Don’t Go Back To Where You Came From & Euthanasia IQ2 Debate – Mid-Week Review

By Sonia Nair and Jessica Szwarcbord
dont-go-back-to-where-you-came-from

Reviews by Sonia Nair and Jessica Szwarcbord.

Multiculturalism and euthanasia are two hotly debated topics, and the subjects of our two reviews this week – Tim Soutphommasane’s book Don’t Go Back To Where You Came From, and the recent, fiery Intelligence Squared Debate on the question of euthanasia.

Don’t Go Back To Where You Came From

By Sonia Nair

In a time where bipartisan political rhetoric is dominated by debates about racism, population growth and asylum seekers, and racism still pervades in wider Australia (read here, here and here), Tim Soutphommasane’s Don’t Go Back to Where You Came From is a thoughtful, compelling and timely reminder of why multiculturalism is a mainstay of Australia culture – despite summations in the international realm that it is a failed concept.

While multiculturalism has been largely derided in European countries such as Netherlands, the United Kingdom, France and Germany – Soutphommasane argues that Australia’s brand of multiculturalism differs greatly…

While multiculturalism has been largely derided in European countries such as Netherlands, the United Kingdom, France and Germany – Soutphommasane argues that Australia’s brand of multiculturalism differs greatly to that adopted by the aforementioned European countries and continues to be an international exemplar.

In effect, various signs point to a multicultural renewal in Australia – evidenced in recent times by Minister for Immigration and Citizenship Chris Bowen’s praise of the “genius of Australian multiculturalism” and the reinstatement of a federal Minister for Multicultural Affairs in the form of Kate Lundy. However, the path to such developments has been clouded by significant displays of racism and xenophobia – sentiments which still persist today.

As both a nationalist and a proponent of multiculturalism, Soutphommasane avoids adopting a “lifestyle” approach towards it and instead advocates that it be seen as a “civic philosophy”.

Properly understood, multiculturalism isn’t just about culture but is about a civic aspiration…Just as all should enjoy equal civil and political rights, regardless of ethnicity or race, so all should enjoy a presumption that their cultural identities have value.

Soutphommasane starts out by tracing key political developments in Australia’s history, from the early 1940s right through to the present. He invokes the inaugural minister of immigration Arthur Calwell, Australia’s Father of Multiculturalism Al Grassby, Liberal Prime Minister Malcolm Fraser and Labor Prime Minister Paul Keating, and revisits policies such as White Australia to paint a largely evocative picture of Australia’s continually changing stance on assimilation and cultural pluralism.

… token gestures of celebrating Australia’s diversity are insufficient if they do not address whether the Australian perceived values of parliamentary democracy, egalitarianism and a fair go extend to all Australians…

But it is prominent historian Geoffrey Blainey’s criticism of the pace of Asian immigration and then federal opposition leader John Howard’s mirrored sentiments that represent the first serious, two-pronged attack on contemporary multiculturalism – populist views later propagated by One Nation Party founder Pauline Hanson. By grounding his discussion within historical context, Soutphommasane lends his readers insight into the various policies and mindsets that shape current policy on multiculturalism.

He then proceeds to compare Australia’s multiculturalism to other Western liberal democracies – lending his points further perspective and ensuring Australia’s brand of multiculturalism is not discussed in an isolated vacuum. In arguably the most interesting chapters of the book, Soutphommasane goes on to outline the various ways minorities are represented in politics, in the government, in the workplace and throughout the media.

Soutphommasane’s account is powerful because of its overarching argument that there is more to being “Australian” than leading a particular lifestyle and that “cultural diversity isn’t only about the range of available cuisines”.

By Soutphommasane’s way of reasoning, token gestures of celebrating Australia’s diversity are insufficient if they do not address whether the Australian perceived values of parliamentary democracy, egalitarianism and a fair go extend to all Australians – regardless of their cultural backgrounds.

And while an Australian civic culture may well encompass some social norms such as taking turns buying ‘shouts’ or calling someone by their first name even if we’re not familiar with them, it isn’t accurately defined by a fondness for sport and barbeques, and a love of sand and surf.

Armed with a largely conversational style and a flair for colourful writing, Soutphommasane steers clear from an overly academic account of Australia’s multiculturalism by regularly enlivening his prose with anecdotal stories – most notably when he conjures up Cabramatta as a microcosm of Australia’s success with multiculturalism.

…Don’t Go Back to Where You Came From is an in-depth and fascinating study into the dramatic changes that have shaped Australia’s ethnic and cultural composition with minimal social disorder…

Soutphommasane refrains from categorising established instances of racism and xenophobia into the “right” and “wrong” camp and detracting from the significance of each event, instead applying a nuanced approach and measured reasoning to each pivotal moment in Australia’s history of multiculturalism.

