And guess whose fault that is?
And so, on Harmony Day, our erstwhile PM launched a document entitled Multicultural Australia: United, Strong, Successful. And what a colourful, sexy document it is: full of the smiling faces of people from different backgrounds and of all ages, all sharing their own or ancestral stories of struggle — full of wonderful talk about values, visions and all that jazz.
So is the document’s title correct? Upon reading the title of this 16-page document, I couldn’t help but say to myself: “Yep, minus the bigotry of many News Corp columnists and the strength of One Nation, etc, etc, and the emphasis placed on repealing section 18C of the Racial Discrimination Act (a provision that hasn’t stopped the earlier nasty stuff, and whose effect is largely overcome by section 18D) and the paranoia about terrorism that has led to some 65 pieces of legislation since 2005 creating a parallel system of criminal law … minus all that, yes we are a multicultural Australia, which is probably more united, strong and successful than any other Western nation, except perhaps Canada.”
OK, I didn’t literally say all that to myself.
The statement really is a nifty document, short on specifics and high on restating values we already know but rarely see from the Coalition and their friends (at least at election time) in One Nation. The document spoke about the “glue that holds us together is mutual respect — a deep recognition that each of us is entitled to the same respect, the same dignity”. Indeed. And, in the words of our Attorney-General, the same “right to be bigots”.
Under the subheading “Shared vision for the future”, we read about the government continuing to promote “the principle of mutual respect and denouncing racial hatred and discrimination as incompatible with Australian society”. Then on page 19 we read: “… racism and discrimination undermine our society. We condemn people who incite racial hatred.” Unless, of course, if they are supported by the Institute of Public Affairs, the editorial bosses at News Corp, Coalition backbenchers, anti-halal/kosher certification freaks and/or the tiny number of people who read Quadrant. In this case, we will bend over backwards and change the law to suit their need to be as bigoted as they already can be under the law we are hell-bent on changing.
Of course, some of Australia’s neighbours don’t exactly have sterling records in this area. Malaysia’s special treatment for bumiputera (indigenous Malays) over everyone else (including non-Malay Muslims) is appalling. The campaign for the governor of Jakarta has involved overt racial and religious prejudice of a rather un-Islamic kind by influential Muslim preachers targeting a Chinese Christian candidate who is an ally to the current Indonesian President. I doubt it was that bad for Western Sydney Labor MP Ed Husic when anonymous flyers were circulated through the electorate of Greenway in the 2004 election.
Getting back to multiculturalism, I think it’s a bit much to say that it is all about values and vision. Historically, multiculturalism was a policy introduced to help persons with little English to access government services. Interestingly, most of these people were part of the post-War wave of European migration and had lived in Australia for decades, working their elbows to the bone in factories and infrastructure projects and not having the time to learn the local lingo.
Oh, and guess what: multicultural policies in Australia have always been regarded as a means to an end, not as an end in themselves. And what is that end?
In a Commonwealth parliamentary research paper published in 2010, Elsa Koleth notes:
James Jupp points out that Australian multicultural policies have always been premised on the supremacy of existing institutions and values and the primacy of the English language, while placing less emphasis on cultural maintenance beyond the immigrant generation ...As the report notes on page 7, our population comes from over three hundred ancestries, including indigenous peoples with over two hundred and fifty different language groups. We’ve been multicultural for at least 50,000 years. So why tag all this national identity stuff onto what is essentially Australia’s multicultural reality and status quo? Is it the role of multiculturalism to save us from nasty terrorists and even nastier boat people?
And what’s the point of preaching multiculturalism and anti-racism and all that stuff (while you demonise desperate asylum seekers), when you change the law just to please powerful reactionary pseudo-conservatives, and when you take steps to marginalise and alienate young people you think are prone to “radicalisation”?
First published in Crikey on 23 March 2017.