The genius of Australian multiculturalism
Thursday, 17 February 2011
Address to the Sydney Institute
Less than a month ago, millions of Australians celebrated our national day. Among the most enthusiastic participants were our newest Australian citizens. Thirteen thousand people – from every corner of the globe – passionately and enthusiastically took the pledge of commitment to this nation.
Over the years, as a local councillor, mayor, backbench MP and now Minister for Immigration and Citizenship, I've attended more citizenship ceremonies than I dare count. Over the years, they have served as a reminder of what I term 'the genius of Australian multiculturalism'.
I've seen people, proudly wearing the national dress of their homeland, clasping an Australian flag with all their might, welling up with tears as they promise to uphold and obey Australian values and laws.
It is this genius of Australian multiculturalism that I want to speak to you about tonight.
It is appears to be fashionable around the world at the moment to declare multiculturalism dead or to blame it for crime and terrorism. Germany's Chancellor Angela Merkel recently declared that multiculturalism in her country had 'utterly failed. This was in response to a book written by a member of the Bundesbank entitled Germany Abolishes Itself.
British Prime Minister David Cameron's remarks have also received plenty of attention in Australia and abroad.
Around the world, particularly since September 11 2001, the question has been asked: does multiculturalism strengthen a society or weaken it? Australia, of course, has not been immune to these discussions.
The Australian experience
My argument tonight is that multiculturalism has, without a doubt, strengthened Australian society. But it is a unique, Australian multiculturalism, built differently to other models around the world.
Australia and Canada are generally seen as the world's pioneers of multicultural policy. And we are. But there are some key differences to our approaches. There are even more differences between our approach and that of the European nations currently struggling with these issues, which makes the debates in Germany or the United Kingdom of limited value for a consideration of our situation.
To some, multiculturalism is simply a diverse population, and a non-discriminatory immigration policy. These are the foundations of Australian multiculturalism, but it consists of much more.
There are, I think three elements which make up the genius of Australian multiculturalism.
Respect for Australian values
Firstly, our multiculturalism is underpinned by respect for traditional Australian values.
Those who arrive in Australia are invited to continue to celebrate their cultures and traditions, not only within a broader culture of freedom but, more importantly, with respect.
However, if there is any inconsistency between these cultural values and the values of individual freedom and the rule of law, then these traditional Australian values win out. They must. This has been the case since multiculturalism was introduced as Australian policy in the 1970s.
One of my Labor predecessors as Immigration Minister, Al Grassby, put it well in his description of 'the family of the nation':
'In a family the overall attachment to the common good need not impose a sameness on the outlook or activity of each member, nor need these members deny their individuality and distinctiveness in order to seek a superficial and unnatural conformity. The important thing is that all are committed to the good of all.'
But perhaps Paul Keating put it most eloquently when he said multiculturalism imposes responsibilities. He said:
'These are that the first loyalty of all Australians must be to Australia, that they must accept the basic principles of Australian society. These include the Constitution and the rule of law, parliamentary democracy, freedom of speech and religion, English as a national language, equality of the sexes and tolerance.'
With the unity of the Australian society, this has been easier than, say, in that other country which pioneered official multiculturalism, Canada. The national consensus on our values and the geographic integrity of our nation has meant that the fundamental underpinning of Australian values has been clearer than in Canada, where debates about language and the ongoing make-up of the nation continue. English is the national language here, its use in our public and private institutions is to be respected, and the learning of English is to be encouraged.
A citizenship-centred multiculturalism
Related to this is the second element of the genius of Australian multiculturalism.
Ours is a citizenship-based multiculturalism. To enjoy the full benefits of Australian society, it is necessary to take a pledge of commitment as a citizen.
This requires new citizens to pledge:
'loyalty to Australia and its people … whose democratic beliefs I share … whose rights and liberties I respect … and whose laws I will uphold and obey.'
In my view, this is the most beautiful citizenship pledge in the world. Other countries tend to have quite mechanical pledges, whereby new citizens promise fealty to a monarch or president and to simply abide by the laws.
Australia's pledge symbolises more than that. It recognises that, although we recognise the economic benefits of skilled migration in particular, we are not a guest worker society. Rather, people who share respect for our democratic beliefs, laws and rights are welcome to join us as full partners with equal rights.
