Can Multiculturalism Work For Labor?


Multiculturalism is back on the agenda.

It might be a clumsy and highly charged term, but there is no doubt the power it can exert on political debate. How could it be otherwise, in a country as diverse and discriminatory as this one?

That Australia is diverse is unquestionable. Our country has one of the highest proportions of overseas-born citizens in the entire world. But it is also becoming clear that many Australians are uneasy with this fact.

The latest evidence of racism and prejudice in our society comes from a University of Western Sydney study, which aggregates a series of polls across the past 10 years on social attitudes.

Despite the well-known reluctance of many to openly admit to prejudiced views in telephone polls, more than 10 per cent identified themselves as "prejudiced against other cultures". It’s not quite that "77 per cent of Aussies are racist", as The Herd memorably announced in their song, 77%, but according to the UWS study, 41.4 per cent of Australians believe that Muslims, Aboriginals, Asians or Jews "don’t fit into Australian society". It’s a sobering statistic.

For many years in Australian politics, multiculturalism was a word few politicians wanted to use. Social researcher Hugh McKay told The Australian’s Paul Kelly that "politicians would be better off using neutral words like diverse or pluralistic that don’t focus on race, ethnicity or religion. People like the word cosmopolitan because it implies a richness in our diversity."

But last week Labor’s Immigration Minister Chris Bowen gave a speech to the Sydney Institute in which he recommitted the government to the principle. Although Bowen’s policy announcement was light on detail, it had the handy effect of focusing attention on the Liberal Party’s internal tensions. For perhaps the first time in 20 years, the issue of multiculturalism is unexpectedly turning to Labor’s advantage.

The immediate reason is the savage race-baiting coming from senior Liberals — particularly Scott Morrison and Cory Bernardi. Since coming to office, Bernardi has waged an open campaign of misinformation against Muslim Australians. Bernardi’s dog-whistling has long straddled the border between distasteful and prejudiced, but late last week he stepped over the line into religious vilification, saying on right-wing radio station 3MTR that "Islam is a totalitarian, political and religious ideology."

Bernardi continued: "it tells people everything about how they need to conduct themselves, who they’re allowed to marry and how they’re allowed to treat other people."

After this diatribe, Bernardi and 3MTR may have some legal and regulatory issues down the track. Apart from the obvious irony of a practising Catholic lecturing listeners about a religion that "tells people … who they’re allowed to marry", his comments on first reading may breach the Commercial Radio Code of Practice. They may even be unlawful under Victoria’s anti-vilification laws.

The relevant section of the Victorian Racial and Religious Tolerance Act 2001 states that "A person must not, on the ground of the religious belief or activity of another person or class of persons, engage in conduct that incites hatred against, serious contempt for, or revulsion or severe ridicule of, that other person or class of persons." It will be interesting to see whether anything further is heard of this, but the tenor of his remarks were no different to many others he has made since becoming a senator.

Immigration spokesman Scott Morrison’s tactics have been every bit as calculated and cynical. The revelation that Morrison had argued in shadow cabinet for an overt campaign demonising Muslims as a way of gaining political advantage has exposed open rifts in the Opposition. Even Phillip Ruddock was reportedly aghast.

More importantly, the rift has opened up plenty of space for Labor to attack the Opposition for being racist. This week, Prime Minister Julia Gillard predictably called for the sacking of Bernardi and Morrison. It won’t happen, but it keeps the focus on the Opposition rather than Government.

Perhaps there are some liberal Liberals (if any such are left) who agree with the Prime Minister — for instance West Australian MP Judi Moylan, who rose in Parliament to attack another hard-line asylum seeker policy tabled as a motion by her colleague Morrison. Moylan, who is a long-standing parliamentarian with absolutely no factional support inside the Liberal Party, spoke out against the demonisation of asylum seekers, calling on both the Government and the Opposition "to stop the political tactics, end the escalating hysterical rhetoric over who can produce the toughest refugee policies, and for men and women of conscience in this place to call for the end of the politicisation of asylum policy." No wonder the Coalition had tried to withdraw the motion after it was tabled, to prevent further embarrassment.

