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Is Australia A Truly Multicultural Society Essay

NLA catalogue link: http://catalogue.nla.gov.au/Record/1659155

DescriptionJakarta : [Australia-Indonesia Institute], 1997.
45 p. : ports. ; 20 cm.
SeriesAustralia lecture ; 1997
Notes“The fourth lecture in the Australia lecture series” — added t.p.  Text in English and Indonesian; Indonesian text on inverted pages.
Photo detail: Installation, Jakarta Bay (c)1997/A JakubowiczThe Australia Lecture Jakarta 1997 Australia – an end of innocence? Dr. Andrew Jakubowicz Professor of Sociology Coordinator of International Development Faculty of Humanities and Social Sciences University of Technology, Sydney
Australia – an end of innocence? Near the end of its first century as a nation, Australia is undergoing enormous convulsions in relation to its history, its identity(ies) and its future. The world press watches in amazement as Pauline Hanson an Independent parliamentarian from a provincial Queensland electorate, a former fish and chip shop owner and Gold Coast bar-maid, sets the political agenda for the country. The Prime Minister and the government are confronted with a raft of race issues, from land rights to the seizure of Indigenous children from their parents, to the broader question of reconciliation between indigenous Australians and the post-1770 settlers. Multiculturalism seems to have been abandoned as government policy. All colonial settler societies such as Australia carry certain sorts of cultural and political baggage into their post-colonial experience. Australia’s problems come from three unresolved pieces of business – the relationship between the settlers, their descendants and the Indigenous people; the foundation of the nation in 1901 on the belief in the supremacy of something identified as the white race; and the decision by governments in the mid 1960s, intensified by international changes in the 1970s, to abandon race as a category for the social exclusion of potential immigrants who were culturally different from the “mainstream” ( a crucial term in the current environment). Racial differences are deeply embedded in the cultural landscape of contemporary Australia. It is part of the childhood of every adult raised there, and even if the differences are not specifically associated with hierarchies of superordination and subordination, they do carry that sense of “naturalness” that former Tempo editor Goenawan Mohamad so critically appraised in his Pen International speech in 1995. Mohamad was concerned that racial differences could very easily become racial barriers, and instead of allowing intercultural learning, would turn to hostility and hatred. Australians are sensitised to the boundaries of cultural difference – racially based humour is widespread, and comedy shows popular amongst ethnic communities, such as “Wogs Out of Work” or “Wog Boys”, seek to use racial and ethnic stereotypes to critique what are said to be mainstream Australian values. Globalisation and Australia’s “unfinished business” To understand the current tensions in Australia we have to explore the impact that the process of globalisation has had on Australian society over the past thirty years. Globalisation is a term that covers three inter-related dynamics – *the internationalisation of capital and its development beyond the specific control of individual nation states; *the internationalisation of populations which move in pursuit of and support of capital movements, as well as those displaced by the re-ordering of the world economy and political order; *and the internationalisation of culture facilitated by new trans-national communication technologies, from satellites to the Internet. The decision to take Australia actively into the world economy from behind its tariff walls was taken in the mid 1970s, in the wake of the world oil crisis. It was solidified in the mid-1980s by a series of moves which de-regulated the financial sector, opened up (and thereby reduced central government control of) capital markets, and lowered tariffs on imports. In a fairly short period these moves fundamentally changed the Australian economic environment, destroying hundreds of thousands of manufacturing jobs, and building unemployment across the working class. There are still strident debates about whether such changes were inevitable, given global economic changes. However, the social impact caused great pain across communities where skills and work patterns were suddenly rendered redundant. New industries – high technology, service focussed, educationally driven – began to emerge, but they called on new parts of the population, and new populations, not the older working class. The commitment to nation building through immigration was set in place in the years immediately after World War Two. By the height of the program in the late 1960s some 200,000 people each year were arriving to settle and work in the then burgeoning manufacturing sector, in mines and in community services. It was not until the early 1970s however that government backed away from the policy of selecting immigrants in part on the basis of their racial and cultural compatibility with the “mainstream”, – and once committed to this course, began to admit hundreds of thousands of people from the Asian region – Vietnam, the Philippines, Indonesia, Malaysia, India, Hong Kong, and so on. In addition to those seeking permanent settlement, came those who were temporarily in the country, as tourists, students, and short-term business people. In a very short period of time, Australian communities began to reflect this new diversity, and the public became aware of many of the problems that accompanied such a sea-change in population. Chief amongst these problems was the sense of the rapidity and apparent uncontrollability of the pace of change that was experienced by some parts of the earlier population. The acceleration of change was also being experienced on a cultural level. Australia had always been a society which imported significant cultural capital – both with its immigrants but also through links to the major media and communication centres of Britain and North America. During the early 1990s there was an increasing call for the recognition that Australia was part of Asia, and that it should open up to the Asian cultural sphere. While distinctive Australian cultural forms have developed, the internationalisation of media has exposed Australia to a ceaseless flow of new cultural ideas – affecting areas such as sexuality and the family, inter-generational relations, and public policy. In some parts of society this flow of new ideas has challenged what have been described as traditional values, and led to calls for control of culture – especially in relation to violence and sex in screen culture, and the end of “political correctness” in public culture. The Asian opening ( typified by Stephen Fitzgerald’s book “Is Australia an Asian Country?”) was seen by some of the older communities as particularly threatening, for it called up many of the deepest cultural fears that were so embedded in their own personal histories. This is the context within which the “unfinished business” has to be understood – a society torn by change, where a small but significant part of the population looks backwards with nostalgic and romantic eyes to an earlier era when racial hierarchies were apparently unquestioned, cultural diversity was limited to the occasional Chinese meal re-designed for Australian tastes, and when Indigenous people were a dying stone-age race whose time was gone. The Foundation Myth The most directly challenging issue remains that of the Foundation Myth – that Australia belonged to no-body, when the first Europeans seized the land for a demented English king- for the tribes who lived there had no law, no civilization, and were indeed, not really human. From the outset the settlers carried instructions to do no ill to the local population, and from the outset the local people were betrayed. That betrayal occurred because some of the Europeans thought that the Indigenous people were sub-human; others thought that they could be tamed and made subservient; others shot them down when they resisted the invasion; others raped them or poisoned them, or hunted them down. Others wanted their land and were unconcerned at how they gained it. Others still stole their children to convert them – or to turn them into servants. Much of this latter process has been documented in the report, “Bringing Them Home”, released late in May, which labelled the practices as genocide. The question of land and its role in cultural survival has been identified in the Mabo and Wik decisions of the High Court, which reluctantly acceded that Indigenous people actually had rights in the land that was seized by the Crown. The Foundation Myth is buried deep in the heart of Australian culture – a place in which it stirs uneasily when roused. It is enormously powerful, for it justifies everything that followed and removes the possibility of betrayal, and therefore atonement, and therefore restitution and thereby reconciliation. The Myth is the manner in which Australian society has dealt with the problem of betrayal – for betrayal requires that betrayers recognise their responsibilities, and that the betrayed absolve them from the consequences of their acts. There are many Australians who are prepared to make such a statement, but for the moment, the government does not represent them. There are many others who become enormously uncomfortable when called upon to work through the words that need to be said before the process of reconciliation can be realised – a common but unfortunate human reaction perhaps, of anger at the accuser when one is held to account for one’s moral failings. For the moment that is the position shared by the national government (though not, it should be said, by some of the states). White Australia When Australia emerged as a nation at the beginning of this century, a number of crucial beliefs underlay the institutions that were created. Under the influence of British ideas about the development of civilisations – sometimes described as Social Darwinism- an image of the world was advanced that placed North Western European societies and their cultures at the apex of a cultural pyramid. Those societies which were most technologically advanced were believed to reflect the most developed forms of culture; and only those at the apex could appreciate a popular democracy of equal citizens. Other peoples were savage and sub-human, to be excluded from the brave, new world, as a consequence of their racial incapacity to understand or participate in the political culture of the new nation. There was a profound belief afoot that cultures were racially determined and thus effectively immutable. The most appropriate way forward would thus be to create “great White walls”, and get on with nation-building behind their cultural and economic protection. At that time White Australia and economic Protectionism were two sides of the same coin (and some see them so again today). While these beliefs were broadly held, and clearly self-serving, they were not universal. There has always been an under-current of resistance to these values, in part based on Christian beliefs about the fraternity of humanity, in part coming from those whose appreciation of exotic cultural forms led them to a realisation of the gross arrogance of the White Australia assumptions, and in part from those cultural minorities who managed to evade the ethnic cleansing after Federation and survive to struggle on against the tide. The latter group have been important but often unrecognised in the long struggles of resistance to programs of mono-cultural conformity. Yet even after the Second World War the decision to embark on a major population building immigration program was still replete with ideals of Euro-purity. The policy saw benefits in a softened, Antipodean version of the chronic “Aryanism” that had dominated much of European cultural philosophy until its fully brutal embodiment in the racial policies of the Third Reich. Yet the economic development of Australia, its rush into modernity, would in fact depend on a massive infusion of skills, intelligence and labour power, drawn from all over the world. The first supply zone contained the displaced survivors of the War, and the dreamers who saw in Australia the place to escape the tensions and conflicts of a caste-ridden Europe in ruins. It is not the place today to recap that period, only perhaps to marvel that it happened at all. Despite the public espousal of White Australia at its outset, the post-war immigration program gradually transformed Australia and its population over the following half a century. White Australia was another myth, a powerful one never-the-less. Its mythical qualities can be found in the beliefs about racial hierarchies and the dominant position those hierarchies gave to whites, of the assumptions it held about the incompatibility of different peoples, and of the stories it told of its great heroes – for example, the men of Gallipoli in World War One (who were defeated by the Turks). White Australia, egalitarian democracy, tariff protection, the Australian ethos – these became inseparable in the culture of mainstream Australia. As immigration grew into a wave that was to change Australia in a generation, White Australia began to crack. Yet it had enormous purchase on the consciousness of maybe five generations of Australians. White Australia still has purchase on the consciousness of many current Australians. For instance, late last year (Parliament 10 December 1996) Pauline Hanson queried whether anyone who could not share in Australian culture by singing