Tarnished dreams of new beginnings

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  • Published 20041207
  • ISBN: 9780733314544
  • Extent: 268 pp
  • Paperback (234 x 153mm)

IN THE LATE 19th century, a radical British journalist and his American wife set off from Sydney Harbour, sailing across the Pacific Ocean and around Cape Horn. After making landfall on the Argentine, they struck out over the South American continent and deep into the jungles of Paraguay. These two explorers wanted to establish a socialist utopia, a place founded on the principles of collective strength, abstinence and hard work. On board the sturdy Royal Tar with them were about 200 members of the New Australia Co-operative Settlement Association, a motley collection of Aussie bushmen – shearers, station hands and others – followed a few months later by some 200 more.

William Lane led this woolly enterprise, promising an escape for those workers doomed to suffer under a capitalist system of wage-slavery. The great strikes of the 1890s had emptied union coffers, severely limiting the chances for successful industrial resistance. When the Queensland Govern­ment turned the military against the remaining few militants, Lane transformed his radical proposal for a “great exodus” of the workers into action. He would withdraw their labour, right out of the country, and build a “New Australia” as an escape from the contaminating influence of class. “We show that socialism is possible,” he declared. “One great success would give men more faith than a whole century of talking and preaching.”

Looking back from today, this colonial venture has many features common to that much-discussed concept of “globalisation” – co-operation between peoples of various national identities, the drive toward a borderless world. After all, Marx and Engels predicted the relentless effort to “nestle everywhere, settle everywhere, establish connections everywhere”.

Too bad it proved such a farce. This ambitious Paraguayan experiment lasted only a few months before internal divisions – coupled with Lane’s intractable dogma – tore the colony asunder. Lane’s hope, to emerge from the South American jungle ahead of a socialist vanguard and guide the world through a communist revolution, was dashed. He eventually walked out, abandoning this little pocket of Aus­tralian diaspora. But many of Lane’s fellow pioneers stayed in the region that became known in Spanish as Nueva Australia, gradually moving beyond their self-imposed isolation to become accepted locals. Does this misbegotten adventure offer any lessons for the present? When trouble first intruded into his paradise, Lane blamed the failings of his colleagues, not the ideal of communal society itself. “We recruited on the wrong principles,” he vented. “We appealed to the material dissatisfactions when we should have appealed to the spiritual aspirations.” Yet Lane had, in fact, acknowledged a reality that persists today. Despite his utopian political rhetoric, most global movements of people, when not beset by violence, are driven by economic factors. The New Australians felt disenfranchised and simply wanted a better life.

This tale about Nueva Australia points to an ongoing tension in the modern globalisation project. The dream of a new beginning is still very much alive, whether it is for people looking to escape from endemic violence or to simply find better opportunities in a foreign land. The United Nations estimates that nearly the equivalent of the Australian population – more than 17 million people – wander the world as desperate refugees. During the 1990s, it is thought that nearly 15 million people tried to steal north across the long, contiguous border between Mexico and the United States, looking for a fresh start.

Yet despite these staggering statistics, emigration is no longer a realistic option for much of the world’s population. Few regard colonial conquest with the same romantic chauvinism as evident in Billy Lane’s time. Even more significantly, the proliferation of the nation-state system during the past 100 years has greatly diminished the prospect of successfully travelling across oceans and between countries to settle in a
better life.


UNTIL THE EARLY 20th century, people’s movements across the globe were remarkably unregulated. Looking back at the era before the Great War, just after Lane and his followers set out across the Pacific, the famed British economist John Maynard Keynes observed,

The inhabitant of London could order by telephone, sipping his morning tea in bed, the various products of the whole earth … He could at the same moment and by the same means adventure his wealth in the natural resources and new enterprises of any quarter of the world, and share, without exertion or even trouble, in their prospective fruits and advantages … He could secure … cheap and comfortable means of transit to any country or climate without passport or other formality.

Most of this account sounds very familiar in this globalised age. The internet allows you to buy books from New York or to bid at an antique auction in Durban. Finance whizzes between stock markets, the Dow, the Nikkei, the Hang Sen and back to the all ords. Trade liberalisation, while fitful, continues through the World Trade Organisation and the frequently celebrated country-to-country free-trade agreements.

But strikingly, the ease of transit for people in the early 20th century, which Keynes described, is a fantastic distance from today’s experience, where the compulsive checking of mandatory passports occurs at almost every point of embarking and arrival. Comfort and speed of travel have improved, no doubt, at the expense of people’s free movement.

