Go back to where you came from? Good grief!

Posted by barbara on August 4, 2011


Incomers and incumbents come together in a global 'marketplace' of beliefs and customs

Am I alone in thinking that we go on about human nature as though the species of Homo sapiens has somehow elevated itself above and beyond the instinctive drives that govern so-called lesser animals to a more or less degree? Deep down, don’t we ‘naked apes’ have the exact same capacity to react as any herd animal that feels threatened by, or anxious about, the arrival of any one but us on our home patch?

Was it such an underlying sense of insecurity rather than out and out racism that underpinned the recent Norwegian shooting and bombing massacre that left 76 dead and many more injured? And if so, isn’t this the same anxiety that underscored the recent SBS television series, Go back to where you came from? As the six carefully selected participants put their attitudes to ‘illegal immigration’ via a leaky boat to the test, my question was this. Why shouldn’t we feel insecure about our way of life if the latter is undergoing a profound upheaval for reasons beyond our control and say so?

Before I get jumped on, can I say that I pose these questions as someone who supports the rights of genuine refugees to seek safe haven in countries that have signed up to the UNHCR Refugee Convention, including Australia.

Thus said, anyone with a shred of empathy can understand why Adelaide Hills resident participant Rae Colbey might have come out so vociferously against the Federal Labor Government’s decision to parachute the Inverbrackie detention centre into her neighbourhood and within co-ee of her retirement property. If the rest of us were being honest, wouldn’t we react in a similar manner if we felt that our own personal dreams were in danger of being shattered without warning?

We surely wouldn’t be fully human if we weren’t unsettled in the depths of our instinctive reptilian brains by such rapid changes to our social let alone physical surrounds. A case in point re the latter was the determined stance taken by Ku-ring-gai residents against the Labor Government’s hijacking (recently overturned) of their Council’s planning controls to the detriment of suburbs they knew and loved. The concentration of high-rise apartments along the Pacific Highway and around stations over the past decade has radically disrupted the consistency, charm and integrity of Ku-ring-gai’s heritage streetscapes.

The closer a profound change impacts an individual, the more likely it will be taken personally. No surprises there, and no question that it’s all too easy for the non-impacted to cast judgements from a distance about seeming examples of not in my backyard ‘nimbyism’. It’s all relative, even on the smallest of scales. If it impacts you personally, you react. If it doesn’t, you are more likely to adopt a more tolerant attitude to the so-called problem. As in distance makes the heart grow fonder.

So what is the most appropriate reaction to those of us witnessing our cityscapes and communities transforming before our eyes ? Are we expected to meekly grin and bear it—as in suck it up? Isn’t it healthier to be able to freely comment on any underlying disquiet and grieve for the places, spaces and way of life that hold meaning for us as they are altered before our very eyes?

Greater understanding on all sides would be a good starting point, including that old adage of putting yourself in the shoes of others for once. But fostering understanding and empathy is a two way street.

Most newcomers to Australia may have arrived with little understanding about, or feeling for Australia’s comparatively young ‘built heritage’, let alone its unique natural landscapes. While they are grateful for a fresh start, especially for their children, many are grieving the loss of the cities, towns and landforms they grew up with and hold dear.

Conversely, most Australians have little or no knowledge of the history, culture and conflicts that continue to embroil the countries of origin of the incoming immigrants. But in a handful of Australia’s biggest cities that are undergoing the most rapid change, it is understandable that some residents feel that they are losing the Australia of their birth, youth and growing up years—along with their sense of self. They yearn for the ‘homelands’ of their memory, as in the olden days.

Which is why it makes sense to openly discuss this joint sense of loss in order to air the grievances and grief of both incomers and incumbents. Is this not a civilised response to a situation that is unlikely to change any time soon? And in acknowledging the grief and grievances of both parties, shouldn't we all be sparing a thought for the First Australians whose connection with this continent spans 40,000 years at the very minimum?



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