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What happened to multicultural Australia? - main committee, grievance debate

My grievance tonight is about an issue that was once central to government policy and widely accepted across mainstream politics but has now been relegated to a marginal and contentious place in the political agenda. I speak, of course, about multiculturalism. It is with much regret that I note the growing reluctance of politicians and opinion leaders to embrace or to even discuss multiculturalism.

 It appears that this reluctance stems from perceived public hostility as gleaned from focus groups, internal polling, talkback radio and letters to newspaper editors. So-called opinion leaders are fast becoming opinion followers on this issue, with the result being a fast-diminishing circle of fear, distrust, diminished horizons and social exclusion.

Now we are left to wonder how it is that an issue with strong bipartisan support for more than two decades suddenly becomes seen as contentious, divisive and relegated to the policy margins. How can a guiding principle that helped Australia embrace its diversity, build upon the strengths of its social capital and stand out as a positive model for the rest of the world suddenly be in the retracting state that we find it in today?

The end of a bipartisanship approach to multiculturalism can be traced to the days of the Howard government. Former Prime Minister John Howard never really supported the policy and, once elected to the leadership of this nation, ensured that his narrow-minded approach to many issues, including this one, prevailed.

 

This is from a former Prime Minister who did not support reconciliation and who did not support the apology to the Stolen Generation, a former Prime Minister who used the excuse of avoiding a so-called ‘black armband’ view of history to justify his own white-washing of history. After 9/11, John Howard and his fellow travellers had a golden opportunity to feed on public fears and legitimise their rejection of multiculturalism in both the public discourse and the basis of government policy and programs. Unfortunately, after years of this conservative and narrow agenda, many politicians across the spectrum are nervous about reaffirming the once popular multicultural approach to public policy. This has led us to a situation where, in the 43rd Parliament, there is no clear specific place for multiculturalism amongst the executive portfolio responsibilities.

As Australians we should be proud of our multicultural society. We should be proud of the achievements of our multicultural policy and the way it has underpinned our cultural, social and administrative development.

 

Embracing diversity, harmony, equity and access has been central to the essence of the Australian identity. It is important that we recap some of the milestones which have marked the development of our multiculturalism policy. Successive governments, of both political persuasions, have promoted this policy, which has helped contribute immensely to our progress. In fact, it was the Whitlam government that in 1973 announced the universal admissions policy and an end to the White Australia policy. The then Minister for Immigration, Al Grassby, presented multiculturalism as the basis for migrant settlement, welfare and social cultural policy in a 1973 speech entitled ‘A Multicultural Society for the Future.’ This was the first time the term ‘multiculturalsociety’ was used in an official Australian government policy statement. In 1974, the opposition spokesperson for labour and immigration, Malcolm Fraser, became the first person to invoke the term ‘multiculturalism’ in parliament and commenced the long tradition of bipartisan support for the concept. He said: the Liberal and Country Parties recognise that there is a need to overcome the complex problems confronting migrants,especially non-English speaking migrants, who already live in the multi-cultural society of today’s Australia.

 

1975 also saw the Racial Discrimination Act passed, which aimed to implement Australia’s international obligations under the International Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination. As the Australian Ethnic Affairs Council, appointed by the Fraser government in 1977, concluded: An acceptance of the multicultural nature of Australian society implies that government and established institutions acknowledge the validity of ethnic cultures and respond in terms of ethnic beliefs, values and customs … [What] Australia should be working towards is not a oneness, but a unity, not a similarity, but a composite …Subsequent to that we saw the Galbally report, which identified multiculturalism as a key concept for the futuredevelopment of government immigration policy. We also saw the provision of special services and programs—to ensure equality of access, such as the establishment of SBS, radio and translation services—that, and I quote:… was much more than the provision of special services to minority ethnic groups … [but rather a] way of looking at Australian society [that] involves living together with an awareness of cultural diversity.

