In a broad sense, ‘Australian multiculturalism’ describes the
cultural and ethnic diversity of Australia. More than 50 per cent of
Australians were born overseas or have at least one parent born overseas.
More specifically, ‘Australian multiculturalism,’ as a public
policy, attempts to manage the consequences of that diversity. It
acknowledges the right of all Australians first, to cultural identity –
the right within limits to express their cultural heritage in such areas
as religion and language; second, to social justice – the right to
equality of treatment and opportunity, regardless of race, language,
religion and gender; and finally, to economic efficiency – the need to
maintain and develop the diverse skills and talents of all Australians.
This is in contrast to assimilation, which assumes that newcomers will
abandon their cultural identity as soon as possible.
Australian multiculturalism also importantly insists that with the
rights of newcomers go certain obligations. First, there must be an
over-riding and unifying commitment to Australia and its future. Second
there must be acceptance by all of the basic principles and structures of
Australian society – the Constitution, Rule of Law, Parliamentary
democracy, freedom of speech and religion, English as the national
language and tolerance and equality. A superstructure of diversity can
only be built securely on a common and secure sub-structure. Furthermore,
diversity for its own sake is not sufficient. The test is what it
contributes to the common good.
Australian culture, society and institutions are dynamic – today's
Australian society is different from that of yesterday. It is good to look
back and value what we have inherited. Federation was a great national
achievement, but our founding fathers didn’t get it all right. They
entrenched racism in our constitution and White Australia was the first
legislation of the Federal Parliament. Australian society today is more
open and tolerant than the society in which I was brought up. There never
was a golden age for the Australian cultural identity. Nostalgia must be
tempered with realism. Our cultural identity is a work in progress.
The most meaningful job of my life was Head of the Department of
Immigration and Ethnic Affairs under Malcolm Fraser and Ian Macphee in the
early 1980s. I knew that I was part of nation-building. I also learned at
that time that it was possible to manage a humanitarian program for
100,000 Indo-Chinese refugees while at the same time protecting our
borders. Malcolm Fraser showed that humanitarianism and border protection
could be managed together. John Howard tells us that it can’t be done.
I contend that Australian multiculturalism is our greatest achievement,
but it has always been fraught with tension. Its challenge is to risk
present comfort for a better future for ourselves and others.
As Moses and the Israelites discovered, change is risky and it can be
painful. But if it is properly led and managed it can bring great
benefits. The key for us is to get the scale and timing of change right.
My own experience is that innovation and improvement do not come from
sameness and homogeneity. They come from difference, diversity, challenge
and competition. Over the years, I think Australia has got it about right
– but not in the past year.
Facts about Australian Multiculturalism
Of Australia’s 19 million population, 28 per cent were born overseas
and a further 25 per cent have at least one parent born overseas. Net
immigration is about 75,000 to 100,000 per annum, which will give
Australia a population of about 25 million by 2051. Nine per cent will be
of Asian background.
According to the Department of Immigration and Multicultural Affairs,
the top 10 countries of origin are the United Kingdom, New Zealand, Italy,
Vietnam, Greece, China, Germany, Philippines, Netherlands and India. Two
hundred foreign languages are spoken, with the leading five languages
other than English being Italian, Greek, Cantonese, Arabic and Vietnamese.
Each of these five languages is spoken by more than 100,000 people.
Two thirds of second-generation migrants marry outside their cultural
and ethnic backgrounds. Forty per cent of Australians are of mixed
cultural origins. These quite remarkable figures belie the concerns about
ethnic separateness down the generations.
This is an edited version of an address to the
Boston, Melbourne, Oxford Conversazioni on Culture and Society, Melbourne
on September 7/8 2002.