Christmas carols or hymns in schools, should have the right to be in Australia at all. Now the Jews, Muslims, Buddhists and Hindus join the Asians as the unacceptable and unassimiliable parts of her nation. Multiculturalism When the government of Harold Holt decided, in 1966, to break with the past and sign the UN International Accord for the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination, it put in train a process that rolls on today, and challenges Australian beliefs and values of egalitarianism. It is worth recalling that White Australia was the dominant ideology underpinning immigration for half the period of post-war immigration – it was only in the early 1970s that the decision was taken to commit Australia fully to the non-racial immigration program of today, and the parallel domestic social program of multiculturalism. Just on one generation under our belt since the formal end of White Australia, a very short time to erode the edifice constructed over six or seven generations. And there are many today in Australia who quite clearly feel that the edifice should be resurrected and its battered walls re-cemented and rendered anew with the values of White Australia- for them multiculturalism is an anathema. Yet in a recent poll some 75% of Australians saw multiculturalism as one of our greatest achievements. In contemporary Australia multiculturalism has come to carry four very different sorts of meanings – some of which sit comfortably together, others which do not. In broad terms these approaches can be summarised as: a) Social Justice – the diversity of the society is seen as creating problems for some ethnic groups, who may suffer higher levels of unemployment, or poorer success in education, or health problems. The social policy should address issues of disadvantage and discrimination to give everyone equal access and the opportunity for an equitable outcome. Core values of justice and equity should be made to work for all Australians, no matter what their background. b) Productive Diversity – the cultural diversity of society is seen as a resource which can be used to build new relationships, new products, new services. Language and cultural knowledge are key skills which play a crucial role in enabling Australia to prosper in the twenty-first century. Social policy should enhance that prospect through support for language acquisition, stimulus of cultural expression and the widening of social understanding about different cultural groups. c) One Australia (not the Hanson Party version, but more like the current government policy) – sees Australia as culturally diverse, but the emphasis is placed on commonality and sharing rather than on differentiation. It stresses core values of nation, citizenship and Euro-centric cultural tradition. In recognising diversity it asserts common bonds associated with democratic forms. It seeks to maintain the core traditions by helping newcomers to adapt to local customs. Social policy places emphasis on learning English, and citizenship as the basis for social entitlements. Cultural expression by ethnic minorities is colourful and useful, but should not be supported by government at a serious level; nor should ethnic “interests” be everywhere represented. d) No Difference – argues that core traditional Anglo (-Celtic?) Australian values should be the dominant values, and that newcomers should adjust to these values. It sees diversity as a problem to be reduced through excluding those who are culturally different, and requires allegiance to the White Anglo-Australian traditions. Social policy eschews multiculturalism altogether, and sees it as a pernicious and dangerous strategy to advance minority interests at the expense of the cultural majority. It should receive no government support. Now it’s clear from even such a cursory summary that the nature of the debate in Australia is complex and not easily understood even by Australian residents. This is not a recent problem. White Australia and assimilationism effectively dominated discourses of settlement and cultural relations up to 1970 or so. It was only really from about 1973 that governments began to change that position and support the position of those who had been their opponents in the past. From that time on there was increasing opposition to multiculturalism from those who had felt somewhat comforted by White Australia and its legacy. The end of the war in Vietnam and the arrival of the first Boat People in 1976 intensified this apprehension. By 1978 Prof Jerzy Zubzrycki was reporting to the Fraser government that there was considerable unease about the philosophy of multiculturalism and its sub-text of multiracialism – even as the NSW Ethnic Affairs Commission was being established by the Wran Labor Government. By 1984, with Labor also in power in Canberra, Fraser gone, and the multicultural consensus fragmented, popular Australian historian Prof Geoffrey Blainey was able to mount the first serious argument against multiculturalism, presenting it as a philosophy which might disunite the community. He suggested that those suffering unemployment would see immigrants moving into their neighbourhoods as a threat and would turn on them – far better therefore that the immigrants never arrive. In 1988 the then Opposition committed itself to the ending of multiculturalism as a Coalition policy, with its leader John Howard telling the Ethnic Communities’ Councils gathered in Canberra that multiculturalism could not be a cement for the nation. He was booed, and lost that election – but his party followed the polls in later years and developed policies which would become real in the year after March 1996. The same period saw the Fitzgerald report into Australia’s Immigration policies which also flagged an apparently widening social antipathy to multiculturalism – a position rejected by the Hawke government which went into bat with an Agenda for a Multicultural Australia. Out of which came Keating’s vision for an Australia in which the past travails of race and ethnicity would be put to rest, and the future would be one of growth and empowerment on the world stage. Kaboom! Australian history is a tumultuous one – we have fashioned a multicultural society out of the flotsam of the world, and in many ways it works rather well. In others it still shivers with the hates of the past and the vicious jealousies of an unhappy present. Yet where we have held it together we have an extremely important and precious social experiment, that is built on mutual respect and inter-cultural learning. This is something that few other societies have managed to achieve – too often economic, political and ethnic divisions coalesce and produce terrible outrages. Yet the positive message from Australia is that the recognition of legitimate differences and the erosion of inequities which reinforce those differences, can produce something