SMH National Times
January 13, 2012
Teresa Gambaro’s wrong-headed remarks about migrants are symbolic of a wider problem with Coalition attitudes.
How did Teresa Gambaro’s father smell? Let us survey the evidence. His first Australian job was as a farmhand in the hot, sweaty climes of north Queensland. It’s unclear how long he stuck at this, but it must have been quite some time because it gave him enough savings to buy a small fish store, which rapidly grew into an impressive seafood business.
From this, I am apparently to deduce that he stank. Not simply because of his obviously stench-filled path from farm labourer to fishmonger. Mainly because he migrated to Australia from a war-ravaged Italy. This indicates his personal hygiene was not up to Australian standards, and more specifically, that he was insufficiently acquainted with the virtues of deodorant. On this I cite no less pertinent an authority than his own daughter, Teresa, who so infamously declared this week that migrants need to be taught such things if they are to integrate. You smell! What began as a schoolyard insult suddenly became public policy formulation.
Public outrage was swift and loud, and Gambaro’s apology inevitable and ”unreserved”. She regrets ”any offence that may have been taken”. So, that’s that, then. Case closed. ”Let’s move on,” pleads acting Opposition Leader Warren Truss.
Not so fast. Certainly, there is little point expounding further on the myriad ways in which Gambaro’s remarks were wrong-headed. So plain is the error, and so pervasive the retorts that further substantive analysis is now redundant. But this doesn’t mean we should simply press on as though nothing has happened. Something has happened. Something that keeps happening. Something telling about the Coalition’s approach to the politics of culture.
You’ll remember that patch from around 2005 when Coalition MPs, then in government, seemed to be competing with each other to demonstrate belligerence on the issue of migration and integration. Mostly (and predictably given world events) this was directed towards Muslims. Bronwyn Bishop demanded that we ban headscarves in schools because they made women subservient, then when confronted with the fact that many headscarved women felt perfectly free, said they were like Nazis who felt free in Nazi Germany. Brendan Nelson told Muslims who didn’t know the story of Simpson and his donkey to ”clear off”. More recently Cory Bernardi declared that ”Islam itself is the problem”, describing it as ”an ideology that is mired in 6th-century brutality”.
But this invective is not confined to Muslims. Recall Kevin Andrews’ pledge to cut the immigration intake from Africa in 2007 because Africans fail to integrate. And this in response to the murder of a young Sudanese refugee by young white men; an impressive victim-blaming manoeuvre.
Such outbursts may not be Coalition policy, but they express a certain political logic that Coalition policy does express, just in more moderated tones. The individual who goes too far (like Gambaro) is transgressing only in degree, not in essence.
A day before Gambaro opined about stench, opposition immigration spokesman Scott Morrison attacked the government’s multiculturalism policies as mere ”symbolism”. This is a familiar Coalition theme. It is the reason John Howard gave for refusing to apologise to the stolen generations. In its own narrative, the Coalition doesn’t do gestures. It does commonsense, practical things. None of that ”mushy, misguided multiculturalism” Peter Costello so abhorred.
Just tell migrants how to act, what to value and what to spray on their armpits; it’s direct action for wogs.
But there’s a deceit here. Far from being baldly practical, the Coalition’s cultural politics are every bit as symbolic as Labor’s. To see this, we need only recall the citizenship test initiative of 2006. The headline message was clear: tougher citizenship requirements to make sure only the worthy get admitted. But the practical effects of the policy were far less hairy-chested. The test was hardly taxing, and for most categories of migrant, the changes meant they could become citizens sooner – after four years’ residence rather than five.
Meanwhile, government literature banged on with slogans such as ”Australian citizenship is a privilege, not a right” and sample questions emerged evoking Bradman and Phar Lap. This was naked iconography. And the government was sure to announce the policy several times: first in the form of a discussion paper, then as a confirmed policy position, then as a budget item deserving of its own specific press release.
This was clearly something the Howard government wanted to talk about. Much as it liked to talk about the importance of migrants learning English while it was cheerfully slashing funding for English-language tuition. Clearly, the rhetoric demanding integration mattered more than the resources that might encourage it.
What little I know of Mr Gambaro’s work history I learned from his daughter’s maiden speech to Parliament. In the present context it makes particularly interesting reading because of the warmth it expresses towards Italian migrants and the way it celebrates Chinatown (located in Gambaro’s seat of Brisbane) and doesn’t once complain about the smell. But the symbolic order of a party is rarely set by maiden speeches. And here we must recognise the symbolism that pretends to be practical. To refuse to apologise to the stolen generations is a symbolic gesture in its own right. To declare that migrants disproportionately have a deodorant problem, citing no more evidence than ”you hear reports” of these things, is deeply symbolic. Symbolism is not confined to feel-good politics. Prejudice needs its symbols, too.
Waleed Aly is a broadcaster and a politics lecturer at Monash University.