Cultural Diversity and How to Make it Work


Multiculturalism was once known as the ‘m’ word that Prime Minister John Howard would not let pass his lips. By January this year, it was officially removed from the title of the Federal Department responsible for immigration and settlement (though it’s still emblazoned on the front of the Department’s HQ in Woden). The new Minister, Kevin Andrews, and his Assistant Minister Teresa Gambaro, were appointed under the Department’s new ‘citizenship’ label. The Government’s recently released Citizen Test Resource Book, which was developed to educate prospective citizens, carefully ensures that there is no reference to multiculturalism.

However, multiculturalism as a policy focus to achieve integration has not disappeared, because social exclusion and marginalisation remain major threats here, as they do in Europe and other Western countries.

In fact, a key challenge for Australia’s next prime minister whoever he is will be ensuring that all Australians (from the 200 national and linguistic origins revealed in the last Census) are actively engaged in developing Australia as a democratic, creative and integrated society.

Last month two events highlighted the continuing relevance of thinking about Australia as a multicultural country. And doing something about it.

Melbourne hip hop group Diafrix

On 16 August, in the main committee room of Canberra’s Parliament House, Melbourne hip hop group Diafrix rapped out a call to inter-cultural creativity in front of an audience of arts and ethnic affairs bureaucrats, artists and arts sector managers. Arts Minister George Brandis celebrated multicultural arts and their role in building cultural interaction. Even Multicultural Affairs (Not) Minister Gambaro paraded the value of multicultural arts for social cohesion.

For the first time ever at a national level, the arts and the multicultural worlds were sitting down to talk creativity in modern Australia. The synergies unleashed in those conversations will roll out around the country. The day was organised by the Australia Council and its Multicultural Arts Committee, which is led by the Nicky Downer (South Australian arts advocate and wife of Alexander Downer) and of which I am a member.

The next day, on 17 August, the Human Rights and Equal Opportunity Commission’s Race Commissioner Tom Calma launched his discussion paper on multiculturalism, arguing that the Government was undermining social cohesion by downplaying cultural rights and respect for difference.

Labor’s Laurie Ferguson pointed out at Calma’s launch that human rights for ethnic minorities (as for older Australians) depended on their access to economic opportunity. And he also criticised the way that faith-based private education was eroding the historic role of public schools in allowing children from different backgrounds to mix. Maybe these aren’t earth-shattering insights but, while the Shadow Minister, Tony Burke, remains a small target, they’re the best we can hope for from the ALP.

The initiatives of these two national government bodies, the Australia Council and HREOC, and the survival of the multicultural section inside Minister Andrews’s Department, suggest a residual realisation in the Government that, however mushy Peter Costello might think multiculturalism may be, it actually has some rather important benefits for the social order and the economic future of the country.

One problem, of course, is that in today’s dog-whistle politics, multiculturalism has emerged as a proxy term for ‘Muslim.’ Too many politicians (from all the major Parties) think that supporting the right of Islamic people to be part of a future secular Australia does not play well in White suburbia a perception battened on to by the resurrected Pauline Hanson.

Yet the decline in government commitment to multiculturalism (most obvious at the Federal Government level, but also apparent in NSW) may be contributing to the very social polarisation for which the policy is then blamed.

The nationalist rhetoric that Minister Andrews has embedded in his Citizenship Test tells us something interesting there’s nothing specifically Australian about it (except a tortured attempt to talk about ‘mateship’ which is just as common in many other countries under different labels).

It is therefore worth considering how Australia’s multicultural realities the everyday multiculturalism of streets and stores and schools and workplaces could be fashioned into a citizenship that is inclusive and truly engaging. It would need to start with an acknowledgement of the importance of cultural diversity as a central theme for our politics of recognition, because without recognition there is neither respect nor buy-in to the national narrative of collaborative democracy.

At the heart of this must lie a recognition of Australia’s Indigenous foundations, but along pathways that can resolve the relations between Indigenous and non-Indigenous Australians without dissolving Indigenous self-worth and identities.

The next step lies in stressing that every Australia should be supported to develop intercultural competency which is the capacity to communicate across cultural differences while retaining the sense of one’s own worth, and a central tenet of global citizenship.

To reverse years of decline, we need to revalue linguistic pluralism, stressing that everyone has the right to converse in at least two languages, one of which is English.

Then, to make sense of it all, our national history curriculum, now so close to the heart of the major political Parties, should ensure that all Australians develop the capacity to understand Australian history as part of a world story, and to understand the histories (plural) of the peoples of Australia.

Aligned with this should come the recognition that our complex democratic reality has been fed by all the peoples of the globe. In this regard, we need to ensure the effective participation and the full representation of Australia’s diversity in our institutions and cultural products.

Why would we want to do all this, which goes against the grain of the past decade at a national level, rather than just stress a singular undifferentiated society dominated by one (perhaps too-limited) cultural expression? Why not just let the era of multiculturalism wash away into the downpipe of history, and be fondly memorialised by decaying romantics left to brood in the shadows of the rising sun of the new integrating ‘Citizenship’?

Simply put, we should not allow a monocultural Australia to be fashioned from our diversity, because we cannot afford it. In the coming decades we will be clawing our way in a more competitive world. It won’t be enough to depend on digging rocks (red, black or yellow) out of the ground and selling them to the rest of the world. Our most valuable resource will be the creativity of our people, and creativity is enhanced through the interaction of different ideas, experiences and ways of seeing the world.

Our political structures cannot afford to be bypassed and mocked an
d threatened which they will be, if we do not wake up. The future is still being written and we need to welcome new perspectives in our common project or be overcome by having a (merely) rhetorical democracy.

Finally, when we talk about equality and ‘a fair go,’ we need to be sure that the ground rules of the society really are transparent rather than weasel words designed to protect the interests and power of the people who are already in control.

Cultural diversity will continue to be an Australian reality. The next government will have to make it work for all Australians.

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