 

Significant too was the Hawke government’s introduction of an access and equity strategy, as well as the establishment of the Human Rights and Equal Opportunity Commission.

The initiatives and programs that were part and parcel of successive government policies reflect the fact that, since the introduction of a multicultural policy at the federal level, at every stage, with every parliamentary term, through every government, a lot of thought and commitment went into multiculturalism. Unfortunately, however, the bipartisanship that had long defined the framework of multiculturalism was effectively broken when the then opposition leader, John Howard, called for the abandonment of the term and a new focus onwhat he described as ‘One Australia’. With the election of the Howard government in 1996 and the electionof Pauline Hanson to the House of Representatives, the combination of the ‘One Australia’ catchcry and the ‘One Nation’ political party served as a dangerous and destructive catalyst to a shift in the public discourse.A national consensus that had long embraced and nurtured Australia’s diverse culture, identity and democratic tradition was severely shaken.

 

Lost was the openness and embracing nature of multiculturalism. Lost was the

uniquely Australian narrative that had made this society the envy and role model of progressive societies around the globe. The language of multiculturalism was replaced by the language of assimilation, and linked to the rhetoric of ‘national security’, as John Howard tried to reassert what he recently described, in a speech to the ultraconservative Heritage Foundation, as ‘the Anglosphere’.

Three years ago this nation said it had had enough of Howard’s narrow and hostile view of the world. It is now time to also declare an end to the hostility to multiculturalism which has been allowed to drift into the public discourse without challenge for far too long. It is also time to again celebrate the wide-reaching contributions to Australian life that multicultural policy has achieved and reinvigorate its power to enhance the fabric of Australian society. Multiculturalism has served Australia well. Through various acts of parliament, programs

and services, multiculturalism has ensured an active commitment to human rights, and access and equity, as well as helped to shape a positive contemporary Australian identity.

 

I am a child of post-Second World War immigration and an example and beneficiary of multiculturalism and its success, as are millions of other Australians. We have achieved what we have as a direct result of the policies and initiatives of successive Australian governments which were committed to multiculturalism. Our parents integrated and made a contribution while proudly maintaining their original languages, cultures and family ties.

We maintained an active cultural inheritance. We are bilingual, even multilingual, and have used our abilities and experiences to enrich our Australian society. We reflect respect and pride in both ourselves and Australia.

I hope that at a federal government level we can look to the very positive example of my home state of Victoria.

 

There has been strong and continuous bipartisan support for multiculturalism in Victoria. Successive premiersfrom Jeff Kennett to Steve Bracks and John Brumby have all been strong and proud advocates of multiculturalism.

Both Victoria and New South Wales have enshrined the principles of multiculturalism in legislation. I believe the time has come for the federal parliament to follow suit.

 

Finally, I acknowledge and commend the excellent record of my colleague Laurie Ferguson, the member for Werriwa, who in his role in the previous parliament as Parliamentary Secretary for Multicultural Affairsand Settlement Services demonstrated a thorough understanding of contemporary multiculturalism and oversaw the excellent diversity and social cohesion program. I also look forward to the Gillard Labor government’s

reaffirming and returning multiculturalism as a specific portfolio responsibility in the very near future. I look forward to working with the Parliamentary Secretary for Immigration and Citizenship, Senator Kate Lundy, on this very important issue. This will reflect the reality of multiculturalism as a positive policy to offer social cohesion in Australia. This will help restore a program of positive action for integration, for diversity and for building social capital that in years past has been second to none.

 

We should not frame our policy towards multiculturalism with reference to national security as the basis on which our social policy is developed. Multiculturalism is not a policy debate in response to issues of national security. In fact, we must demonstrate our commitment to multiculturalism with pride, not rejection, and with

action, not disregard, and we must not shy away from our responsibilities to continue to build a dynamic and inclusive society and once again be the best in the world. We must not turn our back on a policy that has been proved to work, a policy that ensures our commitment to embracing our diversity and, as such, promotes respect

and equality among fellow Australians.