I’m the guy at meetings and gatherings that goes in search of the “village elders”. I love to get the oldies talking … mining their gems … collecting their recollections … sifting the sands of speech for their nuggets of wisdom. Usually I am generously and richly rewarded – but sometimes I am stunned and shocked. In my formative years, Mother used to say: “Owen, old habits die hard”. I would like to add – “so do bad habits”.

Imagine this … you dont want “foreigners” entering Australia (immigration) and if they do come to Australia, you don’t particularly want them in your community. Australia – and especially rural and regional Australia – is often cast as a pretty racist / religionist place. You are not even sure why you don’t want them in the community, it’s like some pre-natal shadow of a fuzzy image that was programmed into your psyche. Perhaps it’s in breast milk, or the local water supply (maybe a side effect from fluoridation?). More likely the local paper! … Actually, if the ‘new Australians’ are British, Irish, Kiwi or North American, then that’s OK. Most regional communities now accept the addition of Pacific Islanders (so long as they are not “too black”), continental Europeans and most Asians, but it starts to get iffy when the arrivals are from Islamic, Middle Eastern or African nations.

So what is the rationale? (This is beginning to looking like another ‘country people are dumb’ essay – a subject on which I have already blogged – see my earlier post http://rarara.com.au/on-a-national-party/ … it’s really very good!).

Farmers are forever squealing like stuck pigs about the ‘rates of pay’ and ‘work-ethic’ of the labour they hire. The common excuse / reason is that the good workers all head for the city … ironically to earn bigger wages. (Or trot out the old line: “Kids now-a-days dont know what hard work is!”).

So when the opportunity arises to welcome new community members – someone from another culture – who is most probably delighted to be living somewhere safer and more prosperous that their former home (and lets face it, there is not a much safer or more prosperous place on the planet than regional and rural Australia …. go on, name one! … knew you couldn’t … OK, maybe regional and rural New Zealand … maybe) there is resistance. Yet here we are, country folk, salt of the earth, practical, reliable, friendly, community spirited, connected, we look after our mates, love the land … all the platitudes, cliches and colloquial crap-on-isms you can think of … and yet we are too dumb to realise what’s on offer :
1. Hard workers.
2. Eager contributors.
3. Grateful community members.
4. Population growth (with the associated increased spend at local businesses, kids in local schools … all the benefits of growth that country towns cry out for).
5. An injection of new perspectives, new ideas, new skills and new cuisine.

The hard earned reputation of regional and rural Australia is that we resists newcomers if they differ from us in race or religion. Exceptions have been made in the past. Often grudgingly at first. The Greek Family (who in the 1970’s often ran the local fish and chip shop). The Chinese Family (running the local Chinese Restaurant). But the Greeks were Christians so that was OK. And the Chinese worked hard and didn’t practice religion (or at least openly), so there were few – if any – displays of overt zeal for the community to abhor. That made community acceptance relatively easy.
The argument as to whether integration into the community really occurred in such situations will be long and heated. I dont recall representatives of these racial minorities being at the many sports clubs or the community clubs (Rotary, Lions etc …) in the 70’s. Often, migrant families worked apart. Perhaps the new arrivals were socially separate due to vocation and associated work hours; feeling (rightly or wrongly) unwelcome in the community groups and clubs; being actively discouraged / exempt; or even self imposed exile from the community at large. Whatever the reason … they lived among and apart from the soul of the community. In saying that, I dont remember them being seen as different or as outsiders … at least, not by the kids in my home town. So the kids in a country town grow up to expect and accept the broadened community – because that’s just how it was … we all mucked in together (at least the kids did … mostly), then a generation or two down the line there are home-town-born Eurasian kids at the local school – products of their healthy and integrated country community. And NOBODY bats an eyelid. It’s a great outcome with benefits for all.

With regard to the welcome and integration of contemporary refugees, the communities of regional and rural Australia need only to look to the past to see where the future lies. It’s time we matured past the hate-mongering of the mainstream media. Dont concern yourself with the fact that religious beliefs vary. Dont fear and mistrust unfamiliar rituals and rites. It is OK that people want to show respect to their ancestral customs – we do it.

