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Multiculturalism just works


ourcommunity.com.au Photo Bank - Chris LynchThe Australian Human Rights Commission's report into the freedom of religion and belief in 21st century Australia report was released this week, after a year of research and nationwide consultations. Race Discrimination Commissioner Graeme Innes explains that it is not a list of recommendations but a survey of listening 'to the voices of the community'.

It documents a rich array of multiple opinions in the religious sphere, and argues that 'beliefs, religious, anti-religious or a-religious, may contribute to defining a person's identity'. No surprise then that it is awash with terms such as 'multicultural Australia', 'pluralist Australia' and so on.

Quite a few respondents strongly objected to multiculturalism. In fact, the concept of 'multiculturalism' has changed over the last decade or so, and needs some unpacking, in light not only of the report, but also of several other recent noteworthy occurrences.

One was an interview with the French politician Marine Le Pen  that appeared in the Australian press earlier this month. The headline was 'Multiculturalism is a myth', and in the article Le Pen argued that true multiculturalism ends in war.

The second was Harmony Day on 21 March. Its purpose, as envisaged by the Council of Multicultural Australia when proclaiming it in 2002, was 'to promote a harmonious Australia, built on democracy and the development of our evolving nationhood by embracing our heritage and cultural diversity'. Beautiful words that you can't t really argue with, but neither do they call a spade a spade.

Multiculturalism, Australian identity, immigration and ethnicity are concepts that are frequently and intensely debated in the Australian environment. The ABC's Q&A discussion on multiculturalism in February provoked many comments on the program's online forums.

Googling the words 'multiculturalism' and 'Australia' produces over one million entries. Add any other related keyword and the count increases. Furthermore, the entries seem to widen the possibilities of interpreting the meaning of multiculturalism rather than defining it more precisely.

This is not surprising. The concept of multiculturalism has a very muddled history.

In the 1970s, the then immigration minister Al Grassby announced the 'Multi-Cultural Society for the Future' as a way to address the social inequities of immigrants from a non-English speaking background. He knew he had borrowed a term from Canada, where it was used to unify the English and French speaking populations. Hardly a model for Australia, which didn't have that problem.

Since then the term 'multiculturalism' has been redefined or rejected depending upon the particular persuasion of the various stakeholders at the time or the political willpower in Canberra. Numerous commissions and councils were established to advance or redefine the concept.

Prime ministers accepted, rejected, or changed it (John Howard: multiculturality). Multiculturalism, as many historians and commentators observed, was a concept forced upon the Australian population without ever being fully defined or explained, apart from some lofty and flowery sentences.

Well known immigrant writers such as Lolo Houbein and Andrew Riemer never accepted the term and the explanation of it. Many recent immigrant/refugee authors often leave out any reference to it. They seem to be far more busy with what is actually happening in our daily lives.

Consider this. Last year, my family and some friends met in a park for a Sunday barbecue. While we were enjoying ourselves, suddenly a group of men among us separated to a spot at a remove from the rest of us. I asked the woman next to me what they were doing: they were Muslims, and they were praying. 'How beautiful,' I said. I was unfamiliar with this gesture among Western Muslims.

Suddenly the men were back. They switched on the radios, and we all listened to and argued about the cricket scores.

Multiculturalism in Australia is not a stark concept with separations based on ethnicity, religion or language, as Le Pen and some respondents in Innes' report would suggest.

We do not have a parliament of factions, alliances, or voting blocs based on ethnicity, religion, colour or race. Neither are we inclined to celebrate multiculturalism once a year on a day proclaimed by a government that never was able to tell us exactly what they meant by multiculturalism.

Rather, the Australian populace itself has, over time, defined exactly what multiculturalism means.

Recent commentators, such as the eminent former politician Petro Georgiou, when discussing multiculturalism, have picked up on this popular movement and, in getting away from the term itself, acknowledge that what the population tries to practise from day to day is cultural diversity.

John StuyfbergenJohn, a former journalist and academic, wrote his PhD and carries out research on immigrant and refugee memoirs. He is the deputy director of the Unit for Studies in Biography and Autobiography at La Trobe University. 

