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Reflections on a multicultural nation

By Andrew Jakubowicz - posted Wednesday, 15 November 2006

Has multiculturalism had its day? Some people would say that multiculturalism no longer carries any policy impact. Andrew Robb worries that it is confusing. The federal government’s history summit doesn’t mention cultural diversity, let alone multiculturalism.

The 1960s term, “integration” has become the favoured term to refer to the relation between immigrants and the rest of Australia. The government’s cherished Australian values do not include inter-cultural competency. The Prime Minister praises Quadrant magazine and warns of the dangers of the “soft left”. Quadrant is that government-subsidised journal that has attacked multiculturalism almost since the term was first permitted to enter the Australian political lexicon.

We live in a world now where unease about the “other” has escalated dramatically.


“Others”, of course, have always had it hard. My family were Polish Jewish refugees who survived the Holocaust through a mixture of luck and rapid thinking, and made their way to Lithuania, then to Japan, Shanghai in China and, finally, to Australia.

Their window of opportunity slammed shut soon after, when an Australian government report concluded that Jews from Shanghai were prostitutes, drug runners, black-marketeers, and disease carriers. En route, they changed their identities to save their lives; their protectors acted in ways that belie the stereotypes we now have of them: a Japanese samurai spy, Soviet NKVD agents, Russian businessmen, and Chinese communists.

My childhood in Bondi was framed by the refugee and immigrant communities around me. But the cultural politics I first learned were those which existed between the Catholic kids at the church school down the street and the rest of us - or at least, the rest of the kids who chose one of the (to me) bizarre Christian sects for scripture classes.

I attended the Jewish class for a while, but its rigid discipline and disconnect from my sense of the world scared me off. My parents, who did not warm to religious ideologues of any religion, let me wander off to the Anglican class - there was no philosophy class for atheists, and Anglicanism of that time was like warm milk - which was all about a gentle and mild Jewish boy called Yeshua, Jesus in English.

I first became involved in the political and cultural struggles now described as multiculturalism back in the late 1960s, when my honours thesis in government examined inter-communal relations - Anglo-Australian, Greek and Aboriginal - in downtown Redfern, the heartland of inner-city transformation.

At that time the “M” word wasn’t around, though assimilation was already going out of fashion (except in the immigration department; I was put on some sort of black list, and department officials were warned not to listen to me speak).


As an activist around urban issues, I was very involved in coalitions of tenants and residents, looking for ways of joining up the dots and building community organisations that stretched across ethnic boundaries.

When the ALP came to national government in 1972, I was asked by Al Grassby to enter the lion’s den and join the immigration department’s migrant task force. It was the first time the animals had been asked to run the zoo or, at least, enter the manager’s office.

It was a transformative time. Racism was under attack; the Vietnam war was over as far as Australia was concerned (at least until the Indo-Chinese refugees arrived in their hundreds of thousands); and the burst of new nations in the region meant that the old colonial certainties were fast disappearing.

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This article was commissioned by Australian mosaic, the national magazine of FECCA and will be published in the next edition, issue 15.

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About the Author

Andrew Jakubowicz is a professor of sociology at the University of Technology Sydney. He blogs for the SBS program CQ:

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