Floating Life 4/06 ~ 11/07

an archive

Assimilation, Integration, Multiculturalism: policy and practice in Australia since 1966 1

This is a response to Jim Belshaw’s recent post on the Australian Film They’re a Weird Mob (1966) based on “Nino Culotta’s” book of 1957. Regard it as a supplement to Jim, rather than a quarrel, though my perspective is in some respects different. I have chosen to consider “since 1966” as that is when I started teaching in NSW schools as well as the date of the movie.

During that period of 40+ years I have seen many changes in the official policies towards migrants and their education culminating in my becoming an ESL teacher in the 1990s. Prior to that I had been a “straight” English and History (and occasionally Photography) teacher in state and private schools, with a short interlude in the late 70s in Education at Sydney University.

Official policy towards migrants and multiculturalism has evolved and continues to do so. The “multi” word is not in favour with the Howard government and it is fair to say it never has been, though it is only in the last year the word has been officially dropped, even if it still haunts much of the actual content of the Department of Immigration and Citizenship site, not to mention the Human Rights and Equal Opportunties Commission and the various state governments. You may find a short history here.  More relevant links can be found on my English/ESL site.

Like Jim I enjoy They’re a Weird Mob even if it is inevitably rather dated. I certainly howled with laughter over the book and its sequel and it remains funny to this day and is, one has to say, benign enough in its humour. It should be noted that the author was not really an Italian-Australian; since then much has been written from genuine “Wog” (Greek-Australians especially have reclaimed the word for comic purposes) perspectives, Looking for Alibrandi (book and movie) being just one among many in this genre.

Jim was especially displeased by film critic Paul Byrnes saying of They’re a Weird Mob (1966):

The film was an enormous hit at the Australian box office, grossing $2 million, on a budget of $600,000. It was one of the first feature films to deal openly with questions of prejudice against ‘New Australians’, albeit in a way that also flattered an Anglo audience. Nino encounters more kindness than prejudice, and quickly adopts ‘Australian ways’, becoming a model migrant. The film was in tune with the ‘assimilationist’ view then dominating Australian immigration policy.

Jim goes on:

Now all this may appear perfectly okay, but consider the following.

The opening point is that it is the first feature film to deal openly with questions of prejudice against “New Australians”. Note that “New Australians” is in brackets. Note that the film flatters an “Anglo” audience. Nino quickly adopts “Australian Ways”, again the italics, becoming a model migrant. Note, too, that the film was in tune with the “assimilationist” view, more italics, then dominating Australian immigration policy.

Now look at the clips illustrating the film. Two out of three deal with prejudice. The title’s chosen for these clips are “Why don’t you go back to your own country” and “a dago just the same”. So what does all this tell you about the film, about Australia?

Now look at the real context.

The book itself was published in 1957 as a story by Nino Culotta. At that stage the mass migration program was less than ten years old. As I outlined in my Migration Matters series, this was a unique program in the post war period since it is the only case where a country chose to admit migrants at a scale huge enough to ultimately change the very nature of society. This was done with remarkably little prejudice or social distress…

The book did record prejudice, but with humour. When Nino meets the man who would become his father in law for the first time, an Irish Catholic, he responds to the prejudice by pointing to a picture of the Pope on the wall, asking why he has a picture of an Italian there.

In its picture of prejudice, the book brings out a key distinguishing feature of Australians, our capacity to distinguish between individuals and any prejudice we may have about the group that that individual comes from. This feature is a key part of the reason why migration worked.

The book’s sequel followed Nino and his Australian friends back to Italy, tracing out further the nature of cultural differences.

As for the assimilationist tag, I can only say this.

Assimilation simply meant fitting in. We did not expect migrants to give up their language, to change their religion, to change what they ate, to pass citizenship tests. We expected them to be proud of their past. I could wish that we still had this policy in place.

I don’t have much of a problem with any of that until the last section, for in contrast the official history from the Department says:

Australia’s approach to immigration from federation until the latter part of the 20th century, in effect, excluded non-European immigration. The ‘White Australia policy’ as it was commonly described, could not, however, withstand the attitudinal changes after World War II, and the growing acknowledgment of Australia’s responsibilities as a member of the international community. In 1966, the Liberal-Country Party Government began dismantling the White Australia policy by permitting the immigration of ‘distinguished’ non-Europeans.

The prevailing attitude to migrant settlement up until this time was based on the expectation of ‘assimilation’ – that is, that migrants should shed their cultures and languages and rapidly become indistinguishable from the host population.

From the mid-1960s until 1973, when the final vestiges of the White Australia policy were removed, policies started to examine assumptions about assimilation. They recognised that large numbers of migrants, especially those whose first language was not English, experienced hardships as they settled in Australia, and required more direct assistance.

