The risk of diversity: the meanings of integration in Australian political culture

If we think of Australian history as an “empire project” (Gilroy 2004) then integration of its populations into a single “people” has been a continuing challenge to the nation state (after 1900) and its broader political culture. Empires generally have a problem in this regard, in that competing empires, defeated indigenous populations, and culturally diverse populations all have to be dealt with in order to limit the risk they would otherwise represent to the stability and coherence of the nation/empire and its dominant political cultural elites.  At Federation Australia inherited the imperial mantle of the United Kingdom, but undertook the perceived challenges in its own evolving ways. It took on the threats from other empires to its own territory and in the surrounding “buffer” zone.

Competing Empires were viewed with suspicion – the Celestial Empire of China was particularly dangerous, with its insidious civilian invasion; Japan was viewed with uncomfortable ambiguity once it had defeated the Russian tsar in 1904. The other European powers were also somewhat threatening, with imperial Germany the most aggressive neighbour. Colonial Queensland had attempted an invasive annexation of east New Guinea in defence against German colonisation in the north in the 1880s, only to be halted by a British government unimpressed by the colony’s woeful human rights credentials in dealing with indigenous populations of its own.

In relation to the indigenous population, the Federation after 1900 simply and effectively denied their existence as citizens, assuming they would disappear in time and have no future role in the nation.  They existed as a population but were not deemed to be part of the people. As for “coloured” residents – Chinese, other Asians, Africans, Pacific islanders – they were to be banned from coming in and expelled if feasible if they were already present. The new imperial project also decided to suppress diversity in the making of a singular Australian people – an especial problem during the Great War when “Australia” was really created in its own mythology of nation (in the aftermath of the horrors of Anzac Cove and on the Western Front). The poly-ethnicity of the time became an anathema: German Australians, often resident for several generations, were seen as a threat to the British nature of the new nation. Many were interned, and in their main communities all signs of German culture from street names to civic memorials were expunged. The Irish were also a problem, being both anti-British (the republican movement was strongly supported in Australia) and Catholic.  For two thirds of the twentieth century they would remain a test of Australia’s liberal and egalitarian ethos. Key changes became evident by the late 1960s (Jupp 2007).

By 1967 the Harold Holt-led (Liberal Country Party coalition) Australian government was introducing “Integration” as the guiding principle for immigrant settlement, after three generations of White Australia and its program of expulsion, exclusion, and assimilation.  In the domestic sphere bi-partisan 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 and Labor Party leader Arthur Calwell “with ashes in his mouth” as Dunstan put it ( Calwell however continued to hold his own views against the integrationist tide, based on Prime Minister Alfred Deakin’s fierce advocacy of White Australia in the first decade of Federation, echoes of which remain in current debates (Lopez 2000):

To date we have been isolated for a long time [ a consequence of  decisions made by Australian governments: author]. 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 Jun 1967 [NLA oral history section DCB tape 259]).
In the Australian context Integration has had two airings. 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; public opinion was also changing fast and becoming more accepting of diversity. 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 culture 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. Whereas Integration implied a single culture in which all immigrants would eventually share, Multiculturalism allowed for a continuing diversity into future generations, within the broad ethos of a common political or civic culture. It became a bi-partisan policy in the mid 1970s and remains one in terms of rhetoric thirty years or more later (Hodge and O’Carroll 2006).