very creative and powerful. The current crisis of Multicultural Australia When the former NSW Premier Nick Greiner spoke to a Jakarta audience two years ago, he stressed that despite the barriers to participation. Australia as a society was committed to a more equitable and tolerant community, in which diverse values could be brought into engagement with each other in constructive and creative ways. One year ago, a few weeks after the Australian election, I spoke warily at the University of Indonesia international seminar on multiculturalism, of an Australia that was about to enter a phase of great danger and potential for widespread conflict around race and ethnic relations. The development of the One Nation Party led by Pauline Hanson (with its uncomfortable echoes of One Nation, One People, One Leader from the Nazi era) has swept parts of Australia. Thousands of people attend her meetings, while many thousands more rally in the streets and protest her message of division and hate. Hanson has an edge which makes her campaign rather more effective than it might otherwise be. Her demands, though harsher in goal and cruder in tone, are derived from arguments from the Right Wing of Australian politics – some of which are mirrored in the Liberal Party and its Leader. While Prime Minister Howard has condemned racism, he will not endorse multiculturalism. While he apologises personally for the Aboriginal stolen children, he will not commit his government to compensation. He refuses to accept responsibility for acts of a generation ago, and condemns the “black armband” view of history. He believes that there was no betrayal, because those who did the damage did so believing they were doing good. He is determined to pursue the course against those he sees as his ideological foes – the multiculturalists, the Aboriginal industry, the politically correct – forces he blames for his electoral defeat a decade ago. Hanson said of him when the first criticisms of her began to surface after her first Parliamentary speech in the spring of 1996, she simply inflamed what Howard had already condoned. For an Australian whose parents survived the Holocaust, who were interned by the Japanese in Shanghai, and who somehow managed to make it to Australia to start a new life, the current atmosphere in Australia is terrifying. In a blink of an eye, the mature, cosmopolitan environment of an Australia advocating multiculturalism and internationalism, concerned with social justice and greater equality for women, Indigenous people, people with disabilities and ethnic minorities, has been inundated with the crudest and most bigoted discourses, revolting in their corrosive effect on communal harmony. It is worth re-telling the elements of the story of decomposition of government commitment to cultural diversity. The first agency to go was the Prime Minister’s own Office of Multicultural Affairs, the main adviser to Cabinet on access and equity for ethnic minorities in relation to government services. The Office, which had created the Agenda for a Multicultural Australia in 1989, and organised the World Cultural Diversity Conference in April 1995, was closed. Its key advisory body, the Australian Multicultural Affairs Council, was wound down. Soon after the closure, the Bureau of Immigration, Multicultural and Population Research, which had been a powerhouse for research on ethnic relations, immigration and related policies, was terminated. People of non-English speaking background were no longer to be placed on government bodies such as the Australia Council for the Arts, as a matter of course. Funding to the Human Rights and Equal Opportunity Commission, which was soon to be inundated by complaints of racial harassment in the wake of Hanson’s political rise, was also cut back drastically in the August 1996 Budget, and further decimated by the May 1997 Budget. Social welfare benefits to non-citizen residents were reduced or removed – including those which accrued to lowly paid workers (such as child benefit) as a consequence of their incomes, not their residency status. Only the multicultural Special Broadcasting Service, in severely hampered form, was allowed to remain. It is likely that this had more to do with its value as a role model for the possible commercialisation of the Australian Broadcasting Corporation, than from any commitment in principle to its operation. Multiculturalism simply disappeared as a term in the policy discourses of the government. If the institutions that had been won from an unyielding body politic by ethnic minorities (immigrants from non-Anglo backgrounds) were savaged and discarded, then the attack on Aboriginal communities was overwhelming. The major Indigenous conduit of Federal moneys, the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Commission (ATSIC), lost 40% of its resources overnight. A sustained ideological barrage against Indigenous people was orchestrated by the Aboriginal Affairs Minister, with allegations of corruption, financial investigations, and poor management being directed at Indigenous housing, legal and medical groups, businesses and communities more widely. The “Bringing Them Home” report was undermined by the government’s attack on the integrity of its authors, and its blanket refusal to consider compensation to the families damaged by the “stealing” of their children. What about the mainstream? Hanson’s political support reflects the local response to the processes of globalisation discussed earlier. She denies being racist, arguing that she is an egalitarian – everyone treated the same, no special provision for anyone different from the mainstream. Howard says he speaks for the mainstream as well. Should we therefore be convinced by a world view that sees society as made up of the “mainstream” on the one hand and groups of self-serving special interests on the other? This after all is a very different view to one which sees society as made up of many interest groups competing or cooperating for access to scarce valued resources – or one which sees hierarchies of groups with minorities seeking justice in an unequal system in terms that make sense to them. The cultural significance of the term cannot be underestimated, as it conveys enormous power to those political forces which can appropriate it, and claim to represent it. We can think about it more clearly perhaps if we explore the metaphorical connotations of the idea. The mainstream is that part of the river which moves most unswervingly towards its end, the part that is cleaner, crisper, clearer and stronger. The mainstream draws in tributaries, which hold their own colour and essence for a few moments, before dissolving into the wider flow. It is the heart of the river, un-deterred by the hanging roots of the willows, distanced from the muddied beaches cut up with cattle hooves. Yet it is also the part that carries the bodies of