Cultural Diversity in the New Australia: a Four Way Street

International Unity in Diversity Conference
Townsville Australia
August 2008
Keynote Address
KEYWORDS: cultural diversity, social capital, 2020 Summit

“I argue that a core, continuing principle shaping this engagement should be that Christianity…. must always take the side of the marginalised, the vulnerable and the oppressed.” Kevin Dunn October 2006.

One thing that Australia’s culturally diverse community can agree on is this – the 2020 Summit was not about them. Despite valiant efforts by the few mestizo Australian delegates to Canberra to articulate a vision for Australia of which they would be a part, it wasn’t there at the end. Despite relentless clips of women in hijab and people of colour on the ABC TV coverage, the Australia of 2020 recorded by the government’s scribes was relentlessly uniform and bland. Why?

This address explores the nature of the ideologies of Whiteness that now seem to be firmly settling into the mindset of the new Canberra government. With the moral imperative to apologise to the Stolen generation now achieved, the agenda for diversity is now one of assimilation and sameness. The 2020 social inclusion agenda does not mention diversity. The education agenda does not mention diversity. The economic agenda does not mention diversity. The arts agenda (especially) does not mention diversity. Only the foreign affairs agenda mentions it, as a face Australia should try to sell to the world, a paper-thin mask to hide the reality of uniformity. We are now beyond assimilation – we are into unitary beingness.

Four questions can be asked about what is happening and why. How do ideas about social capital, so central to social inclusion ideology, relate to cultural diversity? How does the nature of diversity affect trust between people who have different cultural histories? How does education intersect with cultural diversity to affect social cohesion? When different communities follow different faiths how does competition for sacred space and place affect community relations? How does diversity relate to social justice?


Soon after the 2020 Summit was announced I attended a meeting in Melbourne organised what I would call the “old guard”, those of us who some would see as the professional ethnic “players”. The names are not important, only to say that most had been active during the Hawke/Keating era, some indeed activists from the Whitlam/Fraser epoch. The aim of the exercise was to formulate a common stance for an agenda of what 2020 would include. Around a large trestle table the voices surged back and forth, trying to find arguments that might get some leverage with the new regime. There was already a sense of low level panic, that the government was not hearing the words of the those whose lives had been this struggle. Everyone knew that the Federal ALP had not had a policy on cultural diversity, or at least no promises or commitments, since 1999. The 2020 Summit is represented as a call to write the script for the next decade, yet scarcely anyone from the “lobby” had a seat at the table. By the day after the meeting the key propositions were being put into place – that there be a national Ministry for Culture, that there be a commitment to everyone having the opportunity to gain facility in two languages including English, that there should be a new Galbally-type review of cultural diversity in all its forms and implications, that there be a national population strategy, and there be a national statement by the prime minister on the importance of cultural diversity.

Later in Sydney I was also involved with a slightly different mode of address. A year of conversation over the necessity for some “think tank” organization to address the vacuum created by the systematic erosion of the research community on cultural diversity during the Howard years, led to the registration of the Institute for Cultural Diversity in late 2007. An incipient NGO, its core of six board members linked Indigenous, ethnic and Anglo Australians, refugee, Muslim, Jewish and Christian cultural histories, local, state and national government experience, in both political and administrative spheres, and joined with histories in the academy, business and civil society. The Institute was geared up to operate using the new social networking technology of Web 2.0. It too made submissions to the 2020 Summit, indeed to all ten panels, pointing out the importance of understanding Australian cultural diversity as the well-spring of its future wellbeing.

A detailed reading of the 2020 first report demonstrates that none of these issues were reported, let alone supported, in the key panels of governance, education, the arts and the economy. Education makes reference to the plea of a Muslim delegate to recognise the impact of racism on the development of a positive identity amongst young people of Muslim faith. And there is the plea from Nick Jose, once Australian cultural attaché in Beijing, that Australia present itself to the world as a culturally diverse nation. His intelligent comments sound suddenly hollow given the emptiness on these issues of the rest of the report. We know that these issues were raised, we know there were the submissions – was there a consensus to ignore them, or a sniffing of the political wind by the non-multicultural theme chairs that now was not the time for conversations about diversity, now was a time for unitary narratives of sameness and simplicity?

