Is Australia’s grand experiment in multiculturalism failing us all?

Aug 16, 2021

One of the greatest public policy innovations in Australia’s political history has been the large scale immigration programs commenced in 1947 under the Chifley government. The Menzies government grudgingly inherited the policy on the understanding that all immigrants would be assimilated into the community as “New Australians.” (Meanwhile, Prime Minister Menzies preferred to think of himself as “British to the bootstraps.”)

Since the policy’s introduction, large numbers of immigrants have come to this country, expanding economic growth while contributing to Australia’s cultural maturing.  However, ethnic minorities continue to be over-represented in lower socio-economic industries and suburbs and under-represented in the professions, politics, public administration, the finance sector, and the justice and education systems.

The Whitlam government introduced the policy of multiculturalism which was based on recognising and valuing the culturally diverse backgrounds of overseas settlers in Australia. No longer were inanely “British to the bootstraps” interpretations of Australia’s national identity to be at the forefront of Australia’s national imagining. Public services began to be delivered in a variety of community languages and different communities were encouraged to “be themselves”.

Nostalgic Britishers like John Howard have nonetheless persisted in casting aspersions on multiculturalism, both as a theory and a policy. and unfortunately with some success. Howard himself could barely utter the word. Abbott was similarly jaundiced against the idea. But subsequent prime ministers have been all too happy to declare that “Australia is the most successful multicultural society in the world today!”

But is it? If multiculturalism is to be measured by how much it has opened all Australians to the wonders of cultural pluralism as a policy to bring us all together cooperatively and with mutual understanding, it must now be declared a failure.

First, some ethnic community leaders have developed an ugly talent for corralling their communities as power bases, either for internal purposes, or for political gain in the wider community – for example, election to local councils, or branch stacking in their political parties. At the same time, ethnic community clubs have mushroomed, rarely opening their doors to visitors from outside the communities sponsoring them. This is evidence of an inward-looking, culturally narcissistic version of multiculturalism. Regrettably, it is fast becoming the norm across ethnically plural Australia today.

There are of course a few marvellous exceptions to this observation. For example, the wonderful Turbans 4 Australia organisation of Sikh volunteers providing food for firefighters and others during the bushfires of 2019, and for disadvantaged peoples during COVID lockdowns. But these beautifully generous people are an exception. Very few other ethnic community groups have developed a habit of reaching out to needy people beyond the confines of their tight organisations, and many of those are far better resourced than the Sikh community in Australia.

Secondly, over the years state and federal governments have been delinquently slow in developing policies to lift ethnic minorities from the margins of the economy and society, not simply for social justice reasons, but also to access the myriad talents these people have, and which could be of benefit to the whole country. In fact, a great deal of so-called policy-making for Australia’s ethnically plural society is ham-fisted, arrogant, prejudiced, culturally insensitive (and ignorant), and frequently counterproductive. This is multiculturalism as policy failure. And it is happening in spades.

This failure is a product of an Anglo-centric political culture evident, for example, in Peter Dutton’s racist observation that people in Melbourne were hesitant to go to restaurants for fear of attacks from African-Australian gangs. Dutton is either ignorant or heartless about the fact that disadvantaged youths from African or other refugee backgrounds have not been provided by governments with the understandings, counselling, educational, and employment opportunities they so desperately need. Police harass them. Shop owners chase them away. People shun them in the streets.

Consider, also, workers from ethnic minority backgrounds who are underpaid by unscrupulous employers. They are the backbone of aged care, cleaning, and other essential services, yet governments persistently fail to address these problems or provide the regulatory framework for job security and wage justice these people should have by right.

Meanwhile, the Fair Work Commission lacks both the power and resources needed to act appropriately in their interests. This constitutes yet another multicultural failure: if you don’t belong to the dominant Anglo caste structure, “the most successful multicultural society in the world” couldn’t care less about you.

More recently, the actions of governments, state and federal, in responding to the COVID pandemic are illustrative of the abject failure of Australia’s weak iteration of multiculturalism. The absence of information in all of Australia’s community languages about the urgent need to be vaccinated has led to widespread confusion and fear among many non-English speaking citizens in the western suburbs of Melbourne and the southwest of Sydney. Some crazier anti-vaxxers in and outside parliament have been dealt a free hand by this gross policy ineptitude.

This has been particularly counterproductive as far as public health measures are concerned. But it is also evidence of a supremely arrogant prejudice among politicians and top public servants that the needs of non-English speaking citizens don’t matter.

Then we have the stunningly clumsy control measures during the various lockdowns in suburbs with high concentrations of non-English speaking citizens. Not only are there explanations not provided in community languages to explain the necessary processes being put in place, but their enforcement has been little short of ruthless in their implementation. In the Flemington high rise apartment blocks in Melbourne people were suddenly locked in without adequate warning, preparation, explanation, or a proper duty of care by the authorities (for example, providing access to food, to medical assistance, etc.).

In southwestern Sydney, the deployment of police and the military were about as heavy-handed as you can get. The fact that not a few of the residents in these areas had escaped from brutal police and military regimes was obviously absent from the bureaucratically constricted imaginations of the authorities responsible for these ridiculous measures. The consequent re-traumatizing of some of those unfortunate people was of little concern to the powers-that-be in “the most successful multicultural society in the world”.

Australia’s multiculturalism is an insubstantial policy decoration, a flimsy surface image that has never reached into the heart and soul of the nation.  It desperately needs to be re-thought, bringing into its policy-making imperatives a strong grounding in philosophical cosmopolitanism and a program of educating at every level in our society. Only then shall we be able to claim to be “among the most successful cosmopolitan societies in the world”.

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