dead animals along in flood, at once irresistible and potentially deadly if opposed. One cannot swim against the mainstream; the mainstream rolls forward over waterfalls and through ravines, until it finally empties out, while still carrying the molecules that came to it from across the landscapes and streams of the watershed, into the larger ocean, and only there in fact loses its own identity. On the other hand, if one is not “part of the mainstream”, what is one to be? Howard would have all outside the mainstream as special interests with no leverage on the body politic. I would refer to them rather more usefully as anabranches – those wonderful, evocative, seductive side trips, full of small stories and great heroisms, scattered with whirlpools and debris, hidden in lowering bush, the water crackling and sparkling in the midday sun, yet cool and shaded. Anabranches, at once both part of and separate from it, leave the mainstream for their own experiences, joining back up when time, tide and geography allow. Anabranches allow one to feel individual rather than mob-like and spun along in the roar of the mainstream, from which there is no turning back, only the threat of submergence and a choking death by drowning in the torrent if you turn to face the torrent. This is not to suggest that anabranches are safe, while the mainstream is not. Anabranches require skill, and flexibility, and a sense of awe in the face of small beauties and dramatic terrors; their whirlpools can take you down just as surely as the tumbling rapids of the mainstream can smash you open. But you have rather more control over the scene, even if the warnings of danger come far too late, or require an almost transcendental prescience. Asian perceptions of Australia’s travail But our neighbours are watching and listening and see rapids ahead even if we do not. The Jakarta Post a year ago voiced its warning of the potential reversal of Australian cultural development. The Bangkok Post reflected a wider sense of concern when it wrote: ” For a number of Asian nations, the row reaffirms lingering doubts and negative perception about Australia’s intended regional role. To be frank, there is still a view that Australia needs Asia and it is up to Australia to show that it truly understands the vast political and cultural sensitivities of other nations in this region before it can be accepted as being part of this region….What is certain is that Asian eyes will be watching”, (Pichai Chuensuksawadi, “Asians will be watching Australia”, Commentary, Bangkok Post, 4 Nov 1996). Writing from Singapore, Felix Soh commented on: “… the nub of the racism issue in Australia: It is an inevitable fact of life that under-currents of racism exist in multi-cultural societies…[Australia ..is even more multi-racial than Singapore]… But kept beneath the surface , unstirred, these underlying tensions do no harm. However, if unleashed by irresponsible people out to exploit the issue for their own ends, the emotional vortex that gets generated can lead to serious fissures in society…” The Straits Times, 25 Oct 1996. However the central question which was echoed throughout the Asian media focused on Prime Minister Howard’s attitude to Hanson’s views. In a reflective piece published in The New Straits Times, Sydney based journalist and media researcher Kalinga Seneviratne asked whether Howard was condoning racism? Seneviratne argues that it was only the threatened economic backlash from Asia that forced Howard to back the Parliamentary resolution condemning racism – pointing out that Howard had proposed many of the same critiques of Asian immigration in 1988 that Hanson had recycled in 1996. He then went on to condemn the Australian media’s self-defined role as the moral conscience of the region, arguing instead that the Asian media could report quite effectively on the Australian situation from an Asian perspective. He suggested Australia’s deeper rooted structural racism would have to be confronted – “This is the reality of the emerging ‘New World Order’ Anglo-Australians will have to come to terms with in the coming years. Australians will not be able to use Asian migrants when they want and discard them when they don’t. Their attitudes will be scrutinised more closely in the future by increasingly influential Asian media outlets through an Asian perspective, not an Anglo-centric filter” New Straits Times, 8 Nov 1996. Is Australia a racist society? Warnings of danger are all around us in Australia. The majority of people do not like what is happening. Many are frightened, many are retreating, anxious and astonished into privacy, many are sickened by their sense of loss for an Australia that was open and fair and trying to right the wrongs of the past. Many are very angry at what they see as a failure of national leadership, the running to populist prejudices in pursuit of the latest public opinion poll. Some however welcome the terror that is starting to stalk the land, hoping it will drive on to greater outrages – the final solution to the Aboriginal problem for instance, and the “extinguishment” of all Indigenous land rights being just one of them. Is Australia a racist society? I am torn as I try to answer this question without seeming to dodge it. Racism is a central part of Australia’s history. Yet so too has been the tolerance and understanding, the willingness to change and to accept and cherish differences as the sourceblood for creativity and growth. So I say, yes, Australia has been a racist society – there are many structures which still reflect this racism today and could grow despite earlier attempts to tear them down. Yet we have recognised and can act on those issues which confront us so dramatically. We have moved forward – Indigenous infant mortality has fallen from 1000% to 300% of the Australian average over two decades (still appalling, but somehow less appalling, according to Health Minister Michael Wooldridge). We have a multicultural broadcaster, and there are Asian Australians in parliament in the states. For a short period in early 1996 we had the three most senior positions in the country – Governor general, Chief Justice, and Prime Minister, all filled by descendants of Irish Catholic immigrants (albeit swearing fealty to an English queen). McLucksa has opened near my university, serving rendang and nasi lemak, and nearby a reasonable Es Kacang. Young Australians are better travelled, more bi-lingual and more adventurous in spirit than ever before. The International Studies degrees at my university cannot meet demand. And yet for too many there is still a dragging heart of darkness, antipathy to the foreigner, hatred of the stranger. Racism remains Australia’s most profound cultural challenge. Hanson’s role has been to heighten our awareness of how deeply rooted those fears are and therefore, how much more strongly we must fight to overcome them.

