Difference not Division: 40 Years of Multiculturalism in Australia: FECCA 2019

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I pay respect to the traditional and original owners of this land the muwinina (mou wee nee nar) people, – to pay respect to those that have passed before us and to acknowledge today’s Tasmanian Aboriginal people who are the custodians of this land.

In 1979 when FECCA was established I had just returned to Australia to become the Director of the Centre for Multicultural Studies at the University of Wollongong. From the outset I had a close relationship with FECCA and wish to acknowledge the founders and the staff who have sustained this organisation and its national networks over four decades.

Today I want to reflect on those years and what we have learnt about multiculturalism, its challenges, successes and failures, and where we stand today. Multiculturalism was never something to take for granted, remaining  today a controversial idea. When Al Grassby and Jim Houston put the idea into circulation in 1973, as part of the Whitlam ALP government’s initiatives on human rights, Australia was just coming to terms with the idea that White Australia would not define our common future. So multiculturalism’s birth and White Australia’s alleged death were closely aligned – though the next five years until its incorporation into public policy through the Galbally report in the Fraser government remained a rocky road.

Multiculturalism has been concerned with outcomes of social cohesion and national stability through processes of that address inequality, prejudice and marginalisation. Sociologists recognise that in a country like Australia that has built its non-Indigenous population through recruitment from many different societies, the creation and deepening of social capital remains a major social challenge. Because with diverse societies social trust, the “cement” of social capital, is always shallower than in more monocultural societies, social programs have to look to how social capital can be created. Immigrant communities bring with them a tendency to focus on bonding social capital, that is the intensification of and reliance on interactions and resources within the group. Yet a multicultural society needs to strengthen the bridging social capital that allows people to interact with and trust people different from themselves, while using and contributing to organisations over which they may have little influence.

Multiculturalism in Australia has always been framed by a “progressive” conservatism, most eloquently expressed in the continuing refusal of both major political groups to consider its legislative enactment. Yet it took a conservative government to bring it into the arena of broad public policy, advocated for by Malcolm Fraser and shepherded by Petro Georgiou, the last liberal Liberal.  Let us hear from Fraser (though it is more likely Georgiou, given his comment that Georgiou “could still relate to the issues much more readily than I ever could, for example, or other people in my office”) as he marked out what he believed it was necessary to achieve in 1981 at the launch of the ill-fated and short-lived Australian Institute for Multicultural Affairs:

We have not simply grafted an ethnic dimension on to an otherwise unchanged conception of ourselves. There has been a fundamental reappraisal of the established way of seeing Australia. In multiculturalism, we have forged a radically innovative basis upon which we can respond as a nation to Australia’s  diversity, to its challenges and opportunities…. We know that the attempt to enforce conformity holds high costs both for the individual and the society. It denies  people their identity and self esteem. It drives a wedge between children and their parents. Ultimately it poses a real threat of alienation and division. We cannot demand of people that they renounce the heritage they value, and yet expert them to feel welcome as full members of our society… Multiculturalism is about diversity, not division — it is about interaction not isolation…. multiculturalism is about equality of opportunity for the members of all groups to participate in and benefit from Australia’s social, economic and political life.

The man who had put the program together, Galbally, noted some years later (1994), that the situation he needed to address was confronting: “ You wake up in the dark. You do not know where you are and you can’t even find the light switch. And that was it. The migrants could not find the light switch”.

Speaking in 1988 at the FECCA Congress Fraser reflected on the decade since Galbally, noting ‘I said then that: “multiculturalism is the most intelligent and appropriate response to the diversity which characterises our society”. In hindsight, that judgment could perhaps have been expressed slightly more forcefully as: “multiculturalism is the only intelligent and appropriate response to our diversity …”’. He ended thus: “If ever we find discrimination against ethnic groups, if ever any of us see any element of race in policies of government or of political parties, then that must be opposed with all the force at our command”.

Fifteen years later and I was addressing the FECCA Congress of 2003. In that audit of multiculturalism 25 years from its creation, crucial issues had emerged –  a rhetoric of respect and recognition of diversity masking a sustained pattern of ethnic power residing in the Charter communities of White Anglo-Celtic Australia (WACA). In 2003 there were no non-WACA in Cabinet, on the ABC Board or on the High Court. Religion was becoming an increasingly conflictual dimension of social difference, with a rapid intensification on one hand of anti-Muslim political discourses, while on the other anti-Asian rhetoric declined.