So what’s the problem?

A generation ago, when multiculturalism was a new policy model proposed by the former ALP Whitlam government’s Al Grassby but in effect implemented by the liberal Liberals of the Fraser government, there was an emerging debate about how Australian society might think about the migrant presence. These debates were affected by the wider arguments in the humanities and social sciences about the bases of social inequality, and the dynamics underlying social change. At the time I was an advocate of a fairly materialist model of inequality, in which migrant workers (especially of non-Anglo backgrounds and poor English skills) were imported as highly exploitable labour, and provided the majority of the secondary labour market. Once in Australia they discovered their education was under-rewarded, their qualifications often unrecognised, and their working conditions more dangerous and poorly protected. They were in general more vulnerable to fluctuations in the labour market; immigrant women were more likely to find only restricted employment opportunities, especially once globalisation shattered the protective tariff wall that had cocooned the profitability of the Australian clothing textile and footwear industries for generations. Those women later found only a pitiful income in the world of domestic outwork, the most archaic and exploitative cul-de-sac of contemporary capitalism.

This analysis suggests that problems emerge from relationships of unbalanced power. Migrant problems (those experienced by migrant workers and their families) are for the most part created by the structures of the societies they enter, though they are fed in part by the societies they leave. The migrant problem on the other hand refers to the multiple ways in which the wider society conceives of the migrant presence – in terms of the social order, the cultural values of the core community, and the economic arrangements established in earlier cycles of class conflict – and what it then does.

The previous national government had a particular sense of the migrant problem, though it was fairly unconcerned with responding to the problems of migrants. Australia has a long history of under-investment in education and infrastructure, and thereby a dependence on importing labour. Migrant labour serves on the one hand as a “store” of human capital whose value is created in the education and cultural systems of other countries and can be drawn on to complement the lower level of education produced in Australia; on the other hand it can serve as a source of less efficient “live labour” in lieu of the “dead” or stored labour of capital and technology. In a globalising world where the western capitalist countries experience an ageing population, there is growing competition for younger, high human capital workers. This is the highest level of the migrant problem – the attraction, recruitment and retention of this slice of the global human pool. The government has been particularly concerned to ensure broad social support for this process. It thus has had to address the direct consequences of the first level of immigrants – their settlement and family formation (remembering Australia’s falling birth rate and the key role that immigration plays in population growth). In part this concern has meant that less productive members of the immediate family will be permitted entry, as well as foreigners who have increased their human capital through personal purchasing of educational services in Australia.

However the migrant problem that was to become central in the public consciousness was that of “illegals”, whose threat had to be contained by an increasingly brutal, authoritarian and incarceral regime of deterrence, detection and detention. Publicity given to the three Ds was out of all relation to the size of the “threat” but was crucial in the government’s view, to the confidence the population would place in the primary immigration goals. The government put a regime of control in place, that was underpinned by the systematic depersonalisation of the detainees, and media manipulation to portray them as illicit and inhuman (truly therefore alien). If the borders were so well-protected, it was thought that agreement from the wider population or at least populist opinion leaders to support those who were brought in as immigrants would be easier to secure. It was in this context that the body hire license known as the 457 visa came into being, masked in its operation by the noise around illegals aka asylum seekers.

Meanwhile of course each of these initiatives increased the problems associated with being an immigrant, from the rising intensity of normalised racist discourses associated with counter-terrorism campaigns, to the reduction of access to government support, to the increasing numbers of mendicant transients relying on charity in a no man’s land of indeterminate status. While the new government has acted to eradicate some of the worst of the human rights violations embedded in the immigration control regime, it apparently does so using an even more remorseless rhetoric and a generally less flexible response to individual need.

