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Julianne Schultz and Peter Mares, eds.
Griffith Review 61: Who We Are

The new issue of Griffith Review is about the perennially newsworthy subjects of immigration and multiculturalism, and the lead essay by James Button and Abul Rizvi is essential reading. It offers a concise but clear-eyed account of our nearly total dependence on skilled immigrants for continued economic prosperity and challenges our leaders to break with the decades-long habit of undermining public debate about the implications of this dependence.

While it’s true that immigration makes headlines, Button and Rizvi convincingly argue that genuine debate is rare. Peter Dutton can talk about overcrowded cities and housing affordability until the cows are sent back to where they came from; the reality is that with fertility rates still bumping along below replacement level we must either continue to accept large numbers of migrants or face the budgetary consequences of rapid population ageing with its attendant health and pension costs. Neither party is likely to risk the latter.

Given this, Dutton’s talk about the danger of mass migration is political eyewash because there is no sure way he can stem it. Yes, he has in the past year cut the number of skilled and sponsored visas issued, but this is the merest modification and not a significant shift in policy. Our yearly intake remains more than double what it was in 1996 when John Howard succeeded Paul Keating as prime minister.

Since the White Australia policy was finally dismantled in 1973, Australia has been utterly transformed by immigration. In the past two decades, more than three-and-half million people have moved here from overseas – more than the entire population of Uruguay. For 50 years, migration has been the defining story of the nation and the most powerful force shaping our social and cultural reality. Today, of all countries with a total population of more than 10 million, only Saudi Arabia and Jordan have more immigrants, percentage-wise – and those are special cases given the insecurity of the Middle East. Surely, then, the time is ripe for a debate about this profound transformation? Surely it’s time for our more moderate political leaders to put aside their misgivings about latent – and not so latent – xenophobic sentiment in the electorate and to acknowledge the fact that our future will, of necessity, be thoroughly multicultural?

Peter Mares and Julianne Schultz, co-editors of this volume of Griffith Review, certainly think so. In a brisk and optimistic editorial, they look forward to an imminent renewal of Australia’s self-image in which immigration is celebrated for its own sake and not just as a necessary economic safeguard. But how can the story of many be told as the story of one? A recurring theme in the contributions collected here is the idea that social harmony can only emerge from a willing practice of listening. We must, in other words, hear the full multiplicity of personal stories this nation has to offer before we can properly call it a nation.

Masako Fukui, for example, sings the praises of Asian–Australian literary journals such as Peril, Pencilled In and Liminal, which allow identities to be rewritten in ways that eschew migrant stereotypes. “For every story we tell about even minority minorities like the Japanese diaspora in Australia,” she writes, “we amplify the spirit of multicultural inclusiveness.”

Others emphasise testimonies of trauma. Esther Anatolitis argues that there can be no unifying national story without prior acknowledgement of immigrant suffering, as well as immigrant resilience. Maybe, she suggests, it is suffering that is central to the Australian story? Might this be the experience that brings together not only more recent migrants but also First Nations people and those who trace their roots back to the colonial period? And might it also lead to a more empathetic treatment of asylum seekers?

Throughout this volume there remains an understandable wariness of grand narratives, though Andrew Jakubowicz’s fascinating essay on the policy shift from mandatory assimilation to promoting multiculturalism is a notable exception. For most writers, however, the preferred metaphor is that of a jigsaw puzzle that may or may not yield a coherent image.

Over the years, it is the emphasis on reportage that has made Griffith Review so consistently interesting and worth reading. Its regular dispatches from people working in the community – whether teachers, doctors, social workers or whoever – have given it the kind of lived-in vitality that few other publications can offer. Here, for example, we have Sheila Ngoc Pham’s description of life in the high-rises of Wolli Creek in southern Sydney. It’s a piece that adds necessary colour and provides a vivid example of what Button and Rizvi generalise and abstract in their description of the radical transformation of our major cities,  which are now more essentially Eurasian than we have much imaginative apprehension of.

One of the more oddly poignant bits of reportage is Michael Dulaney on the recent influx of the Australian white ibis in urban areas from Townsville to Wollongong. Why have they suddenly appeared? Well, it’s because their habitats in the Murray–Darling Basin have been so badly degraded by drought and damming. The ibis, too, is an environmental migrant.

Overall, this edition could do with more reportage and fewer essays by academics ready to riff on conversations overheard at cafes or parties or shopping centres, essays unlikely to challenge the moral frame and temper of the average subscriber. Such pat critiques have, alas, always been the bane of this otherwise engaging quarterly; as regular contributor Maria Tumarkin herself notes in this latest issue, Griffith Review sometimes feels a little too comfortable and can leave one longing for a more disobedient and provoking reading experience.

In any case, Button and Rizvi may soon get their national debate. Liberal senator Dean Smith has proposed a parliamentary inquiry into Australia’s population policy and Malcolm Turnbull – always the flexible reed – reckons it might be a good idea. Will this be a moment of national self-revelation and redefinition, or only another political sideshow that makes headlines but little else?  JR

Text, 264pp, $27.99

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Jul 28, 2018 as "Julianne Schultz and Peter Mares, Griffith Review 61: Who We Are". Subscribe here.

Reviewer: JR