Tolerance, acceptance and civility in the immigration debate

The ABC’s Chris Uhlmann is undoubtedly correct in detecting in the actions of Tony Abbott and Scott Morrison a clear intent on the part of the Coalition to play the race/immigration/asylum card against Labor. It’s a recurrent gambit in Australian politics, played successfully by John Howard in the late 90s to fend off the One Nation challenge and then again a few years later to cement Coalition ascendancy over Labor in the wake of September 11. The Age’s Shaun Carney observes:

For more than 10 years, these issues have been all political upside for the Liberal-National Coalition and all downside for Labor. This will not change.

Is that necessarily true? Just as, morality aside, Labor can’t afford to beat the race drum aggressively because it would alienate a large left-leaning constituency sometimes labelled pejoratively as “latte sippers”, so too the Coalition has a substantial group of “small l” liberal supporters equally pejoratively labelled as “doctors’ wives”. One can make a reasonable case that Howard was simply more rhetorically effective and more ruthless at navigating his way through the thickets of this highly emotive area than successive Labor spokespeople.

Chris Bowen’s revival of the “multiculturalism” label this week may well be an attempt to negative the Abbott/Morrison gambit and carve out an electorally and ethically sustainable position for Labor by stressing an important qualification:

Mr Bowen’s opening gambit was that “our multiculturalism is underpinned by respect for traditional Australian values”.

He pointed to a speech by former prime minister Paul Keating who said “the first loyalty of all Australians must be to Australia, that they must accept the basic principles of Australian society. These include the Constitution and the rule of law, parliamentary democracy, freedom of speech and religion, English as a national language, equality of the sexes and tolerance”.

Keating’s formulation is a classic exemplar of his mastery of political rhetoric. Howard didn’t succeed in using the race/immigration card against Keating, although in part that might be because it was the Keating government which first implemented most of the “tough on asylum seekers” policies (including universal mandatory detention) with which the Coalition is now identified.

The most interesting aspect of Uhlmann’s article from my perspective is that, unlike most political commentators, he doesn’t automatically assume that those who express or are susceptible to anti-immigration/asylum seeker sentiment are just mindless, racist yobbos:

And the perceived threat to a multicultural society, endlessly explored, was the assumed intractable racism of the host population. So government reports were commissioned which proved the desperate need for racial vilification laws.

If you listened to the rhetoric of some of the champions of multiculturalism in the 1970s and ’80s, it was also routine to hear that pre-war Australia was a deeply racist backwater where the food was awful and the people dull. One common mantra then was that it “didn’t have a culture”. Only after the immigration boom did the country get some and get interesting.

Where did that leave the sons and daughters of the pre-Second World War immigrants? What was the place of the currency lads and lasses?

Is it possible they grew tired of the grim assessment of their past and went in search of a more appealing narrative? Is it surprising that some should seek their own identity, find their own symbols, write their own mythology and define their sacred places?

Uhlmann has a point, albeit inevitably oversimplified. There always has been a distinct undertone of cultural cringe in much of the “elitist” critique of mainstream Australian societal values. However, Uhlmann also argues that it won’t be enough for Bowen and the ALP to qualify support for multiculturalism by reliance on core Australian values as an irreducible common denominator (even clearly defined ones as enunciated by Keating). For Uhlmann at least, there’s still a politically alienating tacit assumption at the core of Labor’s multiculti message:

Once again the key message seems to be that the main problem with social cohesion is the insatiable racism of the host population. This dangerously misreads the public mood. There is an appetite for some muscular liberalism.

I couldn’t really detect such an assumption in Bowen’s remarks this week, but no doubt the Coalition will try to paint it that way. Perhaps Bowen needs to add an element to his rhetoric, and make a clear distinction between tolerance and uncritical acceptance in relation to the practices and beliefs of other cultures embraced within Australian multiculturalism. Quite apart from questions of immediate partisan advantage I think it’s an important distinction to explore and debate in a deeply civil forum like Club Troppo. Frank Furedi is a bete noire for some in the blogospherical left, but I rather like his position on this:

In contemporary public debate, the important connection between tolerance and judgment is in danger of being lost. The word ‘tolerance’ is now used interchangeably with the term ‘non-judgmental’. While a reluctance to judge other people’s behaviour has some attractive qualities, it is not necessarily a manifestation of social tolerance. All too often, non-judgmentalism is synonymous with not caring about the fate of others. Yet the precondition of a working democratic public sphere is openness to conversation and debate. Reflecting on our differences with other points of views, letting them know where we stand and what we find disagreeable in their opinions… that is the very stuff of vibrant democracy. Without it, tolerance turns into shallow indifference, an excuse for switching off when others talk.

