Harmony. Sounds nice doesn't it? Non-threatening, soft, cuddly and surely good for everybody. Now in its seventh year, last month's Harmony Day celebrations were double the size of last year, with over 2,000 schools, community organisations, businesses and local governments participating. As the Howard Government's most innovative (and publicised) multicultural policy, the Harmony Initiative has received very little criticism and tonnes of support, and not just in the form of orange ribbons, plastic wrap and sausage sizzles.
But is unity and harmony really the best approach to the issues of cultural diversity in Australia? Do we really have to behave like good friends? Is it not enough to simply be neighbours?
While we do need something that holds us together as a country, and this is a legitimate concern of those who fear multiculturalism as equivalent to balkanisation, how strong does this bond really need to be? There is a clear trade-off, the tighter we are held together the less room there is for difference.
The government's Harmony Initiative is one answer to the issue of unity and can be seen as a three stage process.
First, the parameters are set, a uniting set of Australian values. Second, everybody's difference is stressed. We all have a unique culture, we're all different. And third, and most interestingly, the onus of harmony is put on us, the individual and "different" Australians. It is up to us to perform acts of harmony with each other.
So far this may all sound very benign, we have festivals, learn about and value each others' differences and bond as a community. This may all be true but the issue is what happens to substantive differences in this harmonising process.
Where in this approach to societal diversity is the place for non-harmonious differences? By non-harmonious I don't have in mind Jemaah Islamiah members, but simply those who don't or can't get involved in the harmony game - those whose differences are not easily reduced into expressions of cooking and dancing.
Australian multiculturalism is no longer simply about migrant settlement and instead addresses itself to "all Australians". A look at the Harmony Day promotional material seems to indicate that being a nurse, a miner, or a boy scout are now relevant differences for a policy of multiculturalism.
While on the surface the Harmony Initiative may appear fair, reasonable and even progressive - and surely this has been its selling point - some critical reflection reveals a much darker potential. If we open up Australian multiculturalism to all types of differences and not just the classically "ethnic" ones, and then put the onus on those very differences to develop a strong harmony between themselves, then it's not hard to see that majority-type differences will ultimately win out. It is difficult to see how this apparent democratisation of difference can be anything other than both the reduction of difference and the skewing of this reduction towards the majority. A result which would show no real respect for difference.
This approach to difference doesn't seem to leave much room for the burka wearer or the reclusive monk. Where is the place for those whose values and beliefs differ radically from the norm but still remain firmly within the law, for those differences that may be seen by many as distasteful and for those who aren't particularly interested in opening up their cultures or learning about others? Harmony will be much less costly for those with similar and more "normal" differences.
Value and belief clashes will always struggle to exist in a policy of harmony. Fred Nile and the Mardi Gras provide a classic case. But contrary to many, I don't believe that either side (take your pick depending on your own particular values) should change their beliefs and practices and embrace each other, nor that society is somehow worse off with this sort of fundamental clash of belief.
I am certainly not arguing that there shouldn't be laws against many types of discrimination and vilification, but that the best answer to these sorts of problems may not lie in everyone openly learning about, respecting, and valuing each other's uniqueness. This approach has the potential to both erase differences and firmly favour entrenched cultures.
Some differences will never be acceptable in our society, and rightly so. But we should in no way limit the differences that can exist in our society by using a criteria of harmony. Such an approach, instead of celebrating our diversity has the real potential to stifle it, and may ultimately lead to a Monty Python-esque "we are all individuals!" version of multiculturalism.