We have a sense then of the systemic linking of policy elements, social processes and political debates. How then can we understand the new system emerging from the discourses of the ALP national government. While it is early days, and there is still confusion wreathed in rhetoric, the central dilemmas that underpin the migrant problem have been reframed. They all have roots in how the problem is conceptualised. Today the overarching concept is that of social capital, which has become a white noise screen of its own often hiding issues of class, race and power.

Social capital

Trust has become a central trope for contemporary modernity and its travails. Recently Ursula Stephens, the parliamentary secretary assisting Kevin Rudd on social inclusion, spoke of his government’s commitment to rebuilding the trust that had been lost between government and civil society in recent times. Trust as a central currency of contemporary thinking about the social world originates in the contributions of Robert Putnam, a north American social theorist. Putnam proposed that societies persist only in so far as they produce social capital. The material basis of this capital is trust, a commodity produced in the interaction between people. Trust may be given concrete form through associations, especially voluntary ones, which serve to create one or both major types of social capital – bonding and bridging. Bonding capital is produced when people of like-mind, origin, culture and interests form associations and restrict their interactions to within the group. Bonding social capital groups are like large stones which have to be aligned in some way to build more stable social structures. The process of alignment is called bridging capital. The glue within and between groups is formed by trust.

If we accept these concepts as metaphors, then they help to cast our attention towards the importance of both community and association, as the older style sociologists would describe them. If we are overwhelmed by bonding capital, then societies can fragment into inward looking cells that seal themselves into ghettoes, groups which face the outside world with hostility and fear, and are draconianlly authoritarian in their internal hierarchies. Without bridging capital, the social microworlds may protect their individual members but limit their opportunities to develop beyond the cell. Without bonding capital, individuals remain isolated and alienated, all their relationships mediated through the market, with no sense of belonging and location possible. Bridging capital is produced as people link between groups and have a range of interactions throughout the social world, belonging to various sorts of associative networks.

Debates about trust and social capital have become central domains of conflict in the wake of 9/1, Islamic militancy, the fallout from globalisation, and rapidity of international capital flows and population transformation. We can unpack them in the current Australian scene into four main areas of argument. These can be described as: cultural diversity and trust; socialisation, education and bridging capital; competitive institution building; and diversity and social justice.

Cultural Diversity and Trust

Cultural diversity can often be experienced as linguistic diversity. Living in a neighbourhood or locality that is more diverse has been correlated in various studies in the US and Australia with lower levels of interpersonal trust. That is, the more diverse a locality, the less trusting of others its residents are. Macquarie University’s Centre for Social Inclusion has tested out this idea in Ashfield, where Amanda Wise has been working to explore the impact of rapid diversification on the older residents. In this she follows on from Ghassan Hage’s exploration of whiteness in Australian suburbia, but does so by asking a new set of questions to do with policy opportunities. How do we, she wonders, deal with the feelings of isolation and resentment among residents of many generations – be they Anglo-Australian or Greek or Italian earlier wave immigrants – against the new immigrants from Asia and Africa? In her 2004 study “Contact Zones” she describes the process through which trust is dissolved and the isolation is generated. She shows how bonding capital disintegrates as the networks of family and friends dissipate, with the spaces filled by new groups with different languages, each of them forming their own bonds and shuffling their bodies into place. The streetscapes transform with new symbols and sounds rushing in. Yet the people of the locality would all welcome strategies that could build trust and understanding; these are not easily to be found in the structures and processes of government and commerce.

When faced with this situation we (well you do, anyway) tend to move in one of two directions – either we decry the old locals as being racist and unwilling to change (>>) , or we decry the whole process of diversification as too impossibly unmanageable and the incomers too clannish, and urge a more assimilationist approach (Blainey). Wise posits a more engaged intervention that listens to all the stakeholders, and focuses on the processes of bridging. That for her would be the place where the tendrils of trust could emerge. As she recognises, such a demand can be difficult to realise. Behind the social engineering language of social capital lurks another reality, that of social, economic, cultural and political power (StepOne).

