Can the M-Word Survive?


It will cause defenders of cultural diversity no end of pain, but we cannot deny now that the policy of multiculturalism is in a near-terminal state.

And last weekend, the Howard Government started unplugging the life-support systems. According to the Parliamentary Secretary for Multicultural Affairs, Andrew Robb, the Government is considering abandoning all uses of the term ‘multiculturalism’ altogether. Robb blithely dismissed the term as simply unhelpful.



It was no accident, of course, that this signalled shift in policy came during the ongoing controversy over Sheik Taj Din al-Hilali’s controversial comments about rape. The episode has done nothing to help multiculturalism’s increasingly tattered public image, giving ammunition to a Government long suspicious of the concept.

Australian policymakers aren’t the only ones retreating at the moment from multiculturalism. In the UK, Britons are still recovering from a month of intense debate about whether Muslim women should have a right to wear veils (the niqab) in public. It’s tempting to say Britons have lost all patience with cultural diversity. It was telling that the chair of the Commission for Racial Equality, Trevor Phillips, at the height of the veil debate warned that the issue could trigger a repeat of the race riots  five years ago.

Yet a much more complex story is unfolding here in the UK. Forebodings about riots notwithstanding, Britons are generally comfortable with living side-by-side with different ethnic and religious groups. But what the veil controversy has revealed in full force is that Britons don’t believe enough is being done to ensure multiculturalism doesn’t lead to minorities living in isolation from the rest of society.

A recent poll  conducted for The Guardian on Muslim integration, for example, showed that only 22 per cent of voters believed British Muslims have done all they need to in order to fit into British society. A majority, 57 per cent, indicated Muslims should be required to do more to adopt a British identity.

The source of the trouble lies with the particular brand of multiculturalism embraced in Britain. As public policy, British multiculturalism has been rooted in the idea that a culturally diverse society involves ‘a federation of communities.’

This rubric has informed, for instance, the Blair Government’s enthusiastic promotion of new ‘faith schools’ devised for Muslim, Hindu and Sikh children. The Blair Government has justified this on the grounds that faith schools optimise choice in education, giving Muslim, Hindu and Sikh parents the same opportunities offered to Christian parents (who were already free to send their children to schools based on faith). But the policy has been widely criticised for encouraging a form of segregation, assigning children into fixed identities before they can think for themselves.

It’s here that we might say the British experience of multiculturalism diverges from the Australian one.

Contrary to what some commentators suggest, our multiculturalism is not based on the idea that different ethnic and religious groups should live separate lives from the rest of us, governed by the standards of their own distinct culture. From its inception, Australian multiculturalism has never meant cultural relativism.

Thanks to istockphoto

Indeed if we take a look at the policy documents underpinning multiculturalism, we’d find that it has always been expressed within the limits of shared liberal political values. The seminal policy blueprint, National Agenda for a Multicultural Australia   (a 1989 document affirmed by successive Labor and Coalition Federal Governments), states unequivocally that the right to express one’s cultural identity is balanced by the obligation to accept the rule of law, freedom of speech, English as the national language, and equality of the sexes.

Our multiculturalism has always (funnily enough) had a citizenship test built into it.

Unfortunately there’s long been a gap between policy reality and popular perception one encouraged by many of our commentators on both Left and Right. On the Left, defenders of multiculturalism remain content to chant empty mantras about ‘diversity,’ and to cast all talk about Australian values as dog whistling. Those on the right, meanwhile, are consistently hypocritical in calling for an open and mature debate on diversity, only to proceed with drawing straw-man caricatures of multiculturalism.

A good place to start addressing this problem is to rectify some of the common misunderstandings of what multiculturalism must involve.

As Nobel prize-winning philosopher and economist Amartya Sen has recently argued in his book Identity and Violence, there are two broad approaches to the concept. The first the one frequently associated with the term multiculturalism involves a ‘plural monoculturalism,’ aimed at preserving the integrity or authenticity of cultures. The second is that of a liberal multiculturalism: one that doesn’t capitulate to the dictates of traditional cultures, but values cultural diversity only to the extent that it promotes choice and autonomy.

In policy terms, Australian multiculturalism has firmly gone down the path of a liberal multiculturalism grounded in common civic values not plural monoculturalism. It has never provided minorities with licence to do whatever they like on the grounds that ‘it’s my culture.’

Much of the current British experience illustrates the profound difficulties that arise when this distinction is not made. But as we begin taking stock of our recent debates, we’d be well served to recognise that Australian multicultural policy has always marked a clear line in the sand.

The real question now is whether those in the pro-diversity camp can rehabilitate the notion of multiculturalism.

One wonders if it might already be too late for a rescue mission. As Hegel famously said, the owl of Minerva the owl that brings us wisdom takes flight at dusk; we can only see things clearly after history has been realised. It might be that, with multiculturalism breathing its last gasps, we are only starting to realise that official multicultural policy has, in fact, provided us with a robust model of citizenship and integration.

One thing is certain: the shades of night are gathering and quickly.

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