Multiculturalism was however always a controversial proposition, and one that never fully convinced all Australians (Galligan and Roberts 2004).  If we mark the transition from integration to multiculturalism as occurring in about 1975-6, then its apogee and fragmentation both appear in the late 1980s, about fifteen years later. We can see this in the following contested view of the policy (from interviews recorded by the author in 1995) as perceived by two key policy participants, the 1988 head of Prime Minister Hawke’s Office of Multicultural Affairs Peter Shergold (later PM Howard’s Department Head) and Hawke government adviser on immigration, population  and settlement former Ambassador to China Stephen Fitzgerald.
Foundation Director, Office of Multicultural Affairs, 1987-90
Chair, Committee to Advise on Australia’s Immigration Policies (CAAIP), 1987-88
The FitzGerald Report was of course positively hostile to the concept of multiculturalism, and (had) an underlying distrust of the power that was being wielded by ethnic communities and a strong emphasis on an economic approach to our immigration policy. The Office of Multicultural Affairs and myself had strong concerns about drafts of the FitzGerald Report, and when the FitzGerald Report appeared, and very crudely – and this is very crudely – the Prime Minister was persuaded of our position. …. although the Report is very articulate, in some ways brilliantly written, and quite helpful in terms of immigration policy, it was in my view extremely dangerous in terms of the way it would be seen as signalling the end of multiculturalism…
I have no doubt at all that FitzGerald and the Minister at the time, Clyde Holding, just thought there would be no problem with this. And therefore when the Office of Multicultural Affairs briefed the Prime Minister, and the Prime Minister called in the Minister for Immigration and said: no, this was simply not going to be acceptable in its draft form – then changes were made. It came as a real shock in a very real way. Clyde Holding lost his ministerial position as a result of it and Robert Ray was pretty outraged by it…
…. And there was a lot of tension and hostility that resulted from that.
library/media/Audio/id/589        I think Hawke was a kind of… as we all know he was a populist, he was a lowest common denominator person – highly intelligent, but not intellectual.
I don’t think that Hawke’s view really was infused too much by a kind of intellectual vision about what it all meant. But he was a kind of soft sentimental touch for the multicultural idea.
The idea that multiculturalism might have run its course was deeply offensive to vested interests of the kind which represent in my view the “ism”, the dogma – their vested interest in the sense that it was developing as an industry, it provided their employment, their rationale, their ‘raison d’etre’. And a lot of people, I might add, in this category were people who were themselves immigrants from Britain…
There was no doubt that there were people who were working to head off any suggestion that multiculturalism might come to be seen as a phase in the evolution of Australian society and ultimately replaced by something which in my conception would be bigger, broader, all-encompassing and so on. …. the concoction of a Report which went to the Prime Minister which was not, of course, shown to me and was never supposed to have been seen by me.
It was prepared by the Office, by OMA, and I think I have to say, it is the most mendacious document that I have ever come across in public life in Australia.

This particular view of the integrationist viewpoint remains then a deeply embedded current in Australian political culture, acting as a public critique of multiculturalism. It is important therefore to distinguish between “integration” as a technical term to describe a broad social process of social contact, conflict and adaptation, and “Integration” as an ideology driving a particular form of settlement policy and its associated cultural priorities.

Integration returned to policy rhetoric in the early 21st 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 Western or Australian values. In particular these politicians and commentators feared that multiculturalism would licence or already had licensed values and behaviours that were overwhelmingly rejected by the majority of the Australian population. It would also legitimate the further ghettoisation of suburban areas of cities on the basis of language, racial phenotypes or faith (Wise 2007).

The period after 9/11 (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 from other countries against Australia for high “value-add” immigrants; in 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 clamp-downs which have the added effect of intimidating and humiliating  “mainstream” Muslim Australians (Dunn et al. 2004); and continuing refugee crises focus 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 report released on November 22 2008 ( .  The introduction to the current (December 2008) 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. (
The test has a high pass rate (60% of questions correct, three of which are compulsory) on “first or subsequent” attempts (about 95%, 84% at first attempt), though there are clear differences by immigrant category and country of origin.  Skilled stream applicants have a 99% pass rate (1.1 attempts per person) , family stream 92% (1.3) , and humanitarian 82% (1.8).  The highest pass rates among significant size country of origin groups are for UK and India (over 99%), the lowest for Sudan (77%) Afghanistan (80%) and Iraq (82%). (Australian Citizenship Test Snapshot Report July 2008)   (

The supporting documents 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. In this form the silence can be seen to as a sub-voce confirmation that multiculturalism is dead, but cannot yet be buried. 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 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 not necessarily effective proxy for integration) remarkably easy for skilled immigrants, while reinforcing the sense of marginalisation and estrangement that characterises some of the family reunion and much of humanitarian stream experience (Jakubowicz 2007).