Perhaps this explains some of the emotion I've seen over the last 15 years as new citizens have taken their pledge, and also why Australia has one of the highest take-up rates of citizenship in the OECD1.
International examples – from some countries in Europe, for instance – show that, where people arrive from overseas as guest workers with little encouragement to take out citizenship, they have little incentive to come full, contributing members of that society. This can lead to a complex and entrenched social cohesion dilemma.
The third element of the genius of Australian multiculturalism is its political bipartisanship, particularly at its creation. The first Australian politician to publicly refer to multiculturalism as an aspiration was Al Grassby, Immigration Minister in the Whitlam Government. But it was Malcolm Fraser as Prime Minister who institutionalised multiculturalism as national policy. To look over Malcolm Fraser's 1977 speech to the Institute for Multiculturalism, for example, is to be struck not only by its eloquence but also by its vision.
So multiculturalism cannot be claimed as the exclusive child of either of Australia's two main political parties. This means that, ideally, it remains above the fray of the daily political football match, and leaders on both sides of the aisle can sing the praises of Australia's multicultural heritage and its importance for our future. I'm not sure if this will continue, but I hope it does.
I believe these three elements have not only made our multiculturalism the best in the world, they have unquestionably strengthened Australian society.
So, whereas some other countries may have had less than positive experiences, the Australian model of multiculturalism is different.
I mentioned before the recent debates in Germany, for example. Australian multiculturalism is very different to the German experience. Frankly, there are few positive lessons to be learnt from Germany's approach to these issues.
Germany has, for some time, had one of the highest immigration rates in Europe. But it has not regarded itself as a multicultural nation. Indeed, it has hardly regarded itself as a nation of immigration.
When Angela Merkel says multiculturalism has failed, she cannot be referring to the national policy of respecting the cultures of immigrant societies while requiring respect for traditional German values of the rule of law and democracy.
She cannot be referring to multiculturalism as we know it because Germany has never had a policy of multiculturalism. In fact, a close reading of Angela Merkel's comments can be taken as an argument to move towards an Australian version of multiculturalism.
Germany has regarded immigration as an economic necessity. A requirement for guest workers has driven an economic immigration policy. Never has a German Government proposed a policy of respect for existing cultures where they do not clash with basic German values.
While Australia's post-war immigration policy was originally driven by economic imperatives, Australian governments eventually came to recognise the societal benefits of inviting full community participation by our immigrant populations in return for a respect for, and embracing of, the cultures and customs that have been transported here by immigration.
One could argue that the large Turkish guest worker populations have not properly integrated into German society because, frankly, they have not been invited to.
Similar arguments can be learnt from France. France has been bedevilled by ethnic tensions from time to time. In 2005, it faced the spectre of widespread race riots. As Waleed Aly has pointed out, France's resistance to a formal policy of multiculturalism has not encouraged greater integration of immigrant societies but, on the contrary, it has bred resentment, separatism and violence.
Many countries in Europe have nations within nations: significant communities living 'parallel lives'. Generation after generation has perpetuated a segregation from the mainstream – based on ethnic, religious or cultural divides.
This seems to underline the benefits of the Australian approach.
Similarly, when David Cameron really said he supports a 'muscular liberalism', he was – I argue – also advocating a more Australian version of multiculturalism.
Consider this remark by the British Prime Minister in his recent speech:
'I believe a genuinely liberal country … believes in certain values and actively supports them. Freedom of speech, freedom of worship, democracy, the rule of law, equal rights regardless of race, sex or sexuality. It says to its citizens, this is what defines us a society: to belong here is to believe in these things.'
His remarks are unexceptional in the Australian context. In fact, it reminds us of the quote I shared with you a few moments ago, from Paul Keating.
Australian governments do not defend cultural practices and ideas that are inconsistent with our values and ideals of democracy, justice, equality and tolerance. Nor should we be expected to.
In embracing these values, we have tried to instil a sense of belonging in Australia while encouraging the participation of all people.
As a nation, we pride ourselves on the way we have invested in the decent and fair treatment of new arrivals to our shore, to help them find their feet. Australia's settlement services are world-leading.
If values are not articulated, not put into practice, if people do not feel part of society, this can lead to alienation and, ultimately, social disunity.