Back in the 1920s Robert Park developed a typology of relations between new immigrants and established residents in the exploding metropolis of Chicago. There were many similarities then to the situation today. The world had been gripped by the success of the Soviet revolution, and non-English speaking immigrants were viewed with serious suspicion – as Marxists, anarchists and generally people who were opposed to the values of the established societies. Anarchist violence had after all been the trigger for the Great War, and Left revolutionary movements such as the Spartakusbund had arisen in post-war Germany and other parts of Europe preaching the overthrow of the old order. Australia had seen its own nervous uproar with the Brisbane Red Flag Riots in 1919, followed over the next decade by government inquiries attacking Mediterranean immigrants for their supposed failure to assimilate.

Park had become interested in race relations and had worked briefly as a journalist before joining the Sociology Department at the University of Chicago. It was during this period that he developed some foundational concepts, the most important of which is his four-stage model of immigrant settlement. He suggested that, over time, following initial contact, the incomers and the existing residents would enter a period of competition, through which an accommodation might be reached, and over longer time the assimilation of the newcomers would occur if accommodation failed – implicitly those who refused to assimilate would depart to somewhere else. Park was also to argue that in-group solidarity (now described as bonding capital) was closely correlated with hostility and anger directed at out groups. This suggestion, that bonding capital might emerge as a consequence both of hostility to and from other groups, points to the importance of understanding the power relationships that exist between groups, the resources they can and do mobilise in their own interests, and the role that government and established civil society institutions necessarily have to play in managing positive outcomes (those that facilitate bridging between groups – and thereby their interaction, and through this their accommodation).

Socialisation, Education and Bridging capital

Ever since the establishment of colonial settlements in Australia, education has been a focal point for the development of social networks. The two countervailing tendencies we have seen at work at the community level also operate in education. When Barry McGaw, the Rudd government’s chief advisor on education, made the problematic development of monoculture schools his first statement on policy challenges for the future, he was rehearsing an old debate but one made more dramatically pressing by the rapid expansion of faith-based schools over the past decade. In the early 1960s the first post-war national inquiry into the education of immigrant children celebrated the public education system as the locus for assimilation – about 1.5 million immigrants had arrived by then since 1946. The public schools, Inquiry chair Justice Dovey declared, were able to turn the children into true Australians, and only a limited proportion of parents remained recalcitrants, shepherding their daughters and sons into ethno-linguistic Saturday and after-school classes, and demanding they retain the parental culture. Dovey castigated this press for cultural retention, yet his report really marked a backward looking assessment.

Within five years rising demands from immigrant communities, in conjunction with an accelerating rate of return or movement on from disgruntled (and “unaccommodated” ) migrants, led the Commonwealth to re-brand its policy as “integration”, acknowledging thereby the need to foster accommodation between the desires of the newer settlers and the assumptions of the established order. Within another five years even that turn of phrase was washed away with the advent of the Whitlam ministry (Dovey’s son-in-law) , and the establishment of the “multicultural” era. In retrospect it is the rapidity of this change that is so significant, a wave of rethinking that affected not only ethno-cultural relations but also ideas about the position of women, sexuality and Indigenous rights.

The sphere of education was perhaps the most affected by these changes (outside the usually-quoted culinary transformation). The multicultural class-room emerged almost overnight with the state school system acting as a melting pot for the children of the first generation of newcomers, and the Catholic diocesan schools almost as diverse. Only in the private schools established for the middle class families of the Australia bourgeoisie was the old order more protected, with the occasional Jewish or Asian child amidst the overwhemingly Protestant or Catholic assemblies. That situation could not last, and it didn’t. With rising affluence the post-war immigrants had three sorts of choices for their children’s pathways into the ruling elites – they could buy them into the existing elite schools on the basis of a strong cultural commitment to education but less interest in cultural preservation; they could support them to focus on selective high schools for the academically excellent, again with a more assimilationist outcome in mind; or they could fashion their own schools to preserve culture and pass on values and practices in ethno-cultural enclaves.

