Cronulla – A Wake-Up Call for Multiculturalism

The undeniable fact about the drunken mob under the Australian flag at Cronulla Beach – as well as comments from the targeted ethnic group with its reputation already stained by suspicion of terrorist activity and court sentences for violent crimes – is that not all Australians have been touched by the ideology of multiculturalism. This should mean, as James Jupp wrote in The Australian, that ‘there is no single ethnic, racial or religious group that can call itself Australian to the exclusion of all others’.

Thanks to Fiona Katauskas

Those of us who in the early seventies debated Australia’s response to mass immigration thought mainly in terms of equity and human rights. But soon we began to see multiculturalism in terms of the sharing by all Australians of rights and obligations ‘…not oneness but a unity – not a similarity but a composite, not a melting pot but a voluntary bond of dissimilar people sharing a political and institutional structure’ (Australia as a Multicultural Society).

Successive committees and reports expanded the above general notion by gradually focussing on multiculturalism as a defining feature of Australia’s heritage, democracy and culture. Finally in the 1999 report, Australian Multiculturalism for a new century, with its major thrust on inclusiveness, the National Multicultural Advisory Council argued that multiculturalism ‘properly focused, enhanced, communicated and promoted remains the best vehicle to make our cultural diversity a unifying force for all Australians’.

Launching the report in Parliament House on 5 May 1999, John Howard endorsed ‘the essential thrust and the main elements of the report … the values that we expressed and the expertise that it represents, bringing together in a quite unprecedented way, people from the four corners of the earth and doing it both in a humanitarian as well as in a nation-building way.’

He went on to say that the report is right to use ‘the adjective Australian before multicultural (the Prime Minister would not pronounce the ‘m’ word as a noun) because we have developed an Australian way of doing things.’

Howard concluded by stressing ‘an enduring positive advantage for the Australian community … of maintaining the values of which the report speaks … the values of tolerance, the values of understanding, of respect for cultural difference, a sensitivity to ethnic diversity … the principles espoused in this report encapsulate what people think. We believe in treating people decently, we believe in the unity of the nation above all else. But we respect and understand the fact that if you were born in another country you retain a special place in your heart. And there is nothing in my view that diminishes the wholeness of the Australian nation in that being recognised.’

John Howard’s enthusiasm for inclusive Australian multiculturalism did not last long. The reports’ major recommendations were never implemented including the creation of a central administrating agency, greater funding for multicultural advocacy and the increase in cultural diversity on public boards and agencies.

Before long there followed the Tampa ‘incident’, the ‘Pacific Solution’, Operation Relex, revelation of the horrific treatment of Cornelia Rau and orchestrated attempts to demonise Islamic migrants as potential terrorists – all of which belied the Prime Minister’s vision of the community genuinely comfortable in its own diversity.

And the message from the department is being repeated by highly visible supporters proving that contrary to the Prime Minister’s call for tolerance we are not totally free of latent prejudice. This is evidenced in rash, bizarre assertions as that put by David Flint last July that ‘multiculturalism with its underlying agenda, undermines the agreed form of an indissoluble federal government under the Crown and the Constitution.’

Thanks to Fiona Katauskas

But this goes even deeper when the opinion leader’s message is repeated in a crude form through talk-back radio in the homes of a core of uneducated, bigoted, insomniacs. A message carefully orchestrated by clever, manipulative and universally right wing hosts.

All this shows that multiculturalism will not touch the young and old unless public figures with access to all shades of public opinion – including the hoon culture of all ethnicities – come out in support of inclusive multiculturalism of the Australian variety.

As to the so-called ‘Lebs’, there is much that can be done in the public arena. We must realise that those second generation refugees who fled from the horrors of civil war in their parents’ country present a special case of a marginalised group, many members of which have low level educational and occupational opportunities and, above all, the prevalent loss of their ancestral culture.

Above all we must recognise that settlement of all immigrants, particularly of former refuges, must be in the centre of our national policy. But this calls for leadership at the highest level. So, in the widest sense, the concept of multiculturalism is no longer about a rights agenda as it was at the time of the Henderson Poverty Enquiry but about the responsibilities and obligations of all in an inclusive society.

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