Australian multiculturalism: Our greatest achievement?

Aug 15, 2023
Melbourne Australia - December 3, 2018: Unidentified people cross street in downtown Melbourne Australia.

In a broad sense ‘Australian multiculturalism’ describes the cultural and ethnic diversity of Australia. Over a half of Australians were born overseas or have at least one parent born overseas. I contend that Australian multiculturalism is our greatest achievement, but it has always been fraught with tension. The challenge of immigration and multiculturalism has been and remains, do we stay comfortably as we are or do we risk something for a better future for ourselves and others?

The  following is the text of a speech made at the The Boston, Conversazioni on Culture and Society, Melbourne, 7/8 September 2002.

Australian multiculturalism

In a broad sense ‘Australian multiculturalism’ describes the cultural and ethnic diversity of Australia. Over a half of Australians were born overseas or have at least one parent born overseas.

More specifically, ‘Australian multiculturalism’ as a public policy enunciated by governments attempts to manage the consequences of that diversity. It acknowledges the right of all Australians ‘first, to cultural identity; the right within limits to express their cultural heritage in such areas as religion and language; secondly, to social justice, the right to equality of treatment and opportunity, regardless of race, language, religion and gender; and finally, to economic efficiency, the need to maintain and develop the diverse skills and talents of all Australians.’

For me, assimilation assumes that newcomers will abandon their cultural identity as soon as possible. I believe this is contrary to their own and the national interest. Newcomers lose self-esteem if their own culture is not acknowledged or regarded as of little value. They will join their new country with confidence and make a greater contribution if their unique cultural identity is valued. That is what the policy and the programs of multiculturalism seek to ensure.

Australian multiculturalism also importantly insists that with the rights of newcomers, go certain obligations. ‘First, there must be an over-riding and unifying commitment to Australia and its future. Secondly, there must be acceptance by all of the basic principles and structures of Australian society – the Constitution, Rule of Law, Parliamentary democracy, freedom of speech and religion, English as the national language and tolerance and equality.’ A superstructure of diversity can only be securely built on a common and secure sub-structure. Furthermore, diversity for its own sake is not sufficient. The test is what it contributes to the common good.

Australian culture, society and institutions are dynamic. The new changes to accommodate to the old; newcomers change in adjusting to their new situation. The old also changes to accommodate the new; Australian society of today is different to that of yesterday. It is a two-way process, each adjusting to the other. It is good to look back and value what we have inherited. Federation was a great national achievement, but our founding fathers didn’t get it all right. They entrenched racism in our constitution and White Australia was the first legislation of the Federal Parliament. Australian society today is more open and tolerant than the society in which I was brought up in country South Australia. There never was a golden age for the Australian cultural identity. Nostalgic looks backwards need to be tempered with realism. Our cultural identity is work in progress.

The most meaningful job of my life was as Head of the Department of Immigration and Ethnic Affairs under Malcolm Fraser and Ian Macphee in the early 1980s. I knew that I was part of nation-building. I also learned at that time that it is possible to manage a humanitarian program for 100,000 Indo-Chinese refugees who came to Australia, whilst at the same time protecting our borders. Lyndon Johnson said that Gerald Ford couldn’t scratch himself and chew gum at the same time. Malcolm Fraser showed that humanitarianism and border protection could be managed together. John Howard tells us that it can’t be done.

I contend that Australian multiculturalism is our greatest achievement, but it has always been fraught with tension. The challenge of immigration and multiculturalism has been and remains, do we stay comfortably as we are or do we risk something for a better future for ourselves and others.

Being Jewish New Year, I am reminded of the Israelites in Egypt. It is an epic human story. Moses wanted to lead fairly mutinous tribes into the Promised Land. They muttered and complained about the risks, preferring to stay in Egypt in captivity where at least life was predictable. There was food on the table and there was a bed to sleep in.

But as Moses and the Israelites discovered, change is risky and it can be painful. But if it is properly led and managed it can bring great benefits. The key for us is to get the scale and timing of change right. My own experience is that innovation and improvement do not come from sameness and homogeneity. It comes from difference, diversity, challenge and competition. Over the years, I think Australia has got it about right – but not in the last year.

