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Australian cultural cohesion – historical concern!

By Patricia Jenkings - posted Thursday, 23 June 2011

Since the Second World War, the nature of Australian citizenship and harmonious settlement of new arrivals of non-English speaking background have consistently been on the political agenda. Yet fundamental issues have never really been resolved. Refugee/migrant issues are currently a major challenge and increasingly, a human rights and social justice nightmare. Certainly specialised settlement services have been set up to assist new arrivals. However, major problems are increasingly evident and need to be resolved in the name of human decency.

By the close of the 1940s, when displaced persons to Australia were having an impact on the Australian population, it was becoming apparent to that assimilation of non-British migrants posed difficulties not faced by British migrants. Federal authorities were aware that assimilation of migrants could not be achieved through official means only and so, in 1950 Australian Citizenship Conventions were launched, playing a key role in the assimilation process.

These Conventions were funded by the Federal Government through the Department of Immigration and were to have a two-fold function, firstly to present an 'operating face' and an organisation that would arouse and enlist the Australian community into appreciating the necessity of the immigration scheme and secondly, to educate all Australian to become better citizens and serve as a practical and educative arm in the transition of new arrivals into 'good' Australian citizens.


The Australian-born were to be conditioned to accept the new arrivals as part of the

`Australian family'. Citizenship ceremonies were highlighted at the Conventions to impress upon the nation the symbolic importance of Australian citizenship. Subsequently, the Conventions were the Federal Government's expression of both its largesse and conviction in promoting citizenship for all Australians. Australia's first Labor Minister for Immigration the Hon Arthur Calwell told Federal Parliament, the Conventions were designed to promote a nation-wide movement towards a deeper appreciation of the privileges and responsibilities of Australian citizenship.

The practical aspects of the forum provided an organisational structure under Federal auspices to inculcate regional and local organisations in the service of a national enterprise encapsulating what could be called a citizenship education campaign. Funding by the Commonwealth was considered at times excessive. However, the Conventions were high profile designed and had the support of Parliament, with few dissenting voices. The social functions, exhibitions and ceremonies with many invited guests from all over Australia were all calculated to be impressive. National radio broadcasting and filming of these important events further 'educated' the native born Australian community.

The first and all subsequent Conventions were held in Albert Hall, Canberra, Australia's capital, and more often in January to coincide with the celebration of Australia Day. The inaugural Convention was held between 23-27 January as it fitted in with the celebration and as the period marked the anniversary of the proclamation of the 1948 British Nationality and Australian Citizenship Act. The Department of Immigration officers felt that this timing would justify the aims and ideals of the Conventions being given special emphasis. The occasion was to be used to inspire in all Australians a sense of individual responsibility for maintaining the standards of citizenship worthy of a great democracy.

Migrant representation at the Conventions, however, was kept to a minimum and confined generally to cultural exhibitions. This was evident at the inaugural Convention (1950), where delegates attended the opening of an arts and crafts exhibition displaying works of new Australians from 15 different nationalities. Then Immigration Minister and later Prime Minister Harold Holt said, when opening the Arts Festival, that a truly Australian national culture has not yet been developed but it would be the better for European influences bought into it by the 'new Australians'.

Distinguished members of the community chaired and addressed the conventions including ABC Chairman Sir Richard Boyer, the Hon G.W. Brown and Mr Justice Dovey. Approximately 200 carefully selected delegates representing 100 national organisations usually attended these spectacles.


With an increase in the number of organisations applying to attend Conventions, an important outcome of the 1954 Convention was the setting up of a committee to review the nature of the Conventions and re-assess how it was decided who was to be included on the invitation list. By the 1957 Convention, however, only 13 per cent (31) of the 237 delegates present were non-British. Evidently, throughout the 1950s, Convention proceedings were directed by national leaders with only limited and superficial input from non-British migrants.

However, the Federal Government took whatever steps it considered necessary in the pursuit of new citizens and the importance the government placed on post war migrants adopting Australian citizenship.

With the close of the fifties, citizenship awards became a Convention highlight. An Italian born was recognised for his outstanding scholastic achievements and selected as a Rhodes Scholar. Although migrant voices at the Conventions were in a minority, they were gradually influencing the greater appreciation of their 'cultural baggage'.

Acceptance of bilingualism and integration was moving the education of citizens from the inflexibility of earlier years. Integration rather than assimilation was becoming the policy for settling on British migrants and with the reforming Whitlam Government (1970s) multiculturalism flourished.

We recently celebrated World Refugee Day to remind all of the contribution to Australian society by more than 750,000 refugees who have looked to call Australia their new home since we signed up to the United Nations Refugee Convention some 60 years ago. Nevertheless, as we now focus on cultural diversity and with the large numbers in immigration detention facilities for indefinite lengths of time, key areas of focus for future success would include taking positive official steps as well as listening more to the people in the development of government strategies and improving human rights for all. Periodic evaluation and policy renewal can provide change. However, how such evaluation and policy change is to practically occur has yet to be clearly agreed upon in the pursuit of a 'fair go' for all and building of a future robust democratic nation.

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About the Author

Patricia Jenkings is a former political advisor. She has a PhD from the University of Sydney in social policy studies and education.

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