Of course, the conversation necessarily must be polite and restrained, but that in no sense mandates uncritical acceptance. ((All these points are relevant to the recent stoush about OLO and gay marriage, but I don’t really want to revisit those issues here. ~ KP)) US constitutional jurisprudence on 1st Amendment free speech rights eloquently makes this critical distinction between substance and form in permitting prohibition of speech expressed in a form that amounts to “fighting words”. In the seminal decision Chaplinsky v. New Hampshire the US Supreme Court explained the concept:

There are certain well-defined and narrowly limited classes of speech, the prevention and punishment of which have never been thought to raise any constitutional problem. These include the lewd and obscene, the profane, the libelous, and the insulting or “fighting words” those that by their very utterance inflict injury or tend to incite an immediate breach of the peace. It has been well observed that such utterances are no essential part of any exposition of ideas, and are of such slight social value as a step to truth that any benefit that may be derived from them is clearly outweighed by the social interest in order and morality.

Like most legal concepts it’s subjective and a bit slippery around the edges, but nevertheless I think the notion of “fighting words” is a potentially useful one in defining the limits of acceptable speech in civil democratic society.

About Ken Parish

Ken Parish is a legal academic, with research areas in public law (constitutional and administrative law), civil procedure and teaching & learning theory and practice. He has been a legal academic for almost 20 years. Before that he ran a legal practice in Darwin for 15 years and was a Member of the NT Legislative Assembly for almost 4 years in the early 1990s.
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13 years ago

I took a flyer from the hand of Tony Issa containing the following:

How will your area cope under Labor’s population squeeze?

An extra 96,000 dwellings in your area under Labor will mean:

* more traffic congestion;

* more overcrowding on our buses and trains;

* more children in schoold already under pressure; and

* less open space.

We need to protect our local environment.

The bottom line is that under Labor, there’ll be more homes without the infrastructure.

It isn’t precisely racist, but it isn’t welcoming to new immigrants either. With economic hardship it makes sense to throttle the immigration flow, but other countries are suffering a lot worse than we are, and federal Labor already went and quietly throttled immigration quotas while no one was looking. Shhh, don’t tell the latte sippers. Don’t mention the quota! I slipped up once or twice but I think I got away with it.

I think Liberals could do better, they don’t seem to be making much effort. Then again, seems like they don’t have to. Labor candidates are printing their party affiliation on their campaign posters in microdot, and candidates didn’t even bother running.

As for the doctor’s wives, they are mostly recent immigrants themselves.

I’m off to make some real black coffee, with Indian cardamom, so I can drink it like an Arab does (I’ll go back to drinking it like an Irishman, when my whiskey stocks are replenished).

13 years ago

The use of the concept “fighting words” to distinguish between tolerance and judgement seem limited to procedural (or debating) rules. I would guess that it should be possible for different cultural communities within Australia to reach broad agreement on what the procedural rules should be. (Of course, there are extremists and anarchists that seek to overthrow even the procedural rules.)

It seems to me that different cultural communities are more likely to differ over substantive matters, such as whether to ban burkhas, or whether to permit polygamy. How would a multicultural society resolve such differences? Perhaps “public reasoning” could go some distance to resolving those differences. And to the extent residual differences remain, procedural rules (like majority voting) will have to do the remaining work.

