John Nieuwenhuysen. Multiculturalism Today and the Little Evil

According to the ABS, the proportion of Australians born overseas has reached its highest point in 120 years. At about 6.6 million people, the overseas born represent 28 per cent of the country’s total, and, since 2005, migration has contributed half of total population growth. Some 47 per cent of Australians in 2015 were either born overseas or have parents who were.

The diversity of Australia’s population has also increased, and the days of White Australia are long since gone. The traditional major country sources of immigration remain Britain and New Zealand, which represent 20.8 and 9.1 per cent respectively of our overseas born population. But Asian migration has been rising; and, in 2015, 6 per cent of Australia’s overseas born were from China; 5.6 per cent from India; 3.5 per cent from Vietnam; 3.2 per cent from the Philippines; and 2.2 per cent from Malaysia.

How do the Australian people view continuing high levels of immigration, and its increased diversity, at a time of record overall population growth? And how stands its opinion of multiculturalism?

According to the annual surveys by Monash University’s Professor Andrew Markus for the Scanlon and Australian Multicultural Foundations [Mapping Social Cohesion, 2015, National Report P.41], there has been “a consistently high level of endorsement for multiculturalism.” In response to the proposition that “multiculturalism has been good for Australia,” the survey found agreement in the three years 2013, 2014 and 2015 in the range of 84-86 per cent. The proportion in the survey registering strong agreement with the proposition increased from 32.2 per cent in 2013 to 43.3 per cent in 2015.

Since, as Professor Markus notes, the meaning of multiculturalism in Australia is open to interpretation, survey respondents were asked to indicate their agreement with five different statements on multiculturalism. The survey showed that “the strongest positive association was with its contribution to economic development [75 per cent agree] and its encouragement of immigrants to become part of Australian society [71 per cent.]”

This positive attitude to multiculturalism has co-existed not only with a high net overseas migration intake but also temporary admissions of entrants and New Zealand citizens to Australia, totalling close to two million people.

This persistently high net migration level and such a great number of temporary entrants would in past years have aroused heated debate. As Professor Markus notes [page 34]: “Whereas in the early 1990’s, a large majority [over 70 per cent at its peak] considered the intake to be ‘too high’, most surveys between 2001 and 2009 indicated that opposition to the level of intake was a minority viewpoint.”

Subsequently, in the last two years, with the collapse of the mining industry, slow Chinese economic growth, and government deficits, Markus [page 34] notes that there it was expected that support for the existing level of immigration would fall. But instead the reverse has happened-in both 2014 and 2015, Markus found that around 60 per cent of respondents considered that the intake was “about right” or “too low”.

Professor Markus speculates on the reasons for this continuing support and considers [page 35] that, among other causes, it may reflect the “…perceived effectiveness of government asylum seeker policy…” as well as possibly a misunderstanding of the numbers of asylum seekers.

Any observer who recalls the heated debates about immigration policy in the early 1990’s, when the Commonwealth Bureau of Immigration Research provided a plenitude of both scholarly works and public forums, and compares that time with today, can note how the asylum seeker controversy dominates current media coverage. That concentration seems to have pushed aside previous issues, such as the size and composition of the migrant intake.

In many ways, I think this is highly unfortunate. Australia has enjoyed a good reputation for its successful settlement of people from all around the globe. Now, the harshness and inhumanity of the “Stop the Boats” policy is dominating the image of the country. The obsession of both major political parties to try to ensure that Australia is absolved from facing up to the harsh reality that wars, poverty and civil strife create streams of legitimate asylum seekers, is a deep scar on the country’s contemporary history, especially since it has public support. In particular, it ignores the great success of the absorption, under the leadership of Malcolm Fraser, of such a multitude of refugees after the Vietnam war.

The credit that Australia deserves for its overall immigration program is thus being sadly undermined by a harsh and obstinate attitude to asylum seekers, and a neglect of obligations under the UNHCR convention. Hugh Mackay [The Age, January 26] has rightly damned the policy as “…immoral, because it treats people who have committed no crime as criminals….and fails to honour a moral principle we should claim as one of Australia’s core values-fairness.”

Perhaps political leaders think silently of the asylum seeker policy as a little evil which is compensated for by the great, enlightened good of the general immigration program. But as the author of Cry the Beloved Country, Alan Paton once wrote:

“Consent to a little evil, and it will grow…and a great evil will overwhelm us…No shame or remorse will save us then. Therefore consent not to… evil at all.”

John Nieuwenhuysen AM FASSA is an Emeritus Professor at Monash University

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