Reverend Tim Costello
Thank you for the welcome. It is a great pleasure to be here.
I experienced diversity and I guess it was in a very powerful way when my wife and I lived in Switzerland in the early 1980’s. We went to study theology there. We lived in a seminary that was made up with twenty-five different nationalities. We discovered that there is no such thing as a cross-cultural joke. People who have our sort of humour might be perhaps British or even some of the Swedes but it was very baffling for people who are Nigerian and Hungarian. One experience we had of some confusing humour was once in a student seminar singing our effective national anthem, Waltzing Matilda, and having a Hungarian come up, but quite puzzled, and say, “What was that line? He waited till his billy boiled.” We tried to explain it, and he said, “That’s funny, in my language a billy is a chamber-pot.”
The customs of life in the Swiss culture even though it’s Western and part of Europe, were quite different when it came to giving birth. Our first child Claire was born there. Six weeks before the birth the doctor wanted to do an ultrasound just to be sure about how it was going. After the ultra-sound, without us asking or wanting to know, the doctor said to my wife, and me “You are having a boy.” Well, we now knew, so we prepared for this birth by cutting out the headlines from English papers about Prince William who had just been born to Charles and Di. The huge headlines in the papers were It’s a boy!” We cut it out; we’d chosen a name, all we had to write into this newssheet we’d send home, was the weight of the baby.
When we went into hospital because the birth was being induced, the Registrar at the door said, “You can’t go in for a birth until you have registered a boy’s name and a girls name.” If you’re Swiss it has to be from a prescribed list of names. They were making some concession to us being foreigners. We could choose a non-listed name, We said, “Look, we know it’s a boy so we only have to register a boy’s name.” They accepted that. The birth was as all births are, quite long and painful and difficult, and made more difficult because the Swiss German doctor insisted on speaking in his quite broken English, and shouting at my wife, Merridie, “Pull! Pull!” I remember interrupting and saying, “Do you mean Push.” “Jawohl,” he said. “Push!” Not much difference between those words! Well, after a long and difficult labour, finally this head emerged and this baby came out. My wife, utterly exhausted, said to me, It’s a boy, isn’t it, Tim?”
Now, I’m a lawyer by training, I looked at this baby, I looked at my exhausted wife, and my mind couldn’t compute. I knew it wasn’t a boy, but because I absolutely trusted doctors, I couldn’t imagine what it was. I said to the doctor, “Doctor, what’s this?” The doctor looked at me and he said, “Everybody gets something wrong. It’s a girl.” I said, It’s a girl! Well, then there was enormous pressure placed on us because we had only registered a boy’s name and there in the birth unit I was required to choose a girl’s name. No time, no space. In the Swiss culture, this had to be registered now, and this seemed to be a crisis that could bring down the whole hospital system!
Without any consultation I found myself choosing a girl’s name, and I chose the name Claire, because of which I copped a little bit of flack from my wife for a week or two. She finally came round to accepting it. The other crisis was that when the doctor weighed our daughter Claire she weighed about 4.8 kilograms, about 10lb 6ozs, which he hadn’t predicted. He’d by now got the gender wrong, he’d got his English wrong, and he hadn’t predicted the size. He was really quite confused. He turned to me and said, with this look of real confusion said, “Are all Australians this big?” At that moment I felt like saying, “Oh no, we usually throw these ones back.”
Well, birth was a very different experience in a Swiss hospital to how we experienced it with our next two children back in Australian hospitals. The culture, communication and a whole range of cues and expectations, we automatically understood.
However, it is very much the case that my daughter, who’s now 18, feels enormously special. We hear her talking on the phone to her friends telling them that she was born in Switzerland. She plays that out for its full worth, not that it’s worth that much because unfortunately to get any citizenship status you’ve got to be living there continuously for 10 years. In fact, to become a Swiss citizen and get residency status, after 10 years, they will come into your home, and check what you know about the history, run their finger under the mantelpiece to see if there’s dust and dirt. There are certain cultural expectations about cleanliness, certainly in the Swiss-German cantons. My daughter hasn’t any residency by virtue of being born there as one might achieve by being born here.
Nonetheless, I have watched with great pleasure and even amusement as she elaborates her Swiss identity and watch what that means to her. She certainly carries her great dream, which hasn’t been experienced yet of going back to the place where she was bom and trying to piece together the stories we’ve told her.
