Australia: cultures in friction

From catalogue “Australia” Casula Powerhouse 2008-9

Movement and change

The bus lurches its staccato way through the greying peakhour traffic, shuddering to a halt near Central. At the stop an African woman sits on an upturned milkcrate, pondering the book in her lap, a pencil tapping her lip. Nearby a young blonde woman in a belly revealing pair of jeans licks at an icecream, while her crouching chubby child in ankle length skirt picks at a pack of pizza flavoured crisps. Meanwhile two men, both very dark-skinned (African, American, French?), wait for the bus, the hair of one a vivid swirl of bleached curls. A Malay or Indonesian woman stands behind them, her head wrapped in a scarf and her gown reaching to the pavement. A Chinese girl in short shorts waits to one side as the crowd moves into the doors of the bus. An older man with his dour shirt outside his trousers nods forward in his seat, and jerks awake from his doze as the driver engages the gears once more. Australia is on the move.

In Cleveland Street the long time Greek restaurant has closed and is up for sale and lease. How many generations had drunk retsina in its rooms and smashed plates there over platters of lamb and ladyfingers? Now it stands empty, its outer walls sprayed with graffiti tags of the inner city gangs. Up the road the Redfern Turkish mosque still operates out of the old scout hall – I remember the transformation a generation ago. Another Greek restaurant in Sydney Rd Brunswick has also closed, its enticing billboards faded and peeling, and the sound of bouzouki barely remembered in the dusty light. Australia changes.

When Europeans invented Australia and in doing so tried to seal it for themselves as a European creation slightly out of place, they did more than tag it with an Enlightenment graffito. Australia was an Enlightenment fantasy, a curious place where the world was different and society could also begin anew. Much has been made of the first moments of recorded British/indigenous contact. Inga Clendinnen portrays it as a moment of abandonment, which she labelled “dancing with strangers”. Two emotions intertwine, fear and desire. Two stratagems erupt, trust and betrayal. As Clendinnen demonstrates, these emotions and stratagems have no particular cultural trajectory. Host and guest, savage and civiliser, spiritual and material, carry no especial signature. At the heart is power and the capacity of peoples to secure their own sense of safety and write their own “scripts” for their lives. Australia is a place where all this is mingled.

I want to use this matrix of emotion and stratagem to understand where we are today and what Australia’s future will demand of us all. Envision an unstable pyramid. One face ties Australia to the world. Another swirls together the millions of personal trajectories that collide, coalesce, transform and re-emerge in generations increasingly accustomed to each other and the place. The third face continues the space in which the indigenous people struggle to make sense and seek out purpose, both held up by and holding up the other sides.

Ab initio

For most of my adult life I have been researching the impact of cultural diversity on the public culture of Australia. This work began for me in a formal way back in the 1960s; as a student I wandered naively into the streets of Redfern from the protected world of Polish Jewish refugee/emigre Bondi. I moved into a room in an old terrace in Great Buckingham Street, during a cold winter with the wind crawling through window cracks, and the sheets and blanket tissue thin. Downstairs the landlord played endless rounds of cards with an ever-changing string of cronies and punters. A bottle or two of Lebanese arak was always on the go, the gambling and drinking soaking up the few dollars drawn from us rag-tag crew of tenants.

The landlord’s wife lived in a state of daily hopelessness, dragging her occasionally beaten body listlessly up and down the stairs, scratching an attempt to keep the house vaguely clean. Her baby snivelled and cried, unfed and unwashed, together a picture of abandoned humanity caught in an endless trap. One day she told me she was feeling very ill- that she could not go on, and she had swallowed a swig of fly-spray. I called on the local community psychologist, the daughter of Italian immigrants of an earlier generation, who called on the local community psychiatrist, the daughter of an even earlier generation of Lebanese immigrants. The last in this line of course is now the governor of New South Wales – the psychologist is long-retired into comfortable grandmotherhood. And my landlady, I cannot say. My guess is that she didn’t last so long in Redfern, though her options outside the flyspray weren’t great in 1969. Her husband I heard went to gaol – there was a knife, drugs, alcohol, maybe even he went too far with his wife for his gadaa’ (macho) mates to tolerate.


