and his voice wavered as he spoke:

“We witnessed a massive rallying of people in Beijing and Shanghai and heard the powerful expression of their will in the cause of democratic reform. We were inspired by the idealism and courage of youth, the peaceful determination of students to create a better future, and the support that rallied around their cause from throughout Chinese society.

“Then last weekend, our optimism was shattered as we watched in horror the unyielding forces of repression brutally killing the vision of youth. Unarmed young men and women were sprayed with bullets and crushed by tanks …

“[The soldiers] had orders that nobody in the square be spared, and children ... young girls were slaughtered as mercilessly as the many wounded soldiers from other units there. Tanks then ran backwards and forwards over the bodies of the slain, until they were reduced to pulp, after which bulldozers moved in to push the remains into piles, which were then incinerated by troops with flame throwers.”

Bodies and bicycles were bulldozed aside to make was for the tanks

Hawke then made a promise: that any Chinese student currently studying in Australia would be given asylum here. In the end, 42,000 people took up the offer. Their temporary visas were made permanent, they were given social support and the right to work. And for the past 34 years, those bright young people have helped to build a better country – here.

But they were Asian, weren’t they?

In 1996, when the Keating Labor government lost office, Pauline Hanson was elected to Bill Hayden’s old seat of Oxley in the working-class outer suburbs of Brisbane. She’d been a Liberal candidate but her racist remarks about aborigines and Asians led to her disendorsement; but she was elected anyway.

In her infamous maiden speech to the House of Representatives, she said this:

“Present governments are encouraging separatism in Australia by providing opportunities, land, moneys and facilities available only to Aboriginals. Along with millions of Australians, I am fed up to the back teeth with the inequalities that are being promoted by the government and paid for by the taxpayer under the assumption that Aboriginals are the most disadvantaged people in Australia.”

Those precise arguments were recycled 27 years later, in the Voice referendum, by the No campaign. Peter Dutton, Jacinta Price and many others were channelling Hanson.

And then she got stuck into Asians:

“I and most Australians want our immigration policy radically reviewed and that of multiculturalism abolished. I believe we are in danger of being swamped by Asians … They have their own culture and religion, form ghettos and do not assimilate.”

Howard, virtuoso of the dog-whistle, tacitly endorsed her and the politics of fear and hatred once again took hold.

The fears of Asians was just as paranoid, just as cynical and just as fanciful as the fear of Greek and Italian immigration a generation or more earlier – as the briefest look at the figures clearly shows. We are not in danger of being swamped by anyone and never have been.

Today, people born in the eleven main source countries of east and south-east Asia comprise just 3.8% of the Australian population. But well over half – 54% – have become Australian citizens. That figure would be higher if students on temporary visas (who account for many of the people from China, South Korea, Indonesia and Malaysia) were left out.

Look at the figures for Hong Kong (78%), Vietnam (75%) and Cambodia (77%). If these people aren’t Australian, what right have I to be here? Or any of us?

The attack on the World Trade Centre in New York in 2001 spawned yet another wave of racist hatred in Australia, supercharged by religion and dress codes. Shock-jocks claimed people coming on boats to Australia were agents of Islamist insurgencies, here to wreak terror and dread on a vulnerable Australia.

The thought apparently did not occur to them that if Osama bi Laden wanted to dispatch terrorists to this country, he’d be unlikely to put them on a boat in the hope they’d manage to get here. He’d probably buy them a plane ticket.

And of course – once again – the fears were nonsense. It inflated radio ratings, provided massive benefit to the increasingly rabid Liberal Party, and generated the clutter of repressive and unnecessary anti-terror laws we still have to live with.

None of it made us safer.

The people risking their lives on those flimsy, leaking boats did so because they had no other choice. They were fleeing war and lethal persecution in their own countries. The refugees picked up by the Norwegian freighter Tampa and refused docking permission by John Howard, were Hazaras from Afghanistan.

Though Hazaras lived in the Middle East for, probably, a thousand years but retain some of the appearance of their Mongol ancestors. In the 1890s, a jihad was declared by the Pashtun leader, Abdur Rahman Khan: half the Hazara population was killed. The Taliban followed the same course. In 1998, there was a massacre of between 2,000 and 5,000 Hazaras in a single city.

“Taliban militiamen searched house to house for males of fighting age who belonged to the Hazara ethnic minority,” reported the Washington Post.

Human bones littered the desert
“Hazaras were gunned down in front of their families or had their throats slit in the same way Muslims slaughter goats for holiday feasts. Others, thrown into the city's overcrowded jail, were executed by firing squads or crammed into tractor-trailers, where they sweltered all day in the summer sun – doors shut – until most perished from suffocation or heat stroke. In the evenings, the heavy trucks hauled the bodies to the nearby desert and dumped them in heaps like trash, according to the reports.”

These are the people Howard turned away.

Four years later, in 2005, came the darkest day in Australia’s experiment with openness: the Cronulla race riots.

On Sunday 4 December there had been an altercation between a four young men of middle-eastern appearance and three local surf lifeguards at North Cronulla beach. There was name-calling and pushing; one of the lifeguards fell and hit his head.

Throughout the next week, that small incident was magnified on social media and talk-back radio – most notably by 2GB’s Alan Jones. “We don't have Anglo-Saxon kids out there raping women in western Sydney,” he told his listeners.

A huge gathering was organised for the following Sunday and 5,000 people gathered at North Cronulla anxious for a fight. “I'm the person that's led this charge here,” Jones boasted. “Nobody wanted to know about North Cronulla, now it's gathered to this.”