In the classrooms where I worked it was a long time before that assistance manifested itself in practice. Well into the 1970s the prevailing practice for migrant students from language backgrounds other than English was “sink or swim”. Amazingly, many swam, but we didn’t necessarily notice those who sank. It was quite common, and humiliating, for recently arrived migrant students to be put in with the “slow learners”. I recall a woman I taught in Dip Ed at Sydney University still being angry because as a child in Port Kembla she, then a recently arrived Chilean, had experienced this. The only real help was from her fellow students. Obviously she “swam” eventually or I would not have met her in the Dip Ed class.

We English teachers had neither the training nor the experience even to know where to begin in teaching those whose first language was not English. But at Dapto in 1970 I met the first ESL teacher I had ever seen. There she was in a school of 1,400 with mainly UK migrants, but a fair sprinkling of those of other backgrounds, and she did what she could, even attempting to train the rest of us. Unfortunately we did not really know what she was talking about and left her to it, not really being at that stage able to integrate her perspective into our concept of English teaching which was in those days still rooted in the literary critical ethos of the time: Matthew Arnold via Leavis, essentially a form of cultural snobbery that was uncomfortable with anything outside “the great tradition”.  Grammar and language teaching, such as it was, depended on memories of the traditional grammar we had been taught in school, notoriously useless as an instrument of instruction for English as a second language. (Much more adequate variants of traditional grammar aimed at second language learners — for example Longman Student Grammar — have since emerged.)

Anyway, most of us reasoned, it was the student’s problem, not ours. They had come here so they must learn English or fail, and if they didn’t learn it was probably because they were stupid, or spent too much time working in their parents’ fish shops, or their parents let them down by talking Italian or Greek at home…

The first fully developed ESL programs (as distinct from mainstreaming) that I saw were in the late 1970s at schools such as Cringila Public School in the Illawarra and Hurstville Boys High. The latter was interesting as the teacher, Dave Chadwick, had been a classmate of mine at SBHS and was actually a German and Latin teacher; the rest of the school referred to the isolated portable classroom where he did his mysterious things as “Wog Hollow”. That was actually symptomatic of the time.

My first attempt really to help a student from a language background other than English was a boy in Wollongong from Laos who turned up at school one day still wearing some military uniform or other from the civil war he had escaped from. Some of what I did instinctively does stand up in retrospect — trying to establish what interested him and working from there with texts based on that, for example — but I really was flying blind.

In my case it was not until I had a year working in an ELICOS college with overseas adult students from China and Korea especially in 1990 that I began to get some idea of how to go about this different approach to English teaching, and I formally consolidated that with a Graduate Certificate in TESOL from UTS in 1998. It is fair to say, though, that I learned most through practice, trial and error, and from colleagues at the ELICOS college who were experienced and trained.

In the two decades after the 1970s much had changed. First there were changes in official policy towards the background languages and cultures of what were no longer called “New Australians” but rather “Ethnic Communities”. The word “muticulturalism” had appeared and been refined under the Fraser and Hawke governments in a generally bipartisan spirit, despite rumblings of discontent which became louder as the newly arrived increasingly looked less and less like “us”. The “melting pot” was increasingly being replaced by “the salad”.

In the 1990s all hell began to break loose on that front, on talkback radio and in other fora, culminating in the whole One Nation experience and the election of the Howard Government in 1996. Those who suspected something had gone “too far” gained the ascendancy.

I disagree with Jim when he says that assimilation simply meant fitting in. It did imply giving up something or losing something. It did imply that what had shaped life and experience before migration had to be jettisoned. At the same time I agree that fitting in is necessary, though that does not mean necessarily abandoning differences from the “mainstream”.* At this level, conceptually at least, Jim and I would probably agree, except that I would see that as a given in the kind of Australian multiculturalism we saw emerging in the Whitlam/Fraser/Hawke years. It is still cited in the Department of Immigration and Citizenship fact sheet, even with Howard era riders attached:

The policy reaffirms the fundamental principles of the New Agenda for Multicultural Australia, and sets strategic directions for 2003–06.

The government’s aim is to build on our success as a culturally diverse, accepting and open society, united through a shared future and a commitment to our nation, its democratic institutions and values, and the rule of law.

This vision is reflected in the four principles that underpin multicultural policy:

  • Responsibilities of all – all Australians have a civic duty to support those basic structures and principles of Australian society which guarantee us our freedom and equality and enable diversity in our society to flourish
  • Respect for each person – subject to the law, all Australians have the right to express their own culture and beliefs and have a reciprocal obligation to respect the right of others to do the same
  • Fairness for each person – all Australians are entitled to equality of treatment and opportunity. Social equity allows us all to contribute to the social, political and economic life of Australia
  • Benefits for all – all Australians benefit from the significant cultural, social and economic dividends arising from the diversity of our population. Diversity works for all Australians.