This narrative takes us into our analytical matrix, our emotions and our stratagems. Civilisation builds on the underpinning of civility, of initial expectation of respect, of first moves of welcome and engaging reciprocity. My time in Great Buckingham Street began with me as a nervous teenager, entering a world of strangers as a stranger. I was a guest but a paying one; my host was not comfortable in his role, as hosts do not normally accept guests into their homes as sources of income. He expressed no sense of welcome, nor showed any signs that he even recognised my presence; except of course when the state’s agents turned up to respond to the cries for help from his wife. Then he was aggressively angry and perturbed at my interference. I did not survive very much longer at that house, and I left not sure ultimately of the relations thus fractured. Had I broken a trust or fulfilled it? Had I been a good guest or a bad one? Had I acted with honesty or subterfuge? Had I used the situation to fulfil my own desires (the young student ethnographer) or to flee my fears (of violence, loneliness, anomic dissolution)?

A few years ago Jacques Derrida spoke in Sydney about the relation of host and stranger – and the tense moments as each surveys the other and gauges whether the other can be trusted to be either host or guest, to understand the cultural rules and reciprocate appropriately the offerings of safety and refuge and peace. Or betray each other in savage attack or manipulative subterfuge. Trust is the currency here – how do we test whether we can trust the other – and trust him or her to be what – trustworthy or treacherous? And can we trust ourselves to be truthful about our fears and desires? If we remember the children overboard affair, we were treated then to this Cretan labyrinth in all its elaborate ramifications. In that affair we the Australians were portrayed to ourselves as hosts who were being manipulated by the strangers, strangers whom we should rightly fear, who desired what we have, but were unworthy of it. Their unworthiness was a function of their untrustworthiness; they were strangers who refused to perform as guests thus relieving us of the responsibility to be hosts.

When the stratagem was revealed, we were confused. Whose stratagem had been revealed? Not the refugees, who were seeking to save their children from a sinking boat – and thus should have been treated as desperate guests; rather it was the stratagem of our leaders whose desires for power were pursued through manipulation of our fears. They, we, were revealed as bad hosts. With the stratagem revealed, was there shame and if so, whose? Were our leaders ashamed? Neither shamed nor ashamed, it appears; they fulfilled their desires and muted their fears, and were re-elected not long thereafter. Were we ashamed? Some righteous souls may have felt that emotion. Most of us recognised that our leaders may have lied, but they lied “for us”, so that our desires would be realised. If we felt shame it was soon suppressed in righteous indignation; how dare they (the refugees rather than the government) make us feel bad about our behaviour? The presence of the other was rubbed out, and we moved on, slightly shaken but not stirred, alarmed but not alert. It reminded me of a moment years before in a pub in Wollongong, with the TV news showing a riot among asylum seekers held at Woomera, and the man next to me at the bar voicing a quintessential Australianism to calm my worried concern. “Shoot the cunts” he said, and threw back the rest of his beer. Not much in my intellectual’s armoury could deal with that.


Some people do get aggressive about difference, and show their hate in physical ways. In the 1990s in Auburn a community group organised to paint a mural on a wall near the railway station. It would tell the multicultural story of the place from the dreamtime to the present day. An art squad was created and turned its hand to concept, design and realisation. The mural spread its way along the wall, gathering indigenous layers, Anglo-settler layers and then the diversity of the last decade of the second Christian millennium. Soon thereafter some local comments were added – the eyes of the Arab/Muslim figures were gouged out, and tears were inscribed across the paintwork. Curiously the young blonde woman representing the Anglo-Australian pathway to the present was alone left unmolested.

A decade later Cronulla erupts across the world’s video screens, cameras honing in on the most gratuitous of all the insults a determined non-host can fling at a prospective guest – “we grew here, you flew here”. The half-naked body on which these words are inked has a face with broad, beaming and arrogant eyes. In nineteenth century German sociology much was made of the “gemeinde”, the community, as a code for national soul, with its indelible ties of blood and links to soil. It was claimed that one only has meaning as far as one can display biological and territorial affinity with place, that replacement of the community by associative relationships in an anonymous market, would erode deeper senses of self, and propel modern society towards tiers of anomic and alienated individuals, engaging only on the price but never on the value of an exchange. In mid twentieth century Germany that somewhat benign presentation was to be transformed in an horrific slaughtering of those of lesser blood or without acceptable affinities with place.