Facts about Australian multiculturalism

Of Australia’s 19 million population, 28% were born overseas and a further 25% have at least one parent born overseas. Net immigration is about 75,000 to 100,000 per annum, which will give Australia a population of about 25 million by 2051. 9% will be of Asian background.

As described by the Department of Immigration and Multicultural Affairs, the top 10 countries of overseas born are United Kingdom, New Zealand, Italy, Vietnam, Greece, China, Germany, Philippines, Netherlands and India. 200 foreign languages are spoken, with the leading 5 languages other than English being Italian, Greek, Cantonese, Arabic and Vietnamese. Each of these 5 language groups is spoken by more than 100,000 people.

Two thirds of second generation migrants are marrying outside their cultural and ethnic backgrounds. 40% of Australians are of mixed cultural origins. These quite remarkable figures belie the concerns about ethnic separateness down the generations. But there are some differences to this pattern which we should monitor, eg 82% of second generation British women marry outside their group; for Indian and Malaysian women, it is 95% and for Chinese women 78%. However, for Lebanese women it is only 28% and for Turkish women, 36%.

Asian groups have much high intakes of citizenship. For Chinese and Vietnamese it is about 80%. They are clearly determined to make their future life in Australia and not in their former homeland. People born in the United Kingdom, Northern Europe and New Zealand, have much lower uptakes of citizenship. Citizenship is the legal glue that holds us together. It should be more actively promoted as was proposed by the FitzGerald Committee in the mid 1980s. I remain very sceptical about dual citizenship – with the dual loyalty it implies.

Myths about multiculturalism

It is often suggested or at least inferred in some of our media that crime rates are high amongst new migrants. Taking migrants as a whole, there is no evidence of this.

It is also suggested in the heat of some controversy about particular ethnic groups that multicultural societies collapse. New settlers are inclined to stick together for mutual support and become ‘a community of communities’. Over time however, they move out into the wider Australian community. There are nevertheless quite different patterns of residential concentration with Vietnamese the most highly concentrated. Indians, Sri Lankans and  Filipinos are much more scattered as are the Chinese, despite ‘China Towns’. Muslims in Sydney and Melbourne are more scattered than Jews.

We also hear concerns about ghettos in the United States and that we should learn from the current European experience. I suggest that US and European experiences are quite different. The US waves of migration in the late 19th Century and 20th Century were largely unplanned and we don’t have a common border with a large and populous country like Mexico. America’s problems have also been exacerbated by an historical slave class. Australia’s migration has been much better planned. Europe’s problems have also been magnified by two issues of their own making. The first have been mistaken guest-worker policies, where cheap labourers have been brought in who over the generations not surprisingly want to stay. Australia has always rejected a policy of guest workers. Secondly, the United Kingdom and Europe felt morally and perhaps legally obligated to take in millions from its former colonies. When Papua New Guinea became independent in 1975, Australia refused similar rights for Papua and New Guinea residents who claimed long associations with Australia.


Through migration, Australia is much more dynamic and outward looking. Our early history was dogged by insularity. There has been a significant transformation, although a lot remains to be done. A Saulwick Poll in 1994 found that 72% of Australians believe that this country was a better place to live in ‘now that people from so many countries live here’. A 1997 ANOP poll indicated that 78% of Australians felt that multiculturalism had been good for Australia.

We are now more tolerant of people of diverse origins. Over the generations, tolerance has come slowly but steadily.

New settlers, and there are some particularly outstanding examples at this Conversazioni, have a strong commitment to succeed and have made outstanding contributions to Australia. They are invariably industrious, entrepreneurial and risk-taking. As Geoffrey Blainey said when referring to Hitler ‘when tyrants shake the trees, Australia harvests the fruit’.

Newcomers have high educational aspirations for their children. In New South Wales high schools, 25% of students are of non-English speaking background, but in selective schools where students are chosen on merit, 46% are of NESB. At Sydney Boys High School, a selective high school, 78% are of NESB. In NSW, the Higher School Certificate results, which determine university entry, are dominated each year by NESB students. It used to be Greeks and Eastern Europeans. Now it is dominated by students from China, Indo-China and Korea. Geoffrey Blainey was concerned that perhaps post-1975 refugees were not showing the same qualities as the post-1945 refugees. Graduation ceremonies at our universities which I attend from time to time seem to point to the continuing success by the children of refugees today.

