Reframing multiculturalism


Multiculturalism has become a major casuality of the tragic events of 7/7 in London.

Critics have latched onto these events to argue that multiculturalism leads to reduced social cohesion and the loss of identity. But in seeking to assert the idea of ‘Australian values’ both the critics and proponents of ‘culturalist multiculturalism’ define our identity in cultural terms. This leaves us in the same cul-de-sac.

Thanks to Peter Nicholson at the Australian

Thanks to Peter Nicholson at The Australian

In contrast, there is a way of formulating a civic model of multiculturalism – that is, as a public philosophy that informs public conduct, guides our public institutions, and provides a practical model of citizenship in a democratic society. But this also requires a reframing of Australian citizenship to acknowledge the diversity in our community, while incorporating this diversity back into our shared public or political life.

Earlier models of culturalist multiculturalism – all framed within notions of ‘cultural pluralism’ following mass migration in the post World War II period – provided a strategic and highly successful, public policy model for managing diversity. Importantly, this entailed an equality of respect, the need for mutual understanding, and an acceptance or endorsement of cultural differences. This was achieved primarily by catering largely to the symbolic and expressive needs of the culturally different, especially the early waves of European immigrants.

But a major shortcoming of this orthodox model was that it led to an ‘identity politics’ built around ethnic groups conceived of as cultural groups or ‘ethnic minorities’. And invariably, this identity politics based on a flawed, static view of culture privileged and celebrated cultural maintenance. The increasing tendency, among some migrant groups, towards diaspora nationalism (linkages back to cultures of the home country), has been viewed with suspicion by a mainstream society, already concerned about cultural ghettoisation and the emergence of a ‘them versus us’ attitude.

At the same time, new assimilationists seek to invoke so-called ‘common Australian values’ which only serve to mirror the ‘us and them’ attitudes of culturalist multiculturalism. Unlike during the short-lived Whitlam/Grassby era, there has been scant recognition in this model of the material inequalities and the marginalisation of the ‘different’, flowing from structural barriers in society. In fact, if there is one lesson we can draw from the UK experience, it is the pervasive effect of social disadvantage within British Muslim communities.

In the light of our experience of multiculturalism over three decades, we need to distance multiculturalism from the sphere of cultural identity, and locate it more within the public institutions and practices of citizenship.

What this requires is reframing Australian citizenship as a common citizenship that acknowledges ‘difference’ in its various forms this importantly includes the Aboriginal people who must be incorporated within a new Australian multiculturalism and the institutions and practices of public life.

The gross under-representation of the different and the disempowered in political parties, the media and corporate sectors and other institutions needs urgent rectification. Participation in, and recognition within, the mainstream of social and political institutions is surely the key to a new civic multiculturalism.

In short, this new model of multiculturalism proposes a political and enabling multiculturalism within a framework of citizenship. In this manner, we are able to treat citizens as full and equal members of society, while concurrently recognising difference and acknowledging that these citizens have diverse commitments and legitimate claims on society. The strength of this model is that it emphasises our common belonging to the political rather than to cultural values.

Such a republican vision of a civic multiculturalism, above all, remains committed to safeguarding and protecting the rights of ‘minorities’ to participate as full and equal members of society. This permits differences between individual citizens or groups of citizens to be recognised and taken account of. But it’s a two way street. It imposes an obligation on all citizens to act within the boundaries of the political community, and has the virtue of reaffirming the universal principles that bind us in a liberal democracy. And what unites us, and constitutes the essence of ‘being Australian’, is our commitment to a common political community.

In this context, the Gallop Government in WA, with its Charter on Multiculturalism (November 2004), broke new ground. The Charter frames an inclusive multiculturalism built around four linked principles: civic values; fairness; equality; and equitable participation. Through the notion of a ‘differentiated citizenship’, the Charter seeks to acknowledge difference while simultaneously emphasising a direct sense of belonging and community membership via participatory citizenship. This inclusionary form of civic multiculturalism shifts the focus to the public sphere and recognises the inequalities and differences that influence our conduct as citizens.

This is a public philosophy that can guide us through the new pluralism of a globalised future. It reminds us that the basis for solidarity in a pluralistic society is the belonging to, and identification with, the political nation conceived of as a self-governing political and moral community – and not a cultural nation derived from mythical core-cultural values drawn from mainstream majority groups. In other words, the real basis of unity, social cohesion and solidarity lies not in some set of shared values, but a shared identity which derives from an acceptance and identification of a common set of social and political institutions.

The Politics of a New Pluralism: Reframing Citizenship –

Launched in 2004, New Matilda is one of Australia's oldest online independent publications. It's focus is on investigative journalism and analysis, with occasional smart arsery thrown in for reasons of sanity. New Matilda is owned and edited by Walkley Award and Human Rights Award winning journalist Chris Graham.