Modern Times

Europe’s philosophic, aesthetic and political traditions once dominated our worldview. Many Australians today look to Asia due to geography and economic opportunity, and to the United States and the United Kingdom as a result of its cultural proximity. But Europe continues to shine a light on human potential – both good and bad – and remains relevant to our future.

Insular attitudes in Europe are threatening the legitimacy of the European Union, which has contributed to the relative peace and stability that has followed a century of violence. Nationalists have returned to mainstream politics in many European countries, including France, Italy, Greece, and throughout Scandinavia.

European nationalists are strongly opposed to the free movement of people guaranteed to citizens of member states. Earlier this year, Switzerland also voted to limit immigration. The cap was proposed by the far-right Swiss People’s Party and was passed at a national referendum by a thin majority. Switzerland has effectively reneged on the Schengen Agreement that assures freedom of movement for EU citizens.

This modern era is well suited to simple messages that appeal to insecurity and there is a growing fear that both national identity and economic opportunity is increasingly compromised by high levels of immigration. Armed with a narrative that proposes a solution to common fears, the extreme-right is mobilising many Europeans who are insecure about their future.

A nation’s identity is dynamic – since the beginning of organised society, not one culture has evolved in absolute isolation. This modern era has, however, seen an accelerated loss of linguistic, cultural as well as market diversity. If we all speak the same language, listen to the same music, watch the same films and consume the same products, has race and religion become the only valid expressions of national or cultural identity?

The renewed appeal of nationalism is, to some extent, a reaction to the suffocating effect globalisation has had on many local, ethnic and national traditions – but a national or cultural identity reflects shared values and cultural expressions, rather than a narrow focus on race, religion or ethnicity.

Italian essayist Raffaele Simone has pointedly argued that the rise of the extreme-right has coincided with the intellectual death of the European Left, which refuses to even discuss the issue of mass immigration. In Australia, Labor appears similarly reluctant to present a serious policy alternative on any aspect of immigration policy.

Does the European condition hold any relevance for Australia? The Right in Australia cannot oppose immigration because population growth has become crucial to our future prosperity. Immigration has increased five-fold over the past two decades and is currently one of the principal reasons for economic growth.

The Coalition instead targets a narrow group of immigrants – ‘boat people’. Asylum seekers generally are too few to contribute substantially to the economic growth upon which the Coalition derives its political legitimacy, and are therefore considered easy game. They have developed a simple, effective message through which it can mobilise those Australians who remain deeply fearful of the unknown ‘other’ – desperate individuals, most of whom are legitimately fleeing persecution.

Conservatives benefit politically from the present discourse, where asylum seekers are demonised but other forms of immigration are considered a necessary economic commodity. This politically effective strategy has been achieved without drawing attention to its inherent moral contradiction, rendering mildly xenophobic sentiments an acceptable position in mainstream Australia. As is increasingly the case in Europe, we focus on the security of our borders rather than what is happening within.

This situation must be urgently remedied. Australians of my generation would vividly recall the shame that we felt at the rise of Pauline Hanson, yet she is now an acceptable public figure in Australia. During the same period, Marine Le Pen has moved from the fringes towards the centre of French politics. Arguments which once prompted outrage are now deemed legitimate.

The Left in Australia, as in Europe, has failed to develop a potent response to popular fears that does not compromise its inclusive, humanistic values. Without a prevailing counter-force, we have lost the moral compass which once guided the nation’s decency. We are now told by the Attorney-General George Brandis that Australians have the “right to be bigots”.

Australia will continue to rely on immigration for our economic prosperity and we will continue to benefit from the wondrous diversity that immigration bestows. We cannot rely on immigration to grow our economy but simultaneously stoke fears of the unknown ‘other’ and laud our right to bigotry. If we continue to adopt an increasingly insular approach that dehumanises the feared ‘other’ the internal explosion that awaits Europe could well be also felt on our shores.

Andrew Hunter is the National Chair of the Australian Fabians.


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