Let’s not pretend that these differences are anything but a lever to pull when the bigots start their lobbying. The Us Vs Them mentality is old, tired and boring. When I was at primary school (in the 1970’s), due to a shortage of foreign cultures to marginalise in the local community, the theme peddled by the bigots was Catholic Vs Protestant. The same fear of unfamiliar rituals and rites was wheeled out as a reason for taking sides. Unbelievably (as it’s probably illegal these days), my high school Year 7 class was divided into 4 houses – colour coded. I kid you not. The majority of the Catholic kids were in 7 Green. The Anglican kids 7 Purple. The mixed Calvinists, you guessed it – 7 Orange. And the few remaining bods that didn’t fit into their appropriate religionist colour-coded class (due to class size) were in 7 Gold (I never worked out why it was Gold … maybe the school was preparing for an influx of Buddhists? … very unlikely).

By the 1980’s, our community matured enough (mostly) to see through this spin. Access to information pertaining to global affairs increased. Conflict in SE Asia in the late 1960’s and 1970’s (Viet Nam and Cambodia are the two most obvious examples) brought Asian cultures to Australia in greater number. Typically, at first the welcome was, for the most pat, relatively chilly. The arrival of these Asian immigrants promoted the non-English speaking Europeans who arrived in the 1940’s and 1950’s to the rank of “Aussie”. The bigots had a new enemy – Asians. “Boat People”. Not only did they not speak English, unlike the European immigrants, they were (commonly) not Christian. These new arrivals from SE Asia meant that the European immigrants were, for the most part, out of the firing line. There was new cause (or should that be curse?) – “Stop the Asian invasion”. The battle cry of the Aussie Bigot for 3 decades.

Fast forward to today. Guess what? The acceptance of Asian Australians is a point of pride in much of Australia. These days, most new arrivals from Asia (non-English speaking, non-Christian and all) are made feel welcome. Why? Because the bigots have two new axes to grind – Muslims and Africans. The mainstream media whips up a frenzy. The dummies swallow the spin and follow the unconscious, unthinking crowd. And unfortunately, all that should have been learned from past mistakes is forgotten – or conveniently ignored. Winston Churchill is credited with saying: “Those that fail to learn from history, are doomed to repeat it”. Is he white and Christian enough for you? Does Churchill have credibility amongst the bigots? If I were a gambling man I’d wager that he does. And it sounds like good advice.

My message to the people of regional and rural Australia is heed Winston’s words. Embrace change and evolution. Support new community members – regardless of race, creed, class, colour or religion. Grow your community. Promote community connections. To rail against change is futile. Your energy would be better spent building and connecting – hindering and subverting come at a significant cost to everyone. On a national level, on a community level, and on a personal level. Here exists an opportunity for everyone to be a beneficiary … or everyone a loser.

May I quote from Shantaram by Gregory David Roberts? Thanks.

‘”Fanaticism is the opposite of love. A wise man once told me – he’s a Muslim by the way – that he has more in common with a rational and reasonable-minded Jew than he does with a fanatic from his own religion. He has more in common with a rational, reasonable-minded Christian or Buddhist or Hindu than he does with a fanatic from his own religion. In fact, he has more in common with a rational, reasonable-minded atheist than he does with a fanatic from his own religion. I agree with him, and I feel the same way. I also agree with Winston Churchill, who once defined a fanatic as someone who won’t change his mind and can’t change the subject.”
I agree with Roberts. Monoculture is a recipe for disaster. In agriculture and in society. The larger the scale of the monoculture, the less sustainable it becomes … historians and farmers will both tell you how much energy and zeal is required to support a monoculture … and that the result will be degradation and downfall. It’s a universal law.

Listen up Regional and Rural Australia – we have a choice. We can grow and prosper, or slowly slip into irrelevancy. We can connect and concatenate, or divide and deride. The choice is ours. Be the change you want to see in the world. Make it happen. Bring your “village elders” on board with a positive attitude towards change and evolution in your community. Mother used to say: “Owen, you’ll catch more flies with honey than with vinegar”. Not quite Churchillian – but there is no denying that it’s good advice … and that it rings true.

My (arguably not so) humble opinion is that it is time the ghost of Bigotry Past was exorcised. Only then we can move forward in a constructive and meaningful way. We can build a new, vibrant and inclusive Regional and Rural Australia.