Australia: Reflections on a multicultural nation

Harold F. Schiffman haroldfs at
Wed Nov 15 13:31:55 UTC 2006

ON LINE  opinion  - Australia's e-journal of social and political debate

Reflections on a multicultural nation
By Andrew Jakubowicz
Posted Wednesday, 15 November 2006

Has multiculturalism had its day? Some people would say that
multiculturalism no longer carries any policy impact. Andrew Robb worries
that it is confusing. The federal governments history summit doesnt
mention cultural diversity, let alone multiculturalism. The 1960s term,
integration has become the favoured term to refer to the relation between
immigrants and the rest of Australia. The governments cherished Australian
values do not include inter-cultural competency. The Prime Minister
praises Quadrant magazine and warns of the dangers of the soft left.
Quadrant is that government-subsidised journal that has attacked
multiculturalism almost since the term was first permitted to enter the
Australian political lexicon. We live in a world now where unease about
the other has escalated dramatically.

Others, of course, have always had it hard. My family were Polish Jewish
refugees who survived the Holocaust through a mixture of luck and rapid
thinking, and made their way to Lithuania, then to Japan, Shanghai in
China and, finally, to Australia. Their window of opportunity slammed shut
soon after, when an Australian government report concluded that Jews from
Shanghai were prostitutes, drug runners, black-marketeers, and disease
carriers. En route, they changed their identities to save their lives;
their protectors acted in ways that belie the stereotypes we now have of
them: a Japanese samurai spy, Soviet NKVD agents, Russian businessmen, and
Chinese communists. My childhood in Bondi was framed by the refugee and
immigrant communities around me. But the cultural politics I first learned
were those which existed between the Catholic kids at the church school
down the street and the rest of us - or at least, the rest of the kids who
chose one of the (to me) bizarre Christian sects for scripture classes.

I attended the Jewish class for a while, but its rigid discipline and
disconnect from my sense of the world scared me off. My parents, who did
not warm to religious ideologues of any religion, let me wander off to the
Anglican class - there was no philosophy class for atheists, and
Anglicanism of that time was like warm milk - which was all about a gentle
and mild Jewish boy called Yeshua, Jesus in English. I first became
involved in the political and cultural struggles now described as
multiculturalism back in the late 1960s, when my honours thesis in
government examined inter-communal relations - Anglo-Australian, Greek and
Aboriginal - in downtown Redfern, the heartland of inner-city
transformation. At that time the M word wasnt around, though assimilation
was already going out of fashion (except in the immigration department; I
was put on some sort of black list, and department officials were warned
not to listen to me speak).

As an activist around urban issues, I was very involved in coalitions of
tenants and residents, looking for ways of joining up the dots and
building community organisations that stretched across ethnic boundaries.
When the ALP came to national government in 1972, I was asked by Al
Grassby to enter the lions den and join the immigration departments
migrant task force. It was the first time the animals had been asked to
run the zoo or, at least, enter the managers office. It was a
transformative time. Racism was under attack; the Vietnam war was over as
far as Australia was concerned (at least until the Indo-Chinese refugees
arrived in their hundreds of thousands); and the burst of new nations in
the region meant that the old colonial certainties were fast disappearing.

Inside the department, the upper echelons were terrified that a
multi-racial Australia might be on the agenda of the new government. After
some hard pushing by the emerging ethnic leadership, including people like
Melbournes Walter Lippman, the department acquiesced to the novel
terminology from Canada, that Australia should become a multicultural
society, even though the fear of Black immigrants remained. The term
multiculturalism has a mixed parentage, as one would hope. Its Latin
origins mean many cultures, while the Greek -ism can imply a philosophy,
ideology, movement or action. The key issue in 1960s Canada was national
unity: how to hold the nation together when there was significant
political and economic inequality associated with the bi-cultural divide -
that between francophone and anglophone Canadians. Canadians tried to
solve this dilemma through a recognition of the right to cultural
integrity for the main antagonists, as the price for, and ultimately as it
turned out, the most sensible way to achieve, structural (economic and
institutional) unity.

