Learning to speak Australian

Penny at the swearing in ceremony for the 43rd Parliament - potentially writing in Australian (via http://www.pennywong.com.au)
Penny at the swearing in ceremony for the 43rd Parliament – potentially writing in Australian (via http://www.pennywong.com.au)

In another edifying update to #thisweekinAustralianpolitics, “outspoken” Liberal Senator, Ian MacDonald prompted Senator Penelope Ying-Yen “Penny” Wong to call for the withdrawal of comments made to fellow Labor Senator, Doug Cameron, namely that he “learn to speak Australian”.

While Senator MacDonald told Daily Mail Australia: “This is political correctness to the Nth degree – I was saying it to Doug Cameron, and poor old Dougie got hurt and ran to Penny,” it’s probably more accurately described as yet another incident of casual racism and proof conclusive that Aaron Sorkin isn’t ghost-writing Australian question time.

Feel free to watch for yourself the truly delightful moment at approximately 29s, where our mate, “Macca”, clarifies his comments.

Part of me really wants to go to town on remarks like this, not necessarily because the act itself is somehow worthy of the additional air time or merely because racism is a “hot topic” in the face of – say, Australia’s persistent stance on those seeking asylum or the spectator harassment of Adam Goodes. Racism in Australia is of more than passing interest to me personally and to the Peril editorial team at large. Questioning racism is, as they say, #ourcorebusiness.

There is value in challenging comments like these because they serve to highlight the endemic racist attitudes and practices (conscious and unconscious) that pervade Australia’s institutions, both public and private.

The other part of me is incredibly bored at the idea of having to tell White Australia to check its lazy racism. You know why? Because White Australia is not listening, because it tires me and my colleagues out and – from the perspective of this publication at least – it takes away precious time and resources from recognising, celebrating and progressing the incredible cultural contributions made by Asian Australians and other #strayanspeaking people who flew here, grew here or otherwise.

Maybe it would be faster to just send Senator MacDonald an “Australian” Peril reading list from our recent edition, Marginasia?

Maybe we could start with Chris Su’s call to understand humanity and compassion in the face of great crisis and tragedy, knowing that “We all different. But still same-same one.” It’s not a long piece, so it shouldn’t tax his time too much. Then, perhaps, Angela Serrano could school him with a few examples of Australia’s naïve innocence/social stupidity in the face of an Asia that “defies easy typecasting and contains infinitely exciting multitudes”. If he’s a history buff, he could try Nadia Rhook and her extended reflection on the ways that we can “see and feel white dominance for what it has long been in this country: variously denied, ignored and resisted by people of colour, spatially dependent, and definitively incomplete.” And if the message isn’t coming home yet, perhaps Léuli Eshraghi could let Senator MacDonald in on the idea that “naming places, peoples and knowledges from the perspectives of Europeans is a powerful, enduring violence of imperialism”. When he wants to know what that feels like in your body – that deep abiding violence – how hard it is to unlearn the “translations of your skin”, I’ll send him Eunice Andrada’s poem, Roots: A New Taxonomy.

Don’t even get me started on the numbers of Indigenous Australian languages that I can only assume Senator MacDonald* is not referring to.

I am aware of the subtle nuance of the comments being directed at Senator Cameron rather than at Senator Wong herself – white man to another white man, albeit one who speaks with a heavy Scottish accent. Because Senator Cameron is a Scottish-born Australian parliamentarian. I also read your anti-female shade there too, Senator MacDonald, belittling poor “Dougie” for having to run behind some woman’s skirts. Well done, you.

That said, I have it on good authority that Penny Wong speaks excellent Australian. And as a queer, Asian Australian woman, I don’t have a lot of folk to look up to in public life, so let me just leave you one nice thing that Senator Wong once said, perhaps in her maiden speech to parliament, thereby taking on the “privilege and honour … to have the opportunity to speak in this chamber” and hang out with incredible civic figures like you, the MotherFather of the Senate. In it, she reflected on her family background:

Perhaps this family history is why I place such an emphasis on the need for compassion. What lies at the heart of any truly civilised society? Surely it must be compassion. Compassion must be that underlying principle, that core value at the heart of our collective consciousness. If not compassion, then what? Economic efficiency? Or the imposition of some subjective moral code, defined by some and imposed on the many?

To call for compassion is not a plea for some bleeding-heart view of the world or a retreat to weak or populist government. Nor is it to shirk the responsibility of leadership to make hard decisions when these are called for. But it is to assert that those with power should act with compassion for those who have less, and that the experience of those who are marginalised cannot be bypassed, ignored or minimised as it so often is. Compassion is what underscores our relationships with one another, and it is compassion which enables us to come to a place of community even in our diversity. Yet this country in recent times has been sadly lacking in compassion.

Let us reclaim the phrase ‘one nation’. I seek a nation that is truly one nation, one in which all Australians can share regardless of race or gender, or other attribute, and regardless of where they live, and where difference is not a basis for exclusion. We do not live in such a country. We are not yet truly one nation. But it is the task of political leaders to build one.

Because I’m trying to learn to be more compassionate while dismantling the racist, hetero-patriarchal, capitalist state and still perpetuating the myth of the grateful migrant, I’m going to leave it here. But get ready for when #PennyWong passes you in the hallways of Parliament House, mate.



* Aka the Sarah Palin of Australian politics.

Author: Eleanor Jackson

Eleanor Jackson is a Filipino Australian poet, performer, arts producer and community radio broadcaster. Eleanor Jackson is a former Editor in Chief and Poetry Editor of Peril and currently Chair of the Board.

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