Multiculturalism - rumours of its demise greatly exaggerated

Author: Laurie Ferguson MP is Shadow Minister for Multicultural Affairs, Urban Development and Consumer Affairs

Every nationality, every ethnic group has explored its earliest connections with Australia. Whether it be the Scandinavians - Herman Sporing and Daniel Solander with Sir Joseph Banks, or the recent clarification that most of the so-called Afghan camel drivers actually came from contemporary Pakistan. Similarly, my former Liberal Party opponent Irfan Yusuf demolished Sheik Hilaly’s recent insulting and historically inaccurate comments by illustrating that there were indeed Muslim convicts.

Each wishes to claim part of the tenuous link with white seizure and settlement. It is important social capital for each community.

However, nothing had parallelled the immensity of post WWII migration. The fact that Chinese had already been 3.5% of the 1861 Census was important simply because Australia was so homogeneous.

The Post War intake was axiomatic, transforming the nation and our consciousness. Thus after the initial displaced persons surge, from 1950 onwards a million people arrived annually from overseas.  People were witnessing cultures and life experiences never previously encountered. Prime Minister Howard, on a personal note, has volunteered what a transforming moment it was for him when his Italian neighbour actually tiled the front veranda.

The resulting change was not inevitable. In The Migrant Presence (1978) Jean Martin writes :

“During the first twenty years of post-war migration there was little variety in the meaning that …….. Australian society attached to the migrant presence. In unanimously defining migrants as assimilable, they were in effect confirming the wisdom, morality and non-threatening character of the migration programme.

….It is not possible to say whether there was a point at which sheer pressure of numbers forced the needs and situations of non-English speaking migrants onto the attention of the established institutions, but…….. the increases in absolute numbers during the sixties made the migrant population more visible than it had been  before.”

In what now appears an inevitable process, the 1978 Galbally Report with reference to Canadian models, heralded a new and necessary acceptance of the increasing diversity of the society.

Things had changed and they had to be recognised.

Whitlam and Fraser both understood the gains to be made, the enrichment of the society that would eventuate through providing resources for accommodation, orientation assistance, English language instruction, Migrant Resource Centres, grants to ethnic communities and giving other languages access to media.

There were, of course, obligations and limits. These included:

  • Acceptance of the basic structures and principles of Australian society
  • An overriding commitment to Australia
  • Tolerance and respect for the rights of others to express and practice their cultural and religious beliefs. On this point it is worth noting the changed understanding of tolerance. Back then is was a positive term. Today many see arrogance. We need more acceptance and less tolerance.

For a significant period the broad tenets of acceptance, recognition and encouragement of diversity within a framework of adherence to Australia’s institutions were bi-partisan.  Only at the marginalised extremes was there antipathy. Occasionally, animosities surfaced between some Croatians and Serbians at football games. Middle Eastern events sometimes provoked local tensions. However, these opportunities were very rarely exploited for partisan gain.

Nevertheless, John Howard consistently doubted the benefits of diversity.

By 1996, following his ascendency, members of the Coalition increasingly attacked multiculturalism. Indeed, the Prime Minister has always displayed a narrow view of the world and its communities. For him, the certainties of Empire, Commonwealth and US hegemony have been a source of assurance and historical certainties should be defended. He sees the world’s diverse people as too complex, too disturbing.

Even today many conservative politicians glorify their more accommodating stance toward Vietnamese refugees as compared with perceived ALP equivocation. However, Howard himself has always been a sceptic. In 1988, he stated,

I wouldn’t like to see (the rate of Asian immigration) greater. I do believe that if it is in the eyes of some in the community that it’s too great, it would be in our immediate-term interest and supporting of social cohesion if it were slowed down a little, so the capacity of the community to absorb it was greater”.

Ironically, this attack played a role in his demise as Opposition Leader and the ascension of Andrew Peacock. There were still Liberals with wider perspectives.

Writing in the Sydney Morning Herald, Richard Ackland argues:

... every time John Howard says something about race all sorts of dark shadows fall out of his mouth. He is a man whose pronouncements on the topic invariably have been wreathed in opportunistic circumlocutions. Even before Howard got into trouble over his Asian immigration remarks of 1988 and beyond, there was South Africa.

Of course, the Coalition’s support for multiculturalism always had limits. In their eyes, it was one step too far when Labor suggested that the under represented NESB population who often lacked role models should actually gain roles on boards and advisory bodies through quotas.