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Speech to the Sydney Institute, 9 March 2016

Check against delivery



Multiculturalism is a reality of Australian society. We live it everyday: in our cities and suburbs, in our schools and workplaces, on our buses and trains. In all these places, Australians mix with those from different backgrounds.

For the most part, we are comfortable with this reality. Surveys have shown that public acceptance of multiculturalism has been consistently high. The 2015 Mapping Social Cohesion survey, for example, found that 86 per cent of Australians agree that multiculturalism has been good for the country. This level of agreement has been constant for the past three years.[1]

Yet such acceptance of multiculturalism is accompanied by debate. For many self-declared friends of multiculturalism, this can sometimes be a source of concern. It shouldn’t be. It is important that we have civil debates about matters of race, culture and identity.

In any debate, though, it is important that we recognise some of the distinctive characteristics of the Australian multiculturalism. Our experience has been different from those in other parts of the world. While it is true that multiculturalism is in a troubled state in many liberal democracies, it is not the case for Australia. Ours is a success story, not a failure. But it is a success that demands our vigilance.

The criteria of success

Debates about multiculturalism often track events overseas. During the past decade, something of a consensus in Europe has emerged. Governments in Germany, France, Britain and the Netherlands have sounded a retreat from a policy of multiculturalism.

Some commentators have argued a similar retreat should occur here. Critics of multiculturalism believe it may promote more division than unity – that it may prevent groups from being integrated into a common national culture and identity.

These reflect legitimate concerns. Cultural diversity cannot be welcomed without some limits. Public policy should aim to bring people into a national community, rather than prevent them from doing so.

In the European context, there are clear indications that many immigrant groups are not integrating into national communities as they should. It is manifest through experiences such as the residential segregation of ethnic groups, the acquisition of language, the educational and employment of those from migrant backgrounds.

If Australian multiculturalism were to be considered a failure, we should see such signs of trouble. The evidence, however, doesn’t appear to suggest this is the case.

On social cohesion, even multiculturalism’s critics would readily concede the social miracle of Australia’s twentieth and twenty-first century migration history. In the most recent Scanlon Foundation survey on social cohesion, there was evidence of a large measure of social cohesion – including at the level of neighbourhoods. Only 2 per cent of people strongly disagreed that people of different backgrounds get on well together in their local area. Only 3 per cent strongly disagreed that the mix of different backgrounds improved life in their local area.[2]

On educational attainment, studies from the OECD clearly demonstrate that the children of immigrants in Australia attain better average results than the children of native-born Australians.[3] Such performance is mirrored in economic participation. Skilled migrants have a higher labour market participation rate than the overall population; their median annual earnings are also higher.[4]

On civic integration, an estimated 80 percent of immigrants with more than 10 years of residence have chosen to take up Australian citizenship.[5] It’s not a case of immigrants remaining foreigners. Those who do arrive here clearly want to become full members of the Australian nation.

On all these counts – social cohesion, educational attainment, economic participation, civic integration – Australia’s multicultural society has been a success. Unfortunately, this is missed by some commentators who turn to Europe and draw the wrong conclusions for our country. It is akin to finding a design flaw in an Audi or Peugeot and concluding that a Holden will have the same flaw.

Explaining success

Australia’s multicultural success has been predicated on Australian society accepting immigration as a nation-building project. In many countries, immigration occurred without planning. But that wasn’t the case here. A well-ordered immigration program has ensured public acceptance of cultural diversity; it has underpinned the cultural generosity of Australian society.

Another reason is that we have had a very particular model of multiculturalism. There are important differences between what Europeans have called multiculturalism and what we in Australia have called multiculturalism – especially in the realm of policy.[6]

Here, multiculturalism as policy emerged in the 1970s. It replaced the initial policy approach of assimilation that was adopted towards mass immigration from Europe in the immediate post-Second World War years. In the very simplest of terms, multiculturalism means there is public endorsement and recognition of cultural diversity. It means a national community defines its national identity not in ethnic or racial terms, but in terms that can include immigrants. It means a national community accepts that its common identity may evolve to reflect its composition.

What has been called multiculturalism in France and Germany does not accord with the policy of multiculturalism in Australia.

The French approach, for example, is better described as a republican or assimilationist one. In France, if there are to be expressions of cultural difference, they are to be confined to the private sphere – they have no place in public. This explains French bans on the wearing of religious symbols in public places such as schools, or the wearing of face coverings such as the burqa in public. There is nothing that can be described as multicultural about such bans.

The German approach, meanwhile, has been shaped by the guest worker model of immigration it adopted in the post-war years. While Germany accepted immigrants into the labour market, it did not for a long time welcome them as fellow members. Immigrants were tolerated as guest workers who were expected to return home once their work was done. It wasn’t until 2000 that German nationality law was changed to allow those born in the country to parents without native ancestry to claim German citizenship.