I value very much that experience of being in a cross-cultural situation, though it was very unnerving because humour and a sense of ease are culturally specific. If there is a misunderstanding over a cross-cultural joke you feel like you’re treading water when people don’t understand your humour.
It’s in understanding and struggling with this that you actively grow. You realise that you have put on a pair of spectacles and you see reality through those spectacles. A different culture with a different set of spectacles might be looking often at the same realities, at birth, at love, in our case, the theology we were studying, but they see it so differently.
I grew up in the eastern suburbs of Melbourne: Blackburn. Blackburn and that area is known in Melbourne as the Bible Belt. In fact Blackburn is the buckle of the Bible Belt. In my world, everyone I knew in my church, voted Liberal. Everyone I knew was very suspicious of anything that was communist or socialist.
So you can imagine the deep shock upon arrival in Switzerland when I discovered that the Baptists from Italy who were training for the Baptist ministry all voted Communist. This caused deep shock with me. Why? Because they believed that the Mafioso, with the Christian Democrats, (and they would say with sometimes connivance or a blind eye from the Catholic Church centred in the Vatican), wouldn’t clean up the corruption. And the Italian Communist leader Berlinguer’s Communism, a strong social democratic form of Communism, would tackle the really tough issues.
Growing up in my culture it was very clear that my views about pre-marital sex clashed with Scandinavian Baptists. It shocked me. In my culture, the people I grew up with certainly didn’t drink or smoke. Yet all the English and German Baptists liked to do both. I started to find that even within this tag we call Baptists, the culture interpreted the fundamental practices totally differently. And for me, it meant that I had to actually ask, ‘do I have a cultural Gospel, or do I actually have a universal Faith? Are there things that are true and that must transcend my discomfort culturally? What allegiances might I have in terms of Christian faith that actually relativise my understanding of the way things are.’
That was very important for me because when I left Switzerland and went to work in St Kilda I had a very deeply ingrained assumption that a person who really would be in the Church would actually be someone like me, so I was disturbed on my first Sunday that those in the evening congregation were schizophrenic people, people with drug problems, sometimes people who came from a very seedy sort of background, from the sex industry, and workers like that. In. the back of my mind I was judging them, I was judging them because for me a person who had a respectable Christian faith was a futurist. If they had money they didn’t blow it on drink, drugs or revelry. They saved it for a house deposit, or an education, or for travel.
The people who were coming to the evening service from street backgrounds, if they had money they blew it on a party. That seemed to me irresponsible. I was even more disturbed that some of them who professed a Christian faith couldn’t get their appearance and even their personal hygiene together. To my mind, a Christian maxim was cleanliness is next to Godliness. I was sure it was in the Bible, I just hadn’t found that text. So how did they fit my picture? I had to go on a long journey to actually discover that I was living out certain values that had nothing to do with what I professed to be the Gospel faith. But when I re-examined the Jesus of the Gospels I discovered that if He ever had money He shared it. He lived with the common person and attended all their parties. He wasn’t a futurist. Probably first century Palestinians like Jesus were on the nose a just like some of the people I was judging, given the state of electric showers or the lack of them, Jesus never owned a house. I actually started to realise that I was seeing these church attendees, even though I’d had a cross-cultural experience in Switzerland, through my middle class spectacles. I don’t apologise for my middle class values. That is who I am. I am a futurist, I think in the future, but I came to understand that people who thought in the present, I couldn’t judge as somehow not expressing a faith that was as equally valid as mine.
Well, I start with those experiences because I think most of us, if we look at where we’ve grown up in life, would acknowledge that when we’ve been dragged out of our comfort zones, when we’ve faced difference, and diversity, that at first we’ve reacted against it and felt uncomfortable. Then if we’ve been mature enough we’ve started to open up and say ‘Why do I feel uncomfortable?’
In St Kilda I opened a legal office and the first client who walked in, I knew exactly what her profession was. I felt very uncomfortable. She said, “Will you represent me? I’m up on charges of loitering for the purposes of prostitution.” said “Of course,” and reached for my diary. I said, “when’s the case on?” She looked at her watch and she said, In five minutes’ time.” It sort of made me annoyed. How can anybody be so irresponsible and turn up so late for advice. Anyway I said, “Okay, that’s fine, I’ll throw my coat on, and we’ll walk to court,” and, I’ll take instructions as we go.”
