Learning to be Australian

This was written as a letter to The Australian  - which declined to publish it

17 February 1993

Dear sir,

We have a large miracle on our hands here in Australia. Half of our people come from somewhere else, yet there is no civil war in sight, no ethnic cleansing, no internal refugee crisis. How can this be? Is the land and common culture touched with some rare balm of tolerance?

No, one hundred and forty source nationalities have not simply forgotten their differences, nor magically reconciled the clash with Anglo-Australian expectations. People here are no better or worse than they are anywhere else. The potential for man's inhumanity to man is quite as real. We therefore need to unsentimentally identify and preserve at all costs the special mix of elements that has made the modern Australian nation-state such a haven for cooperative living.

Three ingredients of the Australian miracle spring to mind. The first is economic well-being, still distributed more or less equitably throughout the population (in spite of present troubles). The second is the open political culture. Political squabbles are noisy as they are everywhere, but it is chook house squawking. Nobody wants blood on the grass. The third ingredient will have escaped most Australians, because it is hidden from their experience.

Since 1947, in hundreds of classes across the continent, day and night, countless new settlers have learnt English, and much else. For sixteen years, on and off, I have taught in these classes. They come, the confused, the wildly optimistic, the persecuted and the hopeful. They have pictures of the world in their heads which give my innocent explanations the most alarming twists of meaning. They sit down with blood enemies, and people of cultures so remote from their own that aliens from another planet might be communing. Then the miracle begins, for to learn a language you have to talk. And talk we do, in fractured phrases, exchange experiences, compare the insanity of Australian custom with the common sense way of doing things in Addis Ababa or Shanghai. Partnerships form, amazing and unexpected partnerships across barriers of age, gender, religion and world-view. In short, in supposedly English-language classes, understanding of the Australian way of life by these people gradually shifts from the realm of incredulity to the realm of habit.

From a standing start, it averages about 850 classroom hours to acquire a working competence in English. When I got into this business in 1977, people would come while they felt the need, and sometimes return after several years as language pressure became more demanding (perhaps with a job promotion, or a wish to talk English with their children). It was free. However the slogan "user-pays" has come to wreak its havoc nowadays.

Many students were chased away in 1992 because they had been in Australia for more than three years. From 1993 new students are to pay between $1020 and $4080. Existing students will pay $250 a year for up to 550 hours of DILGEA (Immigration Dept.) classes. After that the unemployed might scrounge special "English for employment" classes from DEET (Employment Dept.). The real goers, who came in to study after a hard day's work in the sweat shops, are no longer effectively catered for. Night classes have been gutted where I teach.

The fees are costing more to collect so far than they have earned. The division of funding empires has created its own bureaucratic nightmare. But the real cost is in lost students, who are no longer coaxed into the experience of becoming complete Australians. There are other models. The United States has had its own patchwork system of immigrant classes for years. The Los Angeles syndrome is not edifying. We had a better way.

It's election time; promises are thick on the ground. Our new settlers mostly have no vote, so don't rate in the chook yard squawking. Here is a plea. Whoever becomes boss rooster, for heaven's sake remember the good things we have evolved, and help us to keep them. A peaceful Australia is just too good to lose.

Yours sincerely,

Thor May (Mr)

Learning to be Australian (c) Thor May 1993; all rights reserved