In the process, the broader principle of cultural differentiation was
sanctified, and thus the multicultural rubric came into being with, in
time, national legislation and a national human-rights charter that
enshrined the right to cultural difference. Under-pinning the rubric was
the belief that social cohesion and institutional integration would be
best served by the institutional recognition of cultural difference.
Canada had another set of dilemmas, of course: devising a national
languages policy, and deciding how to recognise and integrate the first
nations of indigenous peoples. Australian multiculturalism was framed
rather differently. Our only national language has no competition, and,
for the most part, our multicultural policies avoid all issues to do with
Indigenous people except in so far as the 1990s national language policy
sought to protect and support Indigenous languages.

However, the problem that we wanted to address - that of how to ensure an
integrated society as the nation entered the push towards globalisation -
also required awareness of the many complex relations between structural
inequality (what we once might have called social class) and cultural
attributes and resources (or ethnicity). Thus, the Petro Georgiou-Frank
Galbally-Malcolm Fraser model of multiculturalism fashioned in the late
1970s aimed to disentangle ethnicity from class by opening up social
mobility for new immigrants and their children, unlocking their natural
potential and enhancing their cultural capacities to contribute. The
strategy overseen by Georgiou and his cohorts was systematic, well
researched and aimed at institutional change. They reasoned that existing
institutions had an interest in the status quo while their officers did
not possess either the competence or confidence to change, and the
barriers facing communities to learning about how to affect change were
very high. Furthermore, they determined that national resources were
moving unequally away from ethnic groups who experienced disadvantage.

The hallmarks of the strategy put in place contained institutional
beachheads such as the migrant resource centres and the Special
Broadcasting Service to provide participative but distinctive role models.
It also tried to create alternative centres of knowledge, such as the
Australian Institute of Multicultural Affairs, powered by intellectuals
from the marginalised communities who could contest the taken-for-granted
self-serving assumptions of what had come to be called the mainstream.
After the ALP came to power in 1983, processes of institutional change
such as access and equity and later, once more under the Coalition, the
government charter of service for a culturally diverse society were

The point about these exercises was that they were supposed to change the
social world; they were supposed to empower more marginalised groups and
enable their members to move into more powerful locations in society,
particularly the public sphere of government and cultural creativity. Many
powerful groups did not like this strategy and its consequences. We only
have to look at Petro Georgious own career trajectory to see what happens
if one moves against the heartland of real power. Georgiou found a place
for himself as adviser to Prime Minister Fraser, and in many of the
initiatives that were to characterise Australian multiculturalism. He then
secured pre-selection for Kooyong, once held by his hero Sir Robert Gordon
Menzies and later by Andrew Peacock.

He showed that in socially progressive, multicultural Melbourne, in the
wealthiest locality in Australia, surrounded by all those migrants who had
really made it in terms of income and wealth and where the old
quasi-aristocracy welcomed the new boy on the block, the Greek
working-class kid with the immigrant father who couldnt speak English well
but loved Australia, could take his street-fighting fists and make a
space. But thats where it stopped. There was no way the inner sanctum of
his cherished Liberal Party would ever let a radical wog from the streets
sit at the high table. Not only that, they would plough every one of his
cherished ideals into the dirt and try to force him to wield the shovel.

When the Coalition came to power in 1996, they were washed in on the same
wave that landed Pauline Hanson on the cross-benches. Much has been
written about how the government rebounded to her challenge and
incorporated her ideas into its programs. Yet, as the most vociferous
haters of cultural diversity have argued (in Quadrant of course) the
Coalition has, unfortunately, still left bits of the multicultural project
in place. The question is why has this happened? Why hasnt the axe that
was to fall in the wake of the 1996 victory cut fully through the forest
of political correctness, and left it as flattened as the old-growth
stands of Tasmania? Its not just that SBS bought the cricket and the world
cup and a portfolio of multilingual soft-core porn for the suburbs on
Saturday night. Its not just that migrant resource centres, despite the
sustained and malevolent cutting of their resources, somehow survive (at
the moment) and respond to the next wave of suffering souls seeking refuge
and new lives. Its not just that in schools and communities across the
country, dedicated teachers, interested parents, and excited kids invest
energy and creativity in trying to work together across cultures to
realise the potential of their minds and bodies.

