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Cultural diversity - our social challenge

By Andrew Jakubowicz - posted Wednesday, 21 November 2007

There is something weird about John Howard’s "point final" in the history wars: the guidelines on teaching Australian history to students in years 9 and 10 launched on October 11 this year. In the election debate, Howard declaimed that this document would be his most holy bequest to the nation, and with that done, he could pass with satisfaction, at a time of his own choosing, into history.

Indeed his history is politically mainstream - Aboriginal people are noted and named in every epoch; sportspeople are named, politicians, businessmen, explorers and so on; it is gender-aware. Key events are listed as Milestones - a nicely archaic term in this decimal age. There are even, early on in the guidelines, some foreign sounding names – though they turn out to be not what they may at first seem. For example, Alfred Traeger: Australian-born inventor of the pedal radio transceiver, the grandson of German immigrants of the 1840s, banned from the Australian armed forces during the Great War. Vida Goldstein: feminist, daughter of an Irish Unitarian of distant Jewish connections. Helena Rubinstein: arrives from Cracow, Poland, in the 1880s, and learns English in Coleraine before opening  a salon in Melbourne, a precursor of her global cosmetics empire. And not to forget the only other non-Anglos I could spot, the momentarily famous Petrovs, described cryptically as "defectors".

I thought then about the three generations since 1945 - millions of them from non-Anglo backgrounds. Milestones include the post-war immigration program dated from that year, and the wonderfully self-serving partisan claim that 1966 marks the end of White Australia. We get the Vietnamese boat people in 1976 and SBS Television in 1980. Oddly not one non-Anglo name appears after 1945 - except our Petrov friends. I searched for anything that might suggest such people exist in the mainstream of Australia, nothing, nada, rien, nichts. Perhaps with Gerard Henderson and Geoffrey Blainey at the helm it was too much to hope.


Which brings me to the point of this reflection on what I’d like to see the election produce.  On November 25 Australia is still going to be culturally diverse. On November 26, even more so, and exponentially into the future. The proportion of people of non-Anglo origin goes up as you follow the demographic chain down from the baby boomers towards generation Y and Z and the newly-born.  A cursory glance at the major parties’ policies however might suggest all their policy people had already read and ingested the Prime Minister’s nostrums; even a detailed drilling-down doesn’t get us much further.

While multiculturalism may be off the agenda for Howard the cultural diversity of the society he seeks to govern will only deepen. Rudd seems to be happy using the M-word, at least to Melbourne’s Greeks but there is no evidence of a more strategic vision. So the challenge for Rudd, and for Howard (and for Peter Costello, or Malcolm Turnbull or Brendan Nelson or whoever else is the next Liberal leader) is how to ensure three things happen:

  1. everyone feels that they are part of the new Australian story, and aren’t being written out because they’re 'alien';
  2. the enormous potential locked up in the cultural depth and breadth of Australians is captured and released as a resource for the future; and
  3. potential immigrants who can contribute to Australia, see it as a place worth committing to in the future.

Let’s take them one by one.

Social inclusion is a new feel-good word – not just among academics who name their research groups thus; Julia Gillard also gets the sobriquet though we haven’t heard much from her about what it means for Labor’s "New Leadership". Social inclusion suggests that a nation can work with people who are culturally different by making sure that difference is recognised, valued and incorporated into the many practices of everyday life and government policies, and that the recognition is reciprocated by the incomers. Inclusion’s less favoured sibling, social cohesion, is a more messy problem, even though it’s also flavour of the month among some circles. Cohesion, sometimes a proxy word for assimilation, has been bothering Australian conservatives for some time (in fact at least since 1988 when it was the rubric in Howard’s oppositional attack on multiculturalism).

So how do we get this inclusion thing working? It’s a top to bottom task; where is the diversity in the institutions - cabinet, the ministry, the high court, the board of the ABC (even the board of SBS), the Australia Council, and the many places where symbolic representation of the nation occurs? Now that even the Prime Minister has recognised the importance of symbolism, let’s symbolise diversity. The public institutions that represent the society should be filled from public nominations - seeking to ensure a broad balance of gender, ethnicity, age and disability - even sexuality. The diversity of values should be real, within the envelope of democracy and tolerance. Penny Wong, the ALP’s public sector transition person, is well suited to the task of ensuring this diversity across any new Labor government and its dozens of advisory and executive bodies. The conservatives have a harder row to hoe. Last time around Immigration minister Kevin Andrews avoided appointing anyone with a non-Anglo name to the immigration and refugee tribunal. Perhaps next time around that could also be amended – maybe the odd African might appear as a representative of the people of Australia. Note here that the Coalition needs to get their act together on this; appointees that look like the Bradfield chapter of the Liberal Party tell their own story to the majority of young Australians who don’t look or think like that.