Some estimates hold that 15 per cent of the world’s working-age popula­tion emigrated between 1870 and 1915, the halcyon years of early globalisation. Afterwards, throughout the Great Depression and inter-war years, ultra-nationalism and its associated protectionist sentiment restricted the flow of migration, only to again see millions of people move across the globe following the devastation wrought during World War II.

Today, the restrictions and impediments on people’s movements have increased and are increasing. A recent report from the development aid organisation, Oxfam, argues that the globalisation of capital markets has not been mirrored by anything remotely comparable in labour markets. Now, only about 2 per cent of people live outside the countries of their birth. According to the report, there is “a striking disparity between the develop­ment of global, and highly mobile, financial markets and immobile labour markets”. Only a select few employees get to follow along with the global flow of business.

In Australia, our political leaders seem to have no problem resolving the apparent disjuncture between a world of free capital on the one hand and unfree people on the other. John Howard claimed that national security involved an uncompromising view about the fundamental right of Australia to protect its borders. Tough talk on border control earned him a lot of polit­ical capital, especially when thundering at the 2001 election, “We will decide who comes to this country and the circumstances in which they come”.

Presumably then, Howard must have taken issue when his Treasurer, Peter Costello, celebrated one of globalisation’s articles of faith: “What happens on the New York Stock Exchange can influence what happens on the Australian Stock Exchange and if it does, it can affect the net worth of the millions of Australians.” After all, the national security of those very Aus­tralians depends on protecting the country’s borders. That’s what Howard said.

But migration and economic policy are painted on two very different can­vasses. The free movement of capital is actively promoted, encouraged and facilitated. Governments are pursuing economic globalisation as a point of orthodox wisdom. Sovereignty is no barrier to commerce. All the while, gov­ernments are putting more and more formal restrictions on mass migration. Here, sovereignty is actively reinforced. Far from representing a mere “car­tographic illusion”, as one of many premature eulogies foretold in the mid-1990s, the nation-state and political borders remain very real.

Outrage over the cargo ship Stadacona (once known as CSL Yarra and once crewed by Australians), transporting concrete along the eastern seaboard, made clear this paradox of globalisation. The Canadian owners argued that the vessel could not remain “competitive” if forced to employ local workers at Australian rates of pay.

The Howard Government did not object when the ship instead sailed under the Bahamas flag and paid replacement Ukrainian sailors less than half the former crew’s wages. “What about the federal security of our nation?” cried one of the sacked Australian ship workers. “We’ve got bomb­ings in Bali, but we let foreign crew come in and take our jobs.” The Government made no link between national economic security and security of employment.

This generous approach to free capital stands in obvious contrast with the hardline response to asylum seekers. There, the derogatory distinction made between “genuine refugees” and “economic refugees” seeks to inculcate a fear that “illegals” threaten to take Australians’ jobs. People movements have long been regarded as a threat to Australia. This is evident, not just in regard to the modern controversy over refugee arrivals, but in the years of the White Australia Policy – an amazing legacy, especially for a country founded on migration.


BILLY LANE AND his Socialist cohorts were economic fugitives from 19th century Australia. Today, many Australians follow in their wake (though few depart with such fanfare or profess the same crazed idealism). The majority of those Australians who seek opportunities across the ocean are prosperous, well educated and well connected, according to recent find­ings from the Lowy Institute for International Policy. Their numbers have risen markedly in the past 15 years. “The result is that when searching for career and life opportunities, increasing numbers of Australians are casting their eyes offshore.” For these ex-patriots, the benefits of a borderless world are manifest.

What about those people born overseas and hoping to enter Australia at the beginning of the 21st century? For them, the prospects are limited. Beyond the parsimonious acceptance of a few thousand refugees, anyone hoping to make Australia home must have vital professional expertise. Our official immigration policy favours so-called “skilled migrants” above the other, unskilled (read “poor”) kinds. This seems remarkable for the country that has elevated the concept of a “fair go” to a national ethos. And such a miserly atti­tude toward migration is even more extraordinary when considering that population levels largely define the country’s political and economic power in the world. Australia, the newspaper columnist Paul Kelly observes, seems content with the ritual boast that we “punch above our weight”, while doing little to arrest the slide in our comparative weight category.

