Multicultural Australia

Juliet Pietsch

Key terms/names

assimilationism, ethnicity, integration, multiculturalism, non-English-speaking backgrounds (NESB), Office of Multicultural Affairs (OMA), public opinion, race

 

The rise and fall of multiculturalism and public support for multiculturalism in Australia has historically been influenced by social issues, such as public concerns about globalisation, national identity, immigration, social cohesion and population growth. In contrast to other settler countries, multiculturalism was originally developed to dismantle the White Australia policy and provide the legislative and policy foundations for supporting migrants from non-English-speaking backgrounds (NESB). In Australia, multiculturalism has focused primarily on the needs of migrants and their right to express their cultural identities. Attempts to include Indigenous Australians in multicultural policy have been met with caution due to the concern of conflating issues regarding Indigenous Australians (especially with regards to land rights, constitutional recognition and reconciliation) with distinctly migrant experiences.1

Multiculturalism is underpinned by a vast body of philosophical literature on modern liberalism and cultural diversity that examines the concept of a ‘politics of difference’.2 Kymlicka, for instance, explores the importance of collective rights to self-determination. These rights can be held by individuals or groups, such as minority nationals or Indigenous peoples.3 Kymlicka argues that cultural group rights are needed, on the one hand, to protect a cultural community from forced segregation and, on the other, to provide enough flexibility to protect other communities from forced integration (i.e. Indigenous peoples).4

Countries have approached multiculturalism differently due to their unique historical, legal and cultural circumstances. For instance, in Canada multiculturalism was introduced to resolve tensions between French- and English-speaking Canadians. There was a much stronger emphasis on the institutionalisation of multiculturalism in Canada than in Australia, which was strengthened in 1982 with the inclusion of protections for Canada’s multicultural heritage in the Charter of Rights and Freedoms. This was followed by the Canadian Multiculturalism Act 1988 which aimed to address the under-representation of minority groups in parliament. In contrast, Australia has never adopted a legal framework for multiculturalism. Instead, it has focused on improving social and economic outcomes for migrants from NESB. Before the introduction of multiculturalism in Australia, migrants from NESB struggled with low levels of English literacy and were often the victims of racism and discrimination due to the enduring impact of the White Australia policy.

This chapter focuses on the development of multiculturalism in Australia, as distinct from other countries around the world. The first section of the chapter traces the development of multicultural Australia in three distinct phases: 1) integration of non-British postwar European migrants; 2) social justice and equality; and 3) citizenship and civics. The second section of the chapter examines public attitudes towards multiculturalism over time, drawing on findings from the Australian Election Studies, and reflects on the meaning of multicultural Australia in the 21st century.

The development of multicultural Australia

After the Great Depression and the Second World War, Australia moved towards an ethnically plural program, concomitant with a significant decline in arrivals in Australia of migrants with British origins. By the 1940s, it was clear that immigration from Britain was not going to be sufficient to achieve economic growth in Australia. Therefore, Australia’s immigration resources were diverted from Britain to the refugee issues in western and southern Europe. To assist with overpopulation and fears of political instability in Europe, Australia was persuaded by the International Refugee Organisation to accept large numbers of people displaced by the war. After the Second World War, the decision to initiate a program of mass migration was announced in the Commonwealth parliament by the first minister for immigration, Arthur Calwell.

Australia introduced the assisted European migration program, which began in 1947. The Australian government was initially hesitant to admit Greek and Italian refugees because they were seen as culturally different and politically suspect due to the influence of communism in their home countries.5 However, due to the demand for labour, the program eventually accepted 170,000 refugees from countries including Malta (1948), Italy and the Netherlands (1951), Germany, Austria and Greece (1952), Spain (1958), Turkey (1967) and former Yugoslavia (1970).6 European immigration peaked in the 1960s, with a total of 875,000 assisted passages.7 Overall, the European immigration program helped to increase the size of the workforce and contributed to postwar economic expansion.8

In this period, the ideology behind the European immigration program was ‘assimilationism’. Non-British migrants were encouraged to naturalise and assimilate.9 In 1945, Arthur Calwell, the minister for immigration in 1945–49, proposed that ‘Australian nationality’ be equated with Australian citizenship to facilitate immigration and deportation, the issue of passports and the representation of Australians abroad.10

Following the 1947 Commonwealth Conference on Nationality and Citizenship, the Commonwealth nations agreed on a system of nationality and citizenship. In 1949, Australian citizenship came into being after the enactment of the Nationality and Citizenship Act 1948 (Cth). Citizenship was seen as a crucial component of nation building.11 However, Australian citizenship was still associated with being a British subject.