I am thinking of how important eyes are as a locus of trust relations as I walk along another mural, this time in February 2008, and again in the doppelganger suburb of Brunswick in inner Melbourne. The mural had been fresh and powerful when I first saw it in 1985, a vibrant streetscape of the suburb with similar motifs to those of Auburn a decade later, reflecting the artistic engagement with the meaning of Australia at the time. Strong images of the local Koori and migrant communities, shop fronts, and teenagers hanging out. Now the wall is peeling and cracked; some thought is being given to its refurbishment as a heritage item. Be that as it may, one thing stands out. The red Brunswick clay bricks of the wall poke through where eyes once were, the paint scratched away from the gaze in a repetitive pattern of assault, mainly at shoulder height. Somebody didn’t want to look into that gaze. Or were the stripped out eyes from the faces of the Arab looking women another more subtle commentary, a protection of those eyes from the gaze of haram watchers and unclothed swimmers splashing by? Our Australian culture – not the Indigenous one but that of the settlers – demands always that we look each other in the eye as a sign of open-ness, as though we can read betrayal in the shifting focus of pupils or the too-rapid beating of the lid.

Social capital

Trust has become a central trope for contemporary modernity and its travails. Recently Ursula Stephens, the parliamentary secretary assisting Kevin Rudd on social inclusion, spoke of his government’s commitment to rebuilding the trust that had been lost between government and civil society in recent times. Trust as a central currency of contemporary thinking about the social world originates in the contributions of Robert Putnam, a north American social theorist. Putnam proposed that societies persist only in so far as they produce social capital. The material basis of this capital is trust, a commodity produced in the interaction between people. Trust may be given concrete form through associations, especially voluntary ones, which serve to create one or both major types of social capital – bonding and bridging. Bonding capital is produced when people of like-mind, origin, culture and interests form associations and restrict their interactions to within the group. Bonding social capital groups are like large stones which have to be aligned in some way to build more stable social structures. The process of alignment is called bridging capital. The glue within and between groups is formed by trust.

If we accept these concepts as metaphors, then they help to cast our attention towards the importance of both community and association, as the older style sociologists would describe them. If we are overwhelmed by bonding capital, then societies can fragment into inward looking cells that seal themselves into ghettoes, groups which face the outside world with hostility and fear, and are draconianlly authoritarian in their internal hierarchies. Without bridging capital, the social microworlds may protect their individual members but limit their opportunities to develop beyond the cell. Without bonding capital, individuals remain isolated and alienated, all their relationships mediated through the market, with no sense of belonging and location possible. Bridging capital is produced as people link between groups and have a range of interactions throughout the social world, belonging to various sorts of associative networks.

Debates about trust and social capital have become central domains of conflict in the wake of 9/1, Islamic militancy, the fallout from globalisation, and rapidity of international capital flows and population transformation. We can unpack them in the current Australian scene into four main areas of argument. These can be described as: cultural diversity and trust; socialisation, education and bridging capital; competitive institution building; and diversity and social justice.

Cultural Diversity and Trust

Cultural diversity can often be experienced as linguistic diversity. Living in a neighbourhood or locality that is more diverse has been correlated in various studies in the US and Australia with lower levels of interpersonal trust. That is, the more diverse a locality, the less trusting of others its residents are. Macquarie University’s Centre for Social Inclusion has tested out this idea in Ashfield, where Amanda Wise has been working to explore the impact of rapid diversification on the older residents. In this she follows on from Ghassan Hage’s exploration of whiteness in Australian suburbia, but does so by asking a new set of questions to do with policy opportunities. How do we, she wonders, deal with the feelings of isolation and resentment among residents of many generations – be they Anglo-Australian or Greek or Italian earlier wave immigrants – against the new immigrants from Asia and Africa? In her 2004 study “Contact Zones” she describes the process through which trust is dissolved and the isolation is generated. She shows how bonding capital disintegrates as the networks of family and friends dissipate, with the spaces filled by new groups with different languages, each of them forming their own bonds and shuffling their bodies into place. The streetscapes transform with new symbols and sounds rushing in. Yet the people of the locality would all welcome strategies that could build trust and understanding; these are not easily to be found in the structures and processes of government and commerce.