It is ironic that Australians supported White Australia as a means to protect Australian workers from low wages and unskilled Asians. Concerns that exist today seem to be quite the reverse – that Asians might be too competitive.

The same trends are shown in university entrance scores. The Australian Council for Educational Research has pointed out that for university entrance scores, for Australian students, the average is 70. For Asian students it is 79, other Europe 72, English-speaking 69 and NESB 72. An Australian comic of Vietnamese origin tells the joke, ‘How do you know if your house has been robbed by an old Australian or a new Vietnamese settler?’ The answer is ‘the Australian steals the CD player and drinks the beer, the Vietnamese steals the dogs and completes the children’s homework’.

Integration into the global market is helped by 17% of our population fluently speaking a language other than English. It is essential with Asia now taking 57% of our exports. Our tourism industry has also been particularly assisted in wine, food, service and hospitality, as a result of new people with new skills.


Australia’s achievements have not come without problems. Opinion polls show that multiculturalism is clearly favoured, but this often seems contradicted by opposition to further migration. An AGB/McNair poll in 1996 showed that 70% opposed the abolition of multicultural policies, but the same percentage supported at least a short-term freeze on immigration and a reduction on Asian migration. A closer examination of opposition to migration usually shows that new arrivals are more strongly opposed than older Australians.

It seems clear that in recent years unemployment, growing social inequality, low wages and part-time casual employment associated with major economic and social change has heightened concern about change in general. This concern or fear about change has focused on foreigners. In times of uncertainty and change, the focus on outsiders or newcomers is an unfortunate feature of the human condition. Concern about immigration in times of unemployment has also been exacerbated by at least initial concern about Asian migration, particularly following the Indo-Chinese refugee intakes of the late 1970s.

It is interesting that opinion polls in the last few months, as Professor Murray Goot of Macquarie University has highlighted, suggest that with unemployment declining, support for immigration is growing. I assume that this is the reason for the Howard Government’s increased migration intake this year. The public’s growing support for immigration is probably also a consequence of John Howard’s border protection policies. The public feels more confident that our borders are not being overrun.

Another problem with recent boat people and asylum-seekers is that they have been described quite widely, but incorrectly, as ‘illegals’. As a result, as Murray Goot has described, they have been associated in the public mind with a broader concern about law and order generally. In fact, boat people and asylum seekers are not illegal. Under the 1951 Refugee Convention, we are legally obliged to provide protection to people coming to Australia who claim to be fleeing persecution. They remain legally in Australia whilst their claims are being investigated. If their claims are found to be valid, they continue to attract our legal protection until such time as they are resettled in Australia or elsewhere. 90% of Afghan and Iraqi persons coming to Australia and claiming our protection have been found to be genuine refugees. If however their claim is rejected, they then become illegal and can be deported, subject to due process. But in the public mind this is sophistry. They must be illegal if they arrive uninvited by ship or by air, and the Prime Minister, the Minister for Immigration and talk-back radio hosts fail to correct the error of the ‘illegal’ tag.

Australians clearly support multiculturalism if it is taken to mean tolerance of diversity, providing means for different groups to interact with the remainder of society. However, if multiculturalism is taken to mean cultural separatism – which is a ‘straw man’ often erected by critics – then the majority of Australians are opposed. There has been sporadic violence against Mosques, for example, after September 11 last year, and at soccer matches where teams often have a historic ethnic basis. Very rarely however has this violence spilled over into residential areas.

Australia’s greatest failing is that our multiculturalism has failed to embrace aboriginals, although aborigines have quite clearly expressed their view that they don’t want to be part of multicultural Australia. They see their rights and position being singularly different. This unresolved issue remains ‘whispering in our hearts’. It merits a special Conversazioni of its own.

The other continuing issue is our relationship to certain modern expressions of Islam within Australia. It must be addressed with cool heads and warm hearts. I flag it as a concern, but I am very conscious of the great damage it could cause if it is not carefully and wisely addressed. We won’t find satisfactory answers without a carefully crafted discussion.

