Tony Abbott, who has seemed rather more calm and gathered about domestic terrorism this week than the Australian Federal Police, made an interesting point on Thursday about the relationships between military and humanitarian interventions in the Middle East and their reverberations in Australia.
"I can fully understand why Australians, including some members of parliament are anxious about anything that looks like Australia reaching out to this conflict, but the point I keep making is that this conflict is reaching out to us.
"We might not want to get involved but, like it or not, they want to involve us."
He's right, of course, even if his argument reflects a continuing weakness in the way that Australia conceives and executes its foreign policy. Foreign policy does not come from a vacuum, still less from some scale in which the weight to be attached to interests and considerations has objective value based solely on geography, on good and evil, right and wrong, or universal qualities. What's right for France, or Scotland, or the United States might not be right for us. We have to weigh our own interests. In those interests, moreover, domestic considerations almost invariably outweigh international ones.
Tony Abbott, or Bill Shorten, would not dream of any sort of intervention in the domestic affairs – however messy – of Greece without taking into account what the hundreds of thousands of Australians of Greek birth or ethnicity would think about what he was doing. Nor of Italy, Lebanon, Fiji, Ukraine or China. On Israel, he has a weather eye on the views of people with passionate interests in the survival of that state. As well as, nowadays, the views of the many Australians whose interests are as passionately focused on justice for Palestinians.
Our senior politicians do not, generally, make the mistake of thinking that all people of a particular background or ethnicity have identical opinions, or that these opinions are necessarily the same as those expressed by the government of the country to which they relate. Our Chinese, for example, are passionately Chinese, but do not expect or want us to march in lockstep with Beijing. Only with Aborigines do the words of politicians tend to suggest that all are the same, and think, or should think, the same.
If politicians are so sophisticated in recognising domestic implications to their international politicking with so many countries, why do they seem so unsophisticated in coping with tribalism, ethnic tensions, nationalism and conflict in the Middle East, the Hindu Kush, and, down the track, the expansion and evangelisation of Islam in Africa – all matters increasingly reaching out to us as much as we are reaching in? Why do we devise, or adopt, simplistic notions about the forces shaping an Iraq, or think we can resolve religious disputes 1400 years old with aircraft, or exhortation? Why do we never learn, drubbing, after drubbing, abject defeat after useless sacrifice of good men and women?
And, if Australia is so capable of recognising and weighing domestic implications to its policies for Europe, North and South America and East Asia, why have we not as yet incorporated them more into our consideration of where our national interests lie? More and more of our population have links there, and, if the sort of conflicts we are engaging in continue, even more will? The "radicalism" or "fanaticism" of a fringe of Australian Muslims is a domestic issue, not some foreign virus from which we can be inoculated or quarantined. Nor is dealing with it a two-dimensional issue: that also involves our relationships with a host of other countries, including, alongside the guardians of western civilisation, Muslim neighbours such as Indonesia, Malaya, India and Pakistan, as well as Iran and the many nations of the Middle East and North Africa.
Australia contains people, many Australian citizens, from all manner of other nations, people who retain a keen and natural interest in events in their own countries. Some, of course, were refugees, or displaced people, at the time of their arrival here; many others came here because they saw Australia as a land with opportunities unavailable in their homelands. But their act of leaving those homelands was not necessarily one of conscious abandonment of their relatives, their friends, their old fellow citizens, or the attitudes, interests, ideas and ideals of their old country. Many retain a passionate interest, for or against those now in charge of their old country's fate.
Some perfectly good examples, slightly away from the Middle Eastern cauldron, might include Australian Scots, Ukrainians, Croatians and Chileans. But it could equally, and as legitimately include Sri Lankans, Vietnamese, Afghanis, Sudanese and Burmese, just as it might once have embraced then unpopular immigrants such as Irish Catholics, or Italians or Greeks.
It was not uncommon after the great waves of immigration, including a massive intake of refugees and displaced people after the war, for Australian officials, or politicians, to tell immigrants firmly that they should leave the trouble and strife, and feuds and enmities, of the old world behind them. We understood – or thought we did – their past traumas, but we did not want them renewed, affirmed or carried on here. Here was a place where they could build new lives, and leave old conflicts behind.
This was, 50 and 60 years ago, always said somewhat more sternly to refugees from Yugoslavia – Croatians, Serbs, Bosnians, Slovenes and others – and to those who had escaped from behind nations behind the Iron Curtain, particularly those on the Baltic Coast. Perhaps this was in part a reflection of a stereotypical belief about Middle Europeans always being obsessed with tribal, ethnic and nationalist politics, but even if so it was also reflected in some evidence about the persistence of old quarrels here, long after life in Australia was safe, families had been born and formed away from the old strife, and time had developed for some detached and intellectual, rather than emotional and irrational, connection with the past. An obvious example of problems of a type might have been with football clubs which not only asserted old divisions but were occasions for brawling between old neighbours.
There were times in the not so distant past when "mainstream" Australians –- those of Anglo-Celtic background – wondered whether Australia could absorb and assimilate as many of the northern Europeans coming here. Before that the English, and the Scots wonder if the Catholic Irish were assimilable, or even civilisable.