When faced with this situation we (well you do, anyway) tend to move in one of two directions – either we decry the old locals as being racist and unwilling to change (>>) , or we decry the whole process of diversification as too impossibly unmanageable and the incomers too clannish, and urge a more assimilationist approach (Blainey). Wise posits a more engaged intervention that listens to all the stakeholders, and focuses on the processes of bridging. That for her would be the place where the tendrils of trust could emerge. As she recognises, such a demand can be difficult to realise. Behind the social engineering language of social capital lurks another reality, that of social, economic, cultural and political power (StepOne).

Back in the 1920s Robert Park developed a typology of relations between new immigrants and established residents in the exploding metropolis of Chicago. There were many similarities then to the situation today. The world had been gripped by the success of the Soviet revolution, and non-English speaking immigrants were viewed with serious suspicion – as Marxists, anarchists and generally people who were opposed to the values of the established societies. Anarchist violence had after all been the trigger for the Great War, and Left revolutionary movements such as the Spartakusbund had arisen in post-war Germany and other parts of Europe preaching the overthrow of the old order. Australia had seen its own nervous uproar with the Brisbane Red Flag Riots in 1919, followed over the next decade by government inquiries attacking Mediterranean immigrants for their supposed failure to assimilate.

Park had become interested in race relations and had worked briefly as a journalist before joining the Sociology Department at the University of Chicago. It was during this period that he developed some foundational concepts, the most important of which is his four-stage model of immigrant settlement. He suggested that, over time, following initial contact, the incomers and the existing residents would enter a period of competition, through which an accommodation might be reached, and over longer time the assimilation of the newcomers would occur if accommodation failed – implicitly those who refused to assimilate would depart to somewhere else. Park was also to argue that in-group solidarity (now described as bonding capital) was closely correlated with hostility and anger directed at out groups. This suggestion, that bonding capital might emerge as a consequence both of hostility to and from other groups, points to the importance of understanding the power relationships that exist between groups, the resources they can and do mobilise in their own interests, and the role that government and established civil society institutions necessarily have to play in managing positive outcomes (those that facilitate bridging between groups – and thereby their interaction, and through this their accommodation).

Socialisation, Education and Bridging capital

Ever since the establishment of colonial settlements in Australia, education has been a focal point for the development of social networks. The two countervailing tendencies we have seen at work at the community level also operate in education. When Barry McGaw, the Rudd government’s chief advisor on education, made the problematic development of monoculture schools his first statement on policy challenges for the future, he was rehearsing an old debate but one made more dramatically pressing by the rapid expansion of faith-based schools over the past decade. In the early 1960s the first post-war national inquiry into the education of immigrant children celebrated the public education system as the locus for assimilation – about 1.5 million immigrants had arrived by then since 1946. The public schools, Inquiry chair Justice Dovey declared, were able to turn the children into true Australians, and only a limited proportion of parents remained recalcitrants, shepherding their daughters and sons into ethno-linguistic Saturday and after-school classes, and demanding they retain the parental culture. Dovey castigated this press for cultural retention, yet his report really marked a backward looking assessment.

Within five years rising demands from immigrant communities, in conjunction with an accelerating rate of return or movement on from disgruntled (and “unaccommodated” ) migrants, led the Commonwealth to re-brand its policy as “integration”, acknowledging thereby the need to foster accommodation between the desires of the newer settlers and the assumptions of the established order. Within another five years even that turn of phrase was washed away with the advent of the Whitlam ministry (Dovey’s son-in-law) , and the establishment of the “multicultural” era. In retrospect it is the rapidity of this change that is so significant, a wave of rethinking that affected not only ethno-cultural relations but also ideas about the position of women, sexuality and Indigenous rights.

The sphere of education was perhaps the most affected by these changes (outside the usually-quoted culinary transformation). The multicultural class-room emerged almost overnight with the state school system acting as a melting pot for the children of the first generation of newcomers, and the Catholic diocesan schools almost as diverse. Only in the private schools established for the middle class families of the Australia bourgeoisie was the old order more protected, with the occasional Jewish or Asian child amidst the overwhemingly Protestant or Catholic assemblies. That situation could not last, and it didn’t. With rising affluence the post-war immigrants had three sorts of choices for their children’s pathways into the ruling elites – they could buy them into the existing elite schools on the basis of a strong cultural commitment to education but less interest in cultural preservation; they could support them to focus on selective high schools for the academically excellent, again with a more assimilationist outcome in mind; or they could fashion their own schools to preserve culture and pass on values and practices in ethno-cultural enclaves.

