Note: Where available, the PDF/Word icon below is provided to view the complete and fully formatted document
The importance of immigration to the Australian Nation: address to the Polish Federation Dinner, Melbourne.

Download PDFDownload PDF

Fri, 2nd May 2008


The Hon Tony Abbott MHR Shadow Minister for Families, Community Services, Indigenous Affairs and the Voluntary Sector

I’m pleased to address this Polish federation dinner because, of all Australian immigrant groups, the Poles alone seem never to have been complained about. The English were too arrogant, the Scots too rich, the Irish too subversive and various others allegedly too slow to “fit in”. To the best of my knowledge, the only complaint about the Poles in Australia has been that Kosciuszko is too hard to spell!

Ever since the first significant group of Poles settled around Sevenhill in South Australia, where they helped to establish the wine industry, Poles have been model immigrants. By 1914, there were perhaps 3000 Poles living in Australia. A number of Polish associations had been formed but most of these, says James Jupp in his encyclopaedia of the Australian people, were dissolved on the outbreak of war because the men had volunteered to fight for Australia and the British Empire.

If I may say so, this exemplifies the migrant experience in this country: arrival, engagement, the seeking out of countrymen, followed by full immersion in the business of Australia. It’s not surprising that the Poles should have made fine Australians. Centuries of struggle and oppression, the Christian hope of better times to come combined with deep awareness of the human stain must have made Australia seem haven indeed.

The Poles are but one of the many immigrant groups that have formed modern Australia. Australia is actually inconceivable except as an immigrant nation. A few Aboriginal people excepted, every single Australian has descended from somewhere else. Today, more than 40 per cent of the Australian population was born overseas or had one parent born overseas.

I don’t accept the claim that Australians are typically xenophobic or closet racists. How could we be anti-immigrant when we are ourselves immigrants or the children of immigrants? What was right for us has to be right for today’s newcomers.

A Jewish friend of mine once observed that the only country in the world apart from Israel itself where Jews had been head of state, chief justice and army commander was Australia. Those great Australians, Zelman Cowen, Isaac Isaacs and John Monash, interestingly enough, happened to be Polish Jews.

It’s only natural to feel most comfortable with the people who are most like us. All people everywhere tend to be like that. Strange accents, languages, customs and religions can be disconcerting, even confronting. Still, the Australian tradition is to treat this generation of migrants the way the last generation of Australians treated us. Indeed to improve upon it. We should be confident that today’s migrants will be tomorrow’s truest blue Australians. That’s been the experience of every Australian family in the past and there’s no reason to think that it won’t be so in the future.

As for the question of so-called divided loyalties, why should sympathising with Muslim over Orthodox in, say, former Yugoslavia be any more “alien” than, say, sympathising with Catholics over Protestants in Northern Ireland? Retaining an interest in the “old country’ makes people human, not “less Australian”.

Australians who fear that some migrants are incapable of assimilating or even integrating are expressing a want of confidence in Australia, not in migrants. They are conceding that our ways aren’t good enough to win people over, even though every single migrant has thought well enough of us to choose to come here. Perhaps the most asinine slogan I have ever seen appeared during the Cronulla riot: “they flew here, we grew here”. It should be no slur on the native born to ask who has most assuredly committed himself to Australia: the person whose citizenship was determined by birth or the person whose citizenship was determined by choice?

I have never liked the term “un-Australian” because of its “them” and “us” connotations. Even so, if there is any strand of thinking that might rightly be called un-Australian it’s hostility to migrants given that Australia wouldn’t exist without them.

Of course, migrants are capable of breaking the law, as Australians of all people should know. After all, the first modern Australians were chosen by the finest judges in England! Migrants can’t use their birth culture to justify flouting Australian laws against, say, religious or gender discrimination. Insisting that there is one standard for everyone doesn’t make a country or its government anti-immigrant. It shows that the country and the government don’t have lower expectations of migrants than of everyone else.

Just because the former Howard Government expected people to come to Australia legally and expected potential citizens, although not residents, to have some grasp of the English language and of Australian practices didn’t make it anti-immigrant or even racist as some critics claimed. One of the Howard Government’s greatest but least recognised achievements was to rehabilitate the immigration programme, increasing numbers to record levels while also increasing popular support for it to record levels.

In the soul-searching of defeat, some will argue for moving to the “right”. Doing anything purely for ideological reasons is a certain vote loser. It’s good that the Liberal Party’s history and record is so pro-immigrant because being anything else would be absolutely toxic to our political prospects.

The problem for xenophobes is knowing whom to hate because people are hard to categorise. For instance, was John Lhotsky, who arrived in Australia in 1832, a Czech because that was the ethnicity of his parents, a Pole because he was born in Lvov, or a proto-Australian because, while living here, he wrote a book called Future Prospects of the Colony of New South Wales which was so radical he was forced to leave? Did studying in Poland or working in Germany make Copernicus a German or a Pole? Was Chopin French through his father or Polish through his mother? To take it further, are all Britons really part-Polish because King Canute married a Polish princess?

To me, anyone who thinks of himself as an Australian and who is committed to the future of Australia can call himself my countryman.