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Multiculturalism : When the Time is Right

February 23, 2011

Federal Immigration Minister Chris Bowen, in his speech on multiculturalism last week to the Sydney Institute, settles any unease about the concept by declaring simply that if there is any conflict between cultural values and the values of individual freedom they should be resolved with Australian values winning out every time.

There is nothing new in this, he says. He quotes Paul Keating to the effect, “…the first loyalty of all Australians must be to Australia, that they must accept the basic principles of Australian society. These include the Constitution and the rule of law, parliamentary democracy, freedom of speech and religion, English as a national language, equality of the sexes and tolerance.”

Finito – to a dozen of the arguments and objections you can still hear about multiculturalism. Diversity, yes. But one common, unifying national language. And recognition of the first principles of Australian society before anything else.

Chris Bowen also reminds us that this principle has been there for a long time.

He goes further and declares, “Ours is a citizenship-based multiculturalism”. (My emphasis). New citizens pledge “loyalty to Australia and its people”. This, he explains, renders it different from guest worker models of immigration like those in Europe.

And he declares that political bipartisanship was the basis for multiculturalism from the start.

It is a speech that clarifies a lot, and settles various misgivings and fears.

In discussing it in today’s Australian Paul Kelly makes the point that after 30 years the concept is still contested but yet nobody seems able to find a replacement. He reminds us that John Howard loathed the term but never devised an alternative. Howard settled instead for “Australian multiculturalism”. He quotes Hugh Mackay who supports diversity but says the word has got a lot of baggage:

      “The’ ism’ gives the impression it is something being imposed. Australians are ready to celebrate the diversity of our culture, from sport to religion. They see our society as pluralistic and like it. But once you try to make this official you leave the impression it is being imposed from above and people get very suspicious. Politicians would be better off using neutral words like diverse or pluralistic that don’t focus on race, ethnicity or religion.”

My advice : let it evolve organically. On its own it will meld into something new, when the time is right. As of now, it’s not worth exciting ourselves into an argument. Meanwhile the speech by Bowen is reflective and defensible and reassuring and balances the recent statements by Merkel and Cameron with a happier view of how pluralism can be helped to work in Western society.

  1. February 23, 2011 3:42 pm

    The notion that one has to be loyal to the Australian Constitution, a dreadfully out-of-date document, and Parliamentary Democracy, which certain has its limits, is absolutely ridiculous. I’m a loyal Australian, and I love this country, but I am a fierce believer in an Australian Republic and in adopting a system in which the legislative and executive branches of government are independent of each other. The current system effectively gives disproportionate power to existing parties, and to party-members over other voters. To say one needs to be loyal to this system in order to be loyal to Australia is daft.

  2. David Armstrong permalink
    February 23, 2011 7:16 pm

    Sounds like a good speech. I remember talking to Hugh years ago and he made the point that while many Australians did not like the word “multiculturalism” they were quite happy with “cosmopolitan” to describe the country, the people and its culture.

  3. Peter Pando permalink
    February 24, 2011 4:47 am

    You are right, multiculturalism offers the people who live in Australia a tremendous opportunity to grow together organically. It takes time and patience to accept it and become part of its growth. It therefore also requires some hope in the vision, a bit of faith. There are forces in every society which work for and against the sort of faith needed for multiculturalism to grow organically. Unfortunately economic ‘triumphalism’ (i.e. ‘winner takes all’) is one. On the back of a meritocratic financial reward system, greed and the resultant politics of envy produce interpersonal and potentially inter-cultural suspicion. Unmet need, on the other hand, produces the kind of force which severely limits the opportunity for multiculturalism to prove its worth. Can you point us to a place where Australian values aren’t described as being dependent upon economic good times?

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