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Recommitting to multiculturalism

By Tom Calma - posted Wednesday, 22 August 2007

The federal government and all major political parties must recommit to multiculturalism.

In recent months we have seen the word “multiculturalism” dropped from the name of the relevant government department. We have seen the introduction of special requirements for people of Arabic descent seeking permanent residency.

Most recently, we have also seen the government introduce a citizenship test which has polarised views and caused concerns among some sectors of the community. The opponents challenge, rightly in my view, the appropriateness of subjecting citizenship candidates to a more strenuous testing regime, particularly as it disadvantages large sectors of the community. But how does all of this sit within the context and reality of Australia in the 21st century?


Most people acknowledge the multicultural reality of Australian society. As the Minister for Immigration and Citizenship, Kevin Andrews said at the recent annual congress of the Federated Ethnic Community Councils of Australia: “Australia is a multicultural society, full stop.”

But I think there should be no full stop here, rather a coma, from which flows an affirmation by government that there is a policy supporting this fact and that this policy ensures that basic human rights are respected.

Multiculturalism as a policy of community harmony has worked well in Australia for more than 20 years. It provides a guiding ethos for a dignified, equitable and just process of integration and is consistent with universal human rights principles.

Yet, in this my fourth year, as the Acting Race Discrimination Commissioner at the Human Rights and Equal Opportunity Commission (HREOC), it saddens me to say that over the last few years there has been an increasing ambivalence, and at times, antagonism towards multiculturalism: both as a set of principles and as a government policy framing social relations in Australia.

We saw this most graphically in the aftermath of the 2005 London attacks and the Cronulla riots in 2006, which some politicians and media commentators in these respective countries attributed to the policy of multiculturalism.

Many argued that the freedom to enjoy and practice one’s own culture and religion, the bedrock of a multicultural society, does not work when some cultures and religions are not compatible with the core values of that society. Moreover, some argued that this incompatibility between cultures and beliefs has led to an erosion of social stability and national cohesion which manifests itself in riots like those in Cronulla and unrest taking place in other countries throughout the world.


What these commentators fail to point out however, is that showing respect for each other’s culture, religion and race is a core universal value and fundamental to our democratic principles. Universal whether in Australia, London or Hanoi.

Instability is caused not through a diversity of cultures and religions coming together, but when our relationships are governed by racial prejudice and religious intolerance. These fractured relations are further fuelled when these attitudes are mixed with fear. Yet this fear has no relation to actual reality.

Australia is one of the most diverse nations on earth. Australians speak some 364 languages of which 170 are Indigenous languages. The interaction between our cultures is producing new, exciting ways of life and relationships.

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Australia’s Race Discrimination Commissioner, Tom Calma, released the Human Rights and Equal Opportunity Commission (HREOC’s) position paper on Multiculturalism on August 17, 2007.

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About the Author

Mr Tom Calma is the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Social Justice Commissioner and acting Race Discrimination Commissioner.

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