The 2008 Review 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 Labor Prime Minister Kevin Rudd’s erstwhile mentor and former Foreign Affairs Secretary Richard Woolcott, and included SBS Radio’s Paula Masselos and NSW Police (and former Centrelink) official Juliana Nkrumah, naval Vice Admiral Chris Ritchie (almost the sole contemporary voice of official opposition to the Howard government’s “children overboard” campaign of 2001)  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 the submission of ethnic community organisations and so it proved to be. So much so indeed, that Immigration Minister 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 thereby able to charge for the information); and he refused to allow alternative pathways (so-called “earned citizenship”). However 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 revisions adopted by the government increased the pass mark to 75%, 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.  The current economic crisis has reduced the demand for immigrants and thus the urgency of having a revised system in place.

While the main driver in seeking immigrants in recent years has been the combined expanding need for industrial technical workers to overcome skill shortages, and the need for seasonal low skill 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% of then seek to stay in Australia, and they are most likely to be in Australia without family or support, and very 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 457 visa holders are not strictly immigrants as they are not intended to settle, and therefore have no access to many of the programs.

For example, a variety of programs operate locally through Immigration and Citizenship that have Integration as their goal. These include:
Adult Migrant English Program (AMEP)
Provides free English language tuition to eligible migrants and humanitarian entrants who do not have functional English- this is under review in relation to the language/employment nexus
Translating and Interpreting Service (TIS National)
Helps migrants with limited English skills to access translating and interpreting services.
Integrated Humanitarian Settlement Strategy (IHSS)
A national framework to provide settlement services to humanitarian entrants.
Settlement Grants Program (SGP)
A program by which organisations apply for and receive funding to provide settlement services where they are most needed.
The Citizenship Support Grants Program
The Citizenship Support Grants Program provides support and assistance to clients to prepare for the Australian citizenship test. Services under this program are available across Australia from August 2008. In particular they involve Migrant Resource Centres running intensive training sessions on culture and language for applicants for citizenship with a higher likelihood of failure.
Complex Case Support (CCS) Services
A program to provide specialised and intensive case management services to recently arrived humanitarian entrants with exceptional needs.

The greatest attention in relation to “capacity to integrate” has been imposed on Muslim Arabs (Jakubowicz 2006) and Black Africans. Those failing the citizenship test are predominantly from these sources, a situation primarily due to a concentration among them of low levels of education and the traumas of civil unrest and war, rather than attributes of their “culture” (possibly their lack of understanding of cricket could be a cultural failing given the high pass rate by Indians). In September 2007 then Coalition Immigration Minister Kevin Andrews announced that Africans on the humanitarian waiting list would face a pause in movement on to Australia as their fellow Africans in Australia had shown they were incapable of integration (eg being prone to violent incidents, though the “hook” for Andrews was the murder of an African by White youths, surely an extreme case of blame the victim).

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.  (Panel Discussion: Home Grown Terrorism in Australia: the Way Forward – Mr Angus Campbell, First Assistant Secretary, National Security Division, Department of the Prime Minister and Cabinet at SIG 2007).

The Labor Attorney General followed up on this with reference to the development of additional strategies, still under consideration as of December 2008 by the government. 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.

Shaykh Ibrahim Mogra, from Leicester in the UK, chair of the Interfaith Relations Committee of the Muslim Council of Britain, when asked by the author at the Integration Futures Conference in Prato, Italy in late October 2008, what Australia should learn from the British experience, answered “from our mistakes”. He went on to describe the rising surveillance and “stop and search” interrogation of visibly identifiable Muslims as a major contributor to their youthful 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.  Betsy Cooper, a UK based consultant on immigrant integration, concluded at the same conference from evidence of the effect of integration on Muslim terrorism in five English-speaking countries (covering over 500 terrorist charges or convictions), 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 perceptions suggest previous integration strategies have failed. Some commentators have argued that it was in fact the policies of multiculturalism that set in place the conditions for current alienation and radicalisation. Others argue however 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.