Topic tags: multiculturalism, freedom of religion and belief.Human Rights Commision, Marine Le Pen



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Existing comments

Excellent analysis. Nice to have some solid and tolerant reasoning among all the politically driven noise.

Robert F. I. Smith | 24 March 2011  

Yes, it does work and has to work as there is no other choice. Only a very small minority does not want it to work and try to exploit cultural, racial and religious differences for their own ends.

Beat Odermatt | 24 March 2011  

Most of us have freedom of religion in Australia. One group that seems not to is doctors in Victoria.

Gavan | 24 March 2011  

All ' isms' are a bit suspicious given the historical record of all other 'isms'. Multiculturalism suffers from this and needs to be grounded in different terminology to rescue it. Tell me in plain English what you mean by multiculturalism and I may be able to celebrate with you. Otherwise I am being told to consent to a politically correct 'ism'

graham patison | 25 March 2011  

On this matter, I'm in complete agreement with the comment by Beat. 'It does work and has to work as there is no other choice.'

Ginger Meggs | 25 March 2011  

I totally endorse the comments by Gavan.

John Tobin | 25 March 2011  

An image of Canadian multiculturalism sticks in my mind as an ideal which would be good to attain.

In the film, "Jesus of Montreal", a couple meet and chat in a city square. He is speaking English and she is speaking French, both fully involved in their conversation. And it's a non-event.

I don't believe that the screen writer claimed this to be the norm in Quebec, but it does portray cultural diversity that goes beyond tolerance, and the somewhat naive "Wow! Look at us!" multiculturalism we often see in Australia.

When most Australians speak a community language other than English and we have expanded our comfort zones to enable full engagement with our compatriots - indigenous, Anglo-Celtic and immigrant, we will no longer have to talk about multiculturalism. We will be living it.

Ian Fraser | 25 March 2011  

Hm! I'm a 'multicultural' or'ethnic' or 'new australian' or whatever they used to call us, migrants.I don't think I like the 'multiculturalism' that was imposed on Australians many years ago.

I came here to be an Australian. OK, like many of my fellow migrants I could hardly speak English, but we set out to speak it. We didn't like anglo-saxon food, we kept our cuisine. We didn't like the "my home is my castle" way of thinking, we kept "My home is your home".

However, we adapted, we tried to understand the English mentality and managed to fit in. Anglo-Australians were patient with us. Nowadays, we see Turkish suburbs, Lebanese suburbs, Vietnamese suburbs, etc. etc. Is this multiculturalism?

If your migration group sees you can't speak the old language, they accuse you of 'not being proud of who you are'. I never heard that until multiculturalism was imposed on us by the Fed. govt.! We live in interesting times, I must say.

Nathalie | 25 March 2011  

With all due respect to John Stuyfbergen, I will need more substantial examples of peaceful co-existence than "Western" Muslims having a friendly argument about cricket scores.

When I can talk with Muslims about how horrid it is that a Muslim convert to Christianity in Afganistan was sentenced to death for apostasy; or what a blight it is on their faith that some Muslims want to kill an elderly Sweedish cartoonist because he drew a picture of Mohammed as a dog; or that Coptic Christians in Egypt should be allowed to build and repair churches in their native land; then I will no that we are getting somewhere. Then I will know that these Muslims have taken on the Universal Human Rights that we in the West take for granted. Then I will know that there is not too much separating our culture from theirs. Until then, I will remain unconvinced that the culture of some Islamic countries is compatible with ours.

Hence, Muslim immigrants from these countries had better leave unacceptable aspects of their old culture behind and learn a new one, fast. If we don't insist on this, it will not be long before some our assumed freedoms and rights disappear.

John Ryan | 27 March 2011  

My parents came to Australia as refugees and did all they could to adapt and get along here. I can't understand why some groups of Muslims hate non -Muslims so much. It is really tearing apart our tolerant society. What reason is there for the hatred - is it from the Koran? I believe there is a verse which says something like 'slay the unbeliever wherever you find him.' Do Muslims really believe this?

Skye | 01 April 2011  

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