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The dying ability to empathise

By Tony Smith - posted Monday, 17 February 2014

Several generations of MPs have entered and left the 15 parliamentary chambers around Australia since I interviewed a cross-section of members of the two New South Wales houses in Macquarie Street Sydney. When I asked them about qualities they considered very important in an MP, 'honesty and integrity' and the 'ability to speedily grasp the essence of an issue' were approved by the most respondents. 'A logical mind' and 'an ability to empathise' came next, ahead of physical stamina, emotional resilience, a sense of humour and political idealism. Professional experience and legal training were not rated highly at all.

While this survey concentrated on a few people in a specific place at a particular time, the sample was as broad as possible, reflecting both genders, both chambers, membership of parties and independents and length of service. It is interesting to speculate however about results that might be achieved today in the federal parliament. Judging by the Australia Day statement of one Government MP, it is doubtful whether two-thirds of respondents would still consider 'an ability to empathise' a very important quality in a parliamentarian.

Senator The Hon Concetta Fierravanti-Wells, Parliamentary Secretary to the Minister for Social Services, has urged migrants to adopt English not as a second language but as their first. She suggested that migrants have an 'obligation' to learn and use English. Perhaps she should have emphasised that the Australian Government has an obligation to assist them to do so. As well as ensuring that classes are adequately resourced, the government needs to provide positive motivation and not give rise to stigmatisation by making negative statements. There are unfortunately, an ignorant few people whose prejudices will be confirmed and fed by such a call. They will assume that 'foreign' languages are unAustralian and that those who use them are at fault.


The Senator suggested that the Abbott Government and the community are in furious agreement over the benefits of migration. Hopefully, she realises that this means not just economic benefits, but cultural ones as well. In that case, she was endorsing the principles of multiculturalism. But language is a key component of culture. There will be little cultural transmission if community languages vanish. Perhaps her political rivals will now call her 'Connie' rather than 'Concetta' on the grounds the latter is an Italian name. As Shadow Minister, the Senator drew criticism by expressing a narrow, traditional view of marriage. This suggests the desire for English speaking might arise from a similarly narrow view of Australian identity.

As with citizenship tests in general, it would be fairer if the principle of learning English were applied to all Australians regardless of birthplace, and if the standard was not just learning English, but learning correct English. Many supposedly expert communicators working in media and politics would need some extra training. And given the emphasis on 'obligation', a requirement for the learning of a second language might also be encouraged as a means of promoting individual wellbeing and strengthening society.

About six months ago, Australia lost one of its most admired singer-songwriters. John Dengate performed both Australian and Irish traditional songs and wrote many of his own. Some of these were original, often telling very personal stories, such as the classic 'Bare Legged Kate' about his mother's childhood in Gundagai. Others were political parodies, setting scathing critiques of right wing politics to popular tunes. Yet another category of songs and poems reflected sadness about cherished values which had been lost during periods of social change. 'The Lanes of Woolloomooloo' expresses compassionate understanding of a man who seems to be a derelict and burden on society, but whose life was ruined by the sacrifices he made in New Guinea, fighting to protect Australia from invasion by Japan during the Second World War.

Perhaps John Dengate's best song of all, 'Old Calabrian Man' tells of the last hours of a patient dying in a hospital which to him is an alien environment. Whether because of recruitment policies, educational outcomes or for some other reason, none of the medical staff can speak Italian, let alone the dialect in which he is most comfortable. There is every chance that his migration brought the economic benefit so beloved of politicians of the right, and every chance he would have learnt English if he had release time from his job, the availability of a well funded English as a Second Language class and government encouragement.

A verse and chorus illustrates the singer's empathy with a man whose plight is directly attributable to the hypocrisy of politicians.

Doctor, I'm glad you're here. Is he dying do you suppose?
Nurse, bring that Italian cleaner in
To try and discover his next of kin
And help us diagnose

Oh, there's nothing so dismal, cold and strange
As Anglo-Saxon eyes
To a frightened old Calabrian man
The hour before he dies.


Some cultural warriors would prefer Australia to be monolingual. Some would like to see an end to empathy. Let's hope that the vast majority of Australians will reject these insidious manoeuvres and remain committed to a broad, inclusive and compassionate society.

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About the Author

Dr Tony Smith is a writer living in country New South Wales. He holds a PhD in political science and has had articles and reviews published in various newspapers, periodicals and journals. He contributed a poem 'Evil equations' to an anthology of anti-war poems delivered to the Prime Minister on the eve of war.

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