Australia has taken a different path. Unlike French republicanism, Australian multiculturalism has not confined cultural differences to the private realm; Australian society openly celebrates cultural diversity. Just consider last month’s public celebration of Lunar New Year. That kind of open, public endorsement of diversity wouldn’t be contemplated in French republican society. If anything, it would likely be regarded as fundamentally threatening to the civic order.

And unlike the German approach, Australia has extended the hand of civic friendship to immigrants. Those who arrive on Australian shores as migrants aren’t expected to remain mere guests. Rather, they are expected and encouraged to become fellow citizens of equal standing in society.

Australia’s multiculturalism is based on a compact of citizenship. Cultural differences are to be embraced, but only when they are consistent with living in an Australian democracy.

This bargain is embodied in the pledge an immigrant takes when they naturalise as an Australian citizen: ‘I pledge my loyalty to Australia and its people, whose democratic beliefs I share, whose rights and liberties I respect, and whose laws I will uphold and obey.’ In those four clauses we have writ the contract of citizenship in this country.

Contrary to its critics, Australian multiculturalism has never sanctioned a form of cultural relativism. Any right to express one’s cultural identity and heritage has been accompanied by responsibilities. There must be a commitment to liberal democratic values – to parliamentary democracy, to the rule of law, to equality of the sexes, to freedom of speech.[7]

In other words, Australian multiculturalism has always been an exercise in nation-building. It has always aimed to strengthen Australian national identity, not to supersede it. It has always been robust and muscular; it has always been committed to liberal democracy. As Assistant Minister for Multicultural Affairs Craig Laundy has recently said, ‘our success as one of the most culturally diverse and socially cohesive nations in the world is firmly grounded in our adherence to the values which underpin Australian society’.[8]

Civic multiculturalism and the Racial Discrimination Act

Let me turn to two challenges in sustaining Australia’s multicultural success.

First, the civic and non-partisan character of multiculturalism must be defended. If the Australian public has a broad acceptance of multiculturalism, as the evidence suggests, then it is because our model has avoided political sectarianism. Australian multiculturalism enjoys – and rightly enjoys – political endorsement from all the major political parties.

Too often, however, there is missing a measured view of multicultural policy. Some on the progressive side of political debate see only rights, but not responsibilities. Some on the conservative side of political debate see only a recipe for cultural difference and not also one for political unity.

Yet, in one respect, Australian multiculturalism has an emphatic conservative spirit.

It is something that is explicit about the sacrosanct nature of our parliamentary democracy and our rule of law. It says that while we should accept cultural diversity, we must also affirm and protect our liberal democratic institutions. It says that we should endorse values of civility and respect. These are not radical ideas, but deeply conservative ones.

A second challenge concerns the legal architecture of multiculturalism – namely, the Racial Discrimination Act. An official multiculturalism would mean little were it not supported by laws that guarantee equal opportunity in public life. Over the last forty years, the Racial Discrimination Act has done this, and it is important that it continues to do so.[9]

But in much recent debate about the Act, there continues to be widespread misunderstanding about its provisions – especially section 18C, which makes it unlawful to offend, insult, humiliate or intimidate someone because of their race. There continues to be commentary, which suggests that section 18C stifles free speech by capturing conduct that is merely offensive. Some recent commentary has also questioned section 18C’s constitutionality.

Such commentary is misguided. Since it was introduced in 1995, section 18C has been found by the courts only to apply when it causes serious and profound effects involving race; it does not cover acts which cause mere trivial slights or harms. And it remains rare for complaints about racial discrimination to reach the courts. For example, in 2014-15, the Australian Human Rights Commission finalised 405 complaints about racial discrimination. Less than 3 per cent of finalised complaints in 2014-15 end up in court. The majority of complaints under the Act are successfully conciliated (in 2014-15, 67 per cent of complaints where there was a conciliation).[10]

As for the constitutionality of section 18C – to be more precise, the constitutionality of Part IIA of the Act – the body of case law to date suggests the law is settled on the issue. The Federal Court, in the case of Jones v Scully, has held that section 18C reflects a domestic implementation of Australia’s international legal obligations as a signatory to the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination.[11] The reasoning of Justice Hely in that case has been followed in all subsequent cases where the issue of constitutionality has been raised. Part IIA of the Act, as Justice Hely put it, ‘is reasonably appropriate and adapted to serve the legitimate end of eliminating racial discrimination’ and does not unnecessarily or unreasonably impair the freedom of political communication that is protected by the Constitution.[12]

Understanding how section 18C works requires attention to section 18D of the Act, which explicitly protects freedom of speech. This section protects anything that is done reasonably and in good faith that is artistic work or fair reporting and comment on matters of public interest. Among many critics of the Act, and among those calling for its review, there is a puzzling ignorance of this section of the legislation.

