1. Learning to be Australian

This was a let­ter writ­ten to The Aus­tralian news­pa­per on 17 Feb­ru­ary 1993 (they declined to pub­lish it). I think that its mes­sage still has res­o­nance today.

Dear sir,

We have a large mir­a­cle on our hands here in Aus­tralia. Half of our peo­ple come from some­where else, yet there is no civil war in sight, no eth­nic cleans­ing, no inter­nal refugee cri­sis. How can this be? Is the land and com­mon cul­ture touched with some rare balm of tol­er­ance?

No, one hun­dred and forty source nation­al­i­ties have not sim­ply for­got­ten their dif­fer­ences, nor mag­i­cally rec­on­ciled the clash with Anglo-Aus­tralian expec­ta­tions. Peo­ple here are no bet­ter or worse than they are any­where else. The poten­tial for man’s inhu­man­ity to man is quite as real. We there­fore need to unsen­ti­men­tally iden­tify and pre­serve at all costs the spe­cial mix of ele­ments that has made the mod­ern Aus­tralian nation-state such a haven for coop­er­a­tive liv­ing.

Three ingre­di­ents of the Aus­tralian mir­a­cle spring to mind. The first is eco­nomic well-being, still dis­trib­uted more or less equi­tably through­out the pop­u­la­tion (in spite of present trou­bles). The sec­ond is the open polit­i­cal cul­ture. Polit­i­cal squab­bles are noisy as they are every­where, but it is chook house squawk­ing. Nobody wants blood on the grass. The third ingre­di­ent will have escaped most Aus­tralians, because it is hid­den from their expe­ri­ence. 

Since 1947, in hun­dreds of classes across the con­ti­nent, day and night, count­less new set­tlers have learnt Eng­lish, and much else. For six­teen years, on and off, I have taught in these classes. They come, the con­fused, the wildly opti­mistic, the per­se­cuted and the hope­ful. They have pic­tures of the world in their heads which give my inno­cent expla­na­tions the most alarm­ing twists of mean­ing. They sit down with blood ene­mies, and peo­ple of cul­tures so remote from their own that aliens from another planet might be com­muning. Then the mir­a­cle begins, for to learn a lan­guage you have to talk. And talk we do, in frac­tured phrases, exchange expe­ri­ences, com­pare the insan­ity of Aus­tralian cus­tom with the com­mon sense way of doing things in Addis Ababa or Shang­hai. Part­ner­ships form, amaz­ing and unex­pected part­ner­ships across bar­ri­ers of age, gen­der, reli­gion and world-view. In short, in sup­pos­edly Eng­lish-lan­guage classes, under­stand­ing of the Aus­tralian way of life by these peo­ple grad­u­ally shifts from the realm of incredulity to the realm of habit.

From a stand­ing start, it aver­ages about 850 class­room hours to acquire a work­ing com­pe­tence in Eng­lish. When I got into this busi­ness in 1977, peo­ple would come while they felt the need, and some­times return after sev­eral years as lan­guage pres­sure became more demand­ing (per­haps with a job pro­mo­tion, or a wish to talk Eng­lish with their chil­dren). It was free. How­ever the slo­gan “user-pays” has come to wreak its havoc nowa­days.

Many stu­dents were chased away in 1992 because they had been in Aus­tralia for more than three years. From 1993 new stu­dents are to pay between $1020 and $4080. Exist­ing stu­dents will pay $250 a year for up to 550 hours of DILGEA (Immi­gra­tion Dept.) classes. After that the unem­ployed might scrounge spe­cial “Eng­lish for employ­ment” classes from DEET (Employ­ment Dept.). The real goers, who came in to study after a hard day’s work in the sweat shops, are no longer effec­tively catered for. Night classes have been gut­ted where I teach.

The fees are cost­ing more to col­lect so far than they have earned. The divi­sion of fund­ing empires has cre­ated its own bureau­cratic night­mare. But the real cost is in lost stu­dents, who are no longer coaxed into the expe­ri­ence of becom­ing com­plete Aus­tralians. There are other mod­els. The United States has had its own patch­work sys­tem of immi­grant classes for years. The Los Ange­les syn­drome is not edi­fy­ing. We had a bet­ter way.

It’s elec­tion time; promises are thick on the ground. Our new set­tlers mostly have no vote, so don’t rate in the chook yard squawk­ing. Here is a plea. Who­ever becomes boss rooster, for heaven’s sake remem­ber the good things we have evolved, and help us to keep them. A peace­ful Aus­tralia is just too good to lose.

Yours sin­cerely,

Thor May

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