As we walked I couldn’t help but see this horrible black eye. It started under her eye and went down through her cheekbone, then ebbed out into a sort of yellowy bruise in her jawbone. I said, trying to be empathetic, “Are you okay? Have you been bashed?” She was very matter-of-fact. “No. If you need to know,” she said, “I have a heroin addiction. Given all my priors, I expect to go inside. So yesterday I thought was my last hit for a while, and I went to hit up. I got frustrated when I couldn’t find a vein in my arm. So I shot up under my eye.” I remember freaking out. I’d grown up in Blackburn. We didn’t have this level of violence and self-abuse in Blackburn.
We got to Court and the case was called, was finally called after waiting most of the morning, I got up and managed to convince the Magistrate not to put her in custody. She was so over the moon that in a crowded court, she planted a big kiss on my cheek, and said in a voice loud enough for most to hear, “That’s fantastic. Let me take you out to lunch.” I freaked for the second time. I thought this isn’t a smart way to begin a legal practice in St Kilda, dining with a sex worker. I thought it’s not such a smart way to begin a Baptist ministry either.
It’s interesting the voices you hear in these moments, not audible but certainly insistent I reckon in that moment I heard my mother’s voice. It’s very curious when you hear your mother’s voice, even when you’re an adult. I’m pretty sure I heard my mother say, Timothy, you are known by the company you keep.” It’s a message I’d heard all my life. I think I also heard another voice. I reckon it was the voice of God saying, “What are you worrying about. You’re risking your reputation, isn’t that it? The one you say you follow risked his very life because he dined with women like her.”
I knew what I had to do and so, heart in mouth, I said, “Thank you, that’s wonderful. Where will we go for lunch?” She said, “Oh, the Catholic Church down the road puts on a great free lunch.” I was trapped now. I thought, okay, good. Well, the walk from the Magistrates’ Court to the Catholic Church was a very important walk for me, a walk that actually confronted me with diversity as an opportunity rather than as a challenge. It took us right through the red light district which I’d driven through many times, I thought I knew it.
But this walk actually taught me that you don’t know things and you don’t see things until you see them through other people’s eyes. You think you know but you don’t. As we walked, she pointed out the corner where she would stand and work. She blithely told me it’s mainly married men that pull up, and in a split second you have to decide if this is a client who is genuine or some socio- or psychopath who, with central locking in the car, will, perhaps, bash, rape, or do worse. She pointed out how the street worked, attractive less drug-addicted women who charge more at one end, people like her at the other end.
She pointed out a pimp, protecting women. ‘Protecting’ meant often bashing them for disloyalty, and supplying heroin. She pointed out an under-cover policewoman, because the law is stacked against the women and not really against the men. A man can’t be charged until he’s asked for sex for money. So a policewoman has to pretend to be working to hear those words and get that evidence.
Well, you can imagine how the streets seemed to just come alive. Suddenly, my eyes were sticking out like organ stops. I was suddenly seeing things I could never see though I’d been through this street and it’s not far from where I live. She probably intuitively knew the judgement that was going through my mind because she looked at me and she said, “I guess you wonder why I do this?” I said, “Yes,” I was judging her, thinking how could anyone do this? She said, “Well, it’s for the heroin. But it wasn’t always like that.” She said, “When I was about 15, one of the many different men that came through my mother’s home, raped me.” She said, “I felt so dirty I wanted to die. I tried to tell Mum and she didn’t want to know.” She said, “I decided then that if that’s what some men do I’m going to at least make them pay.”
My judgements dissolved. In an instant I understood that though it was a tragic counter- productive choice, that she was trying to take back some control in her life, some sense of coherence from a violating world where no one trusted her or believed her. I thought, who am I, coming from a safe and loving family to be judging her? I know nothing of this. I think I understood for the first time the words I had often read, in the New Testament, ‘Judge not that you be not judged’. I thought of the times people would judge me, not knowing what I was struggling with, not knowing the hurdles I had to jump, or the courage it took to get somewhere, and how the quick dismissive assessments were very painful.
Well, we kept walking, and arrived at the Catholic Church. I was in a suit and lots of street people were gathering. Though later I was to run a place just like this, today was my first encounter and I felt scared and nervous. This was diversity of a sort I had never faced before. Alcohol brain-damaged men, schizophrenics, street kids often dressed in all black, whose music preferences were neo-Gothic punk and others whose dress codes I’d never even seen. A whole range of subcultures that St Kilda is a catchment area for were gathering and that scared me frankly.