Boat People

The Government claims that its policy is successful because no more boats are coming. I reject that proposition. The Government over-reacted to a small problem, both in world terms and in Australian historical terms for the sake of party political advantage.

The outcome over the last 12 months has been achieved at great human cost – punishing and demonising the most vulnerable people on earth. The clear sign of a civil society is how it treats its most vulnerable. We each have an element of concern for the humanity of others. We can snuff out that haunting concern if we can be persuaded that certain people are not really human, e.g. that asylum seekers are blackmailers, queue jumpers, cheats or terrorists, and are so barbaric that they will throw their children overboard or stitch their lips together. History is littered with those who have tried, and at least in the short term, succeeded in scapegoating others, as Koreans found in Japan when many of them were killed because they were held to be responsible for the fires following the great Tokyo earthquake in 1926.

Xenophobia, patriotism and defence of borders will always drown out for a period at least, compassion for the foreigner. It is one of the indelible stains of history. It is so easy to provoke hostility against the foreigner, the outsider and the person who is different. We each have a dark and fearful side that can be exploited. That is what has happened in Australia in the last year. I have not seen it so blatantly pursued in my lifetime – dividing Australians through promoting fear of foreigners, who are weak and vulnerable.

Government policies have also damaged in my view our own sense of worth. We gained confidence over community participation in the Olympics, the fighting of bushfires and in our response to the cries of the people of East Timor. We responded, not out of self-interest, but because we believed in something worthwhile and valuable beyond ourselves. We were pleased to find that we were unselfish. We felt good about ourselves, but no more, after our demonisation of the boat people.

There has also been a cost to Australia’s international standing despite the selective hearing of Australian ministers. Even the United States is finding that military and economic power on their own are not sufficient. Overwhelming military power did not stop the attacks on America on September 11. A successful foreign policy requires countries to be able to persuade and not just coerce others. That ability to persuade is linked to values that command respect and attention, as Paul Kelly in The Australian, has well described. The main asset Australia has is that we have an open and strong economy, limited military capability and most importantly a unified, tolerant and multicultural society. Those values and our projection of them have been put at risk. Countries that can project influence and persuade beyond their economic and military power – countries such as Canada, Netherlands, and Scandinavian countries – project values.

National borders will always be porous, as aborigines found when Captains Cook & Phillip landed in the 19th Century. At the end of the line and with no land borders, Australia is better protected than most. So our problem with boat people and asylum-seekers is relatively minor in world terms.

Furthermore refugee flows by their nature are usually intense and brief. They come and go. We should maintain a sensible perspective. Refugee flows are also driven by push factors in the country of war, rape and persecution, rather than by the pull factors or barriers to entry in recipient countries. Desperate people will always try and escape persecution. Now that the Taliban regime has been overthrown, it is not at all surprising that the outflow from Afghanistan has stopped. The cessation of the outflow has nothing to do with Australia’s border protection policy.

The Department of Immigration and Multicultural Affairs states on its website on unauthorised arrivals that ‘historically the Australian example of people smuggling which attract most media attention, have been by boat. However, the majority of smuggling into Australia and other countries occurs by air.’ In seven out of the last ten years, more unauthorised arrivals came to Australia by air than by sea. But the frenzy was all about boat people. We had a large blip of about 4,000 coming for two years. But what a political opportunity!

As one door closes for unauthorised arrivals, another door is prized open. If there is a demand, people smugglers will turn to entry by air and to the counterfeiting of travel documents. When I was Secretary of the Department of Immigration and Ethnic Affairs, I saw almost daily new counterfeit documents produced by people smugglers.

In highlighting illegal boat arrivals, the Government has conveniently ignored the 60,000 illegals in the country, mainly UK and USA visitors who have cheated by overstaying their permits. The Government rhetoric doesn’t extend to them because there is little political or electoral benefit in doing so. But these illegals are much less deserving than most of the desperate people that come unauthorised by boat.

