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In defense of multiculturalism

By Dilan Thampapillai - posted Tuesday, 22 February 2011

Multiculturalism is a term so broad that it can mean anything to anyone. To its opponents multiculturalism means unabashed cultural relativism, the erosion of Australian identity and the imposition of alien values on the Australian people. Of course, the opponents of multiculturalism never actually offer any evidence to support these assertions.

If one does look at multiculturalism in Australia a very different picture emerges. Australia is a secular country that has only one legal system and one official language. Multiculturalism in Australia is about letting people keep parts of their former culture provided that there is no conflict with the laws of the land.

The events of the past week have brought multiculturalism into the spotlight again. Personally, I am willing to give Scott Morrison the benefit of the doubt on the question of racism. But the politician from Cronulla is in dire need of an etiquette lesson. To make nasty remarks about the costs of flying grieving people to Sydney to attend their families funerals on the day of those funerals was reprehensible. To say nothing of the fact that one of the people that Morrison was referring to was a nine year old boy who was burying his parents.


The critics of multiculturalism have a lot to answer for. To begin with there is the question of intellectual honesty.

Very often the critics of multiculturalism use the most aberrant examples of behaviour from migrants to discredit multiculturalism. As Bob Carr noted, the types of migrants involved in planning terror attacks in Australia constitute ‘a telephone box minority.’ Similarly, focusing on the spectre of ethnic gangs to attack multiculturalism, without acknowledging the existence of non-migrant gangs, or the socio-economic reasons that explain youth violence, is dishonest.

Regardless, we do have an adequate legal framework to deal with any particular problems that might arise from within any migrant community. Any behaviour that goes beyond the boundaries of our law can be dealt with within our legal system.

The critics always seem to ignore positive examples of multiculturalism. They never mention successful people like Hazem El Masri, comedian Ahn Do, academic and commentator Waleed Aly, Tanveer Ahmed or the numerous doctors, lawyers, accountants and so on who are either migrants or the children of migrants. The true face of multiculturalism is that of all the honest, hard-working Australians from a wide variety backgrounds.

The critics have conflated Australian multiculturalism with that of Germany or Britain. Angela Merkel might say that multiculturalism in Germany has failed. But given Germany’s guest worker system and citizenship laws that were based on blood and ancestry, one might think that it’s not multiculturalism that has failed. Unlike Britain, Australia does not have large migrant communities that have no contact at all with mainstream society. Such people might exist here, but in the main most migrants are integrated in some way or another into Australian society.

The critics frequently bemoan the loss of Australian identity. But if their sense of identity is so weak that it can be imperiled by the appearance of a Chinese sign outside a shop in Chinatown or by the appearance of a woman in a burqa, then it is the critics who have the identity problem. In some recent letters to newspapers it even sounds as if the critics are angry at migrants for not personally becoming their friends. Surely, nobody could be that emotionally needy?


The worst aspect of the critics of multiculturalism is their desire to impose their way of life on others. Cory Bernardi, a critic of multiculturalism, has campaigned long and hard for the banning of the burqa. Never mind the fact that it offends no current Australian law, nor that when the law, outside of the bounds of public decency, begins to involve itself in dress codes, it will be significantly impinging upon personal liberty. It is meant to be freedom for all, not freedom unless you are different.

The critics of multiculturalism need to learn to leave other people alone. It does not harm my sense of identity that the family living next door eats halal meat, prays five times a day and do not drink alcohol. It does not worry me that on some occasions a few people on the train might speak to each other in Cantonese. None of these things harm my life as an individual or as an Australian.

As long as I can live and work freely in this country, interacting with people from a wide variety of backgrounds, then I am a contented Australian. My personal view is that much of the anxiety over multiculturalism and immigration reflects a deeper fear of globalization. But this is all pointless.

We live in a global world where we routinely meet people from different backgrounds and cultures. To be restrained by your fears and prejudices in this world is really to shut yourself off from the beauty of a cosmopolitan society. This is deeply ironic, given that some of those critics of multiculturalism, including the ones from Cronulla, like to mutter darkly about ‘ethnic enclaves.’

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About the Author

Dilan Thampapillai is a lecturer with the College of Law at the Australian National University. These are his personal views.

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