Multiculturalism is often painted as the sole concern of hard-left ideologues, those “bleeding heart lefties” who infuriatingly refuse to take pride in their own (western) culture and seem ready to tolerate the most intolerant of attitudes in the name of cultural diversity.
This is the position taken by Londonistan author and Daily Mirror columnist, Melanie Phillips, who recently visited Australia, along with last year’s DFAT-funded visiting polemicist, Mark Steyn, and a range of conservative Australian commentators, from Andrew Bolt to Janet Albrechtsen (not much of a gamut, admittedly).
Even Mark Lopez, author of the seminal study of Australian multiculturalism, The Origins of Multiculturalism in Australian Politics, sees the concept as a “policy regime” beloved of western leftists, undoubtedly reflecting his very worthwhile academic investigation into the concept’s development in 1970s Australia.
What these views tend to overlook, however, is the deep, very personal investment in the idea of multiculturalism that exists within not only Australia’s immigrant community, but in the vast majority of young Australians from all backgrounds who have grown up in multicultural Australia.
When the Howard Government dumped the word “multicultural” from the title of the Immigration department earlier this year, many of these people, myself included, were deeply offended. And, as former deputy prime minister of Malaysia, Anwar Ibrahim, recently pointed out, the decision has caused similar offence among some of our nearest, and most strategically important, neighbours. “It has caused a lot of consternation in the region,” he said. “The perception remains that Australia has not changed considerably form the old racist white supremacy … policies.”
Australia has the highest proportion of overseas-born residents of any country other than Israel. While immigration is still dominated by the British and New Zealanders, their numbers are in decline, and will likely be taken over in the not-too-distant future by immigrants from Asia and the Middle East.
Almost a quarter of Australians were born overseas, and another fifth have at least one parent who came from somewhere else. We are, in fact, the world’s most successful multicultural society.
Australians, with their welcoming, no-nonsense tendency to find common ground rather than difference, have succeeded in creating one of the most harmonious societies on earth. This, in part, is surely due to our background as the world’s dumping ground for the undesirables of other cultures, which goes back to white Australia’s convict roots.
Far from being a cause of shame, as the notorious Sheik Hilali would have it, this characteristic has actually been the source of one of our greatest strengths: an unwillingness to sit in judgment on one another.
As long as you want to join in - bring a plate to the barbie, barrack for the local footy team, sit on the school’s parents’ committee, or just encourage your kids to play with their neighbours - we don’t give a damn where you come from, or what you prefer to eat.
So why don’t Australia’s current leaders take more pride in this remarkable, uniquely Australian, achievement?
Why are we importing arguments against multiculturalism from countries with real problems, such as Britain and France? These are countries in which the kind of multiculturalism that has always existed in Australia - one which has, since its inception, married cultural rights with civic responsibilities - has never taken hold. So why is the success of multicultural Australia being sullied by misinformation attacks based on the fears of countries that are, by all measures, less successful in this area than we are?
This is an edited extract of Emma Dawson's address to the Australian Fabians forum Multiculturalism - rumours of its demise are greatly exaggerated: taking on Howard’s bęte noire, held on March 7, 2007.