The conception of citizenship based on a sense of national belonging led to different levels of discrimination against non-British migrants. For example, non-British subjects could only obtain citizenship after five years, whereas British subjects only had to wait one year to obtain citizenship.12 In terms of eligibility for citizenship, there was also discrimination between Asian migrants and European migrants. For instance, by 1958, Asian migrants were required to live in Australia for 15 years or more before becoming eligible for naturalisation under the Migration Act 1958 (Cth). By contrast, European migrants only had to wait five years for naturalisation.13

At the 1952 citizenship convention, the minister for immigration, Harold Holt, referred to the importance of restrictions in Australia’s immigration policy. He stated that restrictions were not based on racial superiority, but rather on differences between cultures that make successful assimilation difficult.14 Although Holt was mainly referring to migrants from Asian backgrounds, this discrimination was also directed towards southern European migrants, who were often provided little or no support for their resettlement. For example, in 1952, the Department of Immigration’s social workers reported severe distress among non-British migrants, where shelters for the homeless were unable to cope and thousands were left sleeping in parks.15

During the late 1960s, many European migrants experienced poor working conditions and poor health associated with unhealthy working environments and unemployment.16 James Jupp’s Arrivals and departures (1966) provided significant insight into anti-assimilationist complaints and migrant welfare problems. Jupp criticised the lack of government housing, the lack of pensions for elderly migrants, the high number of migrants in low-skilled employment, the lack of recognition of overseas qualifications, poor protection of migrant workers by Australian unions and the lack of English-language courses and available interpreters.17

In 1973, the Labor government, under the leadership of Prime Minister Gough Whitlam, promoted a reconceptualisation of Australian national identity in terms of multiculturalism. The term ‘multiculturalism’ was borrowed from Canada but applied differently in the Australian context. The Labor minister for immigration, Al Grassby, identified that nearly a million migrants had not taken up Australian citizenship because of their experiences of racism and discrimination. Grassby suggested encouraging the retention of social and cultural differences among non-British Australians. In response, the Australian Citizenship Bill 1973 (Cth) was introduced in 1973, reflecting a new national identity that was anti-racist and challenged assimilationist values.18 The focus of citizenship shifted from culture and British inheritance to the principle of territoriality – that is, residence on the territory of the Australian state.19

In 1974, the government also introduced a Bill to combat racial discrimination and ratify the United Nations Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination, to which Australia had been a signatory since 1966 but had not ratified. The Bill was passed by both houses of the Commonwealth parliament on 4 June 1975 and became the Racial Discrimination Act 1975 (Cth). The legislation made it unlawful to discriminate against a person because of their nationality, race, colour or ethnicity. The passing of the Racial Discrimination Act 1975 formally ended the White Australia policy. However, that policy had such a significant impact on the public imagination and sense of national community and identity that its effects lingered for decades afterwards.

With increasing numbers of Asian migrants in the late 1970s, the government was under international pressure to move ahead of the general population of Australia in endorsing a new ethnically inclusive national identity. Migrant services and programs: the report of the review of post-arrival programs and services to migrants, known as the Galbally report, was introduced in 1978 as a key driver in formulating government policies affecting migrants. At the heart of the report was the need to provide encouragement and financial assistance for migrants so that they could maintain their cultural identity.20 The Galbally report recommended:

  • improvements in the Adult Migrant Education Program, which was initiated in 1947 to teach survival English to refugees
  • free telephone interpreter services for migrants from NESB and emergency services
  • the establishment of Migrant Resource Centres
  • the introduction of a Special Broadcasting Service (SBS).21

The Fraser government strongly supported the recommendations of the report, initiating expanded migrant settlement services and seeking to promote cultural pluralism as a source of strength to Australia’s national identity rather than a threat. The Galbally report suggested shifting migrant services from the general area of social welfare to ‘ethnic specific’ services.22 Overall, between 1976 and 1983, the Fraser government reduced spending by shifting funding from government agencies to voluntary organisations within the community. Therefore, cultural diversity was encouraged, but only if political and economic structures were left intact.23

