From multicultural Australia to cosmopolitan Australia?

May 23, 2021

One of John Howard’s more petty acts was to belime the idea of multiculturalism. Subsequent political leaders have been less cynical about the term. Malcolm Turnbull even boasted that Australia is the most successful multicultural society in the world. However, Howard did succeed in relegating multiculturalism to being a lower order issue on the country’s public policy agenda.

The idea of multiculturalism entered Australia’s political vocabulary during the Whitlam government, on the initiative of Whitlam’s first Immigration Minister, the ebullient Al Grassby. However, it was the Fraser government that grafted real policy muscle onto the Whitlam government’s multicultural skeleton.

As a true conservative in the Burkean mould, Malcolm Fraser had the greatest respect for the historical integrity of the world’s cultural traditions. Moreover, he had a vision for an open and tolerant Australia, freed from its racist past, culturally enlivened through the working, studying, and playing together of its ethnically diverse peoples. He believed too that by meeting and learning about each other in a culturally plural society, the country’s democracy and its economy would flourish.

In 1979, the Fraser government established the Australian Institute of Multicultural Affairs (AIMA). Based in Melbourne, AIMA’s
central purpose was to provide policy advice to governments on multicultural issues. It could have become a much-needed voice to parliament for the immigrant community. The Hawke government gutted the institute early in its first term. Between
them, Howard and Hawke did a great disservice to multiculturalism which has never recovered the policy salience it enjoyed during the Fraser years.

These days, our mostly white Anglo-Australian politicians occasionally – often reluctantly – turn up at ethnic community events in their electorates, mostly to make vacuous speeches demonstrating their total ignorance of the promise implied in Malcolm Fraser’s multicultural vision. Contemporary immigration policies have been clumsily securitized and absorbed into the soulless bureaucracy of the Department of Home Affairs.

During Howard’s time in politics, white Australia’s nativist racism was cynically exploited for the basest political motives. Remember how Howard flirted with Pauline Hanson’s anti-Asian outbursts. A true Australian statesman would (should!) have stopped Hanson in her tracks. Instead, Howard cunningly used Hanson’s prejudices to try to stitch together Australia’s frayed Anglo-Saxon heritage and to maintain the monarchy, while bleating against “black arm band” teaching in our schools and universities. History will show how toxic Howard has been for Australia’s political culture.

Since Howard, the ghost of the White Australia policy has been haunting multiculturalism. As a result, multicultural practices have been distorted into the crudest kind of identity politics – the politics of “us versus them” triumphing over the politics of inclusion and sharing. Fraser’s vision has become little more than the disarming tip of an iceberg of ethnic community squabbling, political machinations, and party political branch-stacking by cliques of self-styled ethnic “leaders.” This is spiv politics at its worst in which a few bad eggs are heaping dishonour on their communities while perverting Malcolm Fraser’s vision for Australia’s multicultural future.

The self-appointed band of “professional multiculturalists” who dominate the Australian multicultural discourse today has never embraced the country’s First Peoples. That is their greatest failure. And their cowardly silence in the face of the Australian government’s torturing and punishing of asylum seekers is deafening. That is their second great failure, all the more shocking given that many of them come from refugee backgrounds.

Australia’s multicultural policy-making urgently needs an injection of cosmopolitan thinking. Cosmopolitanism is a branch of moral philosophy that emphasises the fundamental unity of humankind in all its rich cultural diversity. Its roots go back into antiquity and can be found in all of the great religious systems.

In his essay Perpetual Peace, the philosopher Immanuel Kant described cosmopolitanism as “the matrix within which all the original capacities of the human race may develop.” The political scientist David Held notes: “The first principle [of cosmopolitanism] is that the ultimate unit of moral concern are individual human beings, not states or other particular forms of human association.” This includes closed and inward-looking ethnic associations practising a dead-end version of identity politics. (See D. Held, Cosmopolitanism: Ideals and Realities, pp. 69-81).

As apologists for America’s military-industrial complex, dominant realists like Professor John Mearsheimer dismiss cosmopolitanism as spongy idealism. For these people, preparing for perpetual war is the only option. Also, liberal political theory tends to assume pessimistically that, at the end of the day, differences between individuals and cultures are insurmountable and likely to lead to conflict. What these people fail to understand is that all social and political theories are excursions in moral philosophy, as are all public policies. Hugh Stretton taught us in his book The Political Sciences that all social and political theories and policies are founded on values; the policy choices that political leaders make are derived from those values.

Cosmopolitanism is particularly relevant to Australian multiculturalism. It means, first, that the country’s parliaments at state and federal levels must become representative of all the peoples of Australia, including female MPs and MPs from Australia’s cultural pluralities. It demands an Indigenous Voice to the federal parliament. A cosmopolitan Australia would also educate its citizens in the languages and cultures of the peoples of its geopolitical region, to counteract the fearful xenophobia that threatens the country’s social cohesion, security and prosperity.

As a first step towards the making of a cosmopolitan Australia, the federal government ought to re-establish something like the Australian Institute of Multicultural Affairs, perhaps reframing it as the Malcolm Fraser Institute of Cosmopolitan Australia. The institute’s primary purpose should be to advise governments on policies to nurture the dynamic unity of the country in all its wonderful human diversity. Australia could lead the world by becoming a working model for cosmopolitanism in action.

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