Fast forward another fifteen years and here we are today. Australia has gone through tremendous population changes, with communities from NESB societies now contributing to over half the population having immediate family links outside the country (born overseas or at least one parent born overseas). The largest single religious grouping is now “no religion”, strongly affected by the immigration of Chinese from the PRC, with fast growing non-Christian religions including Buddhism and Islam, along with Eastern Rite Christians.

Australian Diversity 1991 2001 2016
Population 16771700 18769249 23401892
O’seas Born 3689600 4105468 6,163,667
%O’seas Born 22.0 21.9 33.2
%Born NESB Country 12.8 13.3 49
%2nd Gen 18.6 18.3
%LOTE at home 14.7 15.2 27.3
%Aboriginal TSI 1.6 2.2 2.8

The Cabinet is still overwhelmingly WACA, though now it has Ken Wyatt as Minister for Indigenous Australians the only outlier. Here Cormann and Frydenberg can be counted as WACA for our purposes. Meanwhile the High Court has become more diverse, at least in terms of gender, though showing no signs of visible cultural diversity. The ABC Board now has a majority of women, though again all members are from the Charter ethnic groups.

The factors that have driven Australia’s population changes remain broadly as they have been – though family reunion has shrunk and skill and capital importation has grown. A much larger part of the population are longer term temporary residents, facing ever more difficult requirements to achieve citizenship. The most important social change though must lie in the political impact of non-European immigrants on the direction of Australian public policy. Two critical examples of the complex relationship between multiculturalism and human rights are now evident in retrospect.

Once the Coalition achieved government in 2013, it set about as a top priority the evisceration of the Racial Discrimination Act provisions in relation to racial harassment (Section 18C). It was a concern of the Charter elites who drove Coalition public policy on such matters (as in the Institute for Public Affairs) that section 18C unfairly limited the rights of public actors to criticise people on the basis of racial characteristics. A number of significant contributors to the conservative rhetoric (especially Andrew Bolt of News Ltd and Sky) had been caught out when their comments had caused grave offence and personal distress to their targets. Twice the Government attempted to remove or limit the extent to which 18C would affect these ostensible free speech rights. There was widespread public push back on this issue, with the Government failing to win its reforms. The opposition alliance was bi-partisan and multicultural, even though the conservative chair of the Government’s Multicultural Council supported the Government goals. This alliance, drawing together Jewish, European, African and Asian groups, mobilising the growing strength of Chinese and Indian networks, checkmated the forces in the government advocating for a return to pre-18C days. In the 2019 election the PM refused to resurrect the reforms, though they are not dead for all time. These campaigns proved the strength of the multicultural lobby in defence of one of the few pieces of legislation that enshrined the values that Fraser had espoused in the 1980s.

However while the conservatives were aiming for the right to vilify, progressives were aiming for the right of gay people to marry. This was also a human rights struggle, but it took a different turn. Ultimately successful, the strongest opposition to the same-sex campaign came from “multicultural” working class areas of the cities, and the White rural zones. Interestingly the strongest support came from middle class WACA localities, especially those with higher incomes. So the Charter communities also held the significant pockets of moral progressives who were also important in defeating the anti-18C push, though some of them had seen the anti-18C campaign for free speech in similar terms as they later saw the freedom to marry campaign.  

Multicultural communities are therefore neither inherently progressive nor conservative – the highest “diversity” communities supported protecting 18C, but could also be diametrically opposed on same sex marriage. However the impact of a politics of morality on Australian public life has had profound effects on multicultural communities of faith.

By the 2019 election the sheer size and concentration of multicultural communities in both safe Labor and swinging seats meant that they constituted a new “third force”, one which no longer tied purely material interests to voting. A very high proportion of those communities now consisted of dual-citizenship voters, people who could not stand for Parliament but could vote (following the citizenship reforms of 2000). In their localities Labor members, before perceived as defenders of diverse communities from the threats posed to their well-being by diminution of 18C,  were now seen as aligned with the pro-same sex marriage campaign, often identified by religious leaders as an anathema of atheistic modernism (true in many gatherings of Christian, Jewish, Buddhist, Sikh, Muslim, Hindu and Confucian faiths) . In marginal seats, where in effect the 18C fight recently had been won, non-WACA voters moved on, seeking to protect traditional moral beliefs (often presented as the antithesis of same sex relationships) by rejecting demands for change.

