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Has multiculturalism become a dirty word?

By Eugenia Levine and Vanessa Stevens - posted Friday, 22 June 2007

Prime Minister John Howard has adopted an unabashedly vocal stance regarding his long-time preference for an assimilationist approach to migration and the settlement of ethnic minorities in Australia.

Perceiving an apparently urgent need to protect our obscure Australian values from outside invasion, the Howard Government has stressed the “desirability of more fully integrating newcomers into the mainstream of Australian society”.

John Howard appears to be celebrating the fact that “we've drawn back from being too obsessed with diversity” and that “Australians are now better able to appreciate the enduring values of the national character”. Suddenly, we are being encouraged to embrace the “one nation, one destiny” sentiment that we had at Federation. The same sentiment that gave rise to the infamous White Australia Policy we shamefully try to forget.


In the heyday of the White Australia Policy, our first Prime Minister, Mr John Barton, infamously warned against a horror day “when the European observer will look round to see the globe girdled with a continuous zone of black and yellow races … [who] will throng the English turf and the salons in Paris, and will be admitted to inter-marriage … in a world which we thought of as destined to belong to the Aryan races and to the Christian faith”.

Now we are being once again urged to adopt a dominant value system which, according to the Howard Government, includes “Judeo-Christian ethics and the values of British political culture”.

What lurkes poorly hidden beneath this nationalistic rhetoric is an unmistakable push towards the adoption of essentially White, mainstream and politically safe values in the name of patriotic Australianism.

With our not so distant past of racist and discriminatory policies in mind, shouldn’t we be questioning the potentially dangerous and socially destructive consequences of the proposed cultural assimilation approach? Before embarking on such a path towards attempted social cohension, ought not we to look at the experiences of other governments which shunned multiculturalism in favour of an assimilisationist ideal?

Let us for instance consider France - the age-old proponent of nationalism. France has implemented policies, which ring reminiscent of John Howard’s fervent integration rhetoric. French policies have focused on unification under the banner of common “French values”. The French Government seems to have ignored cultural and ethnic distinctions, expecting migrants to adhere to dominant ways of being “French” in order to participate in and be accepted into mainstream society.

Dominant values. Mainstream society. The same phrases used by John Howard in his speeches.


But the reality for French society has been quite different to the hoped-for ideal of peaceful integration. Instead of creating a cohesive social fabric, the French approach has led to increased separation of minority groups, heightening strained ethnic relations and social isolation, and culminating in an outcry of violence during the riots of 2005.

If anything, these riots painfully highlighted the limits of the assimilation model. As Harvard University Associate Professor of Public Policy, Professor Culpepper, commented on the riots, many people from ethnic minority groups do not feel “French” because “they basically live an existence quite apart from what most French people live, and they experience systematic discrimination … That is what’s driving this rage, this feeling that they are a society apart.”

Perhaps they live separately due to the fact French society does not accept cultural difference as a valuable kind of difference, alienating ethnic minorities to the margins of society under the guise of mono-culturalism and national unity. In France, “multiculturalism” has become a dirty word. A sense of rejection, alienation and riots followed.

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About the Authors

Eugenia Levine (BA/LLB(Hons)) is a solicitor at a Melbourne firm and a legal volunteer with the Asylum Seeker Resource Centre. Her work includes refugee law and human rights.

Vanessa Stevens (BA/LLB(Hons)) is a Melbourne-based lawyer, who works both in private practice and in pro bono law aimed at improving community and individual access to social justice.

Creative Commons LicenseThis work is licensed under a Creative Commons License.

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