When the Labor government was elected in 1983, it set about reforming some of the Liberal policies of multiculturalism. The Review of Migrant and Multicultural Programs and Services (ROMAMPAS) was released in 1986. It proposed a strategy of providing basic resources and support for cultural expression, stressing the importance of equality. The report suggested four principles for developing government policies:

  1. All members of the Australian community should have an equitable opportunity to participate in the economic, social, cultural and political life of the nation.
  2. All members of the Australian community should have equitable access to an equitable share of the resources that governments manage on behalf of the community.
  3. All members of the Australian community should have the opportunity to participate in and influence the design and operation of government policies, programs and services.
  4. All members of the Australian community should have the right, within the law, to enjoy their own culture, to practise their own religion and to use their own language, and should respect the right of others to their own culture, religion and language.

The focus of the report was ensuring equal opportunity and outcomes for all Australians. The report also recommended the establishment of an Office of Multicultural Affairs (OMA), which was set up in 1987 and assumed responsibility for the Commonwealth Access and Equity Strategy.24

The principles of multiculturalism were broadly accepted by the Hawke and Keating Labor governments throughout the 1980s and early 1990s.25 However, with the rise in Asian immigration, there were rumblings that the government was moving too far ahead of public opinion. For example, Geoffrey Blainey argued that the immigration policy in the early 1980s was insensitive to the views of the majority of Australians. In All for Australia, Blainey criticised Australia’s immigration policy and the slogan ‘Australia is part of Asia’. He argued that Australia was importing unemployment but not announcing what it was doing.26 Furthermore, he criticised the nature of multiculturalism as an identity for Australia:

Multiculturalism is an appropriate policy for those residents who hold two sets of national loyalties and two passports. For the millions of Australians who have one loyalty this policy is a national insult.27

Blainey’s criticisms were later echoed in the mid-1990s. For example, in 1996, leader of the One Nation Party (ONP), Pauline Hanson, expressed the following concerns about Asian immigration and multiculturalism in her maiden speech in federal parliament:

Immigration and multiculturalism are issues that this government is trying to address, but for far too long ordinary Australians have been kept out of any debate by the major parties. I and most Australians want our immigration policy radically reviewed and that of multiculturalism abolished. I believe we are in danger of being swamped by Asians.28

The recognition of ethnic difference in multiculturalism was interpreted by the ONP as a form of disrespect to Anglo-Australian identity.29 In fact, it is possible that ONP populism caused the most damage to multiculturalism.

The rise of transnationalism tends to encourage states to reassert their authority in shaping national identity and national citizenship.30 The frequency of terrorist attacks has also led to governments reaffirming national identity and establishing new citizenship obligations. As a result, Eleonore Kofman argues that more than ever ‘the state is asserting its role as protector of national identity and social cohesion’.31

The shift to civic integration was partly due to the pressure to maintain a secure environment and also to obtain public consent for large-scale influxes of skilled migrants.32 The Australian government response has been to support high levels of migration but at the same time demonstrate to the public that they are tightly monitoring the management of migration and diversity.33

At the turn of the century, with nearly 25 per cent of Australians born outside the country, with transnational connections, the Coalition government specifically focused on the notion of citizenship as a basis for a collective national identity. The government proposed more difficult and protracted citizenship tests. In October 2006, Liberal MP Petro Georgiou criticised the government’s discussion paper ‘Australian citizenship: much more than just a ceremony’ in a speech delivered to the Murray Hill Society at the University of Adelaide. Georgiou argued that difficult and protracted citizenship tests were not necessary to promote social cohesion and integration. In particular, Georgiou criticised the proposed English tests, arguing that the take-up of citizenship is lowest among English speakers. For example, migrants from the UK, New Zealand and the USA have traditionally had lower take-up rates of citizenship than migrants from non-English-speaking countries.

With no real break in terrorist incidents in Western countries, and subsequent concerns about racial and ethnic tensions, the civic approach to multiculturalism and social cohesion was largely supported by successive Labor and Liberal governments in the first two decades of the 21st century. However, terrorist attacks further damaged government support for multiculturalism. They also harmed Muslim communities that in most cases had fled from wars, terrorism and religious violence in their countries of origin, only to be confronted with the reality of politically motivated violence once again.

