Gaming the Virus: fighting the last war cannot win the next one

Gaming the virus in NSW: how fighting the last war will not win the next one.

One of the few extraordinary benefits for sociologists of the pandemic must be the real time experiments it generates in the relation between social theory and social practice – or put succinctly, how class continues to be an issue in contemporary Australia, most sharply in neo-con libertarian jurisdictions, less so but still there in more social democratic communalist states. Alan Kohler has pointed to the failure of conservatism (he is too hopeful) while Ross Gittins sees the pattern of infection as a reflection of class (too absolute though getting there). Age, race, and gender were called out early on. The virus is alert to the best social space for its transmission to accelerate, where crowding at home, at work and travelling, poor communication, and a mobile population produce the optimum hosts. If trust fractures so that the capacity of the social order to protect people from the virus is undermined, then that social order can rapidly follow. The social remains only a step ahead of chaos, imbued with the ever-present imagined tension between individual and communal well-being.

As the public imaginary has become saturated with metaphors for the “battle” against COVID19 Delta, so the real-world takeover of the key cities in Afghanistan by the Taliban has dominated the real politik. Just as the American Maginot line at Kabul was overwhelmed by the Afghan anti-imperialists, COVID is surrounding and breaking through our defences. The Taliban is a social movement, the impact of which on modern social values and relations we may well abhor. COVID Delta is a social disease, the impact of which on our social sinews – trust – we should rightly fear.  The moment Trump decided to get out (almost the same strategy he propounded in the USA against COVID in 2020) the idea of a single line of resistance that could be sustained by the Kabul government was undermined. Giving up on COVID Zero has a similar smell about it. We must learn to live with them both, some of our leaders now pronounce.

Returning to the COVID battle, there have been calls to refresh the ANZAC spirit, stand together, and face the foe (though Gallipoli was just a better version of the Kabul withdrawal – better planned and executed but in essence the same). We have been told we will be “throwing everything at it”, and sending in our best and bravest. Instead of generals fighting the last war (though we have some of them), we have scientists, grim faced, calling on the citizen soldiers to stand firm, obey orders, and suffer for the greater good. Uniforms abound in the battle lines – police, nurses, military – some with boots on the ground, some with needles in our arms, some now with pepper bombs. Arm-chair strategists and tacticians (including yours truly) argue the toss, seeking to decipher the war plan of a now enshrined and variously interpreted Doherty Report.

Meanwhile cells of guerrillas jump the lines, acting as carriers for the virus as it seeks out the least socially integrated and most distrustful populations as its primary vectors.  It breeds too in the densely settled and impossibly crowded parts of our cities, as well as in the least well-defended outstations of urbanity. The emotions of fear, anxiety, and desperation multiply, while the elites in their palaces announce nostrums that simply erode the capacity of the key weapon, trust, to do its work of building resilience and security.

Sticking with the perhaps overworked metaphors, our best weapon against the virus remains the same one that so escaped us in Afghanistan, on the ground, people-based Intelligence. Intelligence is based on thousands of pieces of information, carefully collected and assessed, integrated and tested, applied and projected. In Afghanistan “our side” allowed our fantasies to supplant our science. Ditto in NSW as our troops chase around the landscape, always in arrears, always behind the ball.

Let us return to the claim “we are throwing everything at it”. We didn’t in Afghanistan and we are not doing it here; we fight with one hand behind our backs because we do not trust the people who are taking the brunt of the attack. We have little or any intelligence of where the virus will crest next – all we know is what has happened, not where we need to be to stop the spread. We have no real idea of how the affected populations are withdrawing from the battle, misleading us into believing that what we see is what is real.

We operate as though we need to placate the as yet minimally affected allied populations to keep them happy with the elite’s management of the war, rather than being smart and breaking the onslaught where it is weakest, while containing it where it appears strongest. We fail to ask the simplest question of our multicultural population – who are you and how do we help you to join the battle for what we call “freedom”?

