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A new sense of what it means to be Australian

13 May 20160 comments

Anxiety and fear around social change in western nations was fuelling a rise in extremist politics and giving rise to extreme behaviour among ordinary people and would-be political leaders, according to Australia’s Race Discrimination Commissioner, Dr Tim Soutphommasane.

tim story picSpeaking at last week’s Settlement Council of Australia (SCOA) triennial conference Dr Soutphommasane said that a rise in social anxiety across the west was leading into fear and hatred because of the politicisation of that anxiety.

“Across Europe you are seeing far right movements gaining momentum and becoming very influential in national politics in many countries, Dr Soutphommasane said.

“In the United States we’ve seen Donald Trump use very inflammatory migrant rhetoric. These are all indications of things which are happening across many countries,” he said.

“Here in Australia we’ve seen it as well through far right movements protesting against Islam and Muslim communities. What’s driving all of this is the sense that people aren’t necessarily feeling like they’re benefiting from social change or globalisation,” Dr Soutphommasane told the conference.

He said it was clear groups in society were being alienated and feeling left behind.

“That does make it easier for extremist groups to recruit and to appeal to such elements,” Dr Soutphommasane said.

He said the rise in anxiety and fear was, in part, related to national identity and perceived threats to that.

“Part of this equation is that when you’re talking about a sense of loss, it can be driven by economics, by the decline of industries for example the decline of manufacturing industries in many Western countries,” Dr Soutphommasane told the conference.

“That’s why a lot of social anxiety is concentrated in working class sections of society particularly in the case of Europe and in the United States, there’s no guarantee against alienation when you do have social and economic change,” he said.

Dr Soutphommasane said leadership was important in combating this trend.

“One thing you can do is have leadership which communicates the importance of having communities which include everyone, not just a select few. It helps to think about national identity as something that will always change,” he said.

“No national identity will ever remain frozen in time and if people accept that things will change as a matter of course, they may be more willing to accept the national identity they grew up with decades ago, may not necessarily be the national identity their children and their grandchildren grew up with, at least not in exactly the same way,” Dr Soutphommasane said.

He said there was evidence of people trying holding on to their national codes, attitudes and behaviours.

“You see this particularly among those that try to resist cultural diversity or who believe that multiculturalism is antithetical to an Australian national identity,” Dr Soutphommasane said.

“National identities won’t go away, there are things which remain important and which give society a sense of common ground and of identity,” he said.

“But what we have seen in recent decades is that national identities no longer need to be defined by race or blood, or ethnicity, or ancestry. When you have multicultural societies you start having national identities that are defined more by political values and by civic traditions, and in Australia one of the secrets of our success to a multicultural society has been the value of citizenship.

“The fact is that that every person that lives here in Australia is free to become an Australian citizen regardless of whether they were born here and regardless of their cultural and ethnic background.

“But citizenship does imply certain responsibilities, it gives people’s rights, but it also imposes on them responsibilities as well and that’s the common ground that we have now when we talk about national identity and Australianness,” Dr Soutphommasane said.

He told the conference there was more than one way to be Australian.

“When you ask people what being Australian means some people may have in their head a certain image of the the typical, or authoritative, or authentic Australian,” Dr Soutphommasane said.

“People may have in their minds a lifestyle bound up in the beach, BBQ’s. But we know there are many ways you can be Australian today,” he said.

“We have a country where almost half the population is either born overseas or has a parent who was born overseas, and that means that there’s a great variety and diversity of how people express themselves in their Australianness.

“For example you have people who describe themselves as Italian-Australian and Greek-Australian, Chines-Australian, Vietnamese-Australian, and these are healthy expressions of diversity.

“So in the past you may have thought that Australianness really meant Britishness, but today you are seeing there being a great deal more diversity in how we express our national identity,” Dr Soutphommasane told the conference.

Born in France, Dr Soutphommasane is one of the 28 per cent people who were born overseas now living in Australia. But he says he definitely feels Australian.

“For me it’s not a contradiction to refer to myself as an Australian born in France who has Chinese and Laos heritage,” he said.

“This is what makes me Australian in my own way, and our Australianness will always reflect our experience and will always reflect our histories to some extent.

“Some people may have families that go back five or six generations. Indigenous Australians will have a lineage that goes back 40-50 thousand years, and then you have people that are relatively new arrivals to Australia.

“What’s most important is that we are committed to the country, that we share the same democratic values, and that we have a desire to make Australia a better place,” Dr Soutphommasane told the conference.


Ruby Brown
AMES Australia Staff Writer