Public support for multiculturalism

So far, this chapter has looked at the development of multicultural Australia from the perspective of government in response to changing immigration patterns, public fears about national identity, globalisation and national security. However, throughout the changes in government policy, the broader Australian public has maintained consistent views towards multiculturalism. One way to measure public attitudes towards multiculturalism is to ask people whether they feel equal opportunities for migrants have gone too far. As can be seen in the previous section, the original goals of multicultural Australia were to provide equal opportunities for migrants through a range of programs, such as providing English as a second language support for migrants from NESB, as well as a range of migrant welfare, cultural and translation services.

Figure 1 shows the results from the 1990–2016 Australian Election Studies. The Australian Election Study surveys a representative sample of Australians each election year, asking questions on a range of social and political issues. The advantage of the Australian Election Studies is the way in which the surveys track political attitudes and behaviours over time, asking the same questions in each election year. The results in Figure 1 reveal that up to 44 per cent of respondents were not overly supportive of multiculturalism in the early 1990s. Interestingly, the percentage that were concerned about multiculturalism decreased in the years leading up to the 9/11 terrorist attacks and the follow-up concerns about migration, particularly arrivals of asylum-seekers with Muslim backgrounds. Asylum-seeker arrivals became a source of political controversy during the 2001 election campaign. In 2001, the Howard government, in what became known as the ‘Tampa Affair’, claimed that asylum seekers had thrown their children overboard to secure long-term protection in Australia. An Australian Senate Select Committee later found that the children of asylum seekers were not placed at risk and that the government had tried to mislead voters.

Graph of results from the 1990–2016 Australian Election Studies demonstrating Australian support for multiculturalism, showing declines in the early 1990s and around 2010.

Figure 1 Attitudes towards multiculturalism and immigration (%). Source: 1990–2016 Australian Election Studies, https://australianelectionstudy.org/.

The percentage of survey participants that were concerned about multiculturalism increased throughout the first decade of the 21st century from 27 per cent in 2004 to 35 per cent in 2016. This may, in part, be related to increasing media attention on terrorist attacks in other countries. However, the results in Figure 1 also show that attitudes towards levels of migration run parallel to attitudes towards multiculturalism, with an increasing percentage of Australians concerned about the number of migrants allowed into Australia. In 2016, more than 40 per cent of the Australian population felt that the number of migrants allowed into Australia had gone too far, increasing from a low of 27 per cent in 2004.

Australian attitudes towards multiculturalism and immigration are also consistently related to several important background factors, such as age, education and political identification. Table 1 shows that, in more recent election years, younger Australians were less likely to be concerned about equal opportunities for migrants, compared to older Australians. For example, in 2016, only 14 per cent of respondents in the ‘18–24’ age bracket expressed, concern compared with over 40 per cent of respondents in the ‘35–44’ and ‘55 and over’ age brackets. In some elections, younger respondents were more likely to express concern about multiculturalism, compared to older respondents, such as in 1990, 1996, 1998, 2001 and 2010. This shows that younger age groups are not always supportive of multiculturalism, as is often assumed, with younger age groups considered to be more progressive than older age groups.

 

1990

1993

1996

1998

2001

2004

2007

2010

2013

2016

Age

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

18–24

34

46

52

35

40

18

19

42

31

14

25–34

28

46

46

34

36

26

24

30

34

30

35–44

21

43

40

33

34

25

28

42

35

40

45–54

15

40

43

36

34

27

32

42

40

33

55–64

15

41

42

29

31

27

28

34

41

40

65+

18

46

46

31

33

29

27

35

39

41

Education

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

No qualification

26

49

50

36

42

28

30

41

43

39

Non-tertiary qualification

19

46

46

37

37

33

34

44

46

46

Tertiary qualification

9

24

28

19

16

15

13

23

21

20

Vote

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Liberal

20

47

50

31

37

33

32

45

45

40

Labor

21

41

36

30

32

21

25

31

31

32

National

30

50

59

41

39

31

43

65

47

47

Greens

 

 

39

39

17

9

15

25

12

9

Table 1 ‘Equal opportunities for migrants gone too far’, by background (%). The question was, ‘Do you think the following change that has been happening in Australia over the years has gone too far, not gone far enough, or is it about right? ‘Equal opportunities for migrants’. Source: 1990–2016 Australian Election Studies, https://australianelectionstudy.org/.

