The years have made me bitter

THE YEARS HAVE MADE me bitter, the gargle dims my brain
'cause Dublin keeps on changing, and nothing seems the same
The Pillar and the Met have gone, the Royal long since pulled down
As the great unyielding concrete makes a city of my town.

On the 23rd of March, last Saturday, NSW went to a State election and narrowly re-elected its government. The Coalition, unpopular for its performance but with a well-respected leader, faced a Labor Party with an unremarkable campaign and an unknown leader whose comments about Asian demographic change were reported in the last week, to catastrophic effect.

In the video, recorded during an ALP function in the Blue Mountains in September, Mr Daley told the audience young people were "fleeing" Sydney.
"Our young children will flee, and who are they being replaced with? They're being replaced by young people, from typically Asia, with PhDs," he said.
"So there's transformation happening in Sydney now where our kids are moving out and foreigners are moving in and taking their jobs."

In The Rare Auld Times, made popular by The Dubliners but now a standard of Irish music, is a less-than-heartwarming story of a man embittered by Irish urban and social change, and the loss of his sweetheart Peggy 'to a student chap with skin as black as coal'. It's one of those extremely ambiguous songs that's popular in Ireland and elsewhere for the many levels of awareness it works on: plain nostalgia, sympathetic portrait of an unsympathetic elderly person, a greater self-awareness about all of us as we age being in the wrong and out of one's time, categoric self-awareness and even parody of saccharine-nostalgic Irish kitsch, and the 'galaxy brain', celebration of demographic change. There's something for everyone, and most of all, a reminder that talking about demographic change can mean almost anything to anyone.

Were Daley's comments racist? Daley claims to have been discussing economic change in Sydney. Of course they were racist, and they included two classically inflammatory tropes, 'replacement' and 'taking their jobs', which are specific concepts so well known as to be clichés. Though they seem out of character for Daley himself, who—disclaiming here my Labor Party membership, I have met, once or twice—they can't be allowed from a leader. Daley is smart enough and well-read enough to know better, and that is the fault, and why he should not stay in place.

Like all instances of racism though, the question is far less about whether someone is or isn't a racist, or a good or a bad person, but the structures and systems of power that exist and pre-exist us. It is those that must alter. The ALP has a hundred-and-thirty years history of racism, particularly towards Asian people (just as it has a history of moving away from the White Australia Policy), and as Ghassan Hage writes we live in a historically racist and white supremacist society (just as we live in a diversifying society that has moved away from its worst excesses). We have nowhere to stand except the mud, and we all have dirty boots, but we can choose whether to wallow.

I agree with Joe McKenzie on twitter:

We need a language around development and demographic change that is consistent with our values, 'Stop Overdevelopment' is simply not good enough'.

Sydney has been changing for sixty years, in exactly the same way that 'Sean Dempsey's' Dublin has: mass migration, high rise, demographic change, shifting industries and economic demand, the shift from being a provincial capital to status as a large, wealthy, diverse, global city. We've lost old buildings and older aspects our society, just as we've gained people and new meaning to places that older people could never have expected. Gentrification has happened and is going on, so has and is the displacement that's the other side of the coin: it's something I've written about on this blog; a housing boom alters an existing place's significance far more comprehensively than any motorway or tunnel. The problem, and the political Left's problem particularly, is that we seem to lack a language to talk about these real things—Australia's changed society, economic change, social displacement of people, and our engagement with the rest of the planet—in a way that disclaims white anxiety about race. This is as true of the Labor Party, with its ossified white workerism, as it is of the non-Labor left, whose lowlights have included an odd fixation on China (cf. Clive Hamilton's record of Sinophobia, the former Fairfax press's obsession with selective schools, an anti-development language of comparing high-rises to Asian cityscapes), and a demand for immigration restriction on 'sustainability' grounds. It's not good enough, and hasn't been for decades.

We might start by being clear about who 'we' is. 'We' cannot be a proxy, even by accident, for white people, and neither can it be that subtle proxy for white people, 'existing residents'. Let's be clear that 'our' children includes children who have yet to be born, and are yet to migrate. 'Our' jobs includes jobs that are yet to exist, in industries that we can't imagine yet. Our society and our city is going to change. What's necessary is a society where the benefits of those changes are shared, and are seen to be shared.



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