An essential part of public reasoning is the Smithian device of the “impartial spectator” proposed in the Theory of Moral Sentiments. Ideally a dominant cultural community would look beyond its internal standards and judgement and pay careful attention to a range of outside perspectives, including those of minority cultures, before exercising its dominant power in society. It would do so for two reasons:

(a) As a matter of justice, the dominant community ought to take account of the impact its actions have on the well being of minority communities; and

(b) As a matter of self-interest, listening to external voices can help the dominant community overcome parochial barriers that prevent the dominant community from promoting its own long-term well being.

It’s important to acknowledge however that public reasoning alone cannot completely resolve all differences. That’s where (I think) tolerance is called for, where the final decision is made (somewhat arbitrarily) through a procedural rule (like majority voting).

13 years ago

Well with Keating’s wise words in mind (and Costello’s too later) I note Cory Bernardi reckons it’s not Muslims that are the problem, it’s Islam-
which is much like saying Germans and Italians were not the problem, it was fascism when we went to war with them to make them see the error of their ways, in much the same way as we are with the Taliban in Afghanistan today-
Racism pure and simple for some it seems while for many it’s all about certain values being more equal than others and unfortunately sometimes that needs to come from the barrel of a gun.

13 years ago

Then we have the more nuanced, one sided approach of the multiculturalists who see no problem whatsoever with trotting out the ‘cultural defence’ for all sorts of behaviour and transgressions, but Gawdelpya if you dare suggest the same generalisations of certain cultures-
As Pauline Hanson would say- ‘Please explain?’

Mike Pepperday
Mike Pepperday
13 years ago

The responses to Senator Bernadi’s observations are ad hominem and are therefore invalid. Let the defenders of Islam respond to the substantive issue.

13 years ago

Well if not the barrel of a gun, then perhaps at least the taser and truncheon before Ken Parish’s young graduazzi charges get to decide whether some cultures are more worthy than others. They may have to adjudicate the rights and wrongs of both national and international law and the basis for same. Absolute values or all their relatives’ values and on that this Anglo Saxon can smile knowingly at a culture that doesn’t even indulge in tipping, but believes every Englishman should do his duty for the contracted rate of pay and that’s all. (cue all the multicultural AWB critics here) Not so for the relativists among us it seems, because unlike Egyptians nowadays they must wrestle with Mubarak and Co’s protestations that the Swiss banking system is racistly thieving their culturally rightful gains (particularly as they can’t culturally charge interest naturally)-
or perhaps it’s simply an open and shut technical case of bad luck/more fool you Mubarak and Co, you parked your dough with another culture and welcome to their cultural values now. Can the Swiss keep the dough, or like Israel do we have to hold them to the much loftier standards of liberal democracies whenever we spot one, while the rest can go their own cultuaral way. They can keep it if they spend it on carbon credits but nor Swiss Army knives perhaps?

Well if it all gets a bit tedious for the relatives mob, they can always fall back on the supreme cultural wisdom of a democratic vote by the gaggle of multicultural gangsters in the UN. Meanwhile Tone, George and Johnny might just be indulging themselves in quiet chuckle right now over igniting the odd beacon of light like Ronny and Maggie of ‘stare down that Wall’ fame.

13 years ago

ha, crickets..

13 years ago

They’re certainly asking the hard questions now. Have multiculturalists finally run into their law of unintended consequences-

13 years ago

So where does the graduazzi observa make sense of all this? There are some idealised absolute values all decent folk should adhere to but unfortunately not everyone is filtered through his graduazzi upbringing, nor the RE value hurdle of his leafy burb, to keep certain unpleasant values/cultures out. Send the kids to uni and they’ll enjoy rubbing shoulders with similar black/white/brown/yellow folk that have likewise been filtered through the niceties of some modern day, user pays, Colombo Plan. All one big happy values family with some interesting cuisine thrown in for good measure.

But there’s another realm out there where it’s not so pleasant because some of those absolute values are sadly lacking. No matter, we can throw into the melting pot a poor mother with children raped in the Congo, or a boy soldier from the Sudan perhaps, along with the Hilalis and Omrans and their flock. They’ll all enjoy the interesting cuisine no doubt and if they don’t they’re clearly a bunch of ignorant, racist bogans and we’ll need to pour some more multicultural ed policies and programmes down their ungrateful necks.