All three of course took place, even though the majority of immigrant working-class children continued in the state or diocesan systems. The public school system had been envisaged back in the 1880s as an avenue for building bridging social capital, a place where (usually non-Catholic) children would find their feet and be propelled into adulthood equipped with an education and a capacity to work well across the many cultures that pervaded the school communities. A similar ethos pervaded the diocesan schools, which had always had a fairly culturally ecumenical if religiously unitary milieu.

Since the mid-1990s the expansion of ethno-cultural and ethno-religious schools has been accelerated by central government policy. It is a bizarre consequence of the anti-multicultural former government’s commitment to a Christian world-view and a genuflection to free-choice, that it has enhanced cultural diversity in education, not only in the rash of evangelical madrasas established by the born-again Christian churches, but also of course right across the Christian spectrum, and for Jews, Muslims and Hindus. It has driven the move towards monocultural schools. They now reflect all the characteristics of bonding social capital building, and except for those that are actively non-denominational, thereby have actively if unintentionally undermined the critical essence of nation-building in a society of diversity, that of bridging capital.

In the UK there has been a very direct recognition of this problem, and while the school system is somewhat different, the phenomenon of so-called “white flight” is not. “White-flight” refers to the emergence of schools in which most children come from newly arrived, poorer, or more socially excluded groups. They arise as a consequence of “White” families either leaving the area as incoming competition for housing tilts the community towards diversity, or placing their children in ethno-cultural schools from which the newcomers or marginalised are effectively excluded. The state schools become more challenging (and often creative and exciting) educational environments, but they do face greater difficulty in undertaking their wider social function of building bridges. In the ethno-cultural schools bonding culture is more prized in practice if not in theory, and is driven by fear or hostility to the outsiders from whom the parents think their children have escaped, and for a desire for social mobility that private schools are thought to provide.

Competitive institution building

There is a Chaser piece where the boys set up a stall on Mosman high street, an upper middle class Sydney harbourside suburb, advertising a plan accompanied by a model with minarets for a (fictitious) mosque to be built in the locality. They ask locals what they think – overwhelmingly the response is a mixture of shock and horror, and the suggestion that such things are more naturally placed “in the western suburbs”. Australia also has a long history of politically framed locations for cultural institutions. Given that the first 170 years or so after European settlement one of the more important fractures was that between Catholics and Protestants, competition for prime locations and heights of steeples was the stuff of daily life. One could read the religious power balances in a locality from the relative height of the steeple – in my street the Catholic church sits higher up the hill and has a higher steeple than the Anglicans, so its cross dominates the sunset skyline. In other places the reverse is true, and the tug-of-war continues – St Mary’s Cathedral getting its government-funded steeples only in the 1990s.

As Park would suggest, the key moments of accommodative challenge occur at exactly the point that the ethno-political institutions look for real-estate. In a city like Sydney where land is both scarce and sacred to the broad culture, the struggle over what land can be used for the purposes of which faith strike deep into the heart of the society, as they have since the Europeans first started relieving the Indigenous people of their homelands. Kevin Dunn of Western Sydney university has been charting these local tensions for the Muslim communities over the past decade or more. He argues that trust is also the central concern – the older communities voice their sense of distrust of the newcomers. This distrust combines a number of features – that the newcomers behave illicitly and do not follow legal practice, that they will behave anti-socially by congregating in large numbers and disturbing the tranquillity of the local lifestyle, and that their religious institution represents a beachhead for a larger invasion of the locality, and thereby the displacement of the existing community.

