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).