Delusional tosh of course. While my compassonatte brethren wrung their hands in despair at these selfish ignorati who wouldn’t open their hearts to the obvious plight of boat people, they’d guiltily wince at the full horror of their shipwreck tradeoff on their flat screens, green star energy rated naturally. The only decent course of action was to charter a plane to fly the poor bereaved to Sydney for an emotional funeral outpouring, while cooking up a new tax levy for everybody for Qld cyclone victims of course. What’s their problem out there in Hanson country? Don’t these people get it?

They get it alright. Some impossible idealised values rammed down their throats from those that can well afford it. The same absolute standards they’ll ram down Israelis throats, while ignoring the massive shortcomings of cultures and beliefs they’ll happily foist on western Sydney, should the emotional need arise. The hypocrisy of the graduazzi classes knows no bounds with multiculturalism, nowhere more clear than their attachment to the UN and its gaggle of gangsters. You know, Gaddaffi and Co on the UN Human Rights Commission while they chastise the only liberal democracy in the ME for not living up to their lofty idealised absolute values.

We need to ditch this crap for some practical relativism. A United Liberal Democratic Nations for starters with some basic tenets and piss off the gangsters. Then we can have a free flow of multicultural immigration between true equals and the rest can please themselves or overthrow their tyrants and aspire to join us. We may still have to curb the worst excesses among some of them with guns and stand ready to help those who want to help themselves, but bleeding off their graduazzi and failing to admonish a real lack of values at the most basic level, is the crux of the problem. Multiculturalism has degenerated into comfy tolerance of the intolerable and hence any legitimacy it might have had in the past. With it we can all look forward to the Frasers and Mugabes casting their esteemed multicultural judgements on the venerable UNHRC report on Oz shortly.

13 years ago

And as the people of the ME have finally had a gutful of their cultural elites, this says it all really about ours now-
unless of course you want to challenge the stats?

Nicholas Gruen
13 years ago

Thanks for the post Ken.

Reflecting on my own views, I think I’ve become much prouder of Australia and Australian values – really Western values. I think after the fall of the wall there was a great reality check when people thought about how much they’d taken for granted in their opposition to the things that are bad about our society.

Against that kind of easy critique of what one didn’t like about one’s own society (as if there was ever a society that there wasn’t a good solid list of things seriously not to like) it was possible for many people to rather think that maybe the comms had some things sorted out. I didn’t really think that, but nor was I as intolerant of the tyranny that was the foundation for most – pretty much all – non-western societies as I should have been (and the non-western societies where this wasn’t true had built their decent societies around aping the west).

The Phillip Adams theory of immigration (which I remain fond of) fitted in here, which is that we found out how much fun immigration was after the ‘populate or perish’ decade of the 1950s and haven’t stopped since. Anyway as immigrants came flooding in and enriching our suburbs, it was easy to see their ‘colour’ and exoticism as ‘real’ culture and ours as white bread blandness. That was a big mistake. We have a great culture, which was of course enriched – particularly in areas of weakness like our fondness for crap food and sense for conformity – by the presence of other cultures.

By the time John Howard got going with his critique of multiculturalism I thought all this, and yet, while I could see what Howard was getting at, I thought his critique of multiculturalism reflected mean spiritiedness and the worst (conformist) aspects of Australian culture. By all means celebrate what a great country and culture this is. By all means reinforce something we hadn’t reinforced – that Australian values must be asserted and defended on our soil. By all means make the point that there is and must be a dominant culture in Australia. But how mealy mouthed, how dopey not to celebrate the diversity of cultures to which we have access just by walking down the street, not to understand that the big strides towards integration are almost invariably taken by the second generation where they’re not taken by the first.

By way of contrast I’m a big fan of John Hirst’s ‘conservative’ history which brings out the value of Australia’s culture in its history – arguing that it was basic liberal Australian values that built Australia, that Australian culture provided a seed bed for the growth of anti-racism and the flowering and acceptance of diversity. By contrast Howard’s approach was small minded – going nowhere. Nowhere of any use that is. I’m not much of a fan of Keating, but Keating’s nationalism which you’ve quoted above was a fine thing by comparison.