On being a poster Aussie


“If you live in one of Australia’s capital cities, you’ve likely seen this poster. The artist says if you haven’t seen it yet, you will soon,” opens a News.com.au story about 32-year old Adelaidian artist Peter Drew who is plastering the walls of our capital cities in the name of tolerance. The posters feature old photos of people from different ethnic backgrounds, all captioned in big letters “AUSSIE”. I haven’t seen any myself yet, but then again I don’t get out much, particularly to parts of town that tend to get covered by promo bills.

Mr Drew told news.com.au his new project is simple: He’s targeting what he calls the “people in the middle” who belong neither to the right or the left of the political debate.

“There are people that are primed to really like this stuff and people that are primed to hate it,” he said. “I think the audience that I’m after are people right in the middle that just need a bit of a reminder about Australia’s real identity. These people are not bigots, they’re just people who have forgotten our strength.”

Australia’s treatment of refugees and asylum seekers continues to make headlines. Earlier this week, Immigration Minister Peter Dutton said refugees entering Australia will “steal jobs”. He labelled them “illiterate”.

Mr Drew says the minister’s rhetoric ignores the truth that Australia has been built on contributions from refugees for 150 years and that Australia’s “strength” is in how welcoming its people are…

“I don’t think Peter Dutton understands how statements like (refugees are illiterate) corrode Australia’s identity. I think ending offshore detention is an opportunity to restore Australia’s identity. We need to see welcoming asylum seekers as a strength. So many Australians are waiting for that shift in the debate.”

Being a migrant – though not a refugee – myself, I’m kind of hoping that my handsome foreign visage can appear on one of Mr Drew’s posters. I certainly feel very “AUSSIE”, but I suspect I might be too conventionally Euro to be used to make a political point about the inherent beauty of a multicultural rainbow.

The term “nation of migrants” has by now become such a cliché as to be almost meaningless. Yes, we Australians are a nation of migrants. As are the United States, Canada and New Zealand. As is, to some extent, pretty much any nation in the world if you go far back enough in history. Personally, I don’t think that Australia’s “strength” lies in how welcoming we are, but in how those who are welcomed are able to contribute to Australia. Migration is a two-way transaction; in longer term it works only if both sides benefit, and I don’t mean it purely in material terms, though that is important too.

I also don’t think that “people right in the middle” need “a bit of a reminder about Australia’s real identity”. If anything, they are probably getting tired about being patronised and lectured (“These people are not bigots, they’re just people who have forgotten our strength.” Well, how big of you). Unlike many on the left I don’t believe Australia is a racist or xenophobic nation that hates migrants and refugees. I do believe, however, that an overwhelming majority of Australians, regardless of their more specific political beliefs or lack thereof, want two things of any migrant – and that includes any refugee – who comes into this country:

Try to fit in – this doesn’t mean you have to ditch your clothes, food, or language, but you need to subscribe to the basic social compact that binds all citizens: commitment to democracy, one law for all, respect for others’ rights, tolerance of difference.

Try to contribute – become a productive member of society: educate yourself, get a job, pay taxes, start a business, get involved in your community.

As long as, as a migrant, you have a go in both these ways, I believe most Australians couldn’t give a flying emu what colour you are, what God, if any, you worship, what you wear, what you eat and what language you speak at home.

Australia offers so much to all those, like myself, who come here and make it their new home. I don’t think it’s too much to ask in return.