The Next Generation


There’s been a lot of talk, lately, about the failures of multiculturalism. Critics from both Right and Left have questioned our commitment to the policy the Right accusing it of fostering separatism and encouraging immigrants into ‘ethnic ghettos’ (John Stone, Andrew Bolt), and the Left accusing it of tolerating the intolerable and allowing cultural practices that undermine centuries of secular enlightenment (Terry Lane, Pamela Bone).

Recently, aspiring Prime Minister Peter Costello tried to out-wedge John Howard, decrying the ‘mushy, misguided multiculturalism’ that, according to him, allowed people to settle in Australia while they refused to accept its values and, in some cases, worked actively to undermine its social cohesion.

Pauline Hanson was delighted. Clearly, Costello had finally ‘woken up’ to the issues she raised a decade ago. More likely, Costello had woken up to the fact that, unless he proved his loyalty to his boss’s divisive brand of politics, he would never be trusted to continue Howard’s neo-conservative legacy.

As Professor Andrew Jakubowicz, arguably Australia’s leading academic in the field, acknowledged just two weeks after the event it was the London bombing last July that heralded this open season on multiculturalism, stoking the fear that ‘home-grown’ terrorists reside in our midst, emboldened by three decades of multicultural policies that encouraged them to remain separate from, and opposed to, many of the core elements of Australian society.

Some of the more considered criticisms, notably Bone’s concern about the rights of women, are worth acknowledging, but the vast majority of the recent attacks on multiculturalism are misinformed (at best), disingenuous (at worst) and nothing new.

Since multiculturalism was introduced to Australia by the Whitlam Government, and then entrenched as bi-partisan policy by Malcolm Fraser, it has met the trenchant opposition of those who are determined to misrepresent it as a policy of cultural relativism. Only last month, at a public forum hosted by SBS Radio to mark ‘Harmony Day’, Liberal Party patriarch Peter Coleman accused multiculturalism of making us ‘so unhappy’ and called for a policy that reasserted our ‘complex heritage’ and reinstated Australian values at the forefront of cultural and social policy.

Thanks to Scratch.

Coleman is just the last in a long line of conservative politicians to misunderstand or misrepresent multiculturalism. As long ago as 1993, the deposed Liberal Party ‘wet,’ Ian MacPhee, acknowledged that his more conservative colleagues simply didn’t, or didn’t wish to, understand multiculturalism, which was always based on the view that ‘national cohesion is best attained through acceptance of, and pride in, diversity within the framework of shared Australian core values’.

Just four days after Coleman’s misrepresentation at the forum, SBS released the results of a year-long research project into the attitudes of younger Australians to multiculturalism. Titled Connecting Diversity: Paradoxes of Multicultural Australia, the publication provides a snapshot of how culturally diverse Australians under 40 understand multiculturalism, how it affects their day-to-day lives, and how the role of the media influences their experience.

The report, which is the result of a cooperation between SBS’s policy division and a team of academic researchers led by Professor Ien Ang, makes an invaluable contribution to the national discussion on cultural diversity and social cohesion, and rescues the debate from the clutches of partisan politics and reactionary ideology.

Perhaps most interestingly, the findings reveal that recent misrepresentations of multiculturalism by our leaders are causing confusion amongst younger Australians. Put simply, it seems that their positive experiences of multiculturalism are vastly different to the image presented by conservative politicians and commentators of a divisive and damaging policy that undermines, rather than promotes, social cohesion.

In interviews with focus groups across three age bands 16-20, 26-30 and 36-40 years old the researchers found that

Disjunctions appear to exist between an individual’s experience and their thoughts about Australia’s national identity. Multiculturalism is valued for broadening the appreciation of difference, yet this support can coexist with concerns about segregation, usually ‘elsewhere’ in Australia.

Crucially, this confusion seems to emerge much more strongly in the two younger groups than in that comprised of people in their late 30s. Regardless of demographic differences, what is clear is that the majority of concerns about segregation are based not on personal experience but on the awareness that multiculturalism is promoting segregation ‘elsewhere’ in Australian society.

The participants’ lived experiences of multiculturalism are largely positive, and shared amongst their peers regardless of cultural background. This differs sharply from the image of a divisive and socially damaging force that is being promoted by our leaders. The ‘elsewhere’ that is having such trouble with multiculturalism is not found in any of the participants’ own lives, but seems to reside in some other Australia one which they have never, or rarely, seen, but have been told to be afraid of.

When SBS is producing such important, myth-busting social research, it’s little wonder that the likes of John Stone wants to see it abolished. Work such as Connecting Diversity serves an essential purpose in destroying the shaky shibboleths of those who wish for nothing less than a return to the White Australia of their youth.

Multiculturalism is not responsible for social division and segregation. More often than not, it is the lack of multiculturalism that leads to the disenfranchisement and potential radicalism of citizens from minority backgrounds. Neither the UK, which suffered so much at the hands of its ‘home-grown’ terrorists last year, nor France, which was shortly thereafter rocked by the uprising of an oppressed minority of youths from North African backgrounds, has ever had an official policy of multiculturalism. Nor has the USA which, while held up by Right-wing commentators as an example of a successfully assimilated nation, has experienced more than a hundred years of race riots, and has entrenched multi-generational disadvantage amongst its indigenous, African-American and Hispanic citizens.

Only Canada and Australia, the Western nations that embraced multiculturalism as national policy in the 1970s, have so far been spared the worst of inter-cultural violence and social schisms. This is because, far from being the cause of social division, multiculturalism is a policy which manages and promotes social cohesion. There has never been any tension between multiculturalism’s respect for a citizen’s culture of origin and its insistence on the primacy of Australian laws and values.

Our leaders
have understood this in the past. And as MacPhee acknowledged, ‘this is an area where prime ministers have a huge influence.’ Malcolm Fraser described multiculturalism as the

Idea that people should be able to respect or love the history and culture of their land of origin and that did not in any way diminish the primacy of the place which they call their new country Australia.

And that so-called cultural elitist, Paul Keating, in 1995 defined the ‘multicultural equation’ as

the promotion of individual and collective cultural rights and expression on the one hand, and on the other the promotion of common national interests and values.

The events at Cronulla last December notwithstanding, Australia’s reliance on multiculturalism to manage and promote social cohesion has been a spectacular success whereas the opposing policy of assimilation, as practised in France and the USA, has spectacularly failed. Multiculturalism must not be derailed by the trenchant cultural imperialism of a few old, White men.

Connecting Diversity is a testament to the truth of multiculturalism’s success, and highlights the danger of allowing misinformed rhetoric to go unchallenged.

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