a fair go

There’s a booklet published by the Australian government’s immigration department called Life in Australia. Anyone applying for residence is expected to read and sign off on it. I applied earlier this year while still living in New York and so came across it one evening in a PDF on the department’s website. It’s basically a 42-page civics lesson, running down history, geography, and facts about government services, along with an overview of Australian democracy and daily life. I actually read it cover to cover, instead of clicking right past as if it were a disclaimer. I was curious what my prospective new government had to tell me.

As I read, I became more and more pleased with the thoughtfulness and eloquence of the official copy.

Australians value equality of opportunity and what is often called a ‘fair go.’ This means that what someone achieves in life should be a product of their talents, work, and effort rather than their birth or favouritism.

Australians have a spirit of egalitarianism that embraces mutual respect, tolerance, and fair play. This does not mean that everyone is the same or that everybody has equal wealth or property. The aim is to ensure there are no formal class distinctions in Australian society.

Australians are proud of their peaceful society. They believe that change should occur by discussion, peaceful persuasion, and the democratic process. They reject violence as a way of changing peoples’ minds or the law.

Many Australians contribute to the community in their daily lives. They may demonstrate this through caring for the environment, lending a hand, and working together in times of need in pursuit of the public good.

Australia has a strong tradition of ‘mateship,’ where people provide help to others voluntarily, especially those in difficulty. A mate is often a friend but can also be a spouse, partner, brother, sister, daughter or son. A mate can also be a total stranger…

The values outlined above have been promoted and discussed by Australians over many years. They have helped Australia to welcome and integrate successfully millions of people from many ethnic groups and cultural traditions.

Australia’s cultural diversity is a strength which makes for a dynamic society. Within the framework of Australia’s laws, all Australians have the right to express their culture and beliefs. But at the same time, all Australians are asked to make an overriding commitment to Australia – its laws, its values, and its people.

Caring for the environment as a national ideal. Multiculturalism as patriotism. Aussie slang in a state publication — was I imagining this? Impressed, I was moved to start reading this passage out loud to my wife. As I read, I was very surprised to find my voice becoming heavy, and that if I proceeded I would soon be shedding tears! I paused to take a breath, and hoped Amo didn’t notice.

Ridiculous! Sure I have a sentimental streak, but it was hard to believe this government boilerplate had made me so emotional. Was I tired?

All right, I know. Governments are obligated to say nice things no matter how they act. Fascists make the same claims. Furthermore the Australian government has done enough to deprive people of their rights, starting with the first inhabitants; and many Australians don’t welcome immigrants at all.

But I don’t think it was fatigue or the beer I was drinking that caused the text to have an impact. I’ve often thought of it over the months as I’ve gone through the tedious process of getting my visa and packing and migrating. Reading it again, it holds up.

It’s well-written, far more than it has to be, smart, deftly concise, and readable — the way a good textbook can be oddly readable. Better still the inclusive spirit noted in the passage above extends to its view of history.

Australia’s first inhabitants were the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples, who settled the land at least 40,000 years ago and possibly as far back as 60,000 years ago. By the time the first European settlers arrived in 1788, it is estimated that around 750,000 Indigenous Australians were living throughout most areas of the Australian continent.

Indigenous Australians had their own unique spiritual beliefs, a reverence for the land, a rich and diverse culture and an ongoing art tradition that is one of the oldest in the world.

…Although there was early contact with seafarers and traders, Indigenous Australians were largely left alone until the arrival of the Europeans. The initial contact between the Europeans and Indigenous Australians disrupted traditional lifestyles and practices and the Indigenous population declined dramatically during the 19th and early 20th centuries.

Until the 1960s, little or no recognition was given to Indigenous Australian culture and history or to citizenship rights and responsibilities. For example, the right to vote in federal elections was not extended to all Indigenous Australians until 1965.

Pretty pointed and challenging stuff for a lightweight pamphlet. (Come on, would an official United States publication be that real with Native American history?) In similar fashion the contributions of convicts and Chinese and Eastern European immigrants in building the nation are noted.

Life in Australia also has a very Aussie frankness — a stern attitude coupled with generosity and a generous wit — especially in the wonderful passages describing local customs for the culturally disadvantaged.

Many Australians live close to the beach and the sea. On hot days, they may wear swimming costumes or little clothing on the beach and surrounds. This does not mean that people who dress to go to the beach or swimming have low moral standards. It means that this is what Australians accept on and near beaches. In some Australian states, there are also a small number of designated ‘nudist’ beaches where people may swim without any costume or clothing. People from other countries can choose to wear culturally appropriate dress.

…The midday meal is called ‘lunch,’ and the evening meal is usually called ‘dinner.’ Some Australians also refer to the evening meal as ‘tea’ and can use the term to mean either dinner or, literally, a cup of tea or ‘cuppa.’ If invited for tea, the time of the event is a good sign of whether your host means dinner or just a cup of tea. An invitation to tea any time after 6 pm usually means dinner.

Elsewhere is a glossary explaining terms like “bloke” and “no worries.” What government bureaucracy endorses lingo like this? It’s funny, but also genuine and real, especially in the focus on “a fair go” and “mateship.” The down-to-earth manner touchingly frames the potent ideas of law and democracy being expressed. But it’s also low on bullshit (as in the gently disarming statement that not everyone is the same). In fact the tone matches my experience of talking to most Aussies.

Mind you not everyone believes in equality and peace and justice. I don’t take it for granted anymore.

This text would have been written and published anyway good or bad, but clearly some very talented and thoughtful policy wonk got handed the job, and it transcends mere correctness. I believe governments, the same as people, should set aside cynicism and put their best foot forward; to speak of their higher ideals and goals even if problems or contradictions exist. Martin Luther King invoked the words of the US republic’s founders, knowing well most of them were slaveowners, in pursuing freedom for all Americans. The anonymous writer of Life in Australia must be aware of such dynamics, and the power of words.

If that’s farfetched, still it’s hard to explain why reading it almost made me cry. Anyway it was at least great sign I’d made the right choice about migrating. Something in it spoke to me directly.

Curious, I looked up the United States’ guide for new immigrants. As I somehow expected, it’s an inferior document. It means well, outlining the same concepts of democracy and freedom. It has pretty good advice about finding a home, a job, or a school. But at 114 pages it is far more cumbersome than its Aussie cousin, and the copy is clunky and indifferent. It has a curious focus on bad news: warnings about crime, school gangs, and poor childcare facilities, and a chart showing the colors of terror alerts. And it makes no reference to Native Americans, nor to slavery. Its “history” section is bland as it is brief. I can’t say I’m disappointed by that — it just underscores how delighted I am by Life in Australia.

Over Christmas I discussed at length US healthcare legislation with my British-Australian father-in-law. A retired corporate executive, as reserved, sensible, and “conservative” as anyone of his generation, he’s a big supporter of President Obama. He follows him closely, has read all his books, and even has a caricature of him framed in the study. Naturally he was pulling hard for him to get the bill through the Senate on Christmas Eve.

At one point my father-in-law, in a completely natural way, used words that recalled my emotion on reading that text, and made me realize how well it captured the Aussie mentality. He admitted that as an Australian he doesn’t understand the objection to universal healthcare, because everyone deserves a fair go, and felt America had betrayed its Christian principles.

Hey, he said it, not me.


1 comment so far

  1. […] this case I wonder if someone might read about my emotional reaction to Life in Australia, a government pamphlet about immigration, and assume I am completely ignorant […]

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