A stunned silence: the slow death of multiculturalism

From Australian Policy Online Posted:25-11-2008


Despite the change of government, the trend continues, writes ANDREW JAKUBOWICZ (on reflection in March 2009, not quite, but what exactly?)

THE year was 1967. The Harold Holt–led Australian government was introducing “integration” as the guiding principle for immigrant settlement. In the domestic sphere bipartisan agreement had led to the passing of a constitutional amendment to include Indigenous Australians in national government responsibilities. Two years previously the opposition Australian Labor Party had removed White Australia from its policy platform, moved by South Australian premier Don Dunstan and seconded by former post-war immigration minister Arthur Calwell (“with ashes in his mouth,” according to Dunstan). Calwell continued to hold his own views against the integrationist tide, echoes of which remain today (and you wondered where Pauline and John got their lines?):

To date we have been isolated for a long time. Because of our isolation we had a xenophobic feeling, we hated foreigners, we didn’t trust. If we didn’t hate them, we didn’t like them and we certainly didn’t welcome them. That has passed. We still fear large-scale immigration from Asia or from Africa, and I think that position will always obtain. We absorb a few, admit a few annually, but relatively few, and that only to save our own faces before Asia, and that only to enable Asians who trade with us and come among us to be able to appease people in their own countries who feel there should be an open-door immigration policy for Australia. I don’t believe that there ever should be an open-door immigration policy for Australia. It’s our country, our people made it, we helped to build it, we are just as much entitled to say who will come into our country as any of us individually is entitled to say who shall come into our home…
– Arthur Calwell, radio broadcast, 15 June 1967

Integration has had two airings in Australia. The first application (adapted from policy discussions about Indigenous people) emerged in the mid-1960s as a post-assimilation approach to managing the immigration program. The sudden crisis in immigration in the early 1960s, when the rate of return of immigrants to Europe began to rise dramatically, pushed the older assimilationist rhetoric out of balance. Immigrants who felt marginalised by Australia voted with their feet, and the Australian government of the day paid attention. In a raft of reforms that included the slackening off of White Australia prohibitions, government policy turned towards a greater acceptance of the fact that immigrants would hold onto their cultures of origin and even pass some of it on to their children. Also in 1967 Australia signed an immigration agreement with Turkey, which included legal protections for cultural retention. By the mid-1970s integration had itself been replaced by multiculturalism as the official description of settlement policy.

Integration returned to policy rhetoric in the early twenty-first century, at a time when conservative politicians became increasingly intolerant of what they saw as the tribalisation of society consequential on the policies of multiculturalism. Multiculturalism was represented as tantamount to cultural relativism, with no priority or precedence accorded to Western or Australian values. In particular these politicians and commentators feared that multiculturalism would licence or had already licensed values and behaviours that were overwhelmingly rejected by the majority of the Australian population, and would also legitimate the further ghettoisation of suburban areas of cities on the basis of language, racial phenotypes or faith.

The period after 11 September 2001 has been characterised by four features of the Australian immigration environment that were less evident in the past. At the global level there is rising competition with Australia for high “value-add” immigrants. Within Australia, years of under-investment in education and training in conjunction with a minerals export boom has created a market for “body hire” short-term immigrant workers. Rising fear of and antipathy to Islam has reinforced border controls and internal security clampdowns that have the added effect of intimidating and humiliating “mainstream” Muslim Australians. And continuing refugee crises have focused attention on the “integration” capacity of African humanitarian entrants.

The clearest evidence of the resurgent focus on integration can be found in the new citizenship test, introduced in 2007 and reviewed in a government-commissioned report released on 22 November 2008. The introduction to the current test notes that:

The test is an important part of ensuring that migrants have the capacity to fully participate in the Australian community as citizens and maximise the opportunities available to them in Australia. It promotes social cohesion and successful integration into the community.

According to the July 2008 Australian Citizenship Test Snapshot Report, the test has a high pass rate (applicants must correctly answer 60 per cent of questions, three of which are compulsory) on “first or subsequent” attempts (about 95 per cent, 84 per cent at first attempt), though there are clear differences according to immigrant category and country of origin. Skilled stream applicants have a 99 per cent pass rate (1.1 attempts per person), family stream 92 per cent (1.3), and humanitarian 82 per cent (1.8). The highest pass rates among significant size country of origin groups are for UK and India (over 99 per cent), the lowest for Sudan (77 per cent) Afghanistan (80 per cent) and Iraq (82 per cent).

