Something happened the other day that caused me to think deeply about the political direction Australia is taking. It was a disturbing incident; it was nothing to worry about personally, but it gave me pause. It did so especially because it came in the course of an exchange of views – by email – with someone I've known for a long time.
It was this: I should be careful in my criticism of Australian domestic security issues, since I was an immigrant, and it didn't matter how long I'd been a citizen.
It's true that I am an immigrant. I arrived in Australia early in 1971. I was fully formed by that stage – I had just turned 27 – and was thus not fit for moulding to the local matrix except by consent and (I have to confess) peripherally. I was, and still am, British, though I acquired Australian citizenship by declaration in 1972. There was no hoopla involved in such a decision then, neither pledges of allegiance nor hands on hearts; nor flag-waving. It was just a bit of paper: just as I wanted; nationalistic hyperbole has always alarmed me. It's perfectly possible to be patriotic without turning out with the mob.
So, to set out the scene more fully: I've been an Australian citizen for longer than the half of today's population aged under 45. Half of them wouldn't pass the apparently nascent, unpleasant Australian Birther test, since they were either born overseas or one or both of their parents were.
Peter Dutton, the Home Affairs minister who is leading the charge towards making Australia even less relevant to the world than it already is, was two months old when I arrived in Australia, and he was two years old – just off rusks – when I became a citizen.
But I'm an immigrant. And because of this I should modulate any comments I make about my adopted homeland.
When I arrived in Australia its population was 12,507,349, less than the number of Australians today aged 45 or under who have therefore been Australian for less time than me. (This year Australia's population is estimated to be 25 million.) I found a country that was still identifiably British in many of its ways. This wasn't a requirement of mine. It was just that it was pleasant and comfortable to be in a place where, while the Old World shadows might be getting longer and changing hue, certain principles remained in place with which I had grown up and was thoroughly familiar. You could call these liberal values, the distilled product of two centuries of social advance.
I first voted in Australia in 1972, the Whitlam election. I voted for Gough Whitlam, less for political motivation than because poor Billy McMahon was plainly a joke. I was living in Tasmania then. I shared a lunchtime giggle with Margaret Whitlam during the campaign. It was an unusually hot day in the Apple Isle and I remarked to her that it really felt quite like Australia. After voting in Launceston on Dec. 2, 1972, I went trout fishing in the central highlands with friends. It snowed on us. Ah, Tasmania! Beautiful one day, English the next.
In 1973, I moved to Queensland. I lived there, except for three years in Papua New Guinea, for 32 years until 2005 when we moved for family reasons to Western Australia (and part-time in Indonesia). I served in the Army Reserve, perhaps poorly according to some, though I'd be entitled to a medal for turning up if I wanted one. I don't. I worked in the national media and in state and federal politics. Nothing I did ever indicated to me that I was anything other than "an Australian" – just one of the growing number of Girts on the Big Gibber, surrounded by warm seas and buoyed by membership of an inclusive and caring community.
But I'm an immigrant, and should therefore be careful about what I say and write. Perhaps the warning was intended kindly – it came from an old mate, after all – but it was a sickening shock. And I've thought about it for a day or so and now I'm writing this.
I should be careful? After 46 years of being as dinky-di as I'll ever be, because some flat-footed politicians mightn't like what I say about policies of being beastly to Foreigners Not From The Anglosphere or Certain Other Currently Favoured Places? It might be "noticed" – by the Stasi perhaps, oh no, that police state's gone now; by the Gestapo maybe, no, same difference; by ASIO or ASIS then, or the Border Farce, though surely they've got better things to waste their time on – that as an immigrant I'm not entitled to full free speech because I'm not a real Aussie. Geddoutofit!
Australia might have doubled its population in 46 years, but at 25 million it's only 2 million people larger than the city of Shanghai. It's smaller than California and Texas in the U.S.A. Even Madagascar's got more people.
On these figures an "Australian Birther" movement is a risible exercise (demographically I mean: it might play to parochially perverse local politics) and socially it's an excrescence. Or to put it even more plainly, it's a sick joke.
If you don't like it here, go home, is a favourite line among exclusivists and (occasionally) of politicians and political activists under pressure. But I am home. I vote in the federal electorate of Curtin. And I won't be shutting up.