University of Melbourne academics Brian Galligan and Winsome Roberts agree that, in response to the pressures of population movement, the Aus­tralian Government has expanded the opportunities of the affluent while curtailing those of the oppressed. In their new book, Australian Citizenship (Melbourne University Press, 2004), the authors suggest that this equates to pragmatic good policy. “In order to avoid concentrations of unskilled ethnic migrants and avoid backlash politics, the Australian Government has adopted a policy of recruiting permanent settlers on the basis of skills and capital, selecting those most likely to integrate easily and become self-sufficient.” Certainly, the demand for unskilled labour, whether in manufacturing or large-scale government infrastructure projects, is no longer a feature of Australia’s economic profile. And, certainly, Australia has been a leader among developed countries for relative migration intake. But there are unac­knowledged dangers in pursuing an almost exclusively skills-only resettlement policy.

Most obviously, Australia is competing for a limited pool of people. Birth rates are declining in nearly all of the major industrialised countries and each seeks to counter population decline by attracting specialised migrants. Migration policy could descend into an ungratifying type of inducement auction, where one country attempts to outdo another in bidding for the educated elite. This promises to foster a new type of international resent­ment, where the “Whites only” policy of old is superseded by the new skills-test discrimination that further divides the global “haves” and “have­nots”. The domestic jealousy has already been made clear by the rise of right-wing populist figures like Pauline Hanson. More immediately, it underestimates the capacity of Australia’s education system to teach new migrants the kinds of skills needed to ensure they integrate easily and become self-sufficient.

Galligan and Roberts do not advocate a major increase in the numbers of immigrants settling in Australia, but they do argue that the Australian model of citizenship is an “outstanding example” that is both “democratic and flex­ible.” If their enthusiastic praise is correct, integrating extra new migrants, skilled or otherwise, into the Australian community presents an opportunity for growth and development. Australia could fulfil its global responsibility as a wealthy, affluent country by seeking to enhance the overall quality of life for more people from around the world. For those who object that this poses a risk to the distinctive Australian identity, Galligan and Roberts conclude that “the English language and education system are powerful homogenis­ing forces”.

Nor would increasing migrant quotas mean an embrace of multicultural policies for Australia. In fact, Galligan and Roberts are hostile toward the very notion of multiculturalism. “The effect of multiple allegiances and membership in ethnically diverse political and civil associations is to enrich national culture rather than to replace it with many distinctive cultures.” There is support for this position. As The Australian newspaper editorialised recently, “Australia’s social cohesion relies not on any shared ethnic heritage, but on our universal commitment to shared political and social values.” If those values are truly universal, why can’t they be shared with more immi­grant Australians?

A change of policy to increase Australia’s migrant numbers will present major challenges to, among other things, employment and the environment. It might also mean confronting the selfish expectation that our standard of living must only ever improve. But if Australia wants to live up to the national mantra of a “clever country”, with citizens that embody a “can do” attitude and possess an egalitarian streak, these are no longer challenges to run away from.


OF COURSE, DEBATES about migration inevitably drag us into the nebulous area of identity politics. Australia is not alone in grappling with these questions. In the United States, for instance, Samuel Huntington’s latest prognosti­cation drew the ire of many pundits who questioned his characterisation of America as a bastion of Anglo-Protestant culture. Huntington once made famous a supposed “clash of civilisations” in international politics. Now, in his latest book, Who Are We? (Simon & Schuster, 2004), he worries that the “massive influx” of Hispanic immigrants into the US, particularly those from Mexico, threatens to divide the country “into two peoples, two cultures, and two languages”. It is the language issue, that “powerful homogenising” force, which Galligan and Roberts highlight, that animates Huntington’s argument.

Huntington is gripped by fear that “native” English-speaking Americans will be excluded from their own society as Spanish becomes the language of government and business. Especially in California, historically once a part of Mexico, he is anxious that the reconquista is well under way.

Many Americans are far more sanguine about the issue.

In 2004, a pair of Los Angeles comic filmmakers released a mockumen­tary A Day Without a Mexican. The story-line followed the overnight appearance of a mysterious fog that swept in over the City of Angels and then disappeared, taking with it all the Mexicans and other Latinos. The Washington Post describes the result:

The helpless gringos awaken to find no nannies, no gardeners, no janitors, no valets and no fresh salad. Crops rot on the ground and tomatoes must be bought by the bag from shadowy dealers. All that, and the Dodgers (baseball team) lose most of their infield and the seventhlargest economy on Earth grinds to a standstill because there is no one left to build, cook or clean any­thing.

