Us and THem - How does my city integrate?

Here's my latest post for the Goethe Institute's Cityscape's blog: “Us and Them - How does my city integrate?" 40% of Sydney's residents were born overseas; the people I work with have Indian, German, Polish, British, and Lebanese backgrounds.

As I explained in last month's entry, one of my colleagues is of Anglo-Indian origin, he was born in India but later moved to the UK. It was in Sydney however, that he finally felt home as everyone here has an "uprooted" background.

Given Australia's history – for a long time the the White Australia Policy was essence of antipodean nationalism – Sydney integrates remarkably well.

Several migration schemes and the final denunciation of the White Australia policy under Whitlam meant that Australia faced the highest rate of incoming migration in the OECD.

Within a very short amount of time Australia and its small and homogeneous base became a diverse country in which 22 per cent of the population were born overseas and another 18.3 per cent have at least one overseas born parent.

This meant that for governments from the 1970s onwards presiding over a multicultural Australia, new representations of identity were required. Waves of migration multiplied the complexities of identity and consequently led to the acknowledgment that any future constructions of the Australian 'national character' had to be plural.

Australia's culture became perpetually emergent, as are all 'new world' nations formed in the cusp of poly-ethnic migration.

However, I would argue that there still is a distinct element of "Australianess", the one element that actually helps to accommodate all these people to their new home.

Australia has always been proud of its egalitarianism, it was the country of the "fair go". The Becoming an Australian Citizen booklet which serves as a preparation for the naturalisation test, explains that "Australia prides itself on being an egalitarian society where no one is regarded as better than anyone else"

It is questionable in how far this egalitarianism expresses itself in social terms. Then again, Australia's egalitarianism was not simply an empty ritual. Australia's democracy centred around an egalitarianism of manners, the only egalitarianism to still exist today.

The manners of public life were traditionally direct, open and non-deferential making Australia's democracy first of all a democracy of manners. It is the way Australians blot out social differences when people meet face to face. It is the feel of Australian society that is so markedly egalitarian, not its social structure.

In contrast to the past, where the fair dinkum Aussie was based on exclusion, this egalitarianism makes makes for a populism of Australia in the multicultural era. It is a non-antagonistic mobilisation of a sense of community.

The only qualification for membership was that you were ordinary and unpretentious. There are some people inhabiting the country that were not really Australian: the pretentious, personalities whose codes of dress, speech and conduct are held to be artificial and distant.

In contrast to the 'primordial' national traditions of the more 'established' European nations with their long history of highbrow culture, the strongest core of Australia's identity was easy to share: anybody could be unaffected and open.

Admittedly, it is an egalitarianism of manners, social division are still strongly translated into spatial divisions, ask the residents of Sydney's west – a part of the city that also sees people living side by side in parallel societies that do not always conform to ideas of democracy and freedom.

And yes, there is also opposition to further migration, some are afraid of a "big Australia" and proclaim that the country is full. Not only do they oversee the potential benefits of a growing population, there's also a certain irony in proclaiming that a continent with 22 million inhabitants is "full".

Overall Sydney came has come a remarkably long way, for the most part its "us and us" than "us and them"