The supporting documents for the test make no mention of multiculturalism as an Australian value or even a momentary dimension of Australian policy. Nor are there any questions that explore this idea. The test has a limited sense of what Australian values and practices may be (none are associated with the immigrant communities from non-British origins), and the expectation that citizens sign on to these values recurs frequently in the sub-text of the support documentation. In many places the supporting book reveals an astonishing ignorance or reconstruction of Australian history, ranging from the assertion that soccer is a recent phenomenon to a justification for anti-Chinese racism in the nineteenth century. Leaving aside the internal problems with the test, its focus is clearly to make access to citizenship (as the proxy for integration) remarkably easy for skilled immigrants, while reinforcing the sense of marginalisation and estrangement that characterises much of the humanitarian stream experience.

The 2008 review of the test tries to remedy some of these problems by pushing for a test that explores applicants’ understandings of rights and responsibilities and their capacity to communicate in basic social English. The review committee was chaired by Kevin Rudd’s erstwhile mentor and former secretary of the Department of Foreign Affairs, Richard Woolcott, and included SBS Radio’s Paula Masselos, NSW Police (and former Centrelink) official Juliana Nkrumah, Vice Admiral Chris Ritchie and Australia Day Council head Warren Pearson.

On balance, the review committee was likely to be sympathetic to the plight of the more vulnerable and marginalised humanitarian applicants and so it proved to be. So much so, indeed, that the immigration minister, Chris Evans, rejected most of its key recommendations in his response. He refused to allow the test to be taken in any language but English; he refused to allow the questions in the test bank to be made public (though as with the previous test it won’t take long for the bank to become known and unscrupulous brokers to be able to charge for the information); and he refused to allow alternative pathways (so-called “earned citizenship”). But he did endorse a subtle sting in the tail, that the government “endorse that knowledge of Australian citizenship and civic responsibilities is important for all Australians no matter how they became citizens” – including, by implication, if they were born Australian. The revisons adopted by the government increased the pass mark to 75 per cent in the name of proving to Australians the rigour of the test and the quality of successful applicants. The nett effect of the Government’s response to the review will probably be to intensify the pressures on those least able to pass the test, and paint them even more into a corner of failure.

While the main driver in seeking immigrants in recent years has been the combined impact of the expanding need for industrial technical workers to overcome skill shortages and the need for seasonal low-skilled manual agricultural workers (both sought in part through the use of the expanding the Visa 457 category of guestworkers, combined with other visa categories including young holiday workers) the debate on integration bypasses these groups. The demand for skilled workers has been rising, and has been addressed by both short-term and permanent immigration. The 457 visa holders are not perceived to be a long-term integration challenge, even though recent figures suggest up to 65 per cent of them seek to stay in Australia, and that they are most likely to be in Australia without family or support, open to economic exploitation. There is little evidence of any national government concern about their needs, compared to the sustained attention to humanitarian entrants (for whom there is now some greater support in relation to the citizenship test) or the skilled immigrant regional group, who are a major priority in terms of economic development.

The greatest attention in relation to “capacity to integrate” has been imposed on Muslim Arabs and Black Africans. Those failing the citizenship test are predominantly from these sources, primarily because of low levels of education and the traumas of civil unrest and war, rather than attributes of their “culture.” (Although possibly their lack of understanding of cricket could be a cultural failing given the high pass rate by Indians.) In September 2007 the previous immigration minister Kevin Andrews announced that Africans on the humanitarian waiting list would face a pause in movement on to Australia because, he alleged, their fellow Africans in Australia had shown they were incapable of integration.

The new Labor government has taken some time to address the question of settlement and integration. While it has cancelled the so-called “Pacific solution” for the detention of asylum seekers, and reversed the onus onto the Department for detaining asylum seekers beyond a maximum period, action in relation to other policies is less clear cut. After freezing grants for the Living in Harmony program, it has now begun funding again for Community Relations, with the top priority being the danger presented by the radicalisation of young Muslim men. This counter radicalisation initiative is being driven out of the Attorney General’s department, building on the previous government’s National Action Plan, which aimed:

to reinforce social cohesion, promote harmony and support national security by addressing extremism and the promotion of violence and intolerance… Many broader policy initiatives are aimed at promoting equality and encouraging participation, whether economic or at the community level. Although much of this work is not targeted directly towards countering radicalisation, it assists in engendering a greater sense of national identity and community and has positive externalities in respect of counter-radicalisation… As a result, we need to encourage greater understanding and respect for cultural and religious differences, while promoting the values that we share, and strive to build an inclusive nation which offers hope and opportunity.