Localities of course do change as newcomers arrive – should these changes be ignored (contact), resisted (competition), accommodated, overwhelmed or abandoned by the existing residents? These are difficult questions to frame let alone answer, as they go to the heart of the social organisation of our lifeworlds. As localities change they become more embedded in a sense of the global changes of which Australia is a part, and they decentre taken-for-granted assumptions about centres and peripheries. Nowhere is this more apparent than in the whole question of Australian values and their expression in everyday life.

Diversity and social justice: moving beyond social inclusion

What does it mean then to be an Australian? Does it require particular lifestyles, and if so which are they? Is it just about being middleclass and consumerist in aspiration, family-oriented in disposition, and civil in social interactions? There is nothing particularly Australian about these, and many people who would feel they are Australian may be none of these things. While much has been made of John Howard’s problem with the “m” word (multiculturalism), it was actually “social justice” that he first had expunged from his political lexicon for his new Australia. The idea that civil society should be imbued with values of justice rather than just those of segmented opportunities, did not sit easily with him and his colleagues. Even multiculturalism scarcely survived the passing of Howard’s Greek-Australian Grand Vizier Arthur Sinodonis, whose shadow had barely departed the corridors of power when Kevin Andrews became Citizenship minister and threatened to stop the inflow of African refugees as they were incapable, he felt, of assimilation.

A new vocabulary has been rolled out by the new government, one which includes words like social inclusion. In a very powerful piece written in November 2006 in The Monthly Kevin Rudd explores what he describes as Howard’s “brutopia”. Rudd uses the language of social capital and its constitution as the defining dimension of social democracy, his own ideology, and points to how dependent the conservatives or rather the neo-liberals had become on attacking the “atavism of social justice” a term used by neo-liberal god-head Friedrich Hayek, in an address at Sydney University in 1976. He also indicates that talk of the culture wars is more than a diversion, it is a lie. For Rudd the simple good/bad dualities espoused by Howard are meaningless, and mask the struggle between self-obsessed fundamentalist neo-liberal market ideology, and the both self- and other-caring civilisation possible with social democracy. One of the dualities that Rudd dismisses is that between monoculture and multiculture. It is not clear what he has in mind as a synthesis or transformation.

The new Social Inclusion board has two members (out of twelve) (apart from Indigenous people) from recent non-Anglo backgrounds – if it reflected Australia the number should be three or four at least. The non-politician and non-Indigenous convenors of 2020 did not include non-Anglos in their number – each was chosen on merit, and no non-Anglos could be found with sufficient merit.

There is an unfortunate but well entrenched tradition in Australian public life – non-Anglos cannot be trusted not to play tribal politics. The ABC for instance has hardly ever had a non-Anglo Board member; SBS has never had a non-Anglo managing director; the High Court allows in Jews but not Asians or Arabs. The Howard inner Cabinet was systematically Anglo. Maybe we are seeing some changes. The Rudd cabinet has Wong and Plibersek and Albanese, these generation Xers who have grown up with diversity as an assumed parameter of social life. But then I am also reminded before I get too enthusiastic of the NSW government, the country’s first where the majority of the cabinet are immigrants or their children from non-Anglo backgrounds. It has one of the poorest records in the country in terms of human rights, responsive governance, and multiculturalism.

It is clichéd to speak of the country standing at a crossroad, with different pathways offering clearly differentiated futures. Yet the cliché contains some truth. We live in increasingly difficult times, the long boom tripping itself into whirlpools of difficulty. Yet we lack key information on which to base systematic policy. We know very little about the detail of our country’s diversity and how these difficulties are being experienced, perceived and processed. Our governments react to crises, and seem to ignore issues that do not grab the headlines – recall the bustle of do-something that followed Cronulla, and the inertia as the waves settled after the event.

The thought bubbles of happiness that surrounded the change of government last year have popped, leaving translucent stains on the body politic.


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