It would be a mistake to dismiss Hansonism as an explosion of simplistic, one-dimensional racism as many believed…There is one sense in which Hanson may have a case for pleading that she shouldn’t be described as racist: she didn’t subscribe to the kind of ‘scientific’ theories about race that were popularised in the late 19th century in Europe and America.

Soutphommasane is most effective when he discusses key uprisings familiar to the Australian psyche – such as the unprecedented rise of the One Nation party and the Cronulla riots – and applies a circumspect layer of reasoning to the events that unfolded. Using the same lens, he goes on to examine topical issues reverberating throughout mainstream media such as the significance of Anzac day, underrepresentation of ethnic minorities in the media, a bigger Australia, the asylum seeker debate and the Asian Century.

Despite being a professed left-leaning voter, Soutphommasane never allows his political affiliations to colour his narrative as he accords the same level of critical analysis to both left and right-wing policies.

Conservatives weren’t the only ones who believed that Cronulla highlighted the trouble with multiculturalism. Anthropologist Ghassan Hage, arguably the country’s most original critic of nationalism, also declared that the episode revealed a contemporary crisis.

A thoroughly captivating read, Soutphommasane presents an unflinching, raw and carefully constructed narrative of Australian multiculturalism, supported by a sound theoretical framework, philosophical underpinnings and anecdotes gleaned from his own upbringing as the child of Laotian-Chinese refugee parents.

Nominated for the Australian Human Rights Commission’s Human Rights Literature Award 2012, Don’t Go Back to Where You Came From is an in-depth and fascinating study into the dramatic changes that have shaped Australia’s ethnic and cultural composition with minimal social disorder – beautifully encapsulated in this epilogue.

We have welcomed and absorbed successive waves of immigrants as citizens, all while preserving our easygoing, democratic culture. It is all evidence, you might say, of Australia’s multicultural triumph – and reason for us to be confident and optimistic about its future.

Intelligence Squared Debate: Euthanasia Should Be Legalised

By Jessica Szwarcbord

Death always seems to generate lively debate. On the evening of Wednesday 7 November, signs displaying the proposition “Euthanasia Should Be Legalised” guided audience members up the Melbourne Town Hall steps and towards the Main Hall, where they found‘for’ or ‘against’ voting slips on their seats.

What was to change during the event was that a quiet audience would become an outspoken and volatile mass of individuals wanting a say.

Most seats for the final IQ2 Debate of the year, hosted by the Wheeler Centre and St James Ethics Centre, were filled, most minds ready made-up – pre-polling showed 82 per cent ‘for’, 7.5 per cent ‘against’ and 10.5 per cent undecided. By the end little had changed: 85 per cent were ‘for’, nine per cent ‘against’ and six per cent remained undecided. What was to change during the event was that a quiet audience would become an outspoken and volatile mass of individuals wanting a say.

The speakers ‘for’ legalisation were, in order of appearance, Victorian Health Services Commissioner, Beth Wilsonmember of the NHMRC Legislation Review Committee on Human Cloning and Embryo Research, and the Australian Health Ethics Committee, Professor Loane Skene; and founding director of Exit International, Dr Philip Nitschke. Against were McKenzie Postdoctoral Fellow at Melbourne University’s Asia Institute, Dr Shakira Hussein; director of the Respecting Patient Choices Program at the Austin Hospital, Professor William Silvester; and religion and ethics editor for ABC Online, Scott Stephens.

[Beth Wilson] bluntly reminded us: “we are all going to die”. The crux of the debate seemed to be the contingent question, to whom does our death belong? Is it ours? Is it our family’s? Or does our death belong to the law?

Many in the audience sat silent, on the edge of their seats, many held pens and paper. The evening’s Chair, Dr Simon Longstaff, Executive Director of the St James Ethics Centre, sternly requested that respect for the speakers be maintained, before giving Wilson the floor. Her argument torpedoed straight to the heart of the issue. She bluntly reminded us: “we are all going to die”. The crux of the debate seemed to be the contingent question, to whom does our death belong? Is it ours? Is it our family’s? Or does our death belong to the law?

A “hydra-headed monster” lurks within our society. According to Stephens this monster causes the push for euthanasia. One gnarling head is born of contemporary values: the individual’s right to choose and the individual body are valued above the rights of others. The other head represents the notion that our lives are our own private property. To kill the monster we need to recognise that we are born into communities, that social life gives life meaning, and that our lives are the property of our community.

Wilson addressed this in an anecdote about a discussion she had with her mother about euthanasia, during which her mother proclaimed, “I want it!” The flip side of Stephens’ argument is that families may want euthanasia for their loved ones.

However, aside from the individual and the family there is also the law. Ultimately, as the law stands, the right to die is not determined by the individual or family but by the courts.

Being able to foresee a future so physically unbearable that she would want to die, and would seek help from family, was the reason that [Shakira Hussein] wants the law to prohibit them helping her do so.

