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Multiculturalism: a simple defence

By Keith Kennelly - posted Monday, 30 January 2006

Amid the raging commentary surrounding the violence in Sydney, I have seen and heard many people espousing in fanciful and glowing terms, or rejecting in somewhat ungracious language, the benefits or ills of Australia's multiculturalism. There seems, depending upon the point of view being expressed, more than one definition of multiculturalism or, more precisely, emphasis upon only parts of what we could all reasonably accept as a definition of multiculturalism.

Before offering any opinion I thought it is reasonable to seek a definition from the source of the policy. The official Australian government policy currently defines multiculturalism in the following terms:

"Multicultural" is a term that describes the cultural and linguistic diversity of Australian society. Cultural and linguistic diversity was a feature of life for the first Australians, well before European settlement. It remains a feature of modern Australian life, and it continues to give us distinct social, cultural and business advantages.


The Australian Government's multicultural policy addresses the consequences of this diversity in the interests of the individual and society as a whole. It recognises, accepts, respects and celebrates our cultural diversity.

The freedom of all Australians to express and share their cultural values is dependent on their abiding by mutual civic obligations. All Australians are expected to have an overriding loyalty to Australia and its people, and to respect the basic structures and principles underwriting our democratic society. These are: the Constitution, parliamentary democracy, freedom of speech and religion, English as the national language, the rule of law, acceptance and equality.

In 1999 the current government formed the Council for Multicultural Australia to assist in the implementation of this policy. Little has changed since the policy's inception with the forming of the Australian Institute of Multicultural Affairs in 1977 by Malcolm Fraser. What has changed is our overall commitment to multiculturalism. As a nation we are more committed to and embrace multiculturalism more comfortably now than at any point in our history.

For the last 28 years our multicultural policy has been an outstanding success. It has allowed the settlement and acceptance of great diversity within Australia. It has assisted markedly in changing beliefs held by Australians which had in the past led to the White Australia Policy dominating our immigration policies for over 50 years. It has made us a much more open and welcoming people than we once were.

With the current imbroglio in NSW, many are questioning this policy. That is a mistake. The runs are on the board. Multiculturalism simply works. It has worked to the benefit of us all. It is not a victory for any ideological or sectional groups nor is it a defeat for traditionalists. It has been a maturing for all our people.

While those who tend to view things through economic eyes can no doubt point to economic benefits, I simply look at the others around me and see acceptance of the "other". I would assert that this has made our lives much richer than in mere economic terms. The major effect has been on all of us, both new and old Australians. It has changed the way we view our worlds, our places in it, and our views of ourselves.


While it has undoubtedly threatened us, most have courageously risen to the challenge. It has caused us all to evaluate and reinforce all those intrinsically good values we hold. It has also aided most of us to reject outdated and fanciful notions. It has made some of us egalitarian, some of us more egalitarian and all of us much more aware of our egalitarianism than ever before. It has made us evaluate and reinforce belief in the traditional democratic traditions. That has made us perhaps more stable and a damn sight more conservative than was our tradition.

One of the "hidden" benefits is how we look at our Indigenous people. This has changed for most of us over the last 30 years. I would assert that our evolving acceptance of the diversity of immigration has heightened our awareness and acceptance of Indigenous people and their diversity.

It is remarkable how there has been so little tension between the great diversity of communities within Australia over the last 30 years. We are a conservative people but we have always adapted to change - slowly - as do many of the migrants who make their home here. Our multiculturalism accepts this dual condition. That was the precursor to us acquiring a new tradition and the single greatest benefit of multiculturalism. It has led many Australians, both old and new, to leave their prejudices behind and to become tolerant. It is becoming a great Australian trait, a new tradition.

So why is it different in Sydney today? I am biased in my answer. I think we all are in some way. But I am cheeky and I have concluded the above definition suits my multiculturalism and reflects the multiculturalism of most, but not all, Australians. Multiculturalism has led many Australians, both old and new, to leave their prejudices behind and to become tolerant. That tolerance is becoming a great Australian trait, a new tradition.

I personally am very proud and jealous of my new found tradition. Sometimes I even think I have always been tolerant. It is akin to the adherence to faith by a convert. I’d simply add intolerance, any intolerance does not sit comfortably within our newly acquired tradition.

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About the Author

Keith Kennelly is a 53-year-old small business operator, resident in Brisbane who raised two childern as a single dad. His hobbies now include swiming, reading, sailing and Texas Hold 'Em poker.

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