Why A Sustainable Australia Needs Multiculturalism

The debate about a sustainable population for Australia only makes sense if it involves all Australians – as citizens, as producers, and as consumers. So the debate has to make sure everyone feels they have a stake and their input is respected; not only the middle aged, middle class, male and generally, writes Andrew Jakubowicz

The white people who dominated Dick Smith’s “population puzzle” video broadcast on the ABC last recently were barely leavened in the Q and A studio audience by Suvendrini Perera, (Curtin University academic and Fairfax oped writer) on the panel, and Tanveer Ahmed and his dad on the floor. Unfortunately the arguments of people like Dick Smith — while apparently well-intentioned — may well have racist effects. Immigration levels can be an issue for many people as part of the wider debate about population, but the legitimate presence of generations of immigrants and their children should not be. If immigrants are made to feel somehow they are the cause of problems other Australians face, this sets up a very dangerous basis for the debate.

Our current “national conversations” about migration and the rather different set of issues raised by asylum seekers, is not helped when public opinion leaders such as politicians give license to prejudice by making anti-immigrant speech somehow OK.

Both the major parties have taken short-term advantage of the attention that fear and hate foster. Whether it is “hearing peoples’ concerns about asylum seekers” or “the best Australians are locally born, not immigrants” there is a fairly obvious message to those who wish to hear it that immigrants have less value or legitimacy than other Australians. With asylum seekers now universally and so wrongly labeled as “illegal immigrants” the situation can only deteriorate. And that’s unsustainable!

So let’s talk about multiculturalism as the basis for a sustainable population, and why its principles have to be part of any useful debate on sustainability – of people, of lifestyle, of environment, of employment, of economy and of the future. Everyone has to have buy-in to the debate if they are expected to own the outcomes.

Non-Anglo Australians cannot be marginalised — as the government may already have done by placing only one “person of colour” Fairfax columnist Waleed Aly on only one its three advisory bodies on population — and then be expected to feel committed to the outcome of the process. After all, it’s their extended families that are one of the targets for the reduction in immigration. It’s their relatives in refugee camps who’ll be kept out or turned back, it’s often their expectations that are thwarted by rapidly changing immigration rules, and they’ve been the targets of racist attacks. Their family consumption patterns will need to change just as much as anyone else’s, and they’ll need and want to know why. Their kids will need the training and support, and their older people the care and geriatic services. In the latter case non-Anglos made up 40 per cent of the over 70 year old population at the 2006 Census — and could be creeping up to half-way for the 2011 Census.

Cultural diversity already contributes a critical component to our productive wealth and our community services. Whether we are talking health or the service sector or education or industry, turn off the tap on immigrants and you don’t just reduce demand, you reduce skill supply as well. A good way of turning off the tap is to make potential immigrants we do want and need, feel they’d be better off somewhere, almost anywhere, else. One of the most challenging areas for government and opposition is thus their level of recognition of these issues, and the policy settings that result from this awareness (or lack of it).

Read the complete essay here.

More Than Luck is a collection of ideas for citizens who want real change edited by Mark Davis and CPD Executive Director Miriam Lyons. A to-do list for politicians looking to base public policies on the kind of future Australians really want, More Than Luck shows what’s needed to share this country’s good luck amongst all Australians – now and in the future. Click here to find out more. Like what you’ve read? Donate to help make good ideas matter.

Blog Comments

Why is it that whenever the Population issue comes to the fore in Australia, the press (and commentators) latch onto it and turn it from a discussion about numbers, ie whether the country(side), the environment, and the facilities we have built to support these numbers, can cope, into a discussion solely about immigration and where people come from? This debate is not, and has never been about cultural issues (or multiculturalism) but about the environment.
We have a country that has generally poor and depleted soils, with only about 6% of the land mass available for intensive agriculture or farming, a history of variable rainfall and we are losing substantial parts of our agricultural land to salinity and erosion each year. The Australian Academy of Science did the numbers in 1994 and came up with a sustainable size for Australia of 23 million people. Barry Jones’ Parliamentary Committee looked at the carrying capacity of the country and came to a similar conclusion. We live our lifestyle at the moment supported by finite stocks of oil, phosphate, iron ore and coal. And where will we be when (not if) these resources are depleted in the next fifty years?
This country can accommodate 100 million people or more provided we accept that we will have massive biodiversity loss, and a substantial reduction of cultural and social welfare in this country. You think we have problems now, what will be the situation when our cheap resources start running out and we have a large population the country is unable to support? With 100 million people we will potentially all live in grass huts and lose everything that makes this country what it is. We have to stop our growth somewhere and why shouldn’t it be ‘here’ at 23 million rather than at 36 or 100 million people? That’s the issue!
I live happily with my neighbours who are from the middle east, southeast asia and europe and have no difficulty culturally accepting them (as they do my family) but even they tell me that we can’t continue to grow without end. It makes no sense to hijack the debate about population and numbers and sustainability and turn it into a fear mongering discussion about ‘who’ my neighbours are and where they have come from. JW

This seems to be a very confused article. Multiculturalism has never been a basis for a sustainable population. It arose in the 1970s as a policy setting largely to enable immigrant groups in Australia to grow in size through the now discredited family reunion progam. And, secondarily, it was a policy setting that sanctioned immigrant groupsin pursuing processes of ethnic and cultural ghetto-isation.

Thirty years on, all this is unsustainable. The growth of out cities is driven largely by immigration, and working class disdvantage in outer urban areas is compounded by cultural fragmentation. The demise of social cohesion and the decline of trust in these areas has been propelled by these policy settings. Worst of all, public debate on these matters has been closed down for thirty years, allowing attitudes to ossify and ethnic tensions and suspicion to fester.

We need a wide-ranging debate about immigration and multiculturalism which rejects both racism and the politically correct suppression of evidence of social and cultural fragmentation.


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