Cultural Pluralism: The Case for Benign Neglect

By James, Michael | Review - Institute of Public Affairs, September 1998 | Go to article overview

Cultural Pluralism: The Case for Benign Neglect

James, Michael, Review - Institute of Public Affairs

Australia's underlying social norms have proved to be powerful agents of social integration. By contrast, official multiculturalism is widely distrusted. A case where the government 'solution' is most of the problem.

IN 1988, the FitzGerald Report warned that multiculturalism was undermining Australia's immigration programme. The submissions it had received indicated that `major issues of concern to the community included immigration numbers, composition of the intake and the immigrant's role in changing Australian society. Race did not come through as a major concern'.

The report continued:

Confusion and mistrust of multiculturalism, focusing on the suspicion that it drove immigration policy, was very broadly articulated. Many people, from a variety of occupational and cultural backgrounds, perceived it as divisive. The majority of these people also expressed concern about immigrants' commitment to Australia and to Australian principles and institutions.1

The Hawke Government's response was to cut immigration numbers (as successive governments have continued doing) and to redefine multiculturalism so as to remove any suspicion that it sanctioned the undermining of the nation's social cohesion. The Government's National Agenda for a Multicultural Australia, adopted in 1989, reaffirmed the `right of all Australians, within carefully defined limits, to express and share their individual cultural heritage, including their language and religion'. The `limits' were threefold: `all Australians should have an overriding and unifying commitment to Australia, to its interests and future'; they should 'accept the basic structures and principles of Australian society-the Constitution and the rule of law, tolerance and equality, parliamentary democracy, freedom of speech and religion, English as the national language and equality of the sexes'; and `the right to express one's own culture and beliefs involves a reciprocal responsibility to accept the right of others to express their own views and values'.'

This restatement has hardly reassured Australians that multiculturalism is not divisive or restored public support for high levels of immigration. Indeed, some influential commentators favour restricting the official use of the term 'multiculturalism'. One of the architects of multiculturalism, Professor Jerzy Zubrzycki, has repudiated any usage for it beyond a description of Australia's demographic reality.3 Paul Kelly has suggested that at the centenary of Federation the country adopts the catchphrase `Many races, one culture', in preference to the Centenary of Federation Advisory Committee's suggested `Many cultures, one nation'.4 It is quite possible that Prime Minister John Howard's practice of avoiding the term in govement statements about Australia's identity and destiny would be followed by any future Labor government.


What has gone wrong with multiculturalism? The official definition of the policy matters less than the way it is understood by the general public. Paul Kelly holds that multiculturalism is `widely seen as a policy for Australians from ethnic minority backgrounds, but not for all Australians'. This impression is sustained in part by treating all persons from nonEnglish-speaking backgrounds as officially 'disadvantaged' and hence entitled to special treatment regardless of actual need. Equally important, in my judgement, is the way multiculturalism has seemed to question the status of the established culture of the country.

In the decades following World War II, Australia for the first time received hundreds of thousands of immigrants from southern Europe, most of whom settled successfully. But when multiculturalism became official policy in the 1970s, it was, mistakenly or not, widely believed to have implicitly changed the terms on which immigrants are invited to Australia. It suggested that immigrants need not try to adapt to Australia, because Australia will adapt to them, as if Australia were a sort of cultural terra nullius in which the residents' way of life had no priority over those that immigrants bring with them, and little of value to which immigrants might aspire. …

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