By 1996 the Coalition aimed to undermine the system of assistance for new arrival NESB entrants under the guise of ending the alleged political correctness of multiculturalism. The new Government indulged in a campaign of intimidation in the field, often judging advocacy of settlement needs to constitute political partisanship.

They were assisted by a tremendous sense of insecurity in the electorate. The crash of tariff barriers, destruction of manufacturing industry, deregulated labour markets and privatisation removed old certainties. Labor might have had a big picture, but Howard shrewdly exploited social conservatism and a sense that Australian tradition, our culture, was under siege.

Fortunately, the committee they selected to justify this assault reiterated the positive outcomes of Multiculturalism and the need for preservation of these tenets.

In 2007 Howard has renewed the assault.  

Amongst his recent pronouncements have been:

I think the title of the new department expresses the desire and the aspiration, ... that people who come to this country, who emigrate, immigrants, become Australians.

We all broadly agree with the words, but the subplot is suppression of diversity.

Few were reassured, when he volunteered:

This is not designed to kick multiculturalism; it's designed to better reflect the pathway to becoming an Australian inherent in a vibrant immigration program.

Peter Costello more bluntly argued, "Before becoming an Australian, you will be asked to subscribe to certain values. If you have strong objections to those values, don't come to Australia. He condemned "confused, mushy, misguided multiculturalism".

Howard said multiculturalism had become distorted and too often simply meant " a federation of cultures". He also said Muslims must work at avoiding their alienation. These people are not mincing words.

Clearly multiculturalism faces challenges due to the particularities of world insecurity around global terrorism and the centrality of Islam. These struggles allow conservatives to portray assistance and acceptance as condoning the separate identity of those who are viewed as a threat.

They should ponder an article by Associate Professor David Wright-Neville in Dialogue 25 of the Journal for Academy of the Social Sciences 2006. He opines “ contrary to popular belief, the vast majority of terrorists are radicalised and embrace the emancipatory potential of violence prior to becoming religious”. Likewise, he quotes Wright, Taylor and Moghadan:

‘Attempts at social and individual social mobility… are always the first strategy attempted by members of a disadvantaged group. It is only when these individual attempts are blocked that the overriding social philosophy is questioned and the advantaged group is perceived as closed to the disadvantaged group members…. it is only then that collective action will be initiated.”

In reality the attempt to reassure Australians that they will be safer in their homes, workplaces and streets from the scourge of terrorism through restricting citizenship could be counter productive. Stipulating ever higher standards of English and tougher citizenship exams could deny people access to public service jobs, lengthen their children’s wait for tertiary studies and make them feel separate and excluded. They could be alienated from mainstream society. It does not appear to be a recipe for enhancing love of country.

As noted, the general thrust against multiculturalism seeks to exploit the fear of Islam. Scant regard is given to the fact that they are a mere 2% of our population and have a pluralism of ethnicity, historical experience and individuality.

This campaign is simultaneously aimed at marginalising political opponents by type casting them as defenders of the unpopular. John Howard certainly comes to my electorate on many occasions to tell everyone what a great job the Saudi financed Al Faisal College at Auburn has done. He has friendly words for the Principal, Shafiq Khan. He backslaps local Liberal Muslim background Councillors, Tom Zreika and Ronnie Oueik. He might, in select audiences, even boast about how the coalition Government has liberalised rules so that far, far more Muslim schools have flourished since he was elected – but these are not the lines Australia hears.

The public rhetoric is Bronwyn Bishop’s attack on the right of Muslim women to wear the hijab. Likewise, there has been a constant demand for the Muslim community to prove itself. All Muslims are in the dock, often in circumstances they can’t control.  

Indeed, seeking collective repentance from the Islamic community seems to have become a hallmark of the Coalition Government. There is never a shortage of self appointed Islamic leaders making irresponsible comments. However, there are just as many Muslims who proudly condemn these remarks. Yet again and again, the Prime Minister and many Government members have placed guilt for any irresponsible statements such as those of Hilaly in the collective Islamic community.

Somehow, Islamic integration requires that Muslim Australians constantly repent, condemn and apologise for the actions of the few. This is not a recipe for integration or citizenship; rather it’s a recipe for marginalisation and continued alienation of a community that has been much misunderstood and maligned.