She was a terrific host. We walked in and she told everybody to shut up. She said, “This is Tim Costello, my lawyer, he’s the best bloody lawyer in St Kilda.” I smiled and waved and thought, ‘Gee, this is good for my legal practice.’ We got our lunch, sat down, and started eating. After ten minutes she looked up again and she noticed more people had drifted in, and these had missed the benefit of her introduction. So she got up again. She told everybody to shut up again, and she introduced me. I was sort of smiling, waving, and thinking I should hand out my card. Well, from a distant table a person raised his head, looked at me as this was happening, and said in a voice loud enough for most to hear, “God, things must be tough if lawyers have to eat here.”
Well, it introduces this theme of diversity from some of my own personal experiences. There have been many artists; Geoffrey Smart is one of them, who have tried to think about this issue, particularly within the city space. Geoffrey Smart is one of Australia’s most celebrated expatriate painters. He lives now in Italy. He’s intrigued lots of us for over half a century because his subject matter is often taken from that which would appear disturbing about the modem world. Bleak highways, landscapes inhabited by motorised traffic, and an impersonal contemporary architecture, which seems unforgiving to human presence.
He has created out of it, however, a unique kind of beauty. So he is actually a bit of a herald for our everyday urban world. These images he has now developed over a lifetime. The pictures remind us that ambience and context is absolutely fundamental to how we see life, how we understand who we are, and position ourselves, to how we think about, who we are connected to, what we are connected to. These aren’t the sorts of images of painters of beautiful nature scenes. They’re the images of what, certainly in Melbourne, is ever-present and very, very real.
I want to take these images just to suggest that there are three areas of diversity that provide opportunity for us if we are able to grow and move across them. The first is the very opposite spectrum to Geoffrey Smart’s work of urban images. It’s the fundamental importance of diversity in the natural field.
(A little bit of grass there, which is nice to see, and dirt.)
Some of you might know of Vandana Shiva. She was the alternative voice who spoke at the World Economic Forum Crown Casino forum in Melbourne. Vandana Shiva really was the shadow alter ego of Bill Gates. Gates was extolling the virtues of globalisation.
Vandana Shiva, an Indian academic who writes all her lectures longhand, doesn’t own a computer, was the alternative voice giving expression to many outside who were there demonstrating.
Shiva reminded those delegates that despite their paradigm that we have moved from an agricultural society through an industrial society to an information society, that less than 2% of the world had access to personal computers. That this is still a shockingly small percentage. She reminded them that though in our Western information society we think agricultural society is over and finished and agri-businesses with their GM food is the way of feeding the future. Yet 75% of the world still is in agriculture, depending on small-scale agriculture to feed themselves. That the visions of this globalised world are still largely the story of those rich and powerful and privileged. And even within our rich powerful privileged countries which we share there is extraordinary diversity in terms of rich and poor. Here in Tasmania I think you know firsthand about the inequality between your economy and the mainland.
Shiva argues that the so-called natural disasters are increasingly man-made. She gave case study after case study from the Punjab to Undra Pradesh where farmers recently have been committing suicide. These farmers who traditionally grew pulses and millet and paddy but had been lured by seed companies to buy hybrid cottonseeds, referred to by the seed merchants as ‘white gold’, supposed to make them millionaires. Instead it devastated them and their land. They’ve become paupers. Their native seeds have been displaced with new hybrids, which cannot be saved, and need to be purchased each year because of this new creation myth. It is a new creation myth that says that if we can just genetically modify then we have created a new seed, which we can patent. So the global law of creation has given new property rights to life forms. It is really the equivalent of a colonialism, which used the myth of discovery. This is new land, no one owns these lands. We know all about this with the doctrine of terra nullius in this country, which taught because it is an empty continent we have discovered it. That was the dominant story of colonialism. The dominant story of today is the story of creation.
We have property rights because we have created new life forms.
She argues that humans do not create life when they manipulate it. That Ricetex claim that it has made an instant invention of a novel rice line, actually denies the creativity of Nature and the self-organisational capacity of life forms, which are the prime innovations of Third World communities. Patents and intellectual property rights, particularly in agricultural areas, are supposed to prevent piracy, but have in fact become the instruments of pirating the common traditional knowledge from the poor of the Third World and making it the exclusive property of Western scientists and corporations. Shiva’s work, represented in her Reith lectures, which are on the BBC, are worth reading around poverty and globalisation. At the heart of it is this notion that diversity is absolutely fundamental. Who feeds the world, she asks? It is women and small farmers working with biodiversity who are the primary food workers in the Third World.
