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Is Australia Multicultural? It's Complicated.

Anne Aly MP

"Australia is the most successful multicultural nation in the world." It’s a popular refrain from our political leaders, but what does it actually mean? Just what does a successful multicultural nation look like? What does it feel like in the everyday lives of those who have come across the seas to share our boundless plains? And if there are indeed markers of success for multiculturalism, just how well does Australia really fare?

I write this amid a growing and increasingly ugly discourse in our Parliament. A discourse that speaks of good migrants and bad migrants; an arbitrary and obscure checklist of “Australian values”; and that turns the gaze to those "others" among us who don’t quite make it into the narrowed prism of “our Australia” and who are poised to obliterate our cultural heritage.

As the discussion about population heightens, the gaze again turns to immigrants held to blame for over-population, crowded buses, traffic congestion and that extra 30 minutes it takes you to get home in the evening.

When Al Grassby, as the minister for immigration during the Whitlam years, first introduced a policy of multiculturalism it was in the wake of the abolishment of the final vestiges of the White Australia Policy. For the first time, the government not only made it unlawful to discriminate on the basis of race or ethnicity, it also sought to encourage that cultural differences in Australia should be accepted and celebrated.

The policy saw the introduction of translation services, multicultural radio services and the incorporation of multiculturalism into other portfolio areas. It was the mid-70s. My parents had migrated to Australia just six years earlier. As one of the first wave of non-Western migrants to be accepted into the country, I can only imagine the hope and promise that the political recognition of multiculturalism would have held for them.

Sadly, over 40 years later, that promise has not been fulfilled. A 2018 report by the Australian Human Rights Commission, Leading for Change: A Blueprint for Cultural Diversity and Inclusive Leadership Revisited, highlights the lack of cultural diversity in senior leadership. In business, just 2.7 per cent of chief executives or equivalent has a non-European, non-Anglo-Celtic background. In the federal government ministry, there are no people of non-European background and just one Indigenous minister.

People from non-European backgrounds make up just 1 per cent of federal and state government departmental secretaries or chief executives and just 2.6 per cent of university vice-chancellors. These figures are particularly dismal when we consider that 21 per cent of the Australian population has a non-European background, and 3 per cent of the population has an Aboriginal or Torres Strait Islander (Indigenous) background. Tell me again what a successful multicultural nation we are?

Multiculturalism in Australia is in desperate need of a recalibration. For too long we have been complacent, spouting eight-word slogans while blissfully ignoring the fact that for many migrants barriers to full participation have not delivered the kind of equality multiculturalism once promised. Instead, multiculturalism has persisted as a "celebration" of our great tolerance of others – a chance to pat ourselves on the back while we dunk our sausage rolls in soy sauce, dance to Bollywood hits and adorn ourselves in colourful silk saris.

We need a multicultural policy that is predicated on a model of democratic citizenship that moves beyond the formal recognition of rights and responsibilities to active and participatory citizenship. Within this framework we can begin to develop ways to increase the social, economic and political participation of Australians from non-European backgrounds. We can deliver policies that commit to equity of opportunity and equality of outcomes for all Australians, that remove systemic discrimination and barriers to full participation and that take into account the impacts and consequences of our policies on people from culturally and linguistically diverse backgrounds.

Importantly we can start treating multiculturalism as more than just something that we tolerate through gritted teeth (as long as it’s colourful and tastes like chicken) and aspire towards a true understanding of multiculturalism that pays homage to the vision of Al Grassby.

This article was originally published in 2018.

Anne Aly is the Federal Member for Cowan Facebook


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