It was not that much later that a new mainstream – which now seemed to embrace northern Europeans – wondered whether we could absorb the swarthier (and more Catholic and supposedly less industrious) southern Europeans, from countries such as Italy and Greece. A decade or so later, after the White Australia Policy was repealed by Harold Holt and non-white immigration actually encouraged, commentators who wondered whether the legendary Australian tolerance was being tested by taking into too many people of Asian background. It was not, of course, that people were racist. No, no, by golly. It was that it would be better for the latest wave if "they" could be absorbed more slowly and deliberately, and, apparently, better for "us" – a group that now embraced southern Europeans as much as British, Irish or northern Europeans. Especially because they were quite noticeable, and, apparently, especially unsettling, if they were landing here in a heap, allegedly living in ghettos, and allegedly becoming involved in domestic crime of a sort which, apparently, "real" Australians had never hitherto been engaged.
It was not only people on the edges of politics who were expressing unease at any particular time. In recent generations, for example, Labor has mostly seemed more liberal on immigration than the centre-right parties. But it was from the industrial movement that the White Australia Policy sprang, and from which one got the more egregious comments about a country for white men. Arthur Calwell, a great father of (white) immigration was, by modern standards, a complete bigot, and Robert Menzies was not much better, even if neither preached or countenanced sectional violence against other races. Gough Whitlam, and some other Labor figures of his time, was hostile to an intake of (south) Vietnamese refugees, saying he did not want another implantation of (fiercely anti-Labor) "Balts" here, and having some tendency to believe that most of the refugees were rich war criminals with bars of gold strapped to their chests.
Historian Geoffrey Blainey, and later John Howard, were strongly criticised for what would today be said to be "dog whistles" expressing worries about whether the intake of people "of Asiatic appearance", as a proportion of the total migrant intake, was ahead of what popular opinion was said to be able to tolerate. Their worries were, a decade later, more openly articulated by Pauline Hanson, who was soon to demonstrate that she spoke for a constituency in the matter. It is interesting to reflect that her fears were well before any substantial intake of people from the Hindu Kush, or Muslims, other than Muslims of other than Lebanese or Turkish extraction. Nowadays it is not Vietnamese, Thai, Chinese or Koreans who are seen as "aliens" so much as people who have come, mostly as refugees, from great-power conflicts in which Australia has been involved. Indeed people of Vietnamese refugee background are now involved, often on the conservative side, in the "national conversation" about boat people policies.
That this concern, or unease, also has roots in economic change, in greater unemployment for the unskilled, and in the fears of some people that they are being left behind, and ignored, in the modern Australian economy is true enough, even if it does not prevent crude appeals to xenophobia. Bill Shorten was not demonising Muslims when he played on fear of Japan over the acquisition of submarines; the CFMEU's opposition to the use of imported mining labour has not been directed at Middle Eastern immigrants. But it can operate, nonetheless, as a form of permissioning to raise fear of aliens, or Islam, or Semites, under the guise of having an opinion about immigration levels, or rules or queues.
One might well expect that the leaders of Middle Eastern communities and groups will, in due course, be integrated into the great councils of state as the nation canvasses what we will do about ebola, or school delinquency, or, perhaps, the policy that we ought to adopt towards a fresh outbreak of civil war in some part of Africa. Once one becomes part of the furniture, it seems to happen almost effortlessly. Most of the old "new Australians" are no longer quoted to be representative of people of their background, but as an ordinary part of the body politic, with views as likely to be interesting, or relevant, or perhaps novel, as those of anyone else. Taking for granted that they are as entitled to have an opinion on daylight saving, or the follies of urban development, or a the need for light rail, as they are on "ethnic issues".
At an earlier stage, even a self-conscious person determined to involve and "bring in" someone of an alien group will think to consult, or quote, or ostentatiously be with a representative only when "we" are trying to deal with the "problems" that the presence of this group is thought to be causing, perhaps because of ignorance about our standards, our values or our traditions.
A part of the current system for "managing" the development and persistence of extremist religious views involves the frequent reiteration of phrases about how the overwhelming proportion of Muslims are law abiding and about how extremist, medievalist or fundamentalist views are unrepresentatives, perhaps even anti-Muslim or "against God". No doubt this is soothing and reassuring to many ordinary Muslim folk, but it does tend to reinforce the continuing otherness of Muslim Australians, as well as the suggestion that it would not be so much of a problem if ordinary law-abiding Muslims took stock and purged the troublemakers themselves. One can find echoes of exactly the same thing when it was thought that drug crime had taken on an altogether new dimension in Cabramatta 20 years ago, or, 90 years ago, that there was no organised crime until Italians arrived, or, 160 years ago, that, until Chinese gold miners arrived, there had been no problems involving prostitution or the widespread use of opium. These were problems, apparently, in "their" communities, for which every member of that race or tribe was accountable and perhaps undesirable.
As often as not, of course, a part of the fuel feeding the fire is that "their" youth feel as marginalised and on the outer in "their" communities, as they do in ours. One feeds the other, reinforcing not only anger and resentment, but a sense of otherness both from society at large and an evolving community necessarily adjusting to life in that new society. Reducing the size of the triangle is a result of reducing the length of its arms.