STRAWS IN THE WIND: by Max TeichmannNews Weekly
Migration debate revisited / Migrating on the SS Urea (1970) / 2008 postscript
, September 13, 2008
Migration debate revisited
The following article of mine appeared in the first issue of Australia's Nation Review
(October 11, 1970). It seemed to bring together many things that people were feeling. It was published in schoolbooks for the reasons mentioned above.
Only as the migration debate became more and more ideological, and the multicultural industry turned into a kind of cultural Godzilla, did an approach such as mine in this article cease to satisfy what were really presentiments of the new class. It was not ideological. It did not advocate assimilation - far from it - nor isolation. Certainly not the revolution. And it probably held open the desirability of integration.
;Migrating on the SS Urea
The day after we got on board I contracted an eye infection, cured by massive doses of penicillin. During the weeks that followed, it sometimes seemed as though half the passengers were host to some bowel or bladder infection - every second Yugoslav woman carried a sick and listless child. My wife soon contracted a kidney infection which resisted all probings of the ever-ready penicillin needle.
Of course, we were mad to go on a migrant ship. All travel agents had warned us against it. "Don't you know about these ships carrying Southern Europeans to Australia?" they said. Not the kind of ship Australians travel on.
They were right; only a dozen or so Australians accompanied us; the rest were Italians, Yugoslavs and Maltese. Wogs, as the English migrants used to say. Brits at Southampton, Sicilians at Messina, Maltese at Valetta, Italians at Naples, 700 Yugoslavs at Genoa.
The crew had marched around saying that a rough crowd were getting on at Genoa - hillbillies from Yugoslavia. Dangerous people, apparently. As I watched the lines of pathetic, bewildered people filing on board, clutching their bundles of possessions, the men thrusting out their chests to emphasise their only consolation, their manhood, I speculated as to how such people could possibly be dangerous.
Down they went to the ship's bowels, the women loaded with cheese and sausages to feed their children when they arrived in Australia. The men carried flick knives to protect their precious manhood.
The English migrants presented another kind of problem. Sometimes it appeared as if every one of them was a Powellite. Their mental world was seriously overpopulated by Spades, Paks and Wogs, and some never missed a chance to insult the Italian and Maltese passengers whom they encountered.
They took over the upstairs bar, which they renamed the Colonial Bar. Here, Wogs were given the deep freeze. They groused endlessly about the ship, the food, the Wogs, and the evil Wilson Government. "If only the Australian Government knew how we were being treated," they used to say, "they'd put a stop to this. They'd realise how impossible it is for us to travel on the same ship as all these Wogs."
I had to tell them that it was unlikely that the Australian Government cared a damn, about them or about anyone else.
The Italians and Maltese passengers, many of them English-speaking, used to be incensed at the waves of hostility and assertions of racial superiority, which came from the more outspoken of the English.
"They seem to think they have some personal invitation from the Australian Government," they said. "Are they given special rights in Australia?" "No," I would answer, "far from it. In fact, many people call them bloody Pommy bastards."
"Do Australians insult Italians with nasty names?" "No," I would lie, "you won't have trouble in Australia."
What can one say? They'd run into the walls of indifference and rudeness soon enough. Still, one couldn't help worrying about what was going to happen to a lot of these migrants. The Yugoslavs appeared to have been brought out as a supply of cheap docile labour.
No attempt had been made to teach them English or acquaint them with their new land. True, English classes were held on board, mainly by volunteers among the passengers. No waste of government money here.
Trouble was, none of the teachers spoke Serbo-Croat, and most of the students were Italians or people who said they were Yugoslavs, but were actually Poles or Czechs who spoke some English.
The Yugoslavs stayed away. They accepted their status as non-persons. Which is why some of them came to hate our guts as the voyage went on, and perhaps why they became distinctly ropable.
The Italians, especially the English-speakers, were a good deal better off. They wouldn't go straight down to the bottom of the social pile, like the Slavs, nor would their children. At least, some of them wouldn't. And when they stepped off the boat to meet an indifferent and selfish local population, and a callous penny-pinching government, they wouldn't be alone, even if they spoke no English.
There would be friends or relatives who would take them into the local ghettos. There, by working very hard and by helping one another, they would prosper, and their children might gain social acceptance of a sort. Naturally, they would be reviled for sticking together, working too hard, and taking over various WASP suburbs.
The indifference of the Immigration Department to the rights and feelings of their migrants takes many forms. Certainly, the kind of ships in which many of the new settlers travel, and the camps and hostels awaiting them, belong to the early 19th century, not to this one.
Hopelessly overcrowded, families split up among distant cabins, children's playrooms only able to cope with a fraction of the 500 children on board, toilet facilities which collapsed under the strain of numbers and became the breeding grounds for skin and internal diseases which ran up and down the ship, the Urea
provided just about the worst introduction to life in Australia that an intelligent saboteur could have devised.
