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Tuesday, 27 October 2015

Not all the people of Toowoomba are redneck hicks

Ok, bear with me. I know it sounds like just another inner-city attack on rural Australia, but there's a point to this headline. It stems from the Q&A the ABC screened from the Empire Theatre in Toowoomba, southern Queensland, and a question from the audience that emerged about halfway through the show. The questioner in the audience wanted to ask the mayor of Toowoomba about strategies to help the town's share of the mooted 12,000 Syrian refugees Australia recently elected to accept "assist [them] in adapting to our [Australia's] democratic laws and system of government, and what is being done to ensure that they contribute positively to the social cohesion of Toowoomba and to the economic growth of the city, rather than become welfare dependent."

The person the question was directed to, Paul Antonio, started by using the word "assimilate" in his long response to the questioner, so you didn't have to wait long to see the redneck impulse raise itself up in the crowd. Given that the question was designed to whistle up the racist impulse in any case. But it didn't stop with the mayor. Next up to talk was Katie Noonan, a singer and a political progressive, who also used the word to describe the process whereby refugees are included in the society. It went on, too. Compere Tom Ballard used it, then quickly changed his word choice - possibly realising that the official policy of assimilation had been ditched by the Whitlam government in 1973, and replaced with multiculturalism - from "assimilate" to "resettle", a far less loaded word.

Then Jan Thomas, the VC of Southern Queensland University, also used the word "assimilation" in her peroration on the benefits of learning English and of getting a tertiary qualification in order to become a contributing participant in the local economy. Thomas did, however, change that term to "helping people acclimatise" later in her answer. And even the Labor Party pollie, Joel Fitzgibbon, used the term in his response.

None of these people released that what they were doing using the word "assimilate" - which the original questioner did not use even though he had certain racist designs in mind when framing his question - was taking the debate back to the 1950s when assimilation was official government policy. They didn't clock to the fact that they were perpetuating the myth belonging to the redneck hick that migrants just congregate in the big cities and bludge off the public purse (and vote Labor).

But it's this kind of almost-unconscious backsliding that is going to do us in in the end. We have to realise that diversity and tolerance are the best ways to move forward. All of us do. And especially those in southern Queensland. All of Australia still remembers Joh Bjelke-Petersen who had his political base in the Darling Downs. And Queensland itself cannot forget, which is why the last LNP government of Campbell Newman only lasted one term. Anything ... Anything at all to avoid the endemic evil of that era ever occurring again.

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