The point, according to the film’s director, “was to make the invisible visible”. The Hispanic contribution to modern America is immeasurable, both economically and culturally, and extends far beyond the stereotypes portrayed in the film. This recognises that cultures change, morph, evolve and grow.

Rather than adding to the mix of American society, Huntington sees the Hispanic culture in parasitic terms, as a subsequent add-on. Mexicans and other Latinos, he claims, form their own political and linguistic enclaves and reject the values of traditional American culture. He uses exclusionary lan­guage to sharpen this distinction. “There is no Americano dream,” he says. “There is only the American dream created by an Anglo-Protestant society. Mexican Americans will share in that dream and in that society only if they dream in English.”

He acknowledges that the various waves of migration since US inde­pendence have had important effects on the country, along with advances of the civil rights movement in the 1960s, so that today, “Americans now see and endorse their country as multi-ethnic and multi-racial”. And he recognises that the key element of American identity is its ideological basis, which he argues is captured in a creed expressed by the Declaration of Independence (and presumedly, too, through the Bill of Rights amend­ments to the US Constitution).

This actually serves to undermine Huntington’s own argument. Identity formed by the acceptance of values should be open to anyone, regardless of his or her heritage. If these values are truly universal, they transcend lan­guage. That is certainly the model that America promotes and countries like Australia profess to follow.

Huntington emphasises that this creed “was the product of the distinct Anglo-Protestant culture of the founding settlers”. True enough, just as in Australia. Yet values can be rooted in history without being stuck there, unchanged by the passage of time. Identity evolves through the experience of the nation. One of the US’s founding fathers, Thomas Jefferson, recognised this truism: “We might as well require a man to wear still the coat which fitted him when a boy as civilised society to remain ever under the regimen of their barbarous ancestors.” What Huntington misses, that Galligan and Roberts catch in the Australian context, is that immigrants both adapt to and adapt the society around them.

While Huntington frames an identity debate that is sure to resonate, at least one issue is clear; the idea of identity bound to a particular nation-state is being challenged by people movements. And the compelling reason for this? In that marvellous American catchphrase – it’s the economy, stupid.

A Mexican worker who makes it into the US can expect as much as nine times the salary that he earned in Mexico. People are simply following eco­nomic opportunity, just as business does. Commerce transcends language. Yet people do not enjoy the same benefits as capital. The North American Free Trade Agreement deregulated barriers to commerce between the signa­tories. The US border patrol works to ensure that the barrier to stop people remains firmly in place. While paradoxes of this type exist, where money is free but people are not, the debate on identity will continue.


AFTER BILLY LANE’S experiment in Paraguay failed, he eventually settled at the other end of the political spectrum, as a reactionary newspaper com­mentator in New Zealand. When he died in his 50s, an obituary said of the once firebrand utopian, “Lane, in his younger years, did much good work; and that can be conveniently remembered – and the rest charitably forgot­ten.”

If governments refuse to confront the obvious paradox of today – that the free movement of capital is facilitated while people are refused commensu­rate rights – this ode to Billy Lane might also become a fitting epitaph for the latest era of globalisation. The advance of globalisation has done much good work. Yet people will grow ever more tired of the economic wisdom that takes government regulation out of the financial marketplace, increasing profits, while at the same time putting severe limits on labour movements. The counterargument runs that if governments failed to control migration, the labour exodus from developing countries would be catastrophic. It is interesting that this same logic is not assumed for capital. The other alleged consequence, that a massive influx of desperate people will crash through open borders and threaten “our way of life”, is a distraction. This conve­niently forgets the powerful connections between people, their lands and nations.

Governments should never surrender control over migration, just be more generous in allowing people everywhere to join in the opportunities of economic globalisation. There is already pressure on rich countries, like Aus­tralia, to share the fruits and advantages of their wealth. One means of release is to untie our immigration policy, to reject the misplaced ideal that we can continue to take only the “best” people, the cream that the world has to offer. Australia needs new immigrants to grow as a nation. This economic imperative is equally a social rationale.

When someone next stands on the national doorstep, knocks and says, “Hello! I’m searching for New Australia”, we should respond with enthusi­asm, to give people everywhere more faith than a whole century of talking and preaching.

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