Benefits of multiculturalism
In my view, the diversity of the Australian population has been unquestionably of benefit to us. It brings us economic benefits and cultural benefits.
Of our 22 million people, around 44 per cent were either born overseas or have one or both parents born overseas.
As the Australian Multicultural Advisory Council has said, it brings 'innovation, ideas, skills, energy and achievement and makes us richer in all kinds of ways.' Our migration program has increased our population and enabled Australia to draw from a broad array of skills and knowledge, and enjoy a higher standard of living than we would otherwise have had.
A 2008 study by Access Economics estimated that migrants who entered through the 2006-07 migration program would benefit the Commonwealth Budget and broader economy by $707 million in their first year, growing steadily to $1.4 billion by their 20th year in Australia.2
When I was Minister for Financial Services, I had the privilege of promoting Australia as financial services hub. I found one of the best selling points in New York, London and Asian centres is our high proficiency in Asian languages. Telling financial houses in London, for example, that they could base their Asian operations in Sydney and have access to any number of Mandarin speakers was of unquestionable assistance.
The diversity of our population has meant we better understand the world and better understand our region. This has meant, in turn, a heightened respect in our region.
An invitation to inclusion
It seems to me, if you accept the benefits of a diverse population, you then have a choice: do you respect, embrace and welcome the cultures of those you have invited to make Australia home; or do you shun them?
Do you seek to invite full participation in Australian society of those who come here, or do you treat them as guest workers and hope they integrate – while all along suspecting they won't?
Multiculturalism is about inviting every individual member of society to be everything they can be, and supporting each new arrival in overcoming whatever obstacles they face as they adjust to a new country and society and allowing them to flourish as individuals. It is a matter of liberalism.
A truly robust liberal society is a multicultural society.
To me, multiculturalism is a bit like a marriage. It has its stresses and strains. It has its misunderstandings and miscommunications. We have to remind each other occasionally that we are better off with each other. It takes nurturing; it takes care.
It is in that spirit tonight that I quite proudly proclaim that Australian multiculturalism has worked. That not only has Australia benefited from the immigration of those who come from diverse backgrounds, but we have also benefited from the cultures they have brought and sustained in this, their new homeland.
We now live in a nation shaped by migration: one with broader horizons, open and tolerant. A nation that is more confident, more vibrant and more diverse. We recognise and celebrate different cultural heritages but insist that our future is common, is shared.
This is the genius of Australia's multiculturalism.
Challenges for the future
During our multicultural journey, every wave of migrants has had its challenges.
When I was growing up it was concern over Asian migrants. Each generation expresses some anxiety about the new, the unfamiliar.
'Sure, the last mob turned out okay,' they say, 'but this wave is different. Will this wave be good for us?'
In the age of concern about terrorism inspired by extremist Islam, it is perhaps inevitable that questions get asked about Muslim migration to Australia. This is despite only 1.71 per cent of the Australian population identifying themselves as Muslim3.
It is important that we are very clear here. Just like previous groups of migrants, the vast majority of the current group of migrants to Australia come here not to change our values, but because of them.
The wave of Bosnian migrants in the 1990s was fleeing religious persecution and intolerance. They came here not to force their beliefs on others, but simply to live in a country which embraced freedom and allowed people to practise their religions in peace.
Similarly, many Hazara refugees come to Australia because they are driven out of their homeland by religious extremists who see them as not pious enough.
Of course, if anyone who comes here – or indeed if anyone born here – promotes values such as Sharia Law or religious intolerance or violence, they do not do so in the name of multiculturalism.
Bearing that in mind, it is right for Australians to be concerned about extremism – whether Islamic or otherwise. Whatever the motivation or background, intolerant interpretations of religion do not align with Australia's values, principles or laws.
And, as such, it is the role of government to ensure policies and programs are put in place to deal with and counter such extremism.
To cast all Islamic migrants or all members of any religious group as somehow unworthy of their place in our national community, however, tars the many with the extremist views of the very few and does an injustice to all.
It's counter-intuitive to assume that the majority of migrants want to change Australia. Allegations of migrants wanting to come to Australia to convert the populace and turn it into a replica of their homelands ignore the truth: people come to Australia because, to them, Australia represents something better.