The Islamic Council of Victoria spokesman, Waleed Aly, put it aptly at the Australia Deliberates event last weekend, “ when you feel you don’t have to justify your existence, then your performance improves” …… “life will make you integrate, you cannot separate yourself from your environment. It’s just a natural process….give it room and it will take place.”

Similarly, whilst more at home having his back slapped by John Howard and Phillip Ruddock, Liberal Councillor and President of the Lebanese Muslim Association Tom Zreika recently responded:

We’re constantly being called upon to justify our allegiance to Australia.

To cite John Howard:

I stand by those comments that there is a small section that, because of its remarks about jihad, remarks which indicate an extremist view, that is a problem.

It is not a problem that we have ever faced with other immigrant communities who become easily absorbed by Australia's mainstream.

I turn to some realities.

In last year’s total migration intake of 134,600, an astounding 97,340 were in the skilled category. The English Language stipulation is quite significant. Very few Lebanese or Iraqis with limited education and English will qualify for entry. The main sources of such migration were the UK 26%, India 14%, PRC 13%, and South Africa and Malaysia. Whilst these figures allow entry for a few Indian and Malaysian Muslims, it is nevertheless clear in which direction the trend is moving.

Turning to the offshore humanitarian programme, Iraq and Afghanistan are Islamic countries, but they only constitute 4000 of the 12,758. However, the Iraqis are mostly Shiites and Christians and Hazara Shiites are a significant Afghan portion. Sunni Muslims will be a very definite minority in this intake.

Finally, what other groups could be affected by the more stringent measures? They are the permanent residents who have failed to become citizens. Some nationalities stand out. Low rates of take up or alternatively large absolute numbers are from Japan, NZ, UK, Italy, Malaysia and Germany – not many Muslims there!

Thus the moves to a more restricted, harsher citizenship agenda whilst having a definite subterranean political message of ostracism for Muslims, could in practice deny many tens of thousands of non Muslim families involvement in our society, its political processes and equal rights.

Labor has sought clarification of the requirements of English and knowledge and will strenuously analyse their nature, to seek the right balance between assisting the nation and the individuals to progress as opposed to an agenda of exclusiveness and ostracism.

As my colleague Tony Burke proclaimed here, an integration that overcomes cocoons, which makes multiculturalism work, which avoids disintegration is laudatory. What Labor will not countenance is making the term synonymous with assimilation.

At the 2001 Census, Australians had an option to state their ancestry. This was not a draconian, politically correct instruction by the Thought Police, who Howard supposedly confronts.  It was a free choice for every Australian.  They could, if they wished, have answered Australian only. They could have made two ancestry choices or they could simply designate a nationality other than Australian.  Interestingly, of 18.8 million people living here only 6.7 million answered that they were of Australian ancestry alone.  Admittedly, these rose from 22% to 36% over the decade, but simultaneously those stating multiple citizenships went from 12% to 22%.

This wish to preserve parts of one’s culture, to retain some association, is not new.  In the early 1990’s I re-established contact with the major branch of my Scottish-background family in Philadelphia.  I thus obtained my great-grandmother’s address book.  Therein she had my grandfather’s address at  80 St George Crescent, Drummoyne, in Sydney.  Years later, another Scottish descendent informed me that her grandfather had also lived in that same street and that many Scots had congregated there.  As I noted, the Census evidence is not unique or new.

With the pretence of answering political correctness, its proponents seek a return to a long-gone Australia.  There is nostalgia; and even racist elements whose hearts beat for that era.  However, whatever the diminishment of settlement services that they might accomplish, whatever the hardships for new arrivals that they might fashion, a globalised world means that their dreams cannot be completed.

Every time I visit my Turkish Party members and constituents, they are watching Turkish soap operas, football games or news broadcasts.  Whenever we annually encourage our membership to register at the local branch ever higher proportions are overseas visiting family, on holiday, on the Haj, or increasingly visiting Australian family members who are working outside Australia. It is important to note that in these same houses it is often difficult to attract the interest of some who are glued to cricket on their televisions. Thus while globalisation heralds the onslaught of English through media, advertising and technology it also opens options for cultural preservation and interplay.

  

The great Greek poet Giorgios Seferis enunciated a fundamental of migrant experience and return to the homeland.  He wrote

“My old friend, what are you looking for?

After years abroad you’ve come back

With images you’ve nourished under foreign skies

… My old friend, stop a moment and think:

you’ll get used to it little by little.

