Mike Steketee. Abbott faces the reality of multicultural Australia

While many conservatives continue to hold to the Howard line against multiculturalism, Tony Abbott is adjusting to the reality that Australia is a multicultural country, writes Mike Steketee.

“The Australian Government will be utterly unflinching towards anything that threatens our future as a free, fair and multicultural society; a beacon of hope and exemplar of unity-in-diversity.”

This is how Tony Abbott expressed his defence of Australian values before the United Nations Security Council this week.

Many, probably most, Australians will find his words commendable, if perhaps unremarkable. Yet not so long ago, he would never have put it that way.

His views on multiculturalism used to align with those of his conservative predecessor, John Howard, who hated the “m” word and avoided it at all costs. As he wrote in his autobiography, Lazarus Rising: “My view was that Australia should emphasise the common characteristics of the Australian identity. We should emphasise our unifying points rather than our areas of difference.”

His views translated into action, with his government’s abolition of the Office of Multicultural Affairs and the Bureau of Immigration, Multiculturalism and Population Research and with the substitution of “citizenship” for the “m” word in the Immigration Minister’s title.

Many conservatives continue to hold to the Howard line. According to Senator Cory Bernardi, “the naïve … proclaim multiculturalism as a triumph of tolerance when in fact it undermines the cultural values and cohesiveness that brings a nation together”.

Queensland National MP George Christensen this week supported a ban on burqas. In 2013, Scott Morrison, then shadow immigration minister, argued thatmulticulturalism “simply means too many things to too many different people and increasingly runs the risk of fuelling division and polarising the debate, which is the antitheses of what it is supposed to achieve”.

But Abbott no longer counts himself amongst the critics. Two weeks ago, he said: “I’ve shifted from being a critic to a supporter of multiculturalism, because it eventually dawned on me that migrants were coming to Australia not to change us but to join us.”

His conversion goes back some years. In Battlelines, the book published in 2009, not long before he became opposition leader, he wrote that he previously had underestimated “the gravitational pull of the Australian way of life”. The influx of people from a long list of countries who applied to become Australian citizens, “far from diluting ‘Australian-ness’ …. shows people’s enthusiasm to join our team”.

That would be Team Australia of recent invocation.

In 2012, as opposition leader, he explained an experience that helped changed his mind:

With (historian) Geoffrey Blainey, I used to worry that multiculturalism could leave us a nation of tribes. But I was wrong and I’ve changed my mind. The scales fell from my eyes when I discovered – while running Australians for Constitutional Monarchy, would you believe – that the strongest supporters of the Crown in our constitution included indigenous people and newcomers who had embraced it as part of embracing Australia.

The irony is that this conversion has come at a time when multiculturalism is under greater stress than at any time since its introduction by the Whitlam government. Each successive wave of immigrants to Australia has caused friction, stretching all the way from the Irish in the 19th century to the post-World War II surge of Italians, Greeks and other Europeans and the large numbers of Vietnamese who arrived in the wake of the Vietnam war.

Yet the cycle became a familiar and reassuring one, from initial resentment and discrimination towards new immigrants to acceptance and later celebration.

“Wogs” used to be a term of derision; now it is a badge of honour for many of Italian and Greek origin. Despite some initial tensions and problems with crime, the successful integration of Vietnamese into a nation that only recently had abandoned the White Australia policy was eloquent testament to a tolerant society.

Immigrants typically worked hard and soon spread out from the then poor inner suburbs as they became more affluent. Their sons and daughters started marrying outside their ethnic group and often became indistinguishable from other Australians.

In short, as Abbott came to realise, Australia changed migrant families more than they changed Australia.

The 2005 Cronulla riots, sparked by an attack on lifesavers by young men of Lebanese origin and fuelled by inflammatory comments by broadcaster Alan Jones, shattered the image of Australia as a model of racial harmony. Still, it could be rationalised as an isolated incident. Harder to dismiss is the emergence of home-grown jihadists who regard themselves as enemies of Australia – hardly a stellar example of unity in diversity.

Unlike previous immigrants, some from the Middle East, predominantly Lebanese with often low education levels admitted by the Fraser government in the wake of the Lebanese civil war, did not follow the traditional path of working, inter-marrying and generally spreading out into society. For some, unemployment, crime and racism contributed to alienation, particularly amongst the young.

In some senses, Abbott’s conversion may be more rhetorical than real. On coming to government, he shifted responsibility for multiculturalism from the immigration portfolio – something for which Morrison may be grateful – to Social Security, suggesting a narrowed focus.

That brings it under Kevin Andrews, a big “c” conservative who, as immigration minister in 2007, cut the intake of African refugees because he said they had more trouble integrating into Australian society.

Deriding their religion, criticising how they dress, let along branding them as terrorists, is seriously counter-productive.

The Australian Multicultural Council, an advisory body to the previous government, is in limbo, with all its nine positions listed as vacant, although a spokesperson for Andrews told me the Government is in the process of appointing new members.

The ministry of multicultural affairs under Labor has been downgraded to a parliamentary secretary’s position, filled by Senator Concetta Fierravanti-Wells, who, although a member of the hard right of the NSW Liberal Party, is preaching the success of multiculturalism.

As prime ministers need to do, Abbott is adjusting to the reality that Australia is a multicultural country. The Government frontbench includes members with strong ethnic connections – Treasurer Joe Hockey (Armenian-Palestinian), Finance Minister Mathias Cormann (Belgian), Government Senate leader Eric Abetz (German), suspended assistant treasurer Arthur Sinodinos (Greek) and Fierravanti-Wells (Italian).

Abbott is conscious that the ethnic vote can swing the result in federal seats, particularly in Sydney. He disappointed some of his strongest supporters with his decision to drop the so-called Bolt amendments to the Racial Discrimination Act after widespread opposition from ethnic groups.

In this area and particularly in the current context, rhetoric matters – all the more so when it comes from the nation’s leader. Abbott is setting the right tone, balancing his uncompromising language against would-be Australian terrorists with words of reassurance for the Muslim community and an appeal to other Australians not to overreact.

Given the rise of Islamic State and threats of beheadings in Australia, it is easy to lose perspective. The number of Muslims in Australia has risen rapidly – by 69 per cent between the 2001 and 2011 censuses. But they still number fewer than 500,000 and represent just 2.2 per cent of the population, fewer than the 2.5 per cent who are Buddhists.

The vast majority are as law abiding as any other Australians. They have alerted Australian authorities to planned terrorist attacks. Deriding their religion, criticising how they dress, let along branding them as terrorists, is seriously counter-productive.

Mike Steketee is a freelance journalist. He was formerly a columnist and national affairs editor for The Australian. View his full profile here

This article was first published by the ABC, The Drum, on 26 September 2014.

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