Floating Life 4/06 ~ 11/07

an archive

2 — multiculturalism: diversity versus uniformity

Many years of thought and experience have gone into this page. I commend it to my fellow Australians at this time, a dark time (in my opinion) in the ongoing evolution of tolerance in our society. Mateship appears to be turning in on itself. During 2007 the Australian (Howard) government continued down its path away from the “M” word, changing the name of the Department of Immigration and Multicultural Affairs (DIMA) to Department of Immigration and Citizenship (DIC?). Even so, “The current policy – Multicultural Australia: United in Diversity” remains on the DIAC site. Someone noticed the unfortunate acronym then…

A small but important story appeared in the Sydney Morning Herald on 12 December 2006: Unity, not diversity, is PM’s word.

AFTER 30 years, the word multiculturalism is fading from the Government’s vocabulary. The Prime Minister, John Howard, and his parliamentary secretary for immigration, Andrew Robb, say they have little use for the word. Mr Howard said yesterday he preferred the word integration and that if multiculturalism “means you emphasise diversity rather than unity, then I do have a problem with it”.Asked if multiculturalism was to be dropped, Mr Howard said on ABC radio: “I haven’t used the word a lot. We are not sort of formally abandoning words … you use the language which best expresses the feeling you have, and I prefer to use the expression integration.”

The Opposition Leader, Kevin Rudd, has also shown a preference for the word integration, adding it to the title of the shadow immigration portfolio held by Tony Burke.

But Mr Robb, whose full title is parliamentary secretary for immigration and multicultural affairs, said he had not discussed dropping the term. He agreed with Mr Howard that multiculturalism “means different things to different people. I have found better words [such as] integration and diversity”. Mr Robb said Australia’s approach had to change to reflect demands for the inclusion of a much more diverse non-European migrant population and the greater requirement for English skills in jobs taken by migrants. An example of the dramatic shift from postwar dominance of European migrants was that China was now the third biggest source of migrants.

“In terms of effective integration, we have to do things which anticipate problems like declining social cohesion,” he said. Some European countries had paid dearly for turning a blind eye to the influx of guest workers from other cultures which had created “huge problems”.

It is no surprise that John Howard has a problem with the word multiculturalism, in its current form a legacy of the Malcolm Fraser prime ministership rather than of the Whitlam years, believe it or not. Howard has always had a problem as he remains what he always has been: an assimilationist and a monoculturalist. His position has hardly changed in more than two decades. We ESL teachers were made well aware of his position on the matter in the 1990s. I have traced one aspect of the reaction in a study of the HREOC document Face the Facts between 1997 and 2005, which I prepared for my area ESL network group. (That is now on Geocities, having been rescued today from the dubious clutches of Tripod.)

Because he was not a hundred miles from Pauline Hanson on this issue, Howard’s opposition to her in 1996 and 1997 was muted, not to mention that he had more than half an eye on clawing back her voters, in which aim he succeeded, aided and abetted, ironically, by the extreme nature of the left’s reaction to Pauline, a lesson we all need to learn today.

There can be no doubt that as a matter of fact Australia is a society composed of people of immense diversity, personal, social and cultural, and there is no way of avoiding that fact. The question is what approach does justice to that fact, and to the lives of those individuals and families who comprise our nation.

Assimilation suggests that unless you fit a certain model you are inferior, and it is your responsibility to conform and to root out anything in yourself that does not