Contrary to the dominant assumption, their biodiversity based on small farms are more productive than industrial monocultures. The monocultures that destroy diversity see rich sources of nutrition disappear. When measured in terms of nutrition per acre and from the perspective of biodiversity the so-called high yields of industrial agriculture or industrial fisheries actually don’t imply more production of food and nutrition. Planting only one crop in the entire field as a monoculture will increase its individual yield. Planting multiple crops in a mixture which have lower yields of individual crops but overall will have a higher total output of food, not just that one crop. The yields have been defined in such a way as to make food production on small farms, by small farmers, disappear. It particularly hides the production of millions of women farmers in the Third World.
Diversity, she argues, is absolutely fundamental to feeding the poor and the way we’re going with our ‘you beaut’ GM modified food just like we did with the Green Revolutions before, actually are fool’s gold for the poor. They will however enrich those who have the global patents.
It’s very interesting when she points out, that of the 100 biggest economies in the world, 51 are transnational corporations. That means they are not elected by anybody, apart from accountability to their shareholders, they are not accountable to.local communities or national governments. They can move to where the labour is cheapest without regard for the social consequences of uplifting and moving. Transnational corporations, by definition, aim at efficiency, and performance. They aim at standardisation and at universalisation. It’s a culture of instant communication and measurement that not only has its effect in biodiversity but also has its effect in the human soul.
Forgive me if you’ve heard me tell this story but it was quite a classic experience for me. I had pulled up at a service station to fill up the car, and my three kids and wife were in the car, I filled it up at a self-serve and went to pay the money. The guy behind the glass window gave me my change, so I went back, jumped in the car and drove off. And as I did I thought, ‘Curious, I’ve gone through this whole transaction without exchanging any words, wonderfully efficient, but I didn’t even have to talk to that guy.1
Then I had a flashback to when I was a kid. This, I think, is what a mid-life crisis is You constantly flash back and think, ‘Gee, this is different’. Well I’ve worked hard for my mid-life crisis, so let me enjoy it. I remember my father pulling up in what was then called a garage, in our first car, which was an FJ Holden. There were three children in the back. I remember Dad lifting the bonnet, looking under it, but my father was a teacher, so he didn’t really have a clue what he was looking at. He was actually waiting for the attendant to come across.
When he came, he would invariably check oil, water, air, and put the petrol in. What I remembered in my flashback was my father always having a conversation. And I remember him talking about football, because my father taught all of us to barrack for the greatest football team in the cosmos, called Essendon. I remember him talking about football, the weather, and a little about politics. My father taught politics at a school for 33 years and there’s a little bit of politics in the family still.
My father would crack a joke and I remember as a kid, as the feeling flashed back, being greatly impressed, and thinking how does he know what to say? This is a stranger, so how does he know how to talk to him and what to talk about. I remember then thinking, I hope when I’m older I’ll be able to do this as that’s pretty neat. And then I came out of my flashback, thinking, Gee, I’ve just been through a very efficient performance-based self-serve transaction here but my kids didn’t see me talk to anyone. In fact they rarely see me talk to anyone.
The whole of their world is advertisers marketing the products to them. You know, they say to my daughter ‘Buy this product, your mother will hate it. That’s an inducement to our daughters! Segmenting them off with their TV, their music, and their clothes, keeping them apart. I thought, where do my kids see me modeling stuff? W ell, I thought I’d better leam from this. The next time I had my kids in tow, and I have to be honest and say, my kids prefer not to be seen in public with me, was at a McDonalds. Now I hate Maccas but they love it so there are always compromises in life, aren’t there? So I was at McDonalds with them and I went up to order, thinking I’m going to leam from this.
The girl behind the counter had her nametag and was Karen. I said, “Hi, Karen, are you having a nice day?” She looked shocked. I said, “Oh, my name’s Tim. Sorry. It’s not fair to you that I know your name but you don’t know mine.” I ordered and as she was getting the food, asked, “Do you work here full time or after school?” S he said, “Full time.” I said, “And are they training you to manage this place? Is this where’s it’s going for you? ” She said, “No, I don’t want to work at McDonald’s for the rest of my life.” And she started to warm up and tell me what she wanted to do. I thought this is good, this is a commercial transaction, but there’s conversation, I mean what’s community after all but weather and hopes and common stories stuff, that’s what binds us together.
