I am 87 years old and within my lifetime a marvellous thing has happened to my country. It has become a multicultural nation. The migrant people who have come to my country, many of them refugees escaping pain beyond my experience or comprehension, have brought with them the gifts and talents they needed to make new lives in a foreign country. Soon it was no longer a foreign country. It was their home, their country, a place where they were welcome and secure. They became its citizens in a ceremony which affirmed their welcome. They adopted, sometimes easily and quickly, sometimes with difficulty and slowly, the lifestyle of their new country. They enriched it by their culture and willingness to work towards a future filled with hope and happiness. They built strong bonds with us and helped us to reshape the values not only of our nation but of our common humanity.
The process by which this came about was not always easy; but despite difficulties, some of which are still with us, it is an amazing story. Let me outline it briefly as background to Refugee Week: Australia’s Migration and Australia’s Welcome with special reference to the Goulburn Valley.
1901 to 1945
Australia’s colonies federated in 1901 and became the Commonwealth of Australia. That same year the new parliament passed an Act which was designed to ensure that Australia would be forever a country of white people. Half of the members of the first Parliament and 5 of the first 7 Prime Ministers had been born in Britain. Early in the century migrants were encouraged to come to irrigated blocks in the Goulburn Valley from Britain. Jewish people who were refugees from persecution were also welcomed into the Goulburn Valley. They became an important part of the new orchard industry as did people from Britain. Later on Turkish families migrated to the Goulburn Valley, formed a strong community with their own mosque and contributed very significantly to economic and social life.
There was a steady flow of assisted British and European migrants to Australia during this long period which saw two world wars and the Great Depression; but the population of Australia was still only 7.5 million by 1945. The White Australia Policy prevailed for the whole of this period.
1945 to 2016
After narrowly escaping invasion by Japan Australia launched an ambitious populate or perish immigration program. It was primarily focused on migrants from Britain but many people came to Australia as migrants from Europe in those post war years.
Station Pier – where many migrants had their first glimpse of Australia
Then came a steady move away from the White Australia Policy culminating in its repeal by the Racial Discrimination Act in 1975. But the change had commenced long before that with many Asian Immigrants being accepted from 1960 onwards.
The recognition that Australia was rapidly becoming a multicultural society came in the 1970’s. By 1981 the population of Australia had increased to 14.5 million from the 7.5 million in 1945. The Minister for Immigration Al Grassby had begun to use the term multicultural in the 1970’s and he affirmed that “each ethnic group desiring it is permitted to create its own cultural heritage indefinitely, while taking part in the general life of the nation.”
Here in Shepparton the Sikh Community for instance have taken that advice to heart. For many years their place of worship was the St Brendan’s parish hall. Once they established themselves as major contributors to the productivity of the Goulburn Valley they were able to build their own beautiful temple. It is something for us all to be proud of. For many migrant people maintaining their faith lives is a priority and a means of affirming their identity as they adjust to a new life style.
The best way to summarise the significance of this period from 1945 to 2016 is simply to say that 7.5 million immigrants and refugees settled in Australia in those years meaning that around one quarter of our present population have been born overseas in countries from all over the world but more recently in large numbers in Asia and Africa.
It would be foolish to suggest that all this has happened without problems arising. There are problems of housing and employment for instance. There are many who doubt whether Australia has the resources needed to provide for its growing population. There are those who fear that refugees will create in Australia the problems from which they have escaped. We are all concerned for those people currently detained on Manus Island and Nauru. These are not problems beyond our capacity to deal with positively, co-operatively and with good will.
I would like to end on three happy notes. I especially like the story of a Scottish lady who saw in a paper an advertisement offering assisted passage to Australia for prospective migrants to a new irrigation development in the Goulburn Valley. She went to London with her children, was accepted as a migrant and duly arrived in Shepparton around 1910 where she was allocated a block in Orrvale which did not yet have water but which she and her children with the help of neighbours eventually turned into an orchard. Her eldest son, after serving in the army, was allocated an orchard block of his own. He later became Sir John McDonald the Premier of Victoria and legislated for the construction of the new Eildon Weir.
Construction works on Lake Eildon Dam Wall 1954
Once when things were going so badly on the new orchards in the early days a meeting was called to decide to walk off the blocks. Mrs McDonald made a speech at which she said, “If we walked off my family and l would have nowhere to go. Would you have anywhere to go?” Her point was taken. They stayed and eventually prospered. We hope the same happens for our dairy farmers.
When I was a pupil at a school of thirty pupils built in a farmer’s paddock in West Gippsland in the late 1930’s there was one Italian migrant family in the district. We called them dagoes and thought they were very inferior to us. But one of their children named Erminia was in my grade and I thought she was rather pretty, although her parents could not afford nice clothes for her. Many years later when I was inspecting a school in Box Hill she came and re-introduced herself to me. She was then a handsome, beautifully dressed woman, with several children at the school, and happily married to an Italian migrant who had prospered in Australia.
Finally, at a birthday some years ago, my son made a speech in which he said, ”The best thing my parents ever did was to move to Shepparton because they made such good friends ere.” He could have added that among the closest friends were people from Sri Lanka, India, the Philippines and Uganda. Sure, Shepparton has problems, but it is a great place to live, and we will work together on those problems.
Talk given at GOTAFE by Pat Crudden during Refugee Week, 2016, at the Interfaith event, Refugee Week: Australia’s Migration and Australia’s Welcome. Pat Crudden passed away one year later on 26 June 2017. He had earlier given permission to the Interfaith Network for publication of his talk.
Members at the Annual General Meeting of Shepparton Interfaith Network, February 2013
from L to R: Nancy Hawkins, Frank Purcell, Wendy Gannon, Rev. Rosalie Rayment-Hewitt, Eileen Dolan, Malcolm Holmes, Pat Crudden, Joan McRae, Muhammad Bob Graham