Revitalising Multiculturalism under Rudd

Colin Rubenstein

Australian Jewish News – April 11, 2008

The new Labor government convenes its “2020 Summit” next week to look for new ideas for various policy issues. But one of the most important policy changes they should be seeking to implement is not a new idea at all, but a well established one recently unravelling that needs to be revived, refurbished and given a renewed focus.

That policy is Australian Multiculturalism. It has been official bipartisan policy, federal and state, for more than 30 years  and has helped create and sustain what is one of the most successful multi-ethnic, tolerant, democratic societies in the world. It contributes effectively to our social cohesion, economic prospects and positive profile in our region and beyond.

After a constructive decade in evolving and applying its “New Agenda for  Multicultural Australia”(1999) , the Howard Government regrettably de-emphasised the policy  toward the end of its term, even dropping the word “multiculturalism”.

Today, the actual policy is still poorly understood by too many in the community, and  some commentators(with their eye misleadingly on the UK or US) blame it for a multitude of  ethnic tensions and other social problems.

But it is not multiculturalism that is causing the ethnic and social problems critics identify. Extremists and racists have been assailing the core values that are integral to the Australian concept of multiculturalism, compounded over the years by failures to always apply the policy consistently and effectively, and to articulate clearly  what Australian Multiculturalism actually entails.

Centrally, Australian multiculturalism has always been about both 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 genders 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 either anti-democratic beliefs, racist violence, or the promotion of terrorism.

The key concept for 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.

All in all, the Australian Jewish community provides a reasonably good approximation of how Australian Multiculturalism is supposed to work. It is a good example of integration, of robust communal identity combined with a sense of responsibility to the broader society, including a strong commitment to the shared values essential to maintain Australia’s viable and harmonious larger community.

While Australia does have problems with intolerance and extremism, Australian multiculturalism is not their cause but rather helps to provide the framework for addressing these problems effectively. Arguments to the contrary are essentially proposals to throw the baby out with the bathwater.

Given the nature of these real challenges to our harmony and security, the new complicated, more rigorous English language and citizenship tests, based on those in countries, including Britain, which have less multicultural success than Australia, seem to be somewhat beside the point in achieving their main purpose of marginalising fringe extremist groups among immigrants. The goal is a legitimate one under Australian Multiculturalism, because, while no one should ever be excluded on racial or ethnic grounds, immigrants who are openly opposed to the core values central to multiculturalism represent a threat to social cohesion, and have no compelling claim to join a society based on values they despise.

However, while the Rudd Government is about to undertake a much needed citizenship test review, the methods used in this process seem unnecessary and unfair to the vast majority of prospective citizens, who are happy to adhere to the values of multiculturalism and seem more likely to lead to unwarranted exclusion rather than justifiable inclusion in our society.

The Rudd Government has restored the word “Multiculturalism” to the portfolio of a parliamentary secretary, but would be well-advised to now move forward with refurbishing the substance of the policy as well. As they do this, they should be careful to avoid repeating questionable decision such as giving credibility to visitors like Islamist scholar Tariq Ramadan –  who represents a worldview inconsistent with the “core values” of Australian multiculturalism – and be wary of those who would take multiculturalism down the slippery slope of “anything goes.”

So while I, like most Australians, welcome the quest of the Prime Minister and his colleagues for “new ideas” epitomised by his 2020 Summit initiative, I respectfully ask them not to forget about those which have served us so well in the past. Australian Multiculturalism is a policy which, properly weighted between our rights and responsibilities, can help us resolve a number of key social questions, and  is just waiting to be revitalised and renewed, to the benefit of Australia’s harmony, diversity and cohesion.


Dr. Colin Rubenstein is Executive Director of the Australia/Israel & Jewish Affairs Council (AIJAC). 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.