The attorney general, Robert McClelland, followed up on this by referring to the development of additional strategies, which were still under consideration. In a speech on preventing extremist behaviours, he noted:

I travelled to the United Kingdom earlier this year. They are tackling this issue by building partnerships between government agencies, police and Islamic communities. I’ve tasked my department to work with other relevant agencies, as well as the states and territories, to develop strategies for helping Australian communities to counter extremism, taking note of the UK example. Some work is already being done. The Australian Federal Police has launched a National Community Engagement Strategy, with community engagement teams set up in Sydney and Melbourne. It is essential that we bolster the prevention aspects of our counter-terrorism arrangements and work more closely with communities at risk.

When I asked Shaykh Ibrahim Mogra, chair of the Interfaith Relations Committee of the Muslim Council of Britain, what Australia should learn from the British experience, he answered “from our mistakes.” Answering questions at the Integration Futures Conference in Prato, Italy, in late October, he went on to describe the rising surveillance and “stop and search” interrogation of visibly identifiable young Muslims as a major contributor to their alienation from British society. He noted that Muslims, in their terms, were being harassed simply for appearing Muslim, not for any action or prospective action of theirs. At the same conference, Betsy Cooper, a UK based consultant on immigrant integration, drew on evidence of the effect of integration on Muslim terrorism in five English-speaking countries (covering over 500 terrorist charges or convictions) to conclude that the more rigorous the “integration policy” of the receiving society the more likely it was to contribute to the development of extremism in a minority of the Muslim population. The religiosity, ethnicity or education of the terrorists did not play a significant or determining part in the pattern of their terrorist acts.

While some of these security issues are related to contemporary immigration, most address longer established and Australian-born communities for whom government believes previous integration strategies have failed. Some commentators have argued that it was multiculturalism that set in place the conditions for current alienation and radicalisation; others argue that the constant perceived humiliation and intimidation of Muslim communities by politicians and the media, without any government response, has been the underlying factor accelerating the push towards jihadism.

The parliamentary secretary for multiculturalism and settlement services, Laurie Ferguson, has sought to move government attention away from religious leaders and the focus on interfaith dialogue, towards addressing the social and economic situation of younger and more secular Muslims. He has also publicly expressed his frustration at the government’s inertia on more pro-active policies around integration and social inclusion. In early October he announced that federal cabinet had finally agreed to create a national multicultural advisory council, the first in the multicultural area since John Howard’s Council for a Multicultural Australia slipped into oblivion under Kevin Andrews. As yet not a word about it has escaped from the PM’s office. •


It was inappropriate of me to allow the inference to be made that Laurie Ferguson had commented on a Cabinet decision before it was released. The new Multicultural Advisory Council was announced in December 2008. Here is what I mused on the day:….
” There was something bizarre about the launch of the National Multicultural Advisory council in a shed in Melbourne’s Docklands on Wednesday 17 December 2008. The ABC couldn’t find out where it was happening; the Age and the Australian didn’t report it at all, and the downloadable “background” document on Minister Chris Evans website on the day of the launch had a string of headings but no content. The critical item – the brief – was empty. The organisation was empty and so was everything else that one would have expected. And to wrap things up Minister Evans released a tough policy on skilled immigrant selection at the same time, which caught the media attention.

So what we have is the couple of sentences in the Minister’s media release composed of uncomfortable banalities, and the membership of the Council as the only real clues to intention and promise. The Council is rather more important than either the media or the government (apparently) seems to think. Given the Prime Minister seems to believe that the cultural diversity of Australia has the primary function of changing cuisine and facilitating the export of commodities (both valuable but insufficient reasons for a multicultural policy),

it is now time to take a breath and try to work out what is actually happening to public policy in multicultural Australia. ”

Two days later the documents on the website had words in them. See for yourself.


5 thoughts on “A stunned silence: the slow death of multiculturalism

  1. Hello Andrew,
    Still folowing with great interest your endeavours since those Good Neighbour and Immigration Advisory Council days. Now retired in Newcastle, with marbles intact, and available on (02) 40234566 if you ever have a chance to share current observations.
    Best regards,

  2. Hello Andrew, my name is Diana and I have just started year 12 and have decided to do my Society&Culture Personal Interest Project (PIP) on “Mutliculturalism dying over time”. I just wanted to say thank you as i found this extremely inisghtful.

    Also wondering if you have any further views on this matter or whether you believe any new global events have increased the death of multiculturalism.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s