I just suddenly looked around to make sure my children were absorbed in this. Well, to my shock, my kids had gone. They had walked out on me. I walked out, found them, and got them back in, and sat down with the food and said, “Where did you go?” My daughter turned on me. She said, “You are such a nerd.” I said “Why?” She said, “You are not meant to talk to her! You’re not meant to humiliate us by calling her by name.” I said, “Well, if I’m not meant to talk to and call her by name why has she got a nametag?” My daughter said, as if I was very slow, “She’s got a name tag on, so that if she stuffs up you know whom to report.”
Well, I leamt something then. I learnt then that in this culture a nametag actually isn’t about being personal. I thought it was. Did you? It’s actually about being able to say “That’s the one who made the mistake, that’s who kept me waiting and you can hold her accountable.” I started to think about this. Culture to kids really is what water is to fish. Fish don’t know they’re in water I assume. We rarely know we’re in culture, we rarely understand the subliminal scripting messages. With the globalised, universalised culture of transnational corporations it is efficiency, performance and competition. They’ve universalised this and the pay-off, we are told, is ever-increasing consumer choice, which is often called diversity. In fact that diversity is, in my view, decreasing. In fact the really authentic choices are narrowing.
When I speak to banks, they often say, “We cop it unfairly, particularly in rural areas, where we’ve pulled out. We just didn’t pull out, we left telephone and Internet banking there, so the farmers should thank us because, instead of having to drive an hour into town to do their banking, they can do it from home and it saves them time.” I find myself saying, that outing in the car the farmer had each week, with his wife, to do the banking, was when they often talked. After the banking, when they stood out in the street, they met others who talked about crops, weather, local football, kids. The banking was a necessary commercial pretext for a much more important ritual and social rite that was going on. Internet banking is faster but actually in terms of diverse encounter and experience they’re poorer. It’s harder for those farmers to actually find a pretext for socializing if you pull the bank away.
There was a wonderful piece in The Age earlier this week, ‘Capitalism’s Crisis of Confidence’ by Peter Allinson. In it, he argued that the globe’s richest man, Bill Gates, described a world where people would be cocooned. He described Gates’ $40 million mansion where he interviewed him. It was so self-contained that Gates will never have to leave it. Gates was excited about being able to work and play in a way that made human contact optional. He could see nothing unusual about having courted his wife via virtual dates on the Net. It was efficient but it was also so devoid of human frailty and chaos, that this writer says it suddenly helped him understand what this crisis in globalisation is about.
He said the young 25 year-old IT professional says of his world, ‘It does not make you feel welcome.’ And the worry is that instead of posing the big question: How is one to live? society is just telling us with all these increasing consumer choices how to be more destructive. This writer argues that mystery is a great embarrassment to the modem corporate mind, which is why this era of so much, so much growth and choice can appear so uninspiring and unwelcoming to young people.
Their concern is not how to get a bigger slice of the pie. Rather it is how to use the system of life-producing affluence in order not to be smothered by it. In other words, this crisis of capitalism is a crisis that gives us counterfeit experience, a counterfeit experience of so many consumer choices without conflict but fails to see that human frailty, where there is contradiction and conflict and being drawn out of our comfort zones, is actually the real drama of life, where we grow and engage and know who we are.
He quotes Carl Jung. Carl Jung, when asked by a young man what path he should take, without hesitation, answered, “The detour.” This sense of counterfeit experience, which universalises, sees diversity as a threat. Because it’s slower, it’s messier, it’s incomplete. However, most of us who have tiad authentic moving experiences, know in life, it’s been because we’ve run into people who are different. We’ve run into attitudes that challenged us. We’ve been prompted to ask, why did I react like that, what’s going on inside of me in sifting through the pain and the mess.
Can I say that in our own nation at the moment there’s part of me that’s quite glad that John Howard didn’t apologise. I think he ought to have. I think he failed, miserably, to apologise for our past, and to indigenous people. But the part of me is glad is because on one level in this globalising world we think every problem has a solution, if he had apologised it may have meant us saying, well, that’s behind us now, we’ve solved that. The truth of the matter is that we have to sit with the mess. What was good news for us, coming 210 years ago to this continent and saying, it’s empty, terra nullius, this extraordinarily rich continent even though it’s dry and has a barren interior, is all ours and we can quarry out a very affluent lifestyle.