When one remembered that many of these passengers had been cooling their heels in camps before sailing, and that they were going to be dumped into similar camps and hostels when they landed, one could start to gauge the amount of resentment and disillusionment with which migrants start their new lives.
Half-formed plans to return to England were already starting up in the minds of many of the British. The cause was the same in every case - the realisation that the Australian Government regarded them with utter indifference, as bodies to be taken from one point to another, then set to work to make money for Australians.
The question arises: why do we want all these migrants? After the last war, the main psychological drive was to fill up the continent, willy-nilly, to keep out the coloured hordes.
Like the Russians, we fear the Yellow Peril, so revert to transportation.
There was also a labour shortage, and many lowly jobs which did not attract Australians. So we ran a system of indentured labour. There were never arguments for diversifying our society, improving its quality or attracting experts. Times have not changed.
The main Government interest in migrants was and is in their political background: afterwards in any signs of political radicalism. Known non-conformists were excluded; when they slipped through the net, they faced systematic political persecution upon detection. For the rest, migrants could live as poorly or as well as they liked.
Government and community attitude to critics among migrants is: if you don't like it, buzz off. Questions of social change or innovation are not up for discussion in this country.
The results of all this have been predictable. Large sections of migrants are non-assimilated, except at the most superficial level. Non-assimilation can produce a welcome diversification of a society: here it has meant alienation.
A great strain has been placed on our social services, our housing and our education system. Has it been worth it? Have we had any plan for quantity or quality of migrants, apart from the quantitative goal annually announced by the Immigration Department?
This figure is just a Tatts number. We have no national development plan, no labour or housing or social services plans. The Ministerial figure is rubbish without them. We just go on dumping larger and larger numbers of people into the community with no thought for the consequences. We have the psychology of blackbirders.
But when we deplore the great cost of the migration program, we should never speak of the costs of recruiting, transporting or looking after migrants. These are but a fraction of what we should be spending.
In all probability, more Australians would be prepared to spend the extra money necessary than to alter their basic attitudes to foreigners, of which Government policies are but faithful reflections.
When I landed, I sounded off to a journalist friend, who faithfully took it all down and gave it to her editor. What appeared in that Melbourne daily was a predictable travesty.
I can only say in self-defence that I'd been away, and had forgotten how our newspapers treated such matters. What was printed looked like a racist outburst by a grumpy Old Australian.
Not surprisingly, I received an abusive letter from a migrant:"If migrants are anti-social, you Australians make us such. Calling us bloody Dagos, new Aust. bastards, wogs, etc., shall never make us fair dinkum Aussies. It is almost useless to try to mix and look for friendship with the Australian rough rude Nazis.
"You need our hands for building this rotten dry desert, because you are lazy no-hopers. If you had no migrants, you would have been living like Flintstones. Who wants to work a dirty job for miserable $40 weekly, listen to all the dirty insults and remarks from his Aust. mates, sit home on weekends like zombi without family life and short of entertainment?
"Your culture starts at Flemington and ends at Caulfield. Mickey Mouse, Donald Duck and Ned Kelly are your national heroes. I am going back to Europe after New Year. I am really looking forward to leaving this foreign legion in which European migrants have no right to work in their trades, no right to get a glass of beer on Sunday in a happy atmosphere, cannot get a girl friend, etc., etc.
"Keep this rotten life for idiots. Don't seduce intelligent Europeans to migrate to Australia under false pretences.
"Bloody New Australian Bastard."
What remains to be said?
None of them spoke English, or had the faintest knowledge of what might await them in Australia. It soon emerged that they weren't going to find out on that ship. None of the crew spoke Serbo-Croat, and alternatively feared and despised these passengers.
The munificent Australian Government had no Yugoslav interpreter aboard, but there were piles of old copies of the Women's Weekly
and Australasian Post
in the lounges, to fill in the new Australians about the kind of country they were going to. The Slavs used to stare dutifully at the pictures of bunny girls, stock car races, and socialites at Mount Buller.
Eventually a Yugoslav speaker was found among the English passengers, and thereafter he laboured each day, and far into the night, persuading the women to take their sick children to the doctor, intervening in the quarrels of the overwrought men, telling the people that they had to throw their now maggot-infested cheeses and sausages overboard, and that there actually were sausages and cheeses in Australia.- Max Teichmann, "Migrating on the SS Urea", Nation Review (October 11, 1970). 2008 postscript
I don't think my attitude on this has changed. If anything, I'm still an integrationist.
It was also an essentially pragmatic protest on my part: not just migrants, nobody
should be treated the way my companions were treated. Very soon afterwards these ships were pulled out, and more and more migrants came by air, and their luggage and belongings by sea, as before.
I think it made a considerable difference to the people concerned, but did not in any way replace the inevitable psychological wound that is part of migration. I doubt if that ever entirely goes away.- Max Teichmann.