All three of course took place, even though the majority of immigrant working-class children continued in the state or diocesan systems. The public school system had been envisaged back in the 1880s as an avenue for building bridging social capital, a place where (usually non-Catholic) children would find their feet and be propelled into adulthood equipped with an education and a capacity to work well across the many cultures that pervaded the school communities. A similar ethos pervaded the diocesan schools, which had always had a fairly culturally ecumenical if religiously unitary milieu.

Since the mid-1990s the expansion of ethno-cultural and ethno-religious schools has been accelerated by central government policy. It is a bizarre consequence of the anti-multicultural former government’s commitment to a Christian world-view and a genuflection to free-choice, that it has enhanced cultural diversity in education, not only in the rash of evangelical madrasas established by the born-again Christian churches, but also of course right across the Christian spectrum, and for Jews, Muslims and Hindus. It has driven the move towards monocultural schools. They now reflect all the characteristics of bonding social capital building, and except for those that are actively non-denominational, thereby have actively if unintentionally undermined the critical essence of nation-building in a society of diversity, that of bridging capital.

In the UK there has been a very direct recognition of this problem, and while the school system is somewhat different, the phenomenon of so-called “white flight” is not. “White-flight” refers to the emergence of schools in which most children come from newly arrived, poorer, or more socially excluded groups. They arise as a consequence of “White” families either leaving the area as incoming competition for housing tilts the community towards diversity, or placing their children in ethno-cultural schools from which the newcomers or marginalised are effectively excluded. The state schools become more challenging (and often creative and exciting) educational environments, but they do face greater difficulty in undertaking their wider social function of building bridges. In the ethno-cultural schools bonding culture is more prized in practice if not in theory, and is driven by fear or hostility to the outsiders from whom the parents think their children have escaped, and for a desire for social mobility that private schools are thought to provide.

Competitive institution building

There is a Chaser piece where the boys set up a stall on Mosman high street, an upper middle class Sydney harbourside suburb, advertising a plan accompanied by a model with minarets for a (fictitious) mosque to be built in the locality. They ask locals what they think – overwhelmingly the response is a mixture of shock and horror, and the suggestion that such things are more naturally placed “in the western suburbs”. Australia also has a long history of politically framed locations for cultural institutions. Given that the first 170 years or so after European settlement one of the more important fractures was that between Catholics and Protestants, competition for prime locations and heights of steeples was the stuff of daily life. One could read the religious power balances in a locality from the relative height of the steeple – in my street the Catholic church sits higher up the hill and has a higher steeple than the Anglicans, so its cross dominates the sunset skyline. In other places the reverse is true, and the tug-of-war continues – St Mary’s Cathedral getting its government-funded steeples only in the 1990s.

As Park would suggest, the key moments of accommodative challenge occur at exactly the point that the ethno-political institutions look for real-estate. In a city like Sydney where land is both scarce and sacred to the broad culture, the struggle over what land can be used for the purposes of which faith strike deep into the heart of the society, as they have since the Europeans first started relieving the Indigenous people of their homelands. Kevin Dunn of Western Sydney university has been charting these local tensions for the Muslim communities over the past decade or more. He argues that trust is also the central concern – the older communities voice their sense of distrust of the newcomers. This distrust combines a number of features – that the newcomers behave illicitly and do not follow legal practice, that they will behave anti-socially by congregating in large numbers and disturbing the tranquillity of the local lifestyle, and that their religious institution represents a beachhead for a larger invasion of the locality, and thereby the displacement of the existing community.

Localities of course do change as newcomers arrive – should these changes be ignored (contact), resisted (competition), accommodated, overwhelmed or abandoned by the existing residents? These are difficult questions to frame let alone answer, as they go to the heart of the social organisation of our lifeworlds. As localities change they become more embedded in a sense of the global changes of which Australia is a part, and they decentre taken-for-granted assumptions about centres and peripheries. Nowhere is this more apparent than in the whole question of Australian values and their expression in everyday life.