In the year since it became clear that ethnicity was a proxy for many other dimensions of vulnerability (another echo of Afghanistan) , we have tested millions of Australians, many over and over. Had we at that time normalised requests from people being tested for data on language spoken and country of birth, we would have a heat map of communal vulnerabilities, and systematic guidance of where the enemy was moving, and where we should have a sense of looming threat. It took ages for this awareness to penetrate the consciousness of our strategists – in November 2020 Victoria began to see the value of this data, In February the Commonwealth began collecting the data. Neither of these jurisdictions release this information as they fear it will be used by the anti-vaxxer movement (a fifth column for the virus) to stigmatise ethnic minorities – a common enough practice without the data, and brought to a high art in the naming and shaming of ethnic neighbourhoods in west and south west Sydney. However New South Wales refuses to do so, despite the widespread affirmation from communities caught on the front line that such information would help them respond immediately and directly to the threats their people are experiencing.

In a recent Lancet article,  Daniel Pan and his colleagues explored the issues associated with the higher incidence of COVID and the poorer outcomes in the UK for Black and Asian ethnic groups. The group is trying to work out whether the social inequality(such as those identified in this article)  affecting non-Whites produces this ethnic effect, or whether there are bio-social factors that predispose non-White races to infection and severity of outcomes. In the UK they are able to ask these questions as the data is there – in Australia the data is not there in NSW, where the ideology of individual “freedom” squeezes out the reality of social impact . Even where some race data is available, as with Indigenous communities in western NSW, it was only after the virus reached the vulnerable groups that a reaction was instituted. However, the Health people could tell very quickly that Aboriginal Australians were being attacked, because they collect the data on Indigeneity, even if they did nothing about checking their low participation in testing and vaccination in the lead up. 

My approaches to Minister Hazzard have been ignored; my contact with the Premier’s office were originally treated with intense interest, and then frozen. My interactions with senior Health officials have generated tirades, suggesting I undervalued all the work their front line people had done talking with “ethnic leaders” and helping the communal pop-up clinics to operate. Yet every one of my ethnic community contacts in those areas of the battlefront are bemused and then dismayed to realise there is a weapon (collecting, processing and using ethnic language data by post code in testing and vaccine booking)  that could have helped them protect their people, and yet it has been dismissed without even a try-out. Moreover when you hear the NSW government ministers claim they have done everything possible that NSW Health has advised, remember where the opposition to testing is strongest- in NSW Health. What war are they fighting? What game do they now need to change?

Two Strongs don’t make it Right

During May 2017 two national inquiries were calling for public submissions to strengthen what an outsider might think sounded like the same policy challenge in a multicultural democracy such as Australia. On the one hand the Senate wanted to understand what action might be required to strengthen multiculturalism, while on the other the Government wanted to strengthen citizenship. The Senate inquiry is continuing and has taken public evidence, including for LyLy Lim  and myself, based on our written submission (Submission 8). The Government one barely stopped to take breath at the closure date, refused to make the submissions to its consultation public, and announced through Minister Dutton soon thereafter increased restrictions and constraints on gaining and retaining citizenship.

However the inquirers each defined “strengthen” in rather different ways, to the point where the word came to represent a totally opposing set of values, world views, and social priorities. In a period of political chaos, post-truth and Trumpet rhetoric, any claim to strength must necessarily suggest assumptions about the causes of the weakness to be supplanted, and the dynamic driving the moral erosion set to be removed.

The Senate inquiry dates from November 2016 when the Greens decided to push for a more robust multicultural policy, in particular one that would bring in national legislation to create a legislative basis for multiculturalism, a proposition last floated by the ALP in 1989 but never enacted or reintroduced by any government since the rise of the Howard opposition. The ALP went along with the Green’s initiative, as the reorganisation of the multiculturalism shadow policy was only starting to take shape. Meanwhile GetUp was moving towards its own firmer strategy on linking with culturally diverse communities, an initiative that would be first tested early in 2017 in the struggle to stop the proposed government changes to Section 18C of the Racial Discrimination Act.

The Inquiry was launched on the International Day for the elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination, in Australia known under its vanilla alias as “Harmony Day”. Any publicity hoped for at the launch was overwhelmed by the Government’s own statement of Multiculturalism, which carefully bypassed all the issues raised in the Senate reference. The senators identified issues such as the adequacy of data on racially motivated crimes, the impact of vilification and discrimination, and the impact of media and political stigmatisation of minority communities on bigotry and harassment. It looked for ways that might improve public discourse and recognise the contribution of immigrant groups. Centrally it wished to consider legislative underpinnings for the currently rootless amalgam of provisions that count as Federal multicultural policy, last put into the public arena for (inconclusive) debate in 1989.

