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Non Anglo-Saxon Australians deserve an apology

  • 21 February 2011

Last week the Federal Government re-embraced multiculturalism. Meanwhile the Opposition was dealing with a leak from Shadow Cabinet which suggested some support for a modern form of the White Australia Policy. The White Australia Policy refers to legislation that intentionally restricted 'non-white' immigration to Australia from 1901 to 1973, when it was replaced by multiculturalism.

Around a decade ago, both sides of politics lost interest in, or departed from multiculturalism. A range of factors, including John Howard's 'One Australia' policy, Hansonism, and post 9/11 security fears, had all but defeated multiculturalism.

But on Wednesday evening, Immigration Minister Chris Bowen delivered a key speech at The Sydney Institute that coincided with the release of Labor's surprise new multiculturalism policy.

Using the word 'respect' to capture the essence of multiculturalism, Bowen acknowledged this was lacking in the excesses of the post 9/11 attitudes towards Muslims in Australia. He said it is counter-intuitive to assume migrants want to change Australia, and also 'to cast all Islamic migrants [as extremists and therefore] unworthy of their place in our national community'.

Hazaras, who make up a large percentage of asylum-seeker boat arrivals, have fled religious extremism in Afghanistan, and 'like previous groups of migrants' are attracted by Australia's values.

His speech could be seen to be laying the ground for a formal apology to Australians of non Anglo-Saxon background whose dignity was eroded by disrespect from fellow Australians who took their cue from official government policy, or from the discriminatory attitudes of political leaders.

The obvious models for such an apology would be the Apology to the Stolen Generations of February 2008, and the Apology to the Forgotten Australians of November 2009. The parallels are striking.

As with indignities suffered by the Stolen Generations and the Forgotten Australians, policy and attitudes offensive to non-white Australians have a long history. They have been well documented in the recent SBS TV series Immigration Nation, currently being rescreened on SBS Two and online.

The summary of the first episode notes that monoculturalism — disrespect for non-white Australians, and the cruel treatment that implies — was enshrined in the White Australia Policy, which was virtually an article of faith for the new nation.

When the Commonwealth of Australia was founded in 1901, the very last thing the nation wanted to be was multicultural. The measures taken to ensure this would be the case … caused great human suffering.

Subsequent episodes dealing with post-war migration show how disrespect for those