They bring their own unique stories and backgrounds to add to the mosaic of Australia's multicultural society, but they come to live in accordance with the laws, values and institutions that have made Australia so attractive to them in the first place.
They come because of what Australia is, not to change it into what they left behind.
For those fleeing persecution, terror and hatred, they come to Australia in search of peace, justice and harmony. For many others, they come in the hope of creating, in this new land, a new life for themselves and their loved ones – for prosperity and in the knowledge that, in Australia, their children will not be discriminated against for their colour or creed.
For these men and women, the last thing they want is Australia to change, to become less free, to become less democratic, to become less equal.
If Australia is to be free and equal, then it will be multicultural. But, if it is to be multicultural, Australia must remain free and equal.
'The People of Australia'
Last year, under the leadership of Andrew Demetriou, The Australian Multicultural Advisory Council presented the statement, The People of Australia, to Government to provide us with an opportunity to express our support for Australian multiculturalism.
It is in that vein that tonight I can release the Government's response to the AMAC Report and, in doing so, announce the Government's new multiculturalism strategy.
The Government accepts, in whole or in principle, each of AMAC's recommendations.
The Government will introduce a new independent advisory body, the Australian Multicultural Council, with broader terms of reference, to succeed the current Advisory Council.
The new body will act as a champion for multiculturalism in the community, will advise the Government on multicultural affairs and will help ensure Australian Government services respond to the needs of migrant and refugee communities.
We will also establish a National Anti-Racism Partnership and Strategy to design and deliver an anti-racism strategy.
While much good work has been done in Australia over many decades, we must continue to work to eliminate all forms of racial discrimination. This strategy will bring together existing expertise on anti-racism and multicultural matters from government departments, the Australian Human Rights Commission and the Australian Multicultural Advisory Council.
Given the breadth of effort and the need for an increased focus that this new multicultural policy will require, I can also announce tonight that the Prime Minister has agreed to rename the position held by Senator Kate Lundy to better reflect the focus of her duties.
Once she is able to pay a visit to Her Excellency the Governor-General, Kate will be known as the Parliamentary Secretary for Immigration and Multicultural Affairs.
I'd like to acknowledge Kate's work in the development of this policy and the work she has done with the sector and broader community since taking on her role.
AMAC makes the point that 'the multicultural character of Australia is central to the Australian story. Governments should tell this story.'
We agree and we will continue to do so.
I'm not afraid to use the word 'multiculturalism'; I'm proud of what it means to Australian life.
One of the reasons I feel strongly about the genius of Australian multiculturalism is that I have lived it all my life. I grew up in Fairfield in Western Sydney, one of Australia's most multicultural communities. I now proudly represent that community in our nation's Parliament and my wife and I are raising our two children there.
When I went to St Johns Park High School – one of the state's largest – the student body was drawn from over 100 nationalities; the teaching staff came from over 50 nationalities.
When I was at school, I didn't sit around with my mates from Vietnam, Iraq, Bosnia and Croatia and talk about the genius of Australian multiculturalism. We had much more pressing teenage matters to occupy us.
Rather than philosophising about multiculturalism, we lived it. Just as millions of young Australians throughout our nation live it today.
Different cultures are accepted. Values are recognised. Traditions and beliefs are practised. Foreign languages substitute for English when the right word just can't be found. Freedom and tolerance are embraced.
Some of the boys I went to school with came from countries that were at war with each other in the 1990s. They lived and worked together in Fairfield, with the occasional spirited verbal exchange, but in almost all instances, peacefully. All in all, the tolerance, which is part of the Australian multicultural heritage, wins through.
Australia's diverse immigration program has been to the benefit of both migrants and ourselves. It is an indelible and irrevocable part of who we are, and without it we would all be the poorer.
The genius of Australia's multiculturalism is something we should recognise, embrace and proclaim.
1This information comes from the DIAC report Citizenship in Australia, produced as part of the Department's contribution to the OECD conference on the 'Naturalisation and the Socio-Economic Integration of Immigrants and their Children'.
2Access Economics for DIAC, Migrants Fiscal Impact Model: 2008 Update, 2008
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Last update: Thursday, 17 February 2011 at 11:03 AEST