The crowd sought out anyone looking middle-eastern and bashed them. Two police were also injured.


Late that afternoon, Lebanese youths from Punchbowl piled into a convoy of cars to seek revenge. They assaulted several people and set fire to cars, yelling “Get the Aussie dogs ... get the Aussie sluts.” A 26-year-old man was stabbed and seriously injured, the knife breaking off in his back.

When it was all over, police had laid 285 charges against 104 people: 51 from the original riot and 53 from the retaliation riots.

It was a watershed moment. Jones was roundly condemned. Even the Daily Telegraph weighed in: OUR DAY OF SHAME. Police were given more powers and the nation took stock: is this who we want to be?

Migrants from the Middle-East have embraced Australia, though it has often not embraced them. Their rates of Australian citizenship are among the highest of any group.

Pauline Hanson, back in parliament after short stint in gaol, found that banging the Asian drum was no longer productive. So she turned to Muslims instead.

 Senator Hanson
“Now we are in danger of being swamped by Muslims, who bear a culture and ideology that is incompatible with our own,” she said in her maiden speech to the Senate.

“If you are not prepared to become Australian and give this country your undivided loyalty, obey our laws, respect our culture and way of life, then I suggest you go back where you came from.”

She couldn’t have seen the figures.

Soon it became the turn of refugees from north-eastern Africa to be vilified and defamed. In 2015, the Murdoch organisation’s Melbourne tabloid, the Herald-Sun, reported on a ragtag group of teenagers who committed a number of bashings and robberies. These were dubbed the Apex Gang and apparently some looked as if they might be African.

Young men born in South Sudan were particularly blamed.

Again, a look at the figures would show how unjustified that action was. According to the 2016 census, the whole of Greater Melbourne contained just 528 people aged between 15 and 24 who were born in South Sudan. Only about half of them were male.

After a rolling brawl in the 2017 Moomba parade, the issue ballooned. The Australian launched a campaign. Peter Dutton, by then Home Affairs minister in the Turnbull government, took it up with gusto. Without any evidence at all, he said on Sydney’s 2GB that in Melbourne “people are scared to go out to restaurants of a night time because they are followed home by these gangs.”

The Victorian Liberal leader, Matthew Guy, was facing an election and joined the chorus. Melbourne was becoming “the Johannesburg of the South Pacific … making Victoria safe again will be my first, second and third priority.”

The point is this: it didn’t work. Guy was trounced at the 2018 election. The Liberals lost 11 seats, going from 30 seats to 19 in the 88-seat Legislative Assembly.

The 2019 federal election was won by Morrison and Dutton not because of African gangs but because Labor had an uninspiring leader and ran a poor campaign. The Liberals, now having moved far away from the middle ground, may never hold national office again.

A few months after Dutton’s inflammatory restaurant fantasy, the Senate Select Committee on Strengthening Multiculturalism issued its final report. It quoted approvingly a submission that said the Apex gang was “never predominantly African and instead is comprised mainly of Australians.”

There we have it. Not only were the African gangs not gangs: they weren’t even African.

It was a lie. Like all the other scares, it was a lie.

Where we are now

In my teens and early twenties I tried very, very hard to be heterosexual, but it just wasn’t me. I’d absorbed the ubiquitous message: that I was shameful, that I would never have a proper relationship or find love, and that I would die alone.

But over the next half century, the high, impenetrable walls which confined people like me were undermined and crumbled into dust. Forty-three years ago I met my life partner, Barry Scott, and found love and a life I had thought impossible. I am not alone. I had never contemplated that people of the same sex would one day be able to marry.

Change has been about recognising the person as an individual, rather than as a symbol. Look into their eyes and you will see yourself.

Ever since I studied Hamlet in 1964, these lines have stuck with me:

This above all: to thine own self be true,

And it must follow, as the night the day,

Thou canst not then be false to any man.

It doesn’t say everything about living a life and creating a decent world, but it says quite a bit.

Look back a little and see how much the country has changed. The most trusted political leader is a lesbian woman called Wong, followed by Anthony Albanese, Tanya Plibersek, Mark McGowan and Jacqui Lambie. The same 2022 poll showed the top five least trusted were Clive Palmer, Scott Morrison, Peter Dutton, Barnaby Joyce and Pauline Hanson.

Hatred no longer wins elections. The last time a federal was won with a hate-based campaign was in 2001: it didn’t work for Matthew Guy in 2018 nor for Morrison and Dutton in 2022.

Every scare campaign has been shown to be a malicious invention. But there is a limit to the gullibility of Australian voters. Dutton and his acolytes have reached and exceeded that limit.

One last note on booze.

One of the things about alcohol is that its effects depend on age. When young people drink, they want to party! After about 35, you just want to go to sleep. Pitiful, perhaps, but it keeps us out of an awful lot of trouble.

Young people go clubbing and toss back shots of tequila and vodka so they can go from sober to squiffy and from squiffy to blotto in the most efficient manner available. Then they gyrate on dance floors for a while before making exhibitions of themselves and falling over.

But how many tanked-up 74-year-olds have you seen recently prowling city streets late at night, getting into fights, kicking in car headlights and vomiting on their bovver-boots?

No. We are all sitting quietly at home resting our eyes, emitting the occasional light snore, and with a still-half-full bottle of single malt placed handily within reach.

So it goes.

And that is where, for the moment, I shall leave you.

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