Australian Multiculturalism needs to be strengthened

Australia has enjoyed an international reputation for its commitment to multiculturalism. How did this arise and what’s become of that reputation today? The concept of multiculturalism emerged in the 1970s, where it came to be used both as a descriptor (as in ‘Australia’s multicultural population’) and as a statement of Australia’s new national identity.

In the post-war period Australia’s overseas-born population had grown quickly and for the first time was composed not just of British but also European, Asian and Middle Eastern immigrants in large numbers. These new immigrants sought social, economic, language and cultural rights including the right to live according to their own community norms and practices, rather than being expected to ‘assimilate’ to Anglo-Australian ways.

The new government of the early 1970s responded to these demands and the flamboyant ALP Immigration Minister, Al Grassby, was recognised as the father of multiculturalism. On taking up the role of Community Relations Commissioner, Grassby’s biggest achievement was to introduce the Race Discrimination Act 1975, as well as a host of multicultural institutions that fostered community development and inter-cultural understanding.

Today, forty years later, Australia has an ‘Australian Multicultural Council’ but the focus is less on ethnic minority rights and more on, as the government puts it, ‘those who do not currently experience diversity’ (see Australian Multicultural Council, 5th meeting). Funding to the grassroots bodies that supported ethnic communities - Migrant Resource Centres, Immigrant Women’s and Workers’ Centres, and ethno-specific organisations - has been refocused on enhancing ‘the economic contribution’ immigrants and refugees make to Australia. The value of immigrants to the Australian economy has become the most important policy concern.

Most recently the Prime Minister announced that the Government has decided to further ‘protect Australia’ by ensuring that only people who share our ‘unique Australian values’ can become citizens. However, it is hard to define what those unique values are and how they can be tested for. The ones often cited – a love of democracy, fairness, and the rule of law - are self-evidently found in many if not most societies. And asking people questions with obvious answers like ‘is it ok to keep girls home from school?’ clearly won’t achieve much.

In any case, are ‘Australian values’ under threat from immigrants who are trying to become Australian citizens? The evidence suggests that more of a problem is the small minority of Australians (already citizens) who act in a racist manner towards Muslims, people of colour, Asians and/or anyone not from an Anglophone background and perceived as ‘white’. In today’s increasingly polarised world, it is important for debates about values to inspire and include everyone. All Australians, new and old, can agree that together we need to strengthen the things we value about Australian society, including our natural environment and our multicultural heritage.

Caroline Alcorso

Dr Caroline Alcorso

Caroline has a Bachelor of Arts from the University of Tasmania, Master of Arts from Cambridge University, England and a Doctor of Philosophy at the University of Sydney (Economics) .

Caroline Alcorso is a National Manager, Workforce Development, at National Disability Services (NDS). She was the lead author for its strategic report on national workforce Workforce Futures, A Strategy Paper on Workforce Development (2010).

She also has an extensive research, policy, advocacy and project management background. She has worked for state and federal government, community organisation, unions and university-based research centres over the last 25 years and has acknowledged expertise in the areas of workplace relations, employment, gender equity, migration, multicultural affairs and environmental sustainability.