Australia’s annual celebration of people who have found a safe haven on our shores — Refugee Week — is occurring at a time of heightened individualism.
Since the recent federal election, friends, neighbours, politicians and commentators have been telling me that many Australians have become inward looking and self-focused — that we have abandoned our pursuit of the common good in favour personal comfort and security: ‘what’s in it for me’.
Recent research shows we are not alone; individualism is on the rise globally. Counterintuitively, socioeconomic development is a predictor of whether individualistic practices and values will increase in a country over time. This means that, as people’s comfort and affluence increases, they become more concerned with things they suspect may infringe upon that quality of life.
Is this really true of Australia? Even if the commentators are right, is this the way it has to be?
We live in a country with a high quality of life and a stable economy, where we can speak our minds without risking vilification or violence. Being born in this country is not something we have earned or achieved. We won the birth lottery.
My own parents came to Australia as migrants from post-WWII Greece. As a child, I remember visiting my dad’s village on the island of Chios and being bewildered by the lack of running water and electricity. As an adult, all I can do is appreciate the foresight that saw my parents leave behind their homeland to seek a better life for my sisters and me.
Not everyone has the opportunity my parents did. More than 68 million people globally have been displaced because of war or persecution. Yet, each year, only around 103,000 of those people have hope of resettling elsewhere.
What I regularly hear from the people we resettle in Australia is relief, hope and gratitude — gratitude for the safety our country offers and for the opportunity to build a life in which they can realise their full potential.
On the other hand, what I heard from many Australian-born voters in the lead up to the recent election is that they feel they have become a repressed ‘other’ in their own country. This is perhaps unsurprising given comments from politicians on both sides of the aisle blaming new Australians for everything from congestion to youth unemployment.
So what does this have to do with Refugee Week? Cultural celebrations help us to come together. They help to break down barriers between established and emerging communities and challenge our misconceptions about one another. During Refugee Week, share a meal, listen to a story, attend an event — get curious about the things that make us different.
This week is a chance for us to remember that we live in a society, not an economy — to open our hearts and minds to the idea that our differences are a strength, not a weakness. If we cannot sit respectfully around the table with people whose experiences differ from our own, how can we hope to find common cause on our approach to important issues?
As Australians, we need to be aspirational about the kind of country we want to be, rather than just protecting the kind of country we have now. We have different views and opinions, but we also have a lot in common. We share values, a love for our land, and a responsibility to see our country grow. It is on each of us to look for ways to raise the bar and resume our pursuit of the common good.