Rather, it is all those things. But also it is because the basic idea -
that a complex society has to see everyone as having an equal stake in its
success if it is to prosper - remains valid. This was never clearer to me
than a decade ago, when I gave a talk in Jakarta for the
Australia-Indonesia Institute. The topic I was asked to address, Is
Australia a Racist Country? was chosen by the Indonesian side in the wake
of the Coalition victory and Hansons efflorescence. Lets say that after my
ear burned from the Ambassadors tirade and my paper was pulped at the
order of DFAT, I became aware that a new political correctness had been
born, and it was as uncomfortable for me as the supposedly constraining
political correctness of the multiculturalists had been for John Howard.
This rumpus aside, I had to answer the question my hosts had put. I
proposed what I hoped was a truth: Australia was a society with a racist
past seeking to prevent or avoid a racist future.

I think the reason that multiculturalism - with all its meandering
inconsistencies, its occasional delusions, its difficulties with gender
and sexuality, its discomfort with class, its ragged wounds around
Indigenous issues - still continues to speak to us as a mode of thinking
about the world and acting in it, is that through its prism we can
appreciate how much societies are sustained through inter-dependence of
their peoples. Cultural hierarchies that force obeisance of some to
others, that corral minorities into ghettos of hate and poverty, and that
demand a singular consciousness, are doomed to be places of violence and
outrage. There is enough evidence from around the world to support such a
statement: the USSR, Francos Spain, both the Shahs and Khomeinis Iran. We
know that cultures that engage with each other and are open to exchange
and growth produce extraordinary creativity and opportunities for
innovation, as in Spain under the Muslim rulers of the early centuries of
the last millennium.

This engagement has to be multi-directional to work, and a willingness to
change and learn is a pre-condition for the positive outcomes that can
result. Is this all too soft and wishy-washy? Is this just another tirade
from the soft left based on a nave faith and a black-armband view of
history? Let me suggest why it is not. Multiculturalism has carried a lot
of baggage. Many serious political players believe multiculturalism
allowed Islamist jihad into Australia (or if not the terrorists, then at
the very least organised and violent crime), widespread racially inspired
sexual assault, and an upsurge in hard drug use (see Quadrant). Some of
these things were said about my parents community in the 1940s, the
Italians in the 1950s and 1960s, the Indo-Chinese in the 1970s and 1980s,
and, of course, the Arabs-Muslims in the last decade or so.

We know from the last 60 years that some refugee Jews were criminals in
Australia, but the vast majority were not, and since that time some
criminals have been Jewish, though most are not. We know that the mano
nero operated in Italian communities, and the mafia was active in various
parts of Australia; most Italians had nothing to do with either, and
detested them and their works and are ashamed by their residual presence.
Despite the shattered lives that forced 200,000 Indo-Chinese refugees to
seek a new life in Australia, only a few were ever heroin dealers or
extortionists or murderers. The overwhelming majority wanted nothing to do
with these people and have proved themselves throughout Australian
society. And for the 400,000 or so Australian Muslims, the destructive
behaviour of a small minority remains a cancerous sore eating at their
hopes and dreams - or rather, the mainstream misperception is what is
undermining their confidence and aspirations.

So multiculturalism has not had its day, though there are those who fear
change in themselves and will do everything in their power to ensure it
disappears from the political lexicon. The avalanche of abuse directed
towards the idea of a co-operative society, one that recognises all its
members as part of the story, has overwhelmed the now too clearly fragile
edifices built on decades of good-will and mutual respect. All it takes,
as they say, for evil to triumph is for people of goodwill to do nothing.
The energy directed against multiculturalism has been truly evil, for it
has been advancing an agenda of supercilious and corrosive superiority,
with an absolute disregard for the consequences. This is not about Left
and Right, of cold war ideologues snapping their braces as they see off
their enemies. This is about ensuring a modern cosmopolitan society and
its survival as a civil space. That task confronts us all.

This article was commissioned by Australian mosaic, the national magazine
of FECCA and will be published in the next edition, issue 15.

Andrew Jakubowicz is a professor of sociology at the University of
Technology Sydney.


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