Your nostalgia has created a non-existent country, with laws

Alien to earth and man.

Every group that has ever moved to another nation for lengthy periods has sought to retain a part of what they left.  The common experience is that in an alien, different community they preserved the themes of their arrival time whilst massive changes were occurring in their homelands.  When they return years later they are overwhelmed by the encroachment of modernisation that has altered their homeland and often marginalised what they preserved in their new land.  I recently read of a Sydney Finnish couple whose return to Finland leads to wild rushes of locals to eat the wife’s pulla, a sweet bread using cardamom. The Finns no longer produce it.

Is not our nation richer for helping to sustain that diversity from the powerful onslaught of monoculture? Are we and our grandchildren really going to have a fuller life if the knowledge gains in music, art, dance, cuisine, literature, film etc. of difference and distinction are undermined by the push for uniformity, the push for narrow insularity?

Seferis could also have pointed in regards to the changes in the broader society to which these migrants moved. Those trying to turn the clock back are up against extremely powerful historical forces.

A particular demonstration of the realities is the stance of the hard man of French politics, presidential aspirant, Nicholas Sarkozhy.  Certainly, he was no shrinking violet excoriating the violent North African offenders in Paris banlieus.

However, this same man challenged decisive facets of the French integration model that would be so pleasing to our own political reactionaries. Sarkozhy established the Council for the Muslim Religion for the nation’s five million Muslims, provided State money for mosques and suggested affirmative action to tackle the chronic unemployment levels of the France’s predominantly North African Muslims. The extreme form of integration verging on assimilation that Howard really seeks, has lead to the severe problems France faces. They are in a bind and need alternative solutions.

Equally in Australia it was interesting to hear Tony Abbott at a seminar we jointly addressed for the Centre for North African and Arab Studies. He spoke of having revised his historical views and come to support a form of soft multiculturalism as helping smooth the path for migrants.

I have had the opportunity to meet ministers, parliamentary committee members and public servants engaged in these issues in at least fifteen European nations over my time at Parliament. Rather than seeing Australia as a failure they consistently seek to emulate us, to learn from us. Their own inability and historical unwillingness to construct proper settlement assistance and the growth of huge urban reservoirs of deprived, excluded people are evident. Germany awoke a few years ago to find it had sunk in European wide educational test comparisons, exactly because of the substandard educational services provided to its inner city Turkish and Kurdish enclaves.

It is not as though multiculturalism and its delivery of services is unnecessary. There are crying needs.

The most demonstrable truth is that as John Howard calls for strong English requirements his Government provides inadequate resources for English.

To this end, FECCA recently wrote to me suggesting that Labor should consider:

  • Ensuring SBS-TV has English Language training programs in the evening for workers;
  • Reinstituting on the job training through AMES. It’s hard to learn English when you work long hours to feed a family and don’t have access to welfare;
  • Making the 510 free hours more flexible according to the level of need.

I refer to FECCA’s Access and Equity Report of December 2006, an extensive document based on real consultation.

Away from the comforts of Kirribilli, the Lodge and Wollstonecraft, there are still people in real need of settlement aid. Amongst the many practical contemporary issues raised were - a lack of staff with cultural diversity, discrimination, under-utilisation of services by migrants, as instanced in mental health and disability services, continued literacy issues, racial and religious vilification, lack of pre-arrival information, inflexibility in settlement contacts, inadequate numbers of ESL teachers, inadequate monitoring of service delivery, inconsiderate service delivery, lack of women GP’s, a dearth of multicultural liaison officers, reluctance to use interpreters, the need for more clearly written accessible information, demands for cultural competency training in residential aged care, etc etc ad nauseam.

Much has been accomplished in nearly four decades. However, the pronounced turn backs of the last decade certainly do not mean victory can be declared. There is a bewildering array of real daily hardships confronting people that must be tackled by a multicultural society. A total pre-occupation with integration rather than seeing it as the outcome of a sustained multicultural society is a recipe for those cocooned from these daily experiences.

John Howard let the cat out of the bag when responding to The Australian’s Patricia Kavalas at a Greek event in this city. Within days of his English exhortations, she looked around and noted that the majority of elderly Greeks present spoke little English. John Howard quickly responded, “but they helped build Australia,” unlike the unnamed others. People now and in the future, have the same possibilities, the same struggles and the same contributions to make.

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