Australian Multiculturalism in 2005 – Not too well, but not terminally ill!


The year 2000 saw Australian Multiculturalism at its visible peak, as we soared to the Olympic heights of Sydney 2000, showcasing our young, vibrant and diverse nation, confidently welcoming the world to join us at the biggest and 'best ever' multicultural party in history. Those who had also experienced Melbourne 1956, enjoyable and successful as those Games undoubtedly were, would have been amazed at how much we had changed, from the White Australia that greeted them then, to one that could host visitors from around the globe with the ease and confidence of a community genuinely comfortable with its own diversity. The spirit continued into our Centenary celebrations in 2001. Once again, the recurring theme was how Australia had been transformed from the White Australia our Founding Fathers saw as defining the new nation, to the multicultural society that defined Australia on its hundredth birthday. The optimism of 2000 and 2001 does not mean that everything was perfect. Aboriginal Reconciliation remained our greatest 'unfinished business'. Hansonism had only recently reminded us that we couldn't assume we were totally free of latent prejudice. However, we were definitely doing well and there was a fund of goodwill in the community at large that we could draw on to help us do even better. The famous Walk for Reconciliation across Sydney Harbour Bridge in May 2000, followed by similar events around the country, demonstrated the pervasive generosity of spirit that marked that time. Sadly, the mood of the Australian community has changed considerably in a few short years. Of course, we remain a highly multicultural society and remain relatively free of the worst outbreaks of overt racist behaviour that plague many other diverse societies. And the record rate of marriages across every cultural divide surely demonstrates Australia's love affair with difference! However, we are in many ways a less inclusive society than we thought we were in 2000-2001. Aboriginal Reconciliation has ceased to be a top of mind issue. It is hard to imagine too many non-indigenous Australians marching for Reconciliation today, certainly not the conservative politicians and business leaders who were not afraid to be seen supporting that cause in 2000. Minority communities, especially those of the Islamic faith, or of 'middle-eastern appearance', experience more overt prejudice than before. There is growing discomfort with 'the other', especially those whose dress, like the hijab, highlights their difference. Mentally confused Australians, who look different or are not fluent in English, risk detention and even deportation. All these symptoms suggest a community that is less enthusiastic about diversity and more comfortable with assimilation. The success of Australian Multiculturalism relies on all communities, indigenous and non-indigenous, the majority migrant community (defined either as those with British and Irish heritage or, more widely, those of European background) and all the minority migrant communities, accepting, respecting and celebrating each other's diversity. The changing attitudes evident today carry the risk of dividing the community along cultural lines, with the majority reasserting its dominance and the numerous minorities becoming increasingly marginalised. The change of attitude towards 'the other' is exemplified by the Department of Immigration Multicultural and Indigenous Affairs (DIMIA). From 1996 to 2000, I enjoyed working with the officers of that department because it was permeated with a 'facilitator' culture that wanted to attract migrants, help them to settle into their new country and become successful rapidly. They were eager to promote Australian Multiculturalism to maximise the benefits of our multicultural wealth for all Australians. They were ardent supporters of Reconciliation and committed to the development of an inclusive Australia. Sadly, with so much of the department's focus changed to 'border protection' and control of asylum seekers, the 'gatekeeper' culture of the department has become dominant. It is this change of culture that explains the horrific treatment of Cornelia Rau, which sadly is only the most dramatic example of a much wider malaise. Remarkably, the wider community had not been overly upset by the numerous accounts of ill-treatment of asylum seekers that refugee advocates had been highlighting for years. We couldn't get too worked up about people who were obviously different. Cornelia Rau, on the other hand, was someone the majority Caucasian community could identify with and get really angry about. The most bizarre example of the Australian community's double standards stemming from race or religion is the contrasting reaction to David Hicks and Mahmdou Habib compared to Schapelle Corby. There has been no widespread outrage about Hicks and Habib, despite their detention for several years, without charge, without proper access to their families or legal support. We do not know their alleged crimes, other than that they did nothing that was against Australian law. Habib was eventually released without ever being charged. Hicks has been charged for who knows what, but remains in limbo. Contrast our disinterest in Hicks and Habib with our hysteria over Corby from the time of her arrest to her conviction, and now during her appeal, even though she was found in possession of illegal drugs, prima facie evidence of a crime under Indonesian and Australian law, brought before a court without undue delay, allowed to retain legal counsel of her choice and given a very public hearing. Australians clearly identify differently with the different sides in the two cases. As Hicks and Habib are Muslims and appear to have connections to the other side, we don't feel