Canberra’s national identity problem

Canberra’s national identity problem
APR 29, 2017

Australia has announced sweeping reforms to its rules on immigration and citizenship. It has discovered that national identity is important and must be preserved. In fact, the group instincts that hold us together as a nation are stronger than most realize and operate at every level of society.

For example, ever wonder why we get annoyed when people in a crowded train carriage begin speaking into their cellphones? But we do not mind so much when they talk loudly among themselves?

One answer is that we all tend instinctively to bond with the people immediately around us. So we can tolerate the loud talkers in our train carriage group. But we feel excluded when they talk to outsiders. The aversion to cellphone conversations may be stronger in Japan than elsewhere, but to some extent we all share the group instincts of the Japanese.

From train carriages to the nation — another type of group. We feel a national bonding partly because we share the same location, like that train carriage. But we also share culture and values. Japan is a good example of the two working in tandem.

The Australian nation-group identity is more confused. As an island nation developed like Japan in relative isolation, the desire or need to relate closely to the people around one was strong. Australia’s “mateship” ethic may not be as codified and sophisticated as Japan’s giri-ninjo, but it can be just as effective in bringing people together. Another is the “one of my mob” ethic, which allows people to be included or excluded on the basis of instinctive feelings (rather like the mura hachibu phenomenon in Japan).

None of this is harmful in itself. As in Japan, it explains the high productivity when people work in small groups. At the national level, however, there are problems.

Australia’s first national instinct was to bond with other white peoples and exclude all non-Caucasians — the infamous White Australia policy. But somewhere along the line it was told that excluding people on the basis of color was a no-no — racial discrimination. The immigration barriers collapsed and Australians discovered that hey, dealing closely with non-Caucasians was not as unpleasant as feared and that it could even be interesting.

From then on, anyone who complained about foreigner integration problems, no matter how justified, was condemned as a racist. Canberra was so proud of its racial integration experiment that it was publicized officially as an example to the rest of the world. But now as Australia begins to suffer integration problems like the rest of the world, it has had to announce restrictions.

Which is natural enough. As with that train carriage group, there are limits to which people can be asked to accept outsiders. One reason those limits get ignored at the national level is overconfidence in the worth of one’s culture and its ability to absorb foreigners. Cultural arrogance, some might call it. Sometimes it succeeds; it is hard not to be impressed by the way the British and French manage to integrate people from their former colonies. But often it does not succeed; Islamists especially are convinced they have a culture equal to or superior to others. The resulting conflict is not impressive.

Japan is not much of an example for the rest of us when it comes to racial integration. But it may be right to ask us foreigners to show some evidence of ability to contribute before offering long-term visas. As for offering nationality, I agree with the Japanese reluctant approach; there is something slightly ridiculous about Dave Appleseed overnight wanting to present himself to the world as Taro Suzuki.

Some years back I joined economist Iwao Nakajima on a Justice Ministry immigration reform committee in trying to float the idea of a points system similar to that used by Canada and Australia to select immigrants. (The bureaucrats have finally agreed, and the system seems to be working OK.) I went out of my way to urge maximum points for Japanese-language fluency; no one from a non-Sinitic language culture society sets out to learn a difficult language like Japanese unless they really do want to integrate. Australia is wisely beginning to demand more language fluency as a condition for acceptance.

The sticking point will be the demand for immigrants to adapt to Australian values — a demand which Japan fortunately does not make of us since it is convinced its values are unique (which they are to some extent).

Australian values can be similarly impenetrable. Mateship or “one of my mob” togetherness are not things you can learn from a textbook. Australia’s attractive “fair go” and “she’ll be right, mate” tolerance could be easier. But if the outsiders have to share Canberra’s recent efforts to boost national identity by rah-rah enthusiasm for the military and its exploits, count me out.

In fact I did just that some 40 years ago, and it has got even worse since.

There is much in Australia’s frontier development and human relations values to be proud of. They do not need to rely on militarism.