In December 2008 the government announced the membership of the Australian Multicultural Advisory Council ( , a long-awaited replacement for a similar Council (and one seen to be totally in the government’s control) that had lapsed in 2006 under Howard’s government. The Council’s creation is a classic piece of political message-making, reflecting in its brief and its composition the agenda of the new government. It is chaired by Australian Football League (Aussie Rules) chief Cyprus-born Andrew Demetriou, an immigrant who has embraced core Australian values in sport ( ; Minister Evans claimed that his Council would bring “new cultural diversity perspectives to the Australian Government” . As always the Council has a Jewish representative, who in this term doubles as the representative for what has been known in Australia  as “wog ball”, the main immigrant game of soccer (and perhaps a subtle balance to the “ockerism” of AFL). There are scattering of Muslim women – an academic and a community worker – both modern and independent, but no Muslim religious leaders, reflecting the government’s insistence on a more secular take on the Islam issue. This also directly reflects changes made in the UK. The makeup of the Council also distances the new government from the “usual suspects” that made up the Howard government’s widely criticised (variously, on the grounds that it had been selected for conservatism, was unrepresentative of younger Muslims, was undisciplined and was torn apart by factionalism) Muslim Advisory Council from 2006. An indigenous woman and an African woman, both professionals, add to the picture of a forward-looking Council. Individuals associated with key community stakeholder organisations are involved (though the government brief stresses they are not there as representatives) – the Federation of Ethnic Communities Councils of Australia, the Australian Multicultural Federation and the Australian Multicultural Forum. Interestingly, for the first time in the history of these sorts of bodies there is no academic with a record of research in Australian immigration, racism or settlement. This apparently was the choice of the government, which stressed the community and practical take the Council was to pursue, and abjured it having any independent research dimension.

The Terms of Reference carefully avoid any mention of multiculturalism, stressing dimensions of policy that reflect re-emergent Integrationist priorities, with cultural diversity (a descriptive term) in lieu of multiculturalism (a programmatic term). The Council is required to provide advice to government on
– social cohesion issues relating to Australia’s cultural and religious diversity
– overcoming intolerance and racism in Australia
– communicating the social and economic benefits of Australia’s cultural diversity to the broad community
– issues relating to the social and civic participation of migrants in Australian society.
The Council has no resources of its own, no research capacity and no budget powers.

“Integration” has clearly returned as an ideology of immigrant settlement policy in Australia. Australia’s integration future seems now to be firmly set upon a course in which cultural recognition of difference is subordinated to priorities of social cohesion, as these are perceived by the current political and social elites.  Whether current policy settings will in fact address and help to resolve the questions of concern to government, or more deeply entrench the fissures already apparent, remains to be seen. The Australian “empire project” continues to face the tasks of transforming populations into a people, and to do that it will require the buy-in of a wide spectrum of social forces.  They will need to see benefits across the board, and a sense that everyone is welcome at the table. “Integration” may present a signal chasm along that pathway.


Dunn, Kevin, Forrest, Jim, Burnley, Ian & McDonald, A. (2004). “Constructing racism in Australia”, Australian Journal of Social Issues, 39(4) 409-430
Galligan, Brian and Roberts, Winsome (2004) Australian Citizenship, Melbourne: Melbourne University Press.
Gilroy, Paul (2004) After Empire: Melancholia or Convivial Culture?  London: Routledge.
Hodge, Bob and O’Carroll, John (2006) Borderwork in Multicultural Australia, Sydney: Allen and Unwin
Jakubowicz, Andrew (2006) “Anglo-multiculturalism: contradictions in the politics of cultural diversity as risk”, International Journal of Media and Cultural Politics, 2 (3) 249-266.
Jakubowicz, Andrew (2007) “Political Islam and the future of Australian multiculturalism” National Identities 9 (1) 265-280.
Jupp, James (2007) From White Australia to Woomera: the story of Australian immigration, (2nd ed.) Melbourne: Cambridge University Press
Lopez, Mark (2000), The Origins of Multiculturalism in Australian Politics 1945-1975, Carlton: Melbourne University Press
Wise, Amanda (2005), “Hope and Belonging in a Multicultural Suburb”, Journal of Intercultural Studies, 26(1-2) 171-186


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