Finally, the handling of the Indo-Chinese outflow by the Fraser Government in the late 1970s and early 1980s, demonstrated that it is possible to conduct a humanitarian policy whilst maintaining the integrity of our borders. At that time, over 4,000 came by boat but it was managed carefully and firmly. The major difference between Malcolm Fraser and John Howard, is that Malcolm Fraser did not attempt to exploit the problem for party-political purposes, although he did come under quite severe criticism by some unscrupulous people on the left in Australia.

The refugee numbers that Malcolm Fraser faced were vastly more than the ‘threat’ which John Howard faced. At the peak in the late 1970s, there were about 400,000 Indo-Chinese in the refugee camps in Thailand, Malaysia and Indonesia. In one year, we took 15,000 refugees from Indo China alone. Instead of demonising refugees, we acknowledged their plight and heroism. Bogus refugees were quickly processed and deported. The rhetoric was coercive at times, but humanity was served. We are now proud of what we did.

In times when populism and political advantage is tempting, it is important that we hold to international institutions and instruments. Democracies are not bad at protecting the powerful and the majority. But they are not so good at protecting vulnerable minorities – children, indigenous people and refugees. That is why we have international conventions in these areas, to protect the vulnerable from populism.


Immigration has dramatically changed Australia, mainly for the better. I don’t think any country has done it as well. If I could be more precise, I think Australia has benefited most from refugees. Whilst the first generation of refugees may often lack skills and education, they more than make up for it in enterprise, courage and risk-taking. That enterprise and high aspirations are often expressed through their children. Refugees are by definition risk-takers who will abandon all for a new life. They select themselves much better than a migration officer can ever select them.

Australians have seen the benefits of multiculturalism, but seem more hesitant about bringing new people. But this hesitancy and sometimes hostility to newcomers, in time gives way to acceptance and pride in our common achievements. This has been our experience with waves of newcomers. Irish Catholics were initially depicted as different and perhaps disloyal. We were prejudiced against Jewish newcomers. German migrants, particularly in the Barossa Valley, were harassed for decades. We were initially sceptical about the Indo-Chinese and what damage they might cause to the Australian way of life. But over time, it changed. Even the early Afghans who built the transport links in Central Australia now have a train, the Ghan, named in their honour.

Whilst Australians are invariably hesitant about newcomers, what gives me confidence is our pragmatic acceptance. We are favourably impressed with the personal experience we have of the neighbour or shopkeeper who is Italian, Chinese or Vietnamese. Is there something in the casualness and our easy-going acceptance, that overcomes ideological and philosophical opposition? We eschew the extremes and don’t get too excited by ideologies at either end of the spectrum. If November 11, 1975, couldn’t even provoke a general strike, what could? Insurrection is rare. There isn’t much blood on the wattle. We bump into each other, but we don’t cause a great deal of hurt.

In addition to time healing differences, we have also had leaders who have inspired the best in each of us or ‘touched the better angels of our nature’ (Abraham Lincoln). Ben Chifley overcame public opposition to allowing Jewish refugees after World War II. Robert Menzies, on coming to office, continued the acceptance of the displaced people of Europe. Harold Holt skilfully, but in defiance of public opinion, commenced the dismantling of White Australia. John Gorton and Gough Whitlam continued the process. When Malcolm Fraser responded to the anguish of the Indo-Chinese people, he knew that he was acting contrary to public opinion. Bill Hayden and then Bob Hawke supported him. Yet no-one today would argue that these leaders got it wrong. We applaud their courage and leadership.

Border protection is clearly necessary to maintain public confidence in migration and refugee intakes. But it is possible to do that, as Malcolm Fraser showed without dividing the country and punishing the most vulnerable people on earth.

What gives me confidence, is the Australian people. I know of a Jewish refugee boy who went to school in inner Melbourne after World War II. He told me his story. His sister and he were called before the Headmaster. As they were leaving his office, the Headmaster asked them whose photo it was on the wall. They didn’t know, but surmised that it might be head of the police or the head of the military. The Headmaster told them who it was, but the name meant nothing to them. They then asked their schoolmates and were told who Don Bradman was. That Jewish man said to me recently ‘I knew then that we were safe’. If the most important public figure for the Headmaster was a famous sportsman, there was little to fear and a lot to be looked forward to in Australia.

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