The new governor is a good bloke, but still just another of the blokes.
MELBOURNE has racism. You often hear it from taxi drivers. It can show itself coarsely in the oaths of cricket crowds or delicately in the poisonous patter of dinner parties. The veils of Muslim women can be torn off in the street, and they and their children can be spat upon by strangers.
But Melbourne is also a town that turned out in great numbers to support one of its wayward sons who came from an ethnic background, Nguyen Tuong Van, the Vietnamese-Australian drug runner recently hanged in Singapore. A town, like a race, is as complicated and contradictory as the individuals who make it up.
Melbourne is now a place where several of the most eminent citizens are men from ethnic backgrounds. The Premier, Steve Bracks, comes from a Lebanese family; the Lord Mayor, John So, is Chinese-Australian; and the head of the AFL (probably the most prominent role of the lot in such a footy-mad city) is Greek-Australian Andrew Demetriou. This week it was announced that our new governor will be Professor David de Kretser, a renowned scientist who migrated from Sri Lanka to Australia when he was nine.
It is an impressive line-up in the tolerance-and-diversity stakes. It sends powerful messages about the kind of place Melbourne is – or wants to be. Migrant parents can have some faith in the prospects for their children. Institutional racism is, at worst, muted, and public discourse is civil. The media treated de Kretser’s family history as a heart-warming tale of migrant triumph, not as cause for disdain.
This city has its racial tensions – ethnic soccer riots come to mind – but we have seen nothing like Sydney’s race-based pack rapes of Australian girls by gangs of Lebanese-Australian youths. The week of the Cronulla riots, both Skip and Lebanese young people in Melbourne received text messages urging them to gather at beaches to fight. They ignored them. It was the rival text messages urging a peace rally that won a turnout. Melbourne is a more tolerant place than Sydney.
Researchers suggest this is partly because Sydney has developed closed ethnic enclaves but Melbourne’s ethnic communities are more mixed up together and more scattered among WASP communities.
That’s just another way of saying that migrants in Melbourne don’t feel as “locked out” as those in Sydney. As the world saw with Paris, it is that sense of being shut out – literally, in terms of living in a ghetto, and metaphorically, in terms of not having opportunities – that fuels racial violence.
So it’s a good thing that our Premier continues to attend to multiculturalism, one of several reasons he chose de Kretser. Racism is like a disease; it requires regular vaccination and the maintenance of herd immunity to keep it at bay.
All of this makes it almost shabby to pick holes in Bracks’ appointment of de Kretser, who seems a lovely man and an excellent candidate. I feel like Oliver Twist, asking timorously, “Please sir, can I have some more?”
Because this most worthy line-up of eminent citizens might be ethnically diverse but it is still strikingly monochrome in one respect: it has no women. Is it true to tell migrants that anything is possible in this new land? Or must we in all honesty confine that promise to their sons?
The argument that there aren’t enough women with appropriate professional backgrounds doesn’t wash any more. Science, academia and the professions now have many women in their 50s, and not a few in their 60s, who have the qualities Bracks said he was looking for: independence of mind, an ability to relate to the broader community in a non-partisan way, and humility.
In New Zealand, the Prime Minister (Helen Clark), the Governor-General (Silvia Cartwright) and the head of the largest company (Theresa Gattung, Telecom) are all women.
Cartwright once said she thought intelligent women wanted three things in life – marriage, children and career – but that most could have only two of the three. This, of course, is because behind almost every great career man with a family is a woman who runs it for him. The great career woman is less likely to find a partner whose own sense of purpose is linked to supporting her.
Public appointments of men with ethnic backgrounds are not new. What would break the mould is a qualified woman who was also a single mother, or who had spent years away from a high-powered career to raise her children, or who even – mercy on us all – never married at all. Maybe she could be a woman who also represents multiculturalism or indigenous Australians.
Because women will never “have what it takes” as long as part of what it “takes” is a wife.
First published in The Age.