Other, more consistent factors that are related to views on multiculturalism are education and political identification. Those with a tertiary qualification are consistently more likely to support multiculturalism, although even among respondents with a university education there has been a steady increase in the number concerned about multiculturalism, from only 9 per cent of respondents in 1990 to 20 per cent in 2016. Nevertheless, those without a university qualification show a much higher level of concern about multiculturalism, with more than 45 per cent of respondents in 2010 and 2013 and 40 per cent in 2016 stating that equal opportunities for migrants had gone too far. The most consistent factor that is related to views about multiculturalism is how respondents vote during the election. Those who vote for Labor and the Greens at each election have been consistently more likely to support multiculturalism, compared to those who vote for the Coalition. This would be expected because since the 1990s the Labor Party has more actively promoted multiculturalism. Federal and state Labor electorates are also more likely to have significant populations of migrants from both low socio-economic and non-English-speaking backgrounds.

Conclusions

Political leaders, by and large, acknowledge that the old form of nationalism in Australia, based on common history, language and tradition, has declining relevance. These leaders have given expression to what a new ‘national community’ should be. In the 1980s, Prime Minister Bob Hawke supported the view of a ‘national community’ in Australia as defined in terms of multiculturalism. This view was presented in the 1989 National Agenda for a Multicultural Australia. Whitlam, Fraser and Hawke all attempted to reconcile diversity with a common British-Australian identity. However, the use of multiculturalism as a symbol of Australian nationalism began to unravel when subsequent governments began to feel uneasy with the concept.34 Since the rise of the ONP and conservative politics in the late 1990s and terrorism in the 21st century, consecutive governments have refrained from promoting multiculturalism as a unifying symbol of national identity. Instead, the policy of multiculturalism is considered useful for managing cultural diversity and social cohesion.

The findings of the Australian Election Studies discussed in this chapter show that while there are many ebbs and flows in government policies and public debates on multiculturalism and immigration, there is a fairly consistent level of public support for multiculturalism, especially among those with a tertiary qualification and Labor voters. It appears that efforts among government and media elites to undermine the enduring success of multicultural Australia have had very little success, revealing the inclusivity and egalitarianism of the Australian population.

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About the author

Juliet Pietsch is an associate professor of political science, specialising in race and ethnic politics and political sociology. Her recent research focuses on the political integration of migrants and ethnic minorities in Western immigrant countries and South-East Asia. She also researches questions relating to migrant voting patterns, citizenship, migrant political engagement and political socialisation. She has held visiting fellowships at Stanford University and the University of Oxford and has recently completed a book, published by the University of Toronto Press, comparing the political integration of migrants and ethnic minorities in Australia, Canada and the USA.

1 Parliament of Australia 2011.

2 Faulks 1998; Favell 1998; Isin 2008; Kymlicka 1995; Kymlicka and Banting 2006; Levey and Modood 2009.

3 Kymlicka 1995; Kymlicka 1989.

4 Kymlicka 1995.

5 Vasta 2005.

6 Jupp 1992.

7 Jupp 2002, 23.

8 Jakubowicz 1989.

9 Jakubowicz 1989; Jordens 1997.

10 Dutton 1999.

11 Jordens 1995.

12 Zappala and Castles 2000.

13 Brawley 1995.

14 Jordens 1997, 149.

15 Jordens 1997, 13.

16 Castles et al. 1988.

17 Jupp 1966.

18 Davidson 1997.

19 Zappala and Castles 2000, 40.

20 Galbally 1978.

21 Jupp 1992.

22 Kalantzis 2000, 104.

23 Jupp 1988, 927.

24 Jupp 1992.

25 Jones 2003, 116.

26 Blainey 1984.

27 Blainey 1988, 22.

28 Hanson 2016.

29 Leach 2000, 45.

30 Holton 1998; Kofman 2005.

31 Kofman 2005, 454–5.

32 Joppke 2004.

33 Ang and Stratton 2001.

34 Curran 2002.