The current controversy is nothing new from the Liberal Party. The reservoirs of intolerance that clearly persist in many sections of the Australian community have long been fed by some in Australia’s conservative political parties. After taking office in 1996 in the same election which brought Pauline Hanson to Parliament, John Howard quickly abandoned any pretense for support of the idea of multiculturalism, refusing to even say the word for many years, and cleverly turning the xenophobia whipped up by One Nation to the Coalition’s advantage, most notably in the 2001 election campaign in the wake of the Tampa affair.

Historically, Labor has been an ambivalent supporter of racial diversity. In its early years, much of the Australian labor movement was viscerally racist, seeing foreign workers as threats to the white male Australian working class. But during the 1970s, Labor forged strong alliances with ethnic communities, particularly in the suburbs of Sydney and Melbourne, becoming a bastion of multicultural tolerance. Suburbs like Wills in Melbourne and Blaxland in Sydney are both ethnically diverse and have been safe Labor for a generation, while many unions recruited actively among immigrant communities.

The Tampa election of 2001 marked the nadir of a decade-long loss of belief for Labor. Mandatory detention of asylum seekers was already a policy that dates back to the Hawke-Keating government, and during Kim Beazley’s tenure as opposition leader, many of the Howard government’s most draconian immigration policies were voted for by Labor in Parliament. Although the party’s left wing continued to agitate strongly for the ideas of social justice and the liberation of minority groups, the right of the party concluded that John Howard’s cunning embrace of anti-refugee policies was the cause of the ALP’s defeat.

Labor prevaricated on asylum seeker policy throughout the 2000s, drifting slowly rightwards despite occasional attacks of conscience. Much of Kevin Rudd’s term as Prime Minister was spent trying to pretend asylum seekers weren’t an issue. By the time of last year’s election campaign had rolled around, Labor was so afraid of anything to do with immigration, refugee and asylum seekers that Julia Gillard was making broad-brush statements rejecting a "big Australia".

For the Coalition, the concentrated effort to demonise asylum seekers and exploit racial and religious tensions about Islam is all too easy to understand. The tactic forces the Government to fight a political battle on terrain in which it is decidedly uncomfortable. It helps set a political agenda around the Government’s supposed "failures" and "weaknesses". And, as the UWS survey shows, there is a substantial section of the community who really are are racially prejudiced. Religious vilification and veiled remarks about minorities plays well to this crowd. Perhaps it is no coincidence that Scott Morrison is the member for Cook, the electorate that takes in Cronulla, site of Australia’s most recent race riot. Dog-whistling works.

But now that senior Liberals have finally tipped over the edge into outright vilification of minorities, Labor has an opportunity to embrace its better angels. The attacks on multiculturalism and the veiled racism and xenophobia of Coalition immigration policy since 1996 have done incalculable damage to Australia’s social fabric and body politic. For those committed to a progressive, tolerant and open society, recent events offer an opportunity to take a stand. Politicians, media commentators and community leaders who really believe in the equality of human beings, regardless or race, colour or creed, should speak out and say so — just as Judi Moylan and Ed Husic have.

Here, finally, is the opportunity Labor needs to reframe the debate about immigration and refugee policy around universal values of justice and human rights — and to exploit divisions in the Liberal Party while they’re at it. If Gillard and Labor are prepared to really take a stand on an issue, they even might find voters reward them for it.

Unless, of course, you don’t believe that this is really a matter of principle for Labor, and instead just a handy tactic for a Government behind in the polls. If Labor is to back up its new-found rhetoric with substance, it could start by radically liberalising asylum seeker policy: for instance, by freeing all the children in detention.

Then we’ll really know that the Government is taking a stand.

Ben Eltham is New Matilda's National Affairs Correspondent.