The mess of this was that our coming was bad news for those who were here; lost lands, diseases, lost languages, lost story and families. So much of it just trying to be reconstructed in a way that’s almost tragic because they don’t have story and memory even as they try and think out what an Aboriginal culture might be. That bad news arose out of injustice and whenever there’s injustice there is a mess. Whenever there’s mess it takes a lot more time than we ever allow to sort through it. Which is what compensation claims and trying to understand how we deal with this, is all about. We have to stay with it. The mess is mainly our own doing.
In 1740 the British government recognised the rights of American native Indians to their land. It didn’t stop all ‘Indian Wars’ but they recognised their rights. The US Supreme Court reaffirmed that in 1834 when the US was independent of Britain. In 1840 the British Government in New Zealand recognised the rights of Maori in the Treaty of Waitangi. It is the Treaty they still appeal to even though it didn’t stop all the ‘Maori Wars’. The aim of recognition is that there must be negotiation; there must be some compensation. In Australia, for that same legal principle to be recognised it took to Mabo in June 1992. It’s quite breathtaking, isn’t it? That’s the mess, and we’ve been playing catch up. There aren’t many Western countries that are so far behind.
So the great challenge of diversity for us, morally and spiritually, I think, is reconciliation. How do we hear the stories, understand the pain, face the chapters in our history that we don’t want to face, find the courage within ourselves to sit with it, rather than just being able to solve it quickly.
There has been wonderful progress made, the progress made has come from surprising quarters. It’s come from AFL football. That surprises you, doesn’t it? I think in Melbourne at least, maybe here in Tassie, football is much more significant than politics, and when Nicky Winmar, an Aboriginal star with St Kilda, stood in front of Collingwood supporters and raised his jumper and pointed at the colour of his skin, and we saw on our TV screens, Collingwood supporters screaming racist abuses at him, suddenly we knew, without illusion, that there was racism deep within our culture. Up till then we’d said, we’re not really racist. We’re fair going, fair-minded. South Africans are racist but not us.
It was as if the mask was torn away. We saw it. We saw the distorted hatred just pouring out. There were no illusions left for most of us after that. Michael Long, who plays for Essendon, did something quite courageous after Damien Monkhurst, a football ruckman, called him a black bastard. Monday nights at the tribunal, are very strange things. Every league footballer seems to suffer temporary amnesia. They can never remember what happened on Saturday or even if they were there playing. It’s called ‘not dobbing in your mates’. Michael Long remembered. Michael Long said, “He called me a black bastard.” He broke the code of silence. We watched as Damien Monkhurst struggled to understand what was going on. In Monkhurst’s head he was saying, ‘I know I’m a good bloke, I’m not a racist, and I’ve always called blacks ‘black bastards’, so if I’m not a racist, how could that be racist?’ And people struggled with him. It was as if the penny was very slowly dropping. This is the protest of a culture that is dominant, self-justifying and blind. It is a white culture which says we can’t be racist because we know we’re good people when suddenly confronted by their treatment of a minority culture and having to travel a huge emotional distance to understand.
Diversity is fundamental to any journey we make. It is where we grow. Let me draw this together by a saying in Michael Ignatieff’s book, A Warrior’s Honour He challenges Serb and Croat to understand. He is there in Serbia, while they’re I firing shots at each other, and he asks the question, “Why do you hate each other?” In this village at war, he describes being in the bunker of a Serb farmhouse firing at the Croats, yet in this village they’ve been inter-married and living at peace for 50 years. He says, “Why are you killing each other?” The Serb, who’s cleaning his pistol, has a big moustache, looks at Ignatieff, a British journalist, and says, “You foreigners know nothing.” “Well explain it to me,” Ignatiuff says. The Serb picks up, dismissively, some cigarettes, says, “What are these?” Ignatieff says, “They’re cigarettes.” The Serb throws them down, and says, “They’re not cigarettes, those are Croat cigarettes,” and picks up some other cigarettes, “These are Serb cigarettes.” Ignatieff says, “Yes, but surely they’re just cigarettes?”
