TUMBY BAY - I first became aware of the idea of multiculturalism in the late 1970s when South Vietnamese boat people began to arrive in Australia.
At that time, and probably because of Australia’s ill-fated involvement in the Vietnam War, the government under Liberal prime minister Malcolm Fraser actually welcomed boat people and refugees.
Those that arrived on our shores brought horrific stories of the perils of their escape from Vietnam, including pillaging and rape by pirates on the high seas. Many Australian hearts went out to these people and they were given much assistance to relocate here.
In South Australia many of them settled on the northern Adelaide Plains where they engaged in market gardening alongside the Italian and Greek migrants who had come here after the horrors of World War II.
Today South Australia’s governor, Hieu Van Le, is Vietnamese as are many professional people like doctors and lawyers. Vietnamese Australians act and sound just like any other Australian and through intermarriage have greatly enhanced the national gene pool.
The arrival of Vietnamese refugees probably heralded the start of Australia’s embrace of multiculturalism. Over subsequent years people from many different parts of the world came here to live and we developed into a happy polyglot society.
There are still hangovers from the old days of the White Australia Policy but thankfully its adherents are in the minority.
While they grudgingly accept people of Asian origin they now direct their venom against people with darker skins who come from places like Africa or the Middle East.
Prior to the Vietnam War, there had been a widely held national fear that people of Asian origin were a threat to Australia. This was characterised in the phrase ‘Yellow Peril’.
The ‘Yellow Peril’ harked back to the 19th century gold rush days when Chinese miners flocked to the just discovered goldfields in Victoria and other states. The Chinese miners were hard workers and could extract gold from places Europeans had abandoned or found too hard to work.
They also showed great enterprise in setting up businesses to supply the miners with the goods and equipment they required.
The success of the Chinese was resented by white Australians and, as this antipathy built, it came to form the sentiments that eventually led to the White Australia Policy.
The Vietnam War had its genesis in the anti-Communist rhetoric following World War II. There was a theory promulgated mainly in the USA but also in Australia that the spread of Communism had to be halted otherwise there would be a domino effect and we would be overrun.
The theory was that the countries south of China – like Vietnam, Laos, Cambodia, Malaysia and Indonesia – would topple to Communism like dominoes – eventually reaching us.
Vietnam was seen as an important place where a stop to Communism’s spread had to be militarily engineered.
When you look at our generally peaceful and happy multicultural society now it is hard to imagine how we once discriminated against people because they didn’t look like us or follow the same customs as us.
There is a popular song in Australia called ‘We Are Australian’ written in 1987 that includes these lyrics:
“We are one, but we are many
And from all the lands on earth we come
We'll share a dream and sing with one voice
"I am, you are, we are Australian"
The song encapsulates a sentiment felt by many Australians and it has been suggested it would make a much better national anthem than the current one.
That Australia has developed a multicultural society that works well with our democratic system of government might be a lesson for Papua New Guinea.
Of course, PNG didn’t have to develop a multitude of cultures because they were already there. People were roughly the same colour but they embraced a dizzying range of customs and practices that often meant different groups were anathema to each other.
Bringing those disparate 850 language groups together to form one nation has always been a major problem and stumbling block for effective governance.
Issues like wantokism (the practice of favouring one’s own language group) and intercultural antagonism still plague unity and can be the basis of much angst.
The long-lasting and current mood in Bougainville to break away from PNG is felt, perhaps not so strongly, in some other provinces. Bougainvilleans say they are ethnically and culturally different to other Papua New Guineans and have been unfairly treated and would be better off as an independent nation.
What the Australian experience of multiculturalism tells us is that it is possible to have harmony and effective governance that includes a wide range of different ethnicities, beliefs and customs.
It is a lesson that Papua New Guinea might consider emulating.