For proponents of multiculturalism, the importance of freedom of religious belief has been a given, though its consequences are now levering apart many of the key planks in that edifice. In the decade before the adoption of multiculturalism, the century old tension between British Protestantism and Irish Catholicism had been resolved through the introduction of Government support for Catholic schools. This principle was extended into the Howard period of multiculturalism, generating a rapid expansion in faith education and the bolstering of faith lobbies in the public policy environment. Yet faith implies faithless, with some major tensions between religions seeking converts and those from which they were exiting. Prejudices against faiths among the faithless (now the largest religious bloc) have deepened, fed by perceptions that faith communities are opposed to human rights, worried only about protecting their beliefs and sanctifying their prejudices.

Today, as this FECCA Congress convenes, hundreds of submissions have been made on the Government’s proposals for religious discrimination legislation. Speaking in 2017 Robin Banks former anti-Discrimination commissioner in Tasmania, noted that “if we’re committed to multiculturalism, we must also be committed to freedom of religion—because a multicultural Australia is also a multi-faith Australia.” She made a passionate defence for the right to hold religious views while also pointing out their expression and imposition must be balanced by other rights in relation to gender, sexual identity, and race, for other people. Commenting earlier this year she argued that the Government’s religious discrimination bill was in fact “an extraordinary foray into the culture wars”, licensing offensive views about women, disability and sexual identity. It overrides state laws to protect religious speech, including those here in Tasmania, so long as it does not “harass, vilify or incite hatred”. It would permit speech that offends, insults, humiliates and intimidates, such as is outlawed under Section 18C.  Importantly for one group, it would continue to exclude Muslim Australians from the protection of 18C while leaving them open to insult and humiliation by antagonists who defend their anti-Muslim rhetoric by pointing to their religious beliefs about Islam.

Today, despite reiterated claims that Australia is the most successful multicultural country in the world, there are many aspects of our multiculturalism that are far from successful. I would suggest that we remain a society where the Charter peoples retain their overarching power, and permit minorities to have restricted access to acceptable cultural behaviours.

We are failing dismally in ensuring that bi- and multi-lingualism remain appropriate aspirations for the society as a whole and a recognised resource for new generations of Australians.

Patterns of inequality in terms of economic advancement and social status reveal that ethno-racial equality has not been achieved, and we see in places exactly the layering of ethnicity and economic marginalisation that Fraser warned us of so long ago – especially for former refugees. We continue to refuse to adopt or even to discuss the legislative base necessary for the success of Australia as a multicultural society to be realised, even if the Greens have circulated a draft bill for a national multicultural commission. We are reluctant to address the political discrimination that excludes dual citizens from the opportunity to represent their fellow citizens. We are unwilling to ensure a knowledge base for understanding Australian pluralism, the ways in which power and opportunity flow to the already privileged, and how such flows can be democratised.

Over recent years we have seen public hostility to particular groups intensifying, complicated by global factors and the changing place of Australia. Three main targets, Black Africans, Muslims and Chinese, reflect major international transformations, played out in local unrest and concerns. We live in a world where wealth and power are moving east from the Western hemisphere.

We sit in the south and on the east – and our future is strongly tied economically to peoples to our north, while many of them choose to come to live in Australia transforming us all in the process. Our political institutions are not well shaped to cope with or even take advantage of these processes, our charter elites reluctant to open doors to the wider society and its diversity or share their power with new players at the table.

The multicultural dream that was espoused by the founders of multiculturalism – Grassby, Houston, Galbally, Fraser and Georgiou, and the millions of women and men who rallied to its promise of a fairer and freer future for all Australians – remains alive. However its commitment to social justice, its abhorrence of racism, and the centrality of mutual respect and trust and the sidelining of old hatreds, are now under fiercer pressure than we have seen for many years. The lesson of forty years of multiculturalism is perhaps best summarised by the late Mick Young, one of its early champions:

… take the community with you when you want to do these things.

Left to its own devices, progress is going to be very slow. You really do have to keep your finger on it. The government, particularly as a trend-setter in these areas, must keep its foot on the accelerator. Because as soon as it lifts its foot, people are quite happy for things to drop back, and we have seen illustration after illustration – lots of enthusiasm early, and then as soon as you blink, back it goes to the bad old ways.

Let’s not blink, lift our fingers or our feet. This remains, as it was at the outset, the central role of FECCA