Challenging State Multiculturalism: industrial heritage, migrant labour and Gippsland Immigration Park

Sisto Malaspina’s murder on the 9 November 2018 has been meet with an outpouring of community grief in Melbourne. Almost immediately, spontaneous memorials to the restaurateur emerged around Pellegrini’s on Bourke Street. The news media response to the “coffee bar icon” has also been substantial, prompting some critical discussion about the history of Italian immigration, anti-Italian racism in Australia (for more see Ricatti), and its ‘echoes’ in debates about ‘African gangs’. In his piece for The Guardian, Jeff Sparrow hinted at other histories: “The centrality of Italians (and other southern Europeans) in industries like construction and manufacturing meant that they played a crucial role in the political and industrial struggles out of which contemporary multiculturalism emerged. But that’s another story.”

Popular histories of immigration, especially the history of Italians in Australia, stress the influence of entrepreneurial individuals and small business owners. We collectively recognise the cultural contributions of these cohorts, happily reflecting on how coffee and food has enriched cosmopolitan spaces like Melbourne. This is not to say that other types of work are not also celebrated as part of this history: migrant labour in heavy industry, for example, is tied to narratives of progress. Perhaps in these narratives, however, the migrant is cast as a faceless mass, rather than as individuals living in and shaping a community.

I therefore approached my analysis of the Gippsland Immigrant Park and Wall of Recognition with some trepidation, not wanting to homogenise diverse experiences of mobility and settlement—but also wishing to highlight the wider intersections between local industry, national development in the post-war era, and the mass immigration of migrant labour. Gippsland Immigration Parks serves as an interesting example of community-initiated public history practice, and for this reason, I think it also offers alternative and grassroots narratives that have the potential to challenge the limits of our collective discussions about multiculturalism in Australia.

Migrant Rights and Multiculturalism

 Italians, among other post-war migrant cohorts, were active in political and industrial struggles in pre-multicultural Australia: they demanded better work conditions, better housing and less discriminatory pathways to citizenship (for more see Battiston). Many of these “migrant rights” based discourses were subsumed by state multiculturalism from the 1970s. The policy and doctrine of multiculturalism has attempted to quell this ‘ungovernable’ realm of migrant protest and activism by, first, creating a multicultural policy ‘for them’ and later ‘for all of us’.  Anthropologist Ghassan Hage spoke about the function of multicultural policy in making the ‘ungovernable’ governable:

“The spread of culturally diverse social forms and processes was happening regardless of assimilation and, if a new policy was not created to help encompass this spread, the latter would have had to remain outside the realm of policy, and as such ungovernable. That is, the recognition of diversity did not cause diversity to happen, it was precisely because diversity had already become an entrenched part of a social reality that no attempts to impose assimilation could change the fact that the government needed a policy that could recognise this diversity in order to govern it.”

This ‘phantasmatic diversity‘, this multiculturalism ‘for all of us’, dissuades recognition of diversity as structural difference with historical antecedents.

The realm for expressions of alternative cultures, for consumption by ‘us all’, is food courts and festivals, but certainly not parliament, other public institutions, or on the streets in protest. Multicultural policy promotes dedication to the nation-state, a nationalist policy that also assumes groups will abandon the political conflicts or inter-ethnic and religious tensions they may have held in their countries or regions of origin. It is also that is uncomfortable with generational claims of interethnic allegiance and transnational justice. State multiculturalism also rejects the realities of structural discrimination and the legacies of racism in Australia.

While the political struggles over migrant rights aren’t at the centre of Gippsland Immigration Park, the local history of the coal industry and its implications for working life and mobility, are. Here, the Park challenges celebratory state multiculturalism and histories of industrial progress.

 

Gippsland Immigration Park was launched in 2007 by a group of local residents from Morwell, Traralgon and Churchill—small towns in the Latrobe Valley in South-Eastern Victoria. All were volunteers and had a connection to Morwell’s Italian community; they were originally members of the Italian Australian Co-ordinating Committee for Gippsland. In forming the idea to build some sort of ‘monument’ or park to migration, the group made the decision that the park should speak to ‘all migrants in the region’, including all but indigenous peoples.

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The Committee behind the Gippsland Immigration Park are particularly sensitive to the continued mobility assisted migrants experienced under their two-year work contracts with the Australian Commonwealth. The contract was a common feature of the migrant experience from 1947 to the 1960s for those who were not privately sponsored to emigrate. It’s noteworthy, and reflective of this historical experience, that some of the names that appear on the walls are also of individuals who did not ‘settle’ in Gippsland at all but moved on to other parts of Australia. Historian Karen Agutter describes the work contract that assisted migrants signed with the Commonwealth as creating an ‘‘endless parade of people being shifted from place to place’’ throughout the 1950s and well into the 1960s. Her description of postwar settlement under the contract system as a ‘continuum of mobility’ is important to bear in mind. A few names are even from families who returned to their countries of departure. In the 1960s, the rates of emigration out of Australia exceeded immigration (especially among Italian and Dutch origin cohorts).