For the Senate then to strengthen multiculturalism appears to entail building a stronger legislative base, improving the information about the impact of xenophobia on minorities, and extending the human rights base for multicultural practice.

The Citizenship inquiry, despite its wattle and gum tree green discussion paper, was framed by consultations initially managed by Sen Concetta Fierravanti-Wells and former Immigration minister and now human rights ambassador Phillip Ruddock. They reported that there was a widespread fear among older multi-generation Australians that potential terrorists and other ne’er-do-wells were finding it too easy to get citizenship, and that not only should the access be toughened, but the loss of citizenship should be more readily used to punish miscreants. The second of those measures, the cancelling of citizenship for terrorists with dual nationality was enacted early on. Raising the bar by lengthening the time people need to prove their commitment to Australia (by volunteering at school tuck shops among other proofs), increasing the level of English required to the equivalent of a year 10 school-leaver, and swearing to uphold a set of values yet to be defined, makes citizenship (and the voting rights that come with it) a much more challenging exercise for humanitarian entrants and both older and less well-educated applicants from non-English speaking backgrounds.

Thus strengthening citizenship is concerned not with bolstering the quality of the process of citizenship achievement for the applicants, but rather in quietening the concerns of the most xenophobic elements in Australian society. That is, the process in place is designed to increase the stigmatisation experienced by minorities, normalise low levels of racist discourse and moral vilification against immigrants, while increasing the sense of marginalisation and exclusion for wide sections of the community. Such concerns about exclusion were once voiced by former Liberal MP Petro Georgiou, who almost alone stood against the Howard government’s last round introduction under then Immigration Minister Kevin Andrews of the first Australian values and ‘strengthened’ English language test. He commented sadly that his parents, proud Greek Australians, would never have made it through the hoops then being applied.

By strengthening citizenship in the way it is proposed, whether intentionally or uncaringly, the sense of exclusion widens, the possibilities of achievement lessen, and the value of the future citizen is adduced from their class rather than their character (think perhaps Asian billionaire vs rescued Yasidi grandmother). Asserting a human rights perspective provides a more reliable basis for strengthening social cohesion than does an approach that merely toughens the rules. For loyalty to Australia will ultimately depend on the recognition and respect paid to its aspiring citizens, not their performance of ritualised elements of culture which is far more complex than Minister Dutton and his black shirts are able to recognise.

 

 

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.

Fraser continued:

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.

 

ENDS

 

Myanmar’s rocky road to multiculturalism:Aung San Suu Kyi’s challenge

Slightly different version published in ABC The Drum 27 November 2013.

Aung San Suu Kyi will be in Sydney Australia today (27 November 2013)  to receive an honorary doctorate from the University of Technology, originally bestowed on her in 1996 and given to her late husband in 1997 in her absence (she was unwilling to leave Yangon). Daw Suu Kyi is widely expected and hoped to be the winner of the 2015 election in Myanmar, but her accession to the leadership, even if it occurs, leaves many problems yet to confront. Even the pathway over the next eighteen months remains treacherous.

Key issues Myanmar faces in the lead up to the 2015 election, a turning point that many commentators hope will produce a final transformation of the polity into one which is both politically democratic and economically egalitarian, can be traced back to its origin as as an “abandoned colony”.  The Economist recently argued that of these ethnic conflicts were the main road-bloc to economic development and democratic stability.

Myanmar cannot escape its history as a former British colony as easily as changing government. In a statistical analysis of the impact of forms of colonialism on post-colonial violence, two Montreal sociologists Matthew Lange and Andrew Dawson  have argued that ex-colonies formerly ruled by the UK have a shared profile of fractured social relations once the colonial power has left. The reason for this is the way in which the British typically organised their colonies, and as importantly, the way in which they departed. Ethnic violence or suppression are the most characteristic of the forms of conflict that emerge. Australia went that way (think Indigenous Australians and think White Australia), as did a myriad of other places, from Singapore to Zimbabwe. Myanmar continues today to deal with the fall-out from having been British Burma.