The courts have interpreted this provision broadly. There have been numerous instances where acts causing racial offence have been found to enjoy the exemption of section 18D. Consider the case of Bropho v HREOC, where cartoons lampooning the return of the head of Yagan. (Yagan was a Noongar warrior shot dead in 1833 and whose preserved head was displayed in a British museum.) Despite the racial offence taken by Noongar Aboriginal communities in Western Australia, the cartoons in the West Australian newspaper were found by the Federal Court to have enjoyed the protection of section 18D, being deemed to constitute fair comment.[13]

If we are to endorse Australian multiculturalism, we should give it expression through the law. The law acts, among other things, to express our values as a society. The Racial Discrimination Act continues to be an important statement about Australian society’s commitment to civility and respect.

Civility and respect are, as I noted earlier, values that transcend political divides. Again, we see in Australian multiculturalism and the Racial Discrimination Act, a spirit that could be described as conservative. Conservatives, after all, have never shied from prescribing for society – as Edmund Burke did in his Reflections on the Revolution in France – the right kinds of ‘sentiments, manners and moral opinions’.[14]

Community harmony and extremism

I would like to conclude by focusing attention on a third, and most urgent, challenge. That’s the challenge of extremism. As illustrated by a number of examples during the past two years, there are elements present in our society intent on pursuing violent extremism, using religious justifications. These elements have no place in Australian multiculturalism.

We must take care, however, not to judge entire communities by the actions of an extremist few; we must not allow stereotypes and prejudices to take hold. Last year, I conducted around the country consultations with communities about their experience of racism. It was commonly reported by representatives of Muslim and Arab communities that public debates about terrorism were spilling over into disharmony within communities.[15] This is corroborated by research from Western Sydney University, which found that Muslims experience a level of discrimination three times higher than the national average.[16]

This warrants our attention. Saying that some communities may be susceptible to experiences of racial or religious vilification doesn’t amount to encouraging a sense of victim mentality (as some commentators have suggested). We must be prepared to speak out against prejudice where it exists. Not speaking out can make it easier for extremists to seduce alienated youths with their messages of violence.

Indeed, if we are to expect Muslim communities to repudiate extremism perpetrated in the name of Islam, our society must be prepared to repudiate extremism that targets Muslim communities. It has been concerning to see present in many anti-Muslim protest rallies agitators aligned with far-right-wing nationalist organisations.

Such groups may not confine their energies to one community. During the past two years, for example, we have seen numerous instances of vile anti-Semitic bigotry, which appear to be linked with far-right organised groups. The alarming rise of far-right politics in the US and Europe further highlights how liberal tolerance is being challenged by extreme nationalism.

There are, then, numerous challenges for Australian multiculturalism. It is a reminder that while it has been a success, we cannot be complacent. But, as I said at the outset, civil debate about multiculturalism is always to be welcomed. I thank the Sydney Institute for facilitating such a debate this evening.


[1] A Markus (2015), Mapping Social Cohesion National Report 2015, Scanlon Foundation and Monash University, Melbourne, p 41.

[2] Ibid [1] p 59.

[3] OECD (2012), Education at a Glance 2012: OECD Indicators, OECD Publishing, p 92. Available online: http://dx.doi.org/10.1787/eag-2012-en (last accessed 8 March 2016).

[4] Department of Immigration and Border Protection (2014), Australia’s Migration Trends 2013-14, Commonwealth of Australia, Canberra, p 118.

[5] D Smith, J Wykes, S Jayarajah and T Fabijanic (2010) ‘Citizenship in Australia’, Paper for OECD Seminar on Naturalisation and the Socio-Economic Integration of Immigrants and their Children, Department of Immigration and Citizenship, Canberra, p 8. Available online: http://www.border.gov.au/ReportsandPublications/Documents/research/citizenship-in-australia-2011.pdf (last accessed 8 March 2016).

[6] For more detailed discussion, see T Soutphommasane (2012), Don’t Go Back To Where You Came From: Why Multiculturalism Works, NewSouth Publishing, Sydney.

[7] See, e.g., Australian Government (2011), The People of Australia – Australia’s Multicultural Policy, Commonwealth of Australia, Canberra.

[8] C Laundy (2016), ‘Cultural diversity is one of our strengths’, The Australian, 1 March 2016.

[9] I have offered a more detailed treatment of this in T Soutphommasane (2015), I’m Not Racist But... 40 Years of the Racial Discrimination Act, NewSouth Publishing, Sydney.

[10] Australian Human Rights Commission, (2015), Annual Report 2014-2015, Australian Human Rights Commission, Sydney. p 144.

[11] Jones v Scully [2002] FCA 1080 (at paragraphs 239-240).

[12] Ibid [11].

[13] Bropho v Human Rights & Equal Opportunity Commission [2004] FCAFC 16.

[14] E Burke ([1790] 1980), ‘Reflections on the Revolution in France’, The Harvard Classics, ed. Eliot, C. Grolier Enterprise Corp, Connecticut, p 217.

[15] Australian Human Rights Commission (2015), Freedom from Discrimination: Report on the 40th anniversary of the Racial Discrimination Act, Australian Human Rights Commission, Sydney.

[16] K Dunn, R Atie et al. (2015), The resilience and ordinariness of Australian Muslims: Attitudes and experiences of Muslims Report, Western Sydney University, Sydney, p 27.

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