Coal and the Latrobe Valley

Beside those names, on separate walls, are elaborate bronze plaques. The images they feature clearly speak to the influence of the coal industry and power stations on the lives of migrant families. That whole section is a monument to migrant workers in the coal industry in the Latrobe Valley. When speaking to the Committee, I found that their family migration stories were intimately tied to the fortunes of the local power stations—like Morwell power and briquette factory, Hazelwood and Yallourn power stations—and other large public works that employed hundreds of thousands of post-war migrants under often arduous working conditions. In his 1964 sociological study of migrants in the brown coal industry of the Latrobe Valley, Jerzy Zubrzycki described  Yallourn as the largest brown coal open-cut in the world, and together with briquette factories in Morwell, the region became the ‘‘industrial nerve centre of Victoria’’.

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However, I don’t want to confuse this feature of the Park as a “fetishized site of the state”, a monument to the coal industry and/or the State Electricity Commission of Victoria. The theme ‘working life’, for example, warrants a whole wall, while ‘major projects’ appears on a plaque. This is also a monument to collective nostalgia, failed industry and migrant working life and uncertainty—which sidelines token expression of ‘ethnic contributions’ in favour of depicting material conditions.

The Park offered a highly visual heritage platform from which others could consider the intersections between industry, labour, migration and family settlement—they also opened up more storytelling spaces online and in print, for dissemination of intimate pasts.

This sometimes celebratory and nostalgic depiction of power stations (as well as the difficulties of working life) in the Latrobe Valley also spoke to the deleterious effects of privatisation on the region—a pressing concern still, and in the wake of the closure of Hazelwood, continued unemployment, and an ageing population. In some ways, the monument was a mode through which elements of the migrant community (including members of the Committee and subsequent generations) mediated and made sense of these drastic economic changes to their region since the 1990s.

Industrial and Labour Heritage

 I’m new to the field of industrial heritage, which interestingly hasn’t engaged much with migration heritage, despite the obvious intersections. Moe resident and heritage proponent Cheryl Wragg, when referring to the Victorian Heritage Council’s decision in Feb 2018 to include parts of Morwell Power Station and briquette factory on the Victorian Heritage Register, called the decision “the first step in creating an industrial heritage site of national and international significance”. She holds hope for it triggering a “whole new large industrial tourism industry activity in our region”.

This is a separate issue: what to do with the physical remains of industry. There are contested meanings around this industrial heritage. Approaching it as labour heritage, for example, and from the perspective of working people represented in the Gippsland Immigration park, it’s clear that while there is much talk about migrant ‘contributions’ and ‘progress’, there is also some bitterness attached to memories of the coal industry. This is especially so for some migrant groups who experienced unfair working conditions, poor housing and limits to their economic advancement. This history also has close and obvious links to migrant workers clubs established in the postwar era, like the Greek Welfare Society and the Italian Federation of Migrant Workers and their Families who campaigned for better work conditions, accommodation and citizenship rights. Many of the names listed on the walls were members of these workers’ groups.

Celebrating industrial heritage is wrought with many complex emotions—not all of them positive or endorsing state-backed heavy industry. Even now, new environmental proposals to convert abandoned coal pits in Morwell into lakes has divided the community. Many are glad to see the ugly remains of heavy industry torn down and replaced with green open space—they recall the 2014 coal mine fire at Hazelwood which covered the town of Morwell in toxic smoke and ash.

There may be scope for adaptive reuse that somehow speaks to the labour heritage (privileging depictions of working lives) of these former power stations. But these heritage efforts would fail if they don’t also address the structural inequalities and family lives hinted at in the Gippsland Immigration Park. I’m thinking here of men’s only workers’ accommodation that brought about the separation of families, and state coercion and control over the mobility of migrant individuals and families. In the case of Gippsland, we have an example of how a community group has actively safeguarded aspects of their heritage, including the potentially traumatic aspects of an industrial past and post-industrial present.

Admittedly, class and labour struggles aren’t made explicit at the Park; but through its focus on working conditions and continued mobility, and not the physical remains of industry but rather the working class individuals and families behind it, the park enables other memory work. It aids conversations about post-war inequalities and government stipulations that contained the spatial mobility and settlement experiences of migrant others. Here they are depicted as migrant others defined by more than just their ethnic contributions to a white managerial multicultural nation-state. At the same time, I’m not suggesting that what’s left is a representation of the migrant as economic agent. Rather, the migrant is a mobile member of a family, constrained by material conditions and yet asserting their need for recognition and representation—in Gippsland Immigration Park, the migrant is asserting their history in the region, in industry and working life, and in cultural life.

These thoughts led me to ask: Does the Park, in its partial focus on the rise (and decline) of the coal industry in the Latrobe Valley and on historical migrant mobility, in the way it intersects the histories of capitalism, migration and transnational forces, challenge the limits of the nation-state framework of ‘authorised heritage discourses’ and celebratory state multiculturalism? Can the histories it offers hint to a justice based on economic redistribution, cultural recognition and a politics of representation? Here I was ambitiously drawing on my hazy understanding of Nancy Fraser’s political philosophy—“no redistribution or recognition without representation” or rather,  a theory of justice based on “redistribution in the economic sphere, recognition in the socio-cultural sphere and representation in the political sphere.” Current iterations of Australian multiculturalism fail to do this. The alternative would be an active politics of recognition and representation that, as Modood (2007) argues in his recognition-based response to liberal multiculturalism, involves a remaking of the public sphere, a participation in the public debate, a voice in institutions and a redistribution of power.

It’s an ambitious reading of Gippsland Immigration Park. But part of my wider project involves this conscious search for community-initiated public history that challenges state multiculturalism, and the authorised heritage discourses that adhere to it.

 

 

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