Having touched on the symbolic, let’s get down to the material. With over one quarter of Australians carrying recent familial links to other parts of the world, we need to see those connections as a resource, and invest in building it. The first cab off the rank has to be language. The education revolution should set as one of its goals that every young Australian has the opportunity to learn a language other than English (either a heritage language or another one of their choice), and has a guarantee that they can learn English to a level they need to participate fully in Australia. Bi- and multi-lingualism should be valued and rewarded, not just through public sector pay scales, but in the broad public culture. Our popular culture can be drawn into this process of growth, renewal and pride in both Australian and heritage cultures. The declining "diversity casting" noted by many commentators can be addressed by active engagement by Arts, Education and Communication ministries.  And while we’re at it, Australia should get on board the UNESCO agreement on the preservation of cultural heritage (and sign on to the convention on indigenous rights).

As Labor’s somewhat silenced Laurie Ferguson has pointed out, the unspoken issue in the whole cultural diversity arena remains, as it has been since the beginning of post-war immigration, the problem of poverty and social deprivation - or what once we might have called class. Public housing has collapsed as a sector, replaced by scantly provided “welfare” accommodation. The immiseration of the lowest quarter of the Australian class ladder has proceeded apace over the past ten years; it is crowded with the elderly, the very young, people with disabilities and chronic work injuries, and the struggling single parents. Many of these Australians come from culturally diverse backgrounds, and provide the “bad news” lying behind the celebration of the Australian dream.

Most of the services that respond to their needs are chronically under-resourced, trying to deal with the combined effects of economic transformation and de-industrialisation, structural racism, declining public education capacity, and increasing surveillance and policing of communities at risk. The current situation generates what we can call social exclusion - alienated, angry and anomic people, often self-destructive and psychologically fragmented, sometimes finding themselves in criminality, at times in severe mental and physical health crisis. There are signs of these crises everywhere - from the shock-jock excitation at the situation for children-at-risk, to the occasional blow-outs around race, drugs and alcohol – as at Cronulla.

We need a whole-of-government concern for these issues and their inter-connection, maybe a national commission for social justice (now that’s a term that’s been sent to the sin bin for the past decade). That $30 billion poured into tax-paying purses would have made a serious dent in some of these deep structural problems of inequality and poverty. Most people might be happier with safer streets and a more in-control population, than $30 a week - soon to be gobbled up in interest rates and rent rises.

Finally, the Haneef problem. Not Dr Haneef himself - that will slowly work its way through the courts - rather the message that Mr Andrews gave the world about what we do to dusky foreigners if they step out of line (or at least seem to). Haneef and the Somalis send a message to the market Australia has to attract - smart dusky foreigners looking for their next resting place in their whirlwind dance with globalisation. Australia is in a major bidding war with Europe, North America and half the Middle East (and of course New Zealand, the silent victor from our Tampa-led self-immolation) for those skilled middle-class professionals being turned out by the millions from the universities and colleges of India, China and other parts of Asia. Neither Mr Howard’s private technical colleges nor Mr Rudd’s skilling school training centres are going to deal with the serious human capital shortages already evident and likely to deepen rapidly as the baby boomers retire, leaving highly-paid and senior jobs, while demanding and increasingly needing major social service expansion - especially health-related services. This equation can only be made to work if large numbers of skilled immigrants are attracted to and retained in Australia. We need a major Immigration and Settlement Advisory Council with clout to create an international sense that Australia is seriously back in the business of being an economically progressive and socially aware society. We cannot allow racist clowns, wherever they are and whatever party badge they carry, to stuff up Australia’s future.

So my hope for after the election is for a government that sees that cultural diversity is the central social question for the next decade (and beyond) - maybe as important as the environmental disasters awaiting us all around. Oh, and history books that include the stories of all Australians.

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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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