Lange and Dawson review 160 ex-colonies once ruled by a range of European metropolitan powers: where the British have been in charge, the picture seems to be:

  • a diverse range of ethnic communities, some “imported” to fill key colonial tasks,  with embedded and conflicting identities
  • a political economy where the division of labour is “communalised”
  • a stratification system in which the distinctions within the hierarchy are ethnic in form
  • animosity between indigenous and non-indigenous populations
  • the imposition of arbitrary political borders that suit the ruling power
  • despotic forms of rule
  • ineffective states
  • a power vacuum at independence.

When the post-war British Labour government said to the Burmese independence leaders that they were “out of here” in 1946, they set in train a tragic sequence of events. These are acutely poignant for Aung San Suu Kyi; her father, a wartime leader of the struggle against the British and post-war architect of a possible egalitarian nation state, was assassinated by competitors for state power. His dream, of a united states of Burma, became instead the nightmare of decades of wars and struggles between various ethno-national and sometimes Christian quasi-states on the periphery of the nation, against the Burman Buddhist majority in the centre.  Most recently, as most of these statelets on the edges of the nation have made a sort of peace with the centre, Buddhist violence against Muslims has re-ignited.

When the British finally defeated the last king of the Burmans in 1885 and sent him into exile in India (exchanging him for the last Muslim rajah of India, who was buried in an unmarked grave in Rangoon), they significantly transformed the country through manipulation of ethnic boundaries and the imposition of ethnic hierarchies. Importing thousands of Indians from Bengal and beyond to fill jobs from labourers to clerks in government and business, the colonial power sought to destroy the capacity of the Burmans to resuscitate their defeated kingdom.  They empowered the hill peoples, and enabled the conversion of many to Christianity – Baptists and Catholics found ready converts where economic and political advantage would follow.  The colonial army offered career opportunities to the  Shan, while opium production began to provide monetary rewards in the hill country, as did the logging of the teak forests.

Muslims have been in the territory of Burma since their earliest days as purveyors of their evangelising mercantile religion.  By the time of the first British invasion of 1825 they were well integrated, including as military servants of the King, some captured in raids in Bengal before the British came.  Their numbers increased with the import of Indians and the spread of Bengalis along the coast and through the mountains into the west of Rakhine state (the Rohingya).

Anti-Muslim sentiment was interwoven with British colonial power, with economic competition, and with the support of Muslims for the British against the Japanese in 1942 . The Japanese were initially supported by the Burmese National Army, led by Aung San, in a war of independence against the British, who then pulled back to British Bengal, behind a native defensive shield including Muslim troops.

The contemporary unrest builds on decades of an essentially militarised neo-fascist regime that had locked together Burmese nationalism with Buddhism; its civilian replacement has not entirely escaped that heritage. A specific trigger for anti-Muslim local conflicts in lowland Myanmar came in 2001 the wake of the Taliban destruction of the buddhas of Bamyan in Afghanistan, seen by Burmese Buddhist activists as a sign of the utter treachery of Muslims en bloc. The recent release from prison of a Buddhist monk active in that conflict has provided new leadership and revitalised the movement, with tragic consequences.

The Myanmar nationality law of 1982 contains a very essentialist definition of who can be a citizen. It adopts a jus sanguinis approach, which lists the blood and soil peoples (none that come after the British invasion of 1825 are acceptable). The Rohingya of Rakhine are especially not part of the national story, and are corralled into their edge of the country and prohibited to travel elsewhere. Some Burmese Muslims try to distance themselves from the Rohingya so as to avoid the constraints and the prejudice they fear for themselves. Aung San Suu Kyi has also found the Rohingya a difficult issue, embedded as she is in the ideology of a national Burmese federation of original peoples, promulgated by her father.

In the lead up to their  2015 election, the peoples of Myanmar have some tricky issues to resolve – how to articulate a plural nation that ensures economic equality and opportunity; how to smooth the edges of ethno-national resentments that have the capacity to crack open the whole development story; and how to take the country from the poly-ethnic conflict of the British legacy to a multicultural egalitarian democratic polity based on inclusion and social justice. Critical to this will be how they deine who can be a Myanmar citizen and share in the democratic story. Exclusion of any group may erode the legitimacy of the system for everyone.