Settlement, opportunity, respect and creativity.
Forum “Critical Value of Settlement for Australia”
Settlement Council of Australia
Originally delivered AGM Monday 18th November 2013
Revised and redated September 2014
Location: Parliament House, Senate Alcove
My first involvement in settlement as a process of social change took place for me in 1969, through the volunteer framework of the Good Neighbour Council, in the back streets of Redfern. By then it was already very clear that Australia was an immigration nation, a country whose whole mode of being in the world draws on continuing inflows of people. This means that the successful settlement of newcomers is crucial for every part of our society – not only for the immigrants themselves. Settlement has taken on new meanings though where we now have hundreds of thousands of long term residents who are not settlers, but whose “settlement needs” are never the less very real – including TPVs once more, 457s and their families, and international students.
In its exploration of settlement released in March this year the Joint Parliamentary Inquiry into Migration and Multiculturalism (Chap 9) identified the following issues: English language acquisition, Cultural competency in Service delivery, Access to Housing, “CALD Women”, Youth, Racism and discrimination, Government funding of services. All of these contribute to either undermining or enhancing equal opportunity. The Report deals with them in sufficient detail so I will focus on some other aspects.
Malcolm Fraser recognised the importance of settlement as a human rights process when he spoke, in 1981 at the inauguration of the Australian Institute for Multicultural Affairs, of a three-part dynamic through which newcomers are integrated into Australian society. The first of these is economic opportunity: nothing works if immigrants cannot find useful work. Secondly respect for self and other is crucial: immigrants cannot engage if they are socially excluded and culturally denigrated; but also the “hosts” cannot engage if they feel alienated or threatened from the newcomers. Thirdly the energy that comes from interaction produces a synergy that magnifies the capacities of both newcomers and established residents. Rupert Murdoch suggested much the same thing when he spoke a fortnight ago about Australia as a migration nation.
Settlement then underpins our capacity to face the future with confidence. A century ago in another immigration country and in its most dynamic migrant city, Robert Park of Chicago University charted the process of settlement (though he called it assimilation which is less politically correct today). Park argued that settlement was a four stage process, beginning with contact (and the shock of that moment), followed by conflict, then competition, then accommodation. With accommodation comes the possibility of longer term integration, specialisation, and reciprocal benefits.
Three years ago a rather decent public servant Andrew Metcalfe fled from the bureaucracy, hounded for speaking truth to power. Metcalfe had said, to paraphrase him, that Australia was storing up troubles as it fed thousands of wretched people into immiseration and trauma as “non persons”, asylum seekers condemned to a limbo of meaningless lives. Last year a senior police officer in NSW spoke to me of the unknown distortions of human lives building in the suburbs of Sydney among immigrants without jobs or expectation of meaningful work, of racisms that shatter human hope and drive young men in particular to choose outlaw lives. We know the violence that shivers below the surface in neighbourhoods where trust is frozen, where respect has become a distorted currency fed by threat and anger.
Fraser helps us locate this first issue of equal opportunity:
No society can long retain the commitment and involvement of groups that are denied these [basic human] rights. If particular groups feel that they and their children are condemned whether through legal or other arrangements to occupy the worst jobs and housing, to suffer the poorest health and education, then the societies in which they live are bent on a path which will cost them dearly.
Let me then explore some of the work issues involved in settlement. I am drawn to the story of Luv-a-Duck, Nhill, the Karen, and the Australian Competition and Consumer Commission (ACCC). Luv-a-Duck is a family business based in Melbourne, which along with its major competitor Pepe’s Ducks, has grown from a backyard enterprise a few decades ago to became a major employer and a producer of tens of thousands of ducks (and the focus of animal welfare investigations). AMES in Melbourne was trying to help a group of Karen refugees find work and self respect. Nhill, a small town in western Victoria, a key Luv-a-duck processing centre, needed workers and residents, housing was cheap. The Karen moved there and Luv-a-Duck employed them. The community has grown and this year the company received a settlement award from the Migration Council of Australia (about the same time it got a bullocking from the ACCC for misleadingly advertising that its ducks as open range). The Karen story in Nhill is almost an archetype of the Robert Park model – with many of the points of conflict and difficulty in Melbourne allayed by the move to the rural region. The situation in Melbourne was conflictual, with few opportunities, and a real difficulty in competing fairly with acceptable outcomes (their social capital was not recognised as valuable). They moved out into a situation where their skills and attitudes (their social capital) gave them an advantage, one which a settlement service believed might work.
The less constructively a society responds to its own diversity the less capable it becomes of doing so. Its reluctance to respond, fuelled by the fear of encouraging division, becomes a self fulfilling prophesy—the erosion of national cohesion is a result not of the fact of diversity but of its denial and suppression.
In July 2014 SBS broadcast the first of four episodes of Once Upon a Time in Punchbowl exploring the Lebanese stories of Sydney, successor to …Cabramatta and the Vietnamese. Puncbowl presents us with two narratives of settlement that exemplify Fraser’s analysis. On the one side we see the Middle East Crime Squad, Brothers for Life gang members, drive-by shootings, the inheritors of the madness of Cronulla 2005, and a vast criminal infrastructure of drugs, extortion, robbery, car re-birthing, and murder, tempered only by images of Sixth Pillar local jihadists charging off to fight for Al Qaeda in Syria. On the other side we see Punchbowl Boys High, once a breeding ground for violence and a nursery for drug gangs, now one of the most successful working class schools in the state, with good HSC scores and strong civic culture. Under the guidance of a tough love Lebanese Muslim headmaster, the School has replaced denigration and learning to fail with self-affirmation and the celebration of success. One narrative displays the dystopic consequences of failing to acknowledge the truths of Fraser’s reflections of thirty years ago (soon after he admitted tens of thousands of Christian and Muslim Lebanese refugees). The other narrative demonstrates the value of affirming people within their own cultural framework. Hard policy, but seriously effective.
The third dimension of why settlement is so important is contained by another project now in its pilot phase. In conjunction with the NSW Powerhouse Museum I am developing a project on cultural synergy. We are researching exemplars of creativity in settlement, looking for cases where someone from a non-Anglo society who is creative in the broad Design sense (from pottery to clothing design to scientific technology) and has a creative history from “before”, comes here and discovers a new expressive profile impossible in their country of origin, yet inconceivable without them in Australia. This, the beginning of a roadmap of contemporary Australian creative design (within the Powerhouse remit), shows how the components can be laid out, and then drawn together, stressing the interaction of cultures in producing a common and valuable outcome.
People create themselves every day of their lives, drawing on whatever palette they have to hand or through reservoirs of emotion such as extended family. Effective settlement re-energises the newcomer, re-kindles hope, and enlivens the networks of the everyday. Unfortunately we are moving into a period of increased tension around cultural difference – driven by the intensification of the constraints being applied to asylum seekers, including their renaming as “illegals”; and the push to license hate speech through reducing protection under the Racial Discrimination Act. Together these moves contribute to a potential undermining of civility that seriously damages the settlement process for those touched by these issues. Mr Metcalfe’s sensible insight will be sorely missed in the years ahead.