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Thanks Pauline, but Australia is still a great country

By Dilan Thampapillai - posted Monday, 22 February 2010

These are red-letter days: Pauline Hanson is apparently leaving Australia. A friend of mine even purchased a bottle of champagne as soon as he heard the news. But as with all things in Pauline-land confusion soon reigned. There was a report in The Australian that Hanson was only going on a holiday. This was soon followed by a press statement from Woman’s Day and Hanson herself confirming that she was going indefinitely.

As Tim Soutphommasane noted in the Guardian there is a genuine irony to Pauline Hanson ending up as an immigrant and it gets even better when you think about what she is about to encounter. In The Times Devika Bhat has written a column dreading the arrival of Pauline. I almost feel like writing her a letter of apology. Sorry Devika, but we have a no returns policy.

I hope she has a great time in the UK. I really enjoyed my last trip there - I really loved how it managed to be both, vibrant, diverse and multicultural, and quaintly English at the same time. But I take issue with one of Pauline’s parting shots: that Australia is not the land of opportunity. This is simply not true. Australia is a country where anybody who wants to build a better life can do just that. Ask any migrant. Ask anybody in this country with an ounce of ambition. There are three reasons why Hanson is wrong (again). Australia is still a great country.


First, our democracy is robust enough to handle genuine divisions on immigration and culture without degenerating into violence. It is true that we have had tumultuous debates on race and culture. It is true that there have been attacks on Indian students and we did have the Cronulla riots in 2005. But Australians of every hue were shocked and disappointed by those events. Moreover, in a decade where race crept into mainstream politics, Cronulla was the only major ethnic conflict.

Generally, we do not have a culture of political violence. In Britain the British National Party (BNP) is associated with thuggery. It may have made an attempt to clean up its act in terms of language and behaviour, but the association still remains. As Soutphommasane notes in contrast the One Nation Party did not attract violent fellow travelers. That element probably does exist in our country but it isn’t as numerous or as dangerous.

The attacks on Indian students can be understood as the result of the confluence of a number of factors. Economic factors might have played a part. But a more simple explanation could be that an increase in student numbers, which was not met with corresponding levels of service by education providers, meant that students were living in slightly “dangerous” areas. Students who would have seen danger signs at home were oblivious to the dangers in disadvantaged parts of Melbourne. They weren’t told by their institutions to be wary of certain situations. Similarly, students working late night jobs and using public transport are vulnerable to the type of violence that people in those situations, regardless of race, might ordinarily face. There is a violent sub-culture around alcohol and drugs and it extended to Indian students because they were working the type of late-night jobs that made them vulnerable.

It is unfortunate that some sections of the media used the problem to suggest that Australia is a racist country. To tar all Australians with the racist tag on the basis of the actions of some ne’er do wells, some of whom were non-white, is not only contradictory, it is untrue. It also ignores the reality on the ground of generally quite harmonious relations between white and non-white Australians. It ignores the seriousness of drug and alcohol related violence.

Either way, regardless of the causes, violence is not acceptable in Australia. Our politicians may not have proved capable of making intelligent statements on the subject, but the overwhelming majority of Australians were appalled at the attacks on Indian students.

We do have a genuine divide on multiculturalism and immigration. Both sides have strongly held views about the future of Australia. There is a lot at stake. But these things will be worked out through the normal democratic processes. Personally, I’m more concerned that every few years the ABS revises its population estimates for 2050 upwards by a few million. It’s almost a tacit concession that they got it wrong the last time. Bernard Salt has noted an interesting trend in both the ABS predictions and the Inter-Generational Reports. At this rate the population estimate could jump from 34 million to 50 million over the next few reports. At that point Monash University’s population researchers are likely to go into a media-meltdown. Of course, these are all just “estimates”.


The next reason why Hanson is wrong is that Australia is an increasingly cosmopolitan and diverse country. There is no way around this; globalisation has changed Australia. When I went to law school, more than a decade ago, even the brightest of my classmates were not overly focused on world affairs. I experienced profound culture shock when I went overseas for a year and studied for six months in Singapore and then for six months in the United States. The law students at the National University of Singapore had an acute understanding of international affairs. They were well versed on the politics and economics of the Asian region, as perhaps one would expect, but they were well across international affairs elsewhere. The students in the United States were similarly globalised in their world view. They had a strong appreciation of the economics, politics and culture of other nations which belies the usual stereotypes about Americans.

These days, Australian students are as globalised as their counterparts elsewhere. Our graduates were always world class but there are now a lot more Australian students that fit into that category. Many of our graduates would not be out of place at elite institutions overseas. The more attuned that students have become to opportunities around the globe the more accomplished they have become in their studies and extra-curricular achievements. There might be too much pressure on undergraduates but it’s hard not to be impressed by the growing quality of their achievements.

One of the other things that struck me about how cosmopolitan Australia has become in my lifetime, was when the war in Sri Lanka reached its conclusion and people began fleeing that country by boat. My ethnic background is Sri Lankan Tamil - Jaffna Tamil at that - though being born here I’ve never set foot in Sri Lanka. But I was surprised at how knowledgeable ordinary Australians were about the conflict. Their knowledge outstripped mine. Bear in mind that this concerns a conflict in a minor South Asian nation. It shows how outward looking our country has become.

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About the Author

Dilan Thampapillai is a lecturer with the College of Law at the Australian National University. These are his personal views.

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