Integration the key to multicultural success

Colin Rubenstein

The Australian – February 18, 2011

SPEAKING at the Sydney Institute on Wednesday, federal Immigration Minister Chris Bowen praised the “genius of Australian multiculturalism”.

Yesterday, he launched a new national multicultural strategy entitled The People of Australia and it was announced that the government will establish a new independent advisory body to help implement and build on the policy.

Meanwhile, Kate Lundy has been named Parliamentary Secretary for Immigration and Multicultural Affairs, and will focus on implementing the new policy.

This appears to be a welcome shot in the arm for a vital policy that, despite bipartisan agreement on its essentials, has been somewhat neglected in recent years.

Both sides of politics paid the concept lip-service, but in practice there frequently has been, in both main parties, a lack of energy, focus or new thinking devoted to Australian multiculturalism.

This is despite the fact Australian multiculturalism, during the more than 30 years it has been official federal and state policy, has helped create and sustain what is one of the most successful multi-ethnic, tolerant and democratic societies in the world.

It contributes effectively to our social cohesion, economic prospects and positive profile in our region and beyond.

Yet multiculturalism is still poorly understood.

Some commentators, misleadingly looking at the European models, blame Australian multiculturalism for a multitude of ethnic tensions and other social problems.

But it is not multiculturalism – at least not the model of it enunciated in official Australian public policy – that is causing the ethnic and social problems critics identify.

Centrally, Australian multiculturalism has always been about responsibilities and rights.

The policy accepts and respects the “right of all Australians to express and share their individual cultural heritage”, the right to equality of treatment and opportunity, and the removal of discriminatory barriers.

But it does so only “within an overriding commitment to Australia and the basic structures and values of Australian democracy”.

These values include parliamentary democracy and the rule of law, freedom of speech and religion, mutual respect and tolerance, equality of the sexes and English as the language of civic discourse.

It is certainly not the case, as some on both sides of the debate seem to think, that multiculturalism stands for “anything goes” with respect to anti-democratic beliefs, racist violence or the promotion of terrorism.

The key concept for Australian multiculturalism has always been integration into the core values and institutions of Australian life, avoiding the pitfalls of the other two discredited models of separatism and assimilationism.

Many European versions of multiculturalism have failed to stress responsibilities, integration and core democratic values.

This is why some – not least Germany’s Chancellor Angela Merkel – have recently discussed multiculturalism’s supposed failure.

A few weeks ago, British Prime Minister David Cameron delivered a considered speech on the problems confronting multiculturalism in Britain.

I would humbly suggest that if it were to replace what has served as multiculturalism in Britain with Australian multiculturalism, most of the problems he raised would be addressed.

Meanwhile, at home, extremists and racists have long been assailing the core values that are integral to the Australian concept of multiculturalism.

Unfortunately, this threat has sometimes been compounded by government failures to always apply the policy consistently and effectively, and to articulate clearly what it entails.

Obviously Australia continues to have some problems with intolerance and extremism. Australian multiculturalism is not their cause but provides the framework for addressing these problems.

Arguments to the contrary amount to throwing the baby out with the bathwater.

Intolerant, separatist and anti-democratic doctrines are best tackled from the vantage point of Australian multiculturalism, which marginalises and rejects such views as violations of the shared core values that are its hallmark.

The Cronulla riots of 2005, the development of small homegrown Islamist terror groups and the activities of some resident and visiting Muslim clerics who preach separatism, violent jihad and-or racist conspiracy theories are best countered within the framework of Australian multiculturalism.

It’s heartening, therefore, that the Gillard government has launched a new policy document and restored the word multiculturalism to the portfolio of a parliamentary secretary.

However, much remains to be done to refurbish the substance of the policy.

As the government does this, it should be careful to avoid repeating questionable decisions such as giving credibility to visitors who represent a world view inconsistent with the core values of Australian multiculturalism and be wary of those who would take multiculturalism down the slippery slope of “anything goes”.

Meanwhile, Julia Gillard should seek and receive support from the opposition, where key federal and state leaders including Tony Abbott, Ted Baillieu and Barry O’Farrell have long been on record as supporters of Australian multiculturalism.

It is a policy that has served us well and, properly weighted between our rights and responsibilities, can further help us resolve pressing social challenges.

If revitalised and renewed, it will continue to benefit Australia’s harmony, diversity and cohesion.

Colin Rubenstein is executive director of the Australia-Israel & Jewish Affairs Council. From 1997 until 2006 he was a member of the federal government’s Council for a Multicultural Australia and its predecessor, the National Multicultural Advisory Council.