Reclaiming Australian Multiculturalism

(…) The successive national and state governments acknowledged multiculturalism as an official government policy; and provided a varying degree of leadership in advancing support for cultural and linguistic diversity. They have created architecture of policies and programs to support cultural diversity (although Australia did not legislate along the lines of the Canadian Multiculturalism Act 1985).

This gave us the third meaning of the word of multiculturalism as a set of government policies and programs. All three meanings of multiculturalism as demographic reality, as social compact and as architecture of government programs and policies. I will concentrate on the third aspect – so let start by briefly examining how the multicultural architecture developed over  time and then what needs to be done to ensure future success of Australian multiculturalism.


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Prof. Dr. Sev Ozdowski AM FAICD, Head of the Australian Multicultural Council
The genesis of contemporary multiculturalism dates back to Whitlam years (1972-75). Multiculturalism arose in the context of both political contest to secure electoral advantage and because of social justice concerns. The initial concept multiculturalism was brought by Al Grassby, then Minister for Immigration in Whitlam Labor government, from Canada. The first attempt to define multiculturalism was Grassby’s, rather confusing concept, of ‘the family of the nation’.
Key achievements of Whitlam government were to outlaw racial discrimination and to remove the discriminatory provisions from the migration legislation. Prime Minister Malcolm Fraser (1975-83) also linked his political success with the advancement of multicultural policies. In fact, under Fraser multiculturalism emerged for the first time as a well-articulated government endorsed policy supported by a range of government programs in support of it.

The 1977-78 Review of Migrant Programs and Services and the resulting 1978 Galbally Report defined the guiding principles of multiculturalism, identified a range of ethno-specific services that were established and some of them function till this day (e.g. Special Broadcasting Service (SBS), Migrant Resource Centres (MRC), the Adult Migrant Education Program (AMEP), English as a Second Language and other programs) and established a think tank called Australian Institute of Multicultural Affairs with Petro Georgiou at its helm. The establishment of ethno-specific services are the distinguishing feature of Fraser’s approach to multiculturalism. Fraser also pioneered in establishing of a range of advisory and consultative bodies to improve ethnic communities’ access to government. 

Prime Minister Hawke (1983-1993) initially perceived multiculturalism as electorally advantaging the Liberals and distrusted key players in the field.  As a result he started to dismantle the Fraser-established institutions and programs – Australian Institute of Multicultural Affairs was abolished and SBS’ existence was threatened. Following public protests, Hawke changed approach and tasked Dr James Jupp’s to undertake Review of Migrant and Multicultural Programs and Services and to deliver new policy approach.  Jupp’s report recommended moving away from ethno-specific delivery to provision of services, wherever possible, by mainstream providers. The resulting policy has evolved to today’s Multicultural Access and Equity Policy that is still in place. Key achievements of Hawke/Keating’s (1983-96) years included establishment of the Office of Multicultural Affairs in the Department of the Prime Minister and Cabinet and of the Bureau of Immigration, Multicultural and Population Research and of further advancing access of CALD community leaders to the government. Another milestone was adopted in 1989 national multicultural policy called ‘National Agenda for a Multicultural Australia. Sharing our future’. The Agenda put emphasis on the balance of rights and responsibilities and the need for migrants to accept the basic principles of Australian society.  Furthermore, the Labor government adopted National Language Policy which enhanced both teaching of non-English languages at schools and fine-tuned translating and interpreting services.

However, the high profile of multiculturalism under the Hawke/Keating lead to a populist backlash and subsequent need to clarify the underlying philosophy. John Howard (1996-2007) won power when strong anti-multiculturalism, anti-immigration and anti-Asian sentiments were rampant and had had electoral success. Howard initially was reluctant to criticise Hanson but, following the emergence of One Nation as political power, declared: ‘there is no place in the Australia we love for any semblance of racial or ethnic intolerance’. Howard’s initial approach was to establish the National Multicultural Advisory Council and launch A New Agenda for Multicultural Australia that advocated the idea of a ‘shared national identity’ grounded in concepts of ‘mateship’ and a ‘fair go’. Then he focussed on Citizenship, including introduction of citizenship test and expansion of dual-citizenship rights. The refocused multiculturalism often dealt more with practical solutions than symbolism (e.g. increased funding for AMEP and to support settlement of refugees coming out of Horn of Africa). September 11 (which caught Howard in New York) surprisingly delivered a new lease of life for multiculturalism. Multicultural Australia: United in Diversity statement was produced which shifted focus further towards unity and social cohesion. The National Action Plan to Build on Social Cohesion, Harmony and Security was put in place to implement the statement. Howard also widened access for community leaders to government and established the Muslim Communities Leaders’ Reference Group. During the election campaign in 2007 Labor promised to return to the Hawke’s multicultural policies and to re-establish OMA; but after the establishment of Rudd/Gillard (2007-2013) governments such promises were never realised. In fact during the Rudd period in government not much was done. The focus of attention (and resources) shifted toward the needs of refugees and away from the broader needs of other new arrivals and culturally diverse groups and the wider Australian community. 

The Gillard Government rediscovered multiculturalism. The then Minister for Immigration and Citizenship Chris Bowen announced a new multicultural policy during his well-publicised address to the Sydney Institute, on the topic ‘The Genius of Multiculturalism’. The new policy, titled ‘The People of Australia’, focused on equality and anti-discrimination. It also reaffirmed the well-established concepts of multiculturalism including the concept of rights and responsibilities; non-negotiable respect for Australian foundational values of democracy and the rule of law; reaffirmation of equality between men and women; and the concept of a shared identity on the common ground of mateship and a fair go.

The renamed Australian Multicultural Council was launched to advise the government on implementing the policy and advocate on multicultural issues. To sum up, Rudd/Gillard years characterised as a period of relative stability, but where some felt that multiculturalism has lost its momentum.

Similar relative stability characterises Abbott/Turnbull (2013-16) government years. Prime Minister Abbott reappointed the Australian Multicultural Council but its new mandate did not include the advocacy function. Its initial responsibilities reflected his government strengthened focus on social cohesion and productivity. Prime Minister Turnbull publicly spoke highly about multiculturalism on a number of occasions and the Council was asked to concentrate on violence against women of culturally and linguistically diverse backgrounds. The Prime Minister’s recent agreement to move a motion recommitting Parliament to equal respect, regardless of ethnicity or religion, sends a strong message to all Australians: there is no place for intolerance in Australia. It also sends a signal to leaders from the political, business, media and community sectors to engage with their constituents on these matters. However, a significant policy document on multiculturalism is yet to be produced and the use of consultation mechanisms is underutilised. Re-emergence of One Nation Party under Pauline Hanson in Australian politics constitutes additional challenge to Australian multiculturalism.

To sum up, multicultural policies and programs develop incrementally over the years. Although they developed in a political context, most of the time Australian multiculturalism has been seen as a bi-partisan undertaking with Labor more focussing on social justice and racial discrimination and the Coalition on social cohesion, fundamental values, citizenship and rights and responsibilities.

Address by Prof. Dr. Sev Ozdowski AM FAICD, Head of the Australian Multicultural Council, at Canberra Multicultural Forum (CMCF) Leaders Reception at Albert Hall on 8 September 2016