Editor’s Note February 2018

What does it mean to be Australian? Perhaps it means not understanding much about our history. The celebration of Australia Day on January 26 would certainly seem to suggest there’s a strong strain of willed ignorance in our national culture. How else to explain the entreaties that all Australians celebrate the arrival of the British?

But our historical misapprehensions are legion. How many Australians know, for instance, that until 1948 being Australian meant being British – that we had no official nationality but British? Or that from 1948 to 1982 every Australian was both an Australian citizen and a British subject?

Today, being an Australian parliamentarian means pledging allegiance to the Queen – it’s a requirement of section 42 of the Constitution. But under section 44 our representatives are forbidden from pledging allegiance to a foreign power – the Queen is now Australian, in technical terms. In his comment in our February issue, James Boyce explores the “Imperial mess” in which we find ourselves, notably how one can be knocked out of Australian parliament simply for pledging allegiance to the same Queen (of the UK) to whom we pledge allegiance in Australia.

Being an Australian citizen today also means being a member of one of the most diverse multicultural societies in the world. Australia was officially “for the white man” until the late 1940s (at least), but its ethnic composition changed radically in the following years, at a rate at least twice that of similar shifts in countries such as Canada, Brazil and the US.

As James Button points out in his essay, this massive and relatively peaceful transformation could only have occurred under “a vast, government-inspired effort, unlike any other in the world, [which] was undertaken to create harmony between old and new Australians”. How strange that sounds today, to read of a government openly welcoming migrants and making every effort to create harmony between them. We can barely recognise this approach to immigration any more. What happened? The boats happened, and a generation of politicians allowed immigration policy to drift out of public debate, and be overwhelmed by “border protection”. 

Peter Dutton has in recent months overseen the comprehensive and possibly final defeat of the old model of immigration, and “for the first time since 1945 no Commonwealth government department has the word ‘immigration’ in its name.” There is no longer a unified program to deliver the services that once helped settle every migrant. There is, in its place, a government only too willing to use racial politics and the fear of foreigners to exploit fear for its own advantage.

James Button’s essay casts Australia’s immigration history in a new light, and is a compelling portrait of the bureaucracy that built modern Australia but was dismantled itself.

Nick Feik

Nick Feik is the editor of The Monthly.

@nickfeik

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