Diversity and social justice

What does it mean then to be an Australian? Does it require particular lifestyles, and if so which are they? Is it just about being middleclass and consumerist in aspiration, family-oriented in disposition, and civil in social interactions? There is nothing particularly Australian about these, and many people who would feel they are Australian may be none of these things. While much has been made of John Howard’s problem with the “m” word (multiculturalism), it was actually “social justice” that he first had expunged from his political lexicon for his new Australia. The idea that civil society should be imbued with values of justice rather than just those of segmented opportunities, did not sit easily with him and his colleagues. Even multiculturalism scarcely survived the passing of Howard’s Greek-Australian Grand Vizier Arthur Sinodonis, whose shadow had barely departed the corridors of power when Kevin Andrews became Citizenship minister and threatened to stop the inflow of African refugees as they were incapable, he felt, of assimilation.

A new vocabulary has been rolled out by the new government, one which includes words like social inclusion. In a very powerful piece written in November 2006 in The Monthly Kevin Rudd explores what he describes as Howard’s “brutopia”. Rudd uses the language of social capital and its constitution as the defining dimension of social democracy, his own ideology, and points to how dependent the conservatives or rather the neo-liberals had become on attacking the “atavism of social justice” a term used by neo-liberal god-head Friedrich Hayek, in an address at Sydney University in 1976. He also indicates that talk of the culture wars is more than a diversion, it is a lie. For Rudd the simple good/bad dualities espoused by Howard are meaningless, and mask the struggle between self-obsessed fundamentalist neo-liberal market ideology, and the both self- and other-caring civilisation possible with social democracy. One of the dualities that Rudd dismisses is that between monoculture and multiculture. It is not clear what he has in mind as a synthesis or transformation.

Australia as a civilisation

People talk about everyday multiculturalism, the give and take of the streets and shops and playing fields, the interaction and joy that comes from discovering new things and new ideas, the scary sense of the unknown that suddenly intrudes. As a sociologist I tend to try to totalise the socialworld, make some overarching sense of it. But I realise that I am doing work here, to make this sense.

As a modern society in a rapidly changing world we spend a lot of time trying to make sense of it, or maybe just trying to make use of it. There are millions of personal trajectories being followed, millions of sensibilities being formed and transformed. These sensibilities are being constantly tested in our attempts to create ourselves in this world. It has been said that sociology is produced at the point history meets biography, where the individual consciousness reflects on and engages with the world around it. Artists are not dissimilar, though they may have a deeper pipe into their own emotions, and a more edgy set of cogs to try to grip into that world.

Australian civilisation needs more of that edginess, and more space for alternatives to be tried and lived. A colleague of mine Jon Marshall likes to suggest that chaos is the most important parameter of the social world to protect, because people are both formed by and help to contribute to the social world through their wanderings in chaos and their access to the serendipitous. Hopefully we are emerging from brutopia and may be able to discover a more multiplex and diverse set of spaces in which to be Australia.

One of the curious things about multicultural democracies is the falling support for the ideas associated with multiculturalism amongst many of its erstwhile supporters and beneficiaries. Two perspectives throw light on the underlying tensions that have been created by multiculturalism – though from rather different points of view. Neo-cons, who are in general antipathetic to multiculturalism, point to the decline of trust as diversity increases, thereby undermining communities of locality and contributing to a decay of the social order. Meanwhile social democrats worry at the erosion of reciprocal respect occasioned by rapid population change, leading to declining commitment to the egalitarian and redistributive welfare state as it apparently becomes populated by demanding “strangers”.

Yet the processes that appear to dissolve older social bonds also feed Australian society with new creativity and transformative interactions. Cultural friction produces heat, but it also shines new light onto the future, marking out emergent pathways that beg us to explore them. As we drill down into the Australian future, its features become increasingly cosmopolitan; as we move away from the mainstream, the tumbling whitewater of our societal anabranches call up skills of flexibility, resilience and collaborative engagement in riskier places. Now that Australia has decided to move into a more dynamic and open future, we can systematically reflect on how we can mobilise our diversity for an exciting and edgy future.


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