strongly enough to demand natural justice for them. With Corby however, young, attractive and, most importantly, an Anglo Australian, we are overwhelmed with sympathy. Our attitude to the authorities involved is also completely inconsistent. We give the benefit of the doubt to the Americans, who are after all on our side and very much like us, but are mercilessly critical of the Indonesians, whom we have recently seen as the enemy and very different from us. In parallel, there has been a remarkable growth in Australian nationalism that draws its strength from its Anglo-Celtic roots, especially our military tradition. The thousands who now make a pilgrimage to Anzac Cove or the Kokoda Trail, the massive crowds who join the Anzac dawn service or line the streets cheering the parade, represent a dramatic change of sentiment from the dwindling interest only a decade or two ago. And the mood is very different too. It used to be a sombre, reflective day, commemorating defeat as much as victory, with the emphasis on the folly rather than the glory of war. Today we see unbridled triumphalism, celebration of our military successes and a strong sense that we have always been on the right side and never waged an unjust war. So inspirational Australian participation in war become, that even our Test cricketers now visit the sacred battlefields of Gallipoli and the Somme to draw strength on their way to do battle with the old enemy! It would be absurd to even suggest that Australia should not remember and honour the sacrifice of those who gave their all in the cause of the nation. Every country has remembrance ceremonies and they can be a wholesome and even spiritual experience. The Anzac tradition and spirit is unquestionably one of the most significant influences on the soul of the Australian nation. But it needs to be an inspiration to all Australians. The jingoism that now mars the commemoration runs the risk of separating the true blue Aussies from the rest of the community. Multicultural Australia in 2005 has not lived up to the dreams we had in 2000-2001. But, if we were too optimistic then, we shouldn't be too pessimistic now. Australia transformed itself from its monocultural past to a multicultural present in just 40 years and did so very successfully and with a minimum of fuss. The majority host community continues to demonstrate great generosity, goodwill and good humour in its acceptance of accelerating change in our cultural mix. Our migrants, wherever they come from, consistently show commitment to their new country through their significant contribution to the social, economic and cultural enrichment of all Australians. Multicultural Australia may not be in perfect health, but its illness is curable and far from terminal. The best medicine is the strict observance of the basic moral principles of Australian democracy, the foundation on which Australian Multiculturalism has been built. Foremost of these principles is a total commitment to fundamental human rights, no matter how great the inconvenience or even the perceived risk. Our respect for human rights must extend to all human beings, whether like or different from us, whether on our side or not. We should aspire to the highest standards, never justifying our failure to respect human rights because other countries are much worse. And our criticism of breaches of human rights must be directed equally against all countries, not just Myanmar and Zimbabwe, but also those our economy depends on, like China, as well as close friends and allies, like America. Also, if we are to treat Australians of every national origin with respect, we must respect the sovereignty of the nations from which they come and comply with international law in all our dealings with them. While the strict observance of these fundamental moral principles depends on governments, democratic governments are ultimately accountable to the people and cannot disregard strong and sustained public opinion for very long. Whether we like it or not, the state of multicultural Australia is not purely or even primarily due to government leadership and policy, but reflects the current sentiment of the majority of Australians as clearly expressed at the polls. We the Australian people are responsible for the state of multicultural Australia today. This is why I have refrained in this article from criticism of government policy, preferring instead to focus on the responsibility of the Australian people. One simple practical step that the Australian Government can take, even if it does not wish to change policy, is to restructure DIMIA to be responsible for only immigration and multicultural affairs, with Indigenous Affairs once again having its own department in recognition of the importance and unique status of indigenous Australians, and border protection and detention given to the defence and law enforcement agencies. This will enable staff of DIMIA (or DIMA as it would again become) to focus on the positive tasks of promoting immigration and multiculturalism, and avoid the schizophrenic culture that is the inevitable outcome of them having to play the policeman role as well, needing to treat people similar to many living in multicultural Australia with suspicion, including detaining and deporting them. However, those who seriously want cultural change in the general community must be willing to confront the attitude and opinion of the so-called ordinary Australians they are in day to day contact with. Doing this will require considerable courage and a willingness to swim against the prevailing tide of political correctness, when anyone who insists that border protection and the 'war on terror' do not justify breaches of fundamental human rights, runs the risk of being labelled un-Australian!

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