The soldier looks exasperated, and he says, “All right, I will tell you, I’ll tell you why then.” He says, “Those Croats over there, they think they’re superior to us, they think they’re the fancy gentlemen of Europe.” He pauses, and then he says, “I’ll tell you something, we’re all just Balkan shit.” Ignatieff analyses this. He said, first he tells me that everything down to our cigarettes is different, even though they’ve been inter-married and working together, everything’s different. Then he tells me, we feel that they say they’re superior, that’s why they’re better, they’re different, and then he concludes by telling me, actually, we’re just the same, and we’re all just Balkan shit. Ignatieff then analyses how in a rapidly globalising world, tribal identity becomes increasingly important to make sense of the speed of change. And where nationalism and ethnic nationalism can actually fill the vacuum it becomes almost irresistible, ‘I know who I am because you and I hate those people,’ Ignatieff says, in the end, he’s telling me, I know who I am because I’m not them. But if you’re ultimately defined by who you’re not, you don’t actually know who you are. You can’t be defined in a healthy way, negatively. Diversity is critical to help us know who we are, but not diversity that is enlisted and co-opted by ideology and ethnic superiority and nationalist slogans. That remains the great risk in a globalised world.
That explains, to some extent, some of the pain we’ve experienced in this nation I with Pauline Hanson and One Nation – rapid change. Change where the city seems to benefit much more that the country. Where places like Tasmania and certainly Queensland where One Nation arose, don’t seem to be sharing in the rewards. The pain of restructuring and of globalisation isn’t shared equally. And you can fill out this pain you’re feeling with an identity that says it must be those Asians, or those Aborigines, or those refugees coming in. That’s the group that’s at fault.
Multiculturalism is a breath-taking experiment within history. It takes commitrnenl to organise a society around the rule of law and multiculturalism. Don’t underestimate how tough this is. The jury is still out on whether it will finally succeed in this country. An idea that we’re Australian because we respect the rule of law and democracy but can practice our own ethnic identities is yet to be fully tested. Time will tell.
Pauline Hanson and One Nation was a potential testing point, a fault-line. Hopefully, at the end there was a strong political response to it that overcame a bit of weakness at the start. Our Prime Minister seemed to suggest that it was great now that political correctness had been lifted. That was the first crux. Diversity remains a challenge. It’s a challenge where I wouldn’t assume that we can hold together this experiment we call multiculturalism, which is very novel in human history. But it remains a wonderful opportunity for us to actually grow, take off the spectacles we wear, see through another person’s experience, and having seen, know, know that we’re seeing differently and we’re enlarged and enhanced because of it.
I hope in your experience diversity will be an opportunity, as it will also prove to be a challenge.
About the Author
Tim Costello was born in Melbourne on 4 March 1965, was educated at Cary Baptist Grammar School and graduated in Law at Monash University in 1978. In 1978 he married Merridie and began as a solicitor in family and criminal law.
From 1981 to 1984, Tim and Merridie lived in Switzerland, studying theology. Tim was ordained as a Baptist Minister in 1987.
The Reverend Tim Costello rebuilt the congregation at St Kilda Baptist Church, opened a drop-in centre there and worked in a legal practice for people who normally have no access to legal assistance. As elected Mayor of St Kilda Council in 1993, he became well known for championing the cause of local democracy. In 1995, he was appointed Director of the Urban Mission Unit of the Collins Street Baptist Church, which offers hospitality to homeless youth in Melbourne’s city centre.
In 1998, Tim was elected a representative for the Real Republic ticket at the Constitutional Convention, was awarded a Distinguished Citizen Award, City of Melbourne, and was voted by the National Trust as one of Australia’s 100 National Living Treasures. In November 1999, he assumed the responsibilities of the National President of the Baptist Union of Australia.
Tim Costello has a lifelong commitment to social.justice and his current speaking commitments take him all over Australia. He is a spokesperson for the Interchurch Gambling Taskforce, a member of the Australian Centre for Christianity and Culture and an Ambassador for the Council for Aboriginal Reconciliation.
Tim lives in Melbourne with his wife, who is becoming a social commentator in her own right. They have three children. When not involved in church and community activism, Tim enjoys reading, political and theological debate, films, basketball and football. His most recent publications are Streefs of Hope, Finding God in St Kilda (Allen and Unwin and Albatross Books 1998) and Tips from a Travelling Soul Searcher (Allen & Unwin 1999)