Skene’s analytic approach highlighted the absurdity of the current legal status quo. A doctor cannot hasten a patient’s death, they cannot omit to give treatment that preserves life, but they can administer a fatal dose of a pain-relieving drug if the intention is for pain-relief (the ‘doctrine of double-effect’) and the court can order that treatment cease and a patient be let die in some cases, for reasons such as futility. The problem is that voluntary euthanasia is practically permitted in some cases, but other cases fall through the cracks. For example, sometimes people are severely disabled but no doctor could argue that they require ‘pain-relief’, the patient does not want to live, but is physically unable to take their own life.

In Gardner v BWV [2003] VSC 173 a sixty-eight-year-old suffering from Pick’s disease lived for three years curled up in a foetal position before the court ruled that the hospital could withdraw treatment and let her die. The point is, were active voluntary euthanasia legalised, she would not have had to live like this.

However, both Hussein and Silvester argued generally that with the advance of medical technology, we should be helping others to find ways to live, not ways to die.

Hussein, the first speaker against the motion, leant on Longstaff’s arm for support as she shakily walked to the microphone. Sitting down she explained, voice hard, that her relapsing/remitting multiple sclerosis prevented her from standing. Being able to foresee a future so physically unbearable that she would want to die, and would seek help from family, was the reason that she wants the law to prohibit them helping her do so. Silvester, speaking third, added that an advanced palliative care plan affords patients the opportunity to die with dignity and to have what he terms a ‘good death’ while allowing their family to suffer much less, being involved in the process.

… what it comes down to is a personal choice between a moral preference for individual freedom versus sanctity of life.

Hussein and Nitshcke offered a personal tone to a debate that had an incredibly academic and scientific side. Nitschke’s career is death. He and Exit try to help those who want to die, die. Trying to import Nembutal, a fatal drug, for the purposes of allowing someone to die expediently; developing a nitrogen scheme that would have the same effect; and publishing book informing people about methods of dying called Peaceful Pill, were all failed attempts to empower those who want to be euthanised, thwarted by various State mechanisms. Peaceful Pill is the first banned book in thirty-five years.

Hussein and Nitschke’s emotion, contrasted by the others’ academic and scientific arguments, showed what no one actually said throughout the entire debate: what it comes down to is a personal choice between a moral preference for individual freedom versus sanctity of life.

When invited to ask questions, more audience members stood up than time permitted. Those who were able spoke passionately, exacerbating both sides of the debate. Silvester was under the spotlight for a significant proportion of the time and, when pressed, admitted, raising his hands in the air, that how he saw it, fundamentally, was that euthanasia is “one person killing another”. When Silvester mentioned with a sweep of the hand, that a person could just stop eating, which takes seven to ten days, voices from the ‘for’ bench and the audience were raised, with one audience member yelling out “you should”. Longstaff had to call for calm and respect.

What the concluding uproar shows is that, although debated in a gigantic space, underneath ornate ceilings and on a public stage, this volatile subject is also an incredibly private thing. Euthanasia is a personal decision that is made at a hospital bedside about someone who can no longer stand up and raise their voice. The intensity of the debate highlighted the importance that this debate continue because there is clear dissatisfaction with the status quo from both sides.

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  • g allan

    i dont know whether i’m doing this correctly but here goes. i believe strongly in euthanasia. my father said years ago that we treat our dogs better than people in that when our dogs are so old and uncomfortable we put them out of their misery. i dont know how i would deal with my demise but i want to die before my life becomes a total misery. i have Parkinson disease and i want to die before i become a vegetable. because of the current laws preventing anybody aiding euthanasia people need to take their life long before they really need to. i am really annoyed that i will be forced to be Tortured by what nature dishes out to me in my latter years.

  • Every debate I attend on the topic of euthanasia is emotionally charged and often unsatisfying to both sides of the argument. I totally agree with Jessica Szwarcbord’s comment that this debate (I’d prefer the term “conversation’) needs to continue, for all our sakes.

    Having worked in the area of transition support (including midwifery and palliative care) for many years I am acutely aware of the inherent struggle in coming to terms with what is, or is not, possible … and the consequences of actions taken or not by oneself and/or another.

    I would like to think that the public would respect our health professionals in the struggle they face on a daily basis when faced with medical and life-death dilemmas so I am disappointed at the thought that someone would like Bill Sylvester to ‘stop eating’ as a response to his ethical position.

    I don’t think that people necessarily always take a ‘moral’ stance in our individualistic, consumer-focussed society … life can be very messy; perhaps it is the loss of control in the face of great (and ongoing) vulnerability that influences some people to contemplate euthanasia.

    I’ve borne witness to many an end-of-life struggle; and, in the face of this suffering I have observed that death takes a different shape (socially and culturally) when life is lived and dying is held in gratitude for all that’s been and ‘is’, and to do so with gracious respect and dignity in the midst of one’s vulnerability …

    I welcome these public conversations in the hope that we can each listen deeply and respectfully to the concerns we have … so that they may be attended to, if permitted, as the needs arise.