The new policy statement also maintains a commitment to the goal of communicating the relevance of multicultural policy to all Australians. However, it responds to changing times and needs with some new strategic directions and focuses. It gives particular emphasis to:

  • the goal of community harmony and social cohesion
  • the government’s access and equity strategy, which aims to ensure government services and programmes respond to the realities of Australia’s diversity
  • promoting the benefits of our diversity for all Australians.

The right to maintain language is not mentioned in that version. The evolution of this and similar documents since 1996 concerned me: see Revision or Ideological Makeover? HREOC’s “Face the Facts” Rejigged.

* Perhaps the word acculturation is preferable. I may take that up later. See also Australian Multiculturalism for a New Century: Towards Inclusiveness (Department of Immigration 1999).

On ESL provision going backwards in recent years see 40,000 kids miss out on help in English – National – smh.com.au. An earlier shorter version of some of what I have said so far is in this March 2006 post.

More recently see Multiculturalism is not (necessarily) the enemy…, Say something a bit more constructive than “Awk!”, Migrants to sit English test, Speak English, mate! What are ya, a Muslim or something?, The joy of Gnomespeak, and these two pages: Literacy and Ninglun and the Japanese Backpacker.

 To be continued in the next post.


Have a look at the quite amazing comment that appeared on my English/ESL site from an amazingly ill-informed adult: Workshop 02 — NSW HSC: Area Study: Imaginative Journeys. How can you argue with someone like that? You wonder where they went to school…

4 Responses

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  1. In haste, Neil, I think that the Department’s official line is plain wrong and an example of the way group think tries to force the past into modern pre-conceptions. I actually saw the section you quote when I was writing my migaration matters series and thought it was just plain odd.

    In an earlier post I quoted an official government film from, I think, 1949 designed to attract migrants that made the then official position very clear. And that position was totally at variance with the quote you provide. When the Queen visited Australia for the first time there were demonstrations of the various migrant cultures.

    There may have been something of a sink or swim attitude, although you have to put this in the context of the times. For example, the huge shortage of teachers, the lack of knowledge of ESOL.

    My impression is, I stand to be corrected, that there were more migration support facilities including language training in the fifties than there were in the days of the Hawke/Keating Governments. I have deliberately selected Hawke/Keating to get the comparison out of the Howard years.

    As you know, one of my core refrains is the need to recognise the astonishing capacity of the Australian community to accept different ethnic groups in those pre-multicultural days. We downgrade this constantly.

    The Department states:

    “From the mid-1960s until 1973, when the final vestiges of the White Australia policy were removed, policies started to examine assumptions about assimilation. They recognised that large numbers of migrants, especially those whose first language was not English, experienced hardships as they settled in Australia, and required more direct assistance.”

    This statement mixes together a number of very different things in a strange way.

    What is the connection between the ending of White Australia and “policies starting to question assumptions about assimilation”? The quote seems to suggest that from 1973 there was an expansion of support programs for migrants. Is this in fact true, recognising that the period after 73 saw the end of the mass migation program?

    Now I am happy to be corrected on facts. I will change my position based on evidence. In the meantime, I keep finding apparent variances between expressed nostrums and the evidence.

    Jim Belshaw

    July 23, 2007 at 1:41 pm

  2. Neil, a very brief postscript, but one that I think is important.

    There is an important difference between policy towards attraction and admission of migrants – the usual meaning attached to immigration policy – and policy towards assisting those who are already here.

    If you look at the end of the mass migration period, there is (I think) a clear distinction between bringing in new people and policies designed to facilitate absorption of the now huge numbers of new arrivals.

    Jim Belshaw

    July 23, 2007 at 1:52 pm

  3. I will try to address some of your points in future posts, though the one I have in mind for Part 2 probably won’t, though I hope you find it interesting, Jim.

    My father wrote a song for the Papuan segment of an ABC program for the 1954 Royal Visit, just as a matter of interest, based on a Motu song he learned in Port Moresby during the war.

    Yes it is true that displays of folkloric items and national costumes were a feature of the New Australians program of the 50s, especially where these had an anticommunist “Captive Nations” connection.

    My impression is, I stand to be corrected, that there were more migration support facilities including language training in the fifties than there were in the days of the Hawke/Keating Governments.

    I doubt that was true at the school level. If so, I never saw it, nor were migrant issues of any kind ever discussed in my Dip Ed in 1964, a great contrast to the past twenty years. There was language provision, I think, at Migrant Hostels and the ABC had an ongoing program of short English lessons, and AMES has a long history, though these days it is much reduced. I have just downloaded Adult ESL in Australia, which may help establish some facts. I have heard of the author, Anne Burns, from Macquarie University, but of course I haven’t read this yet. (It’s on ERIC, a US education collection.)

    This book looks interesting…


    July 23, 2007 at 3:14 pm

  4. Thanks, Neil. I will try to disentangle a few things in a brief post just to get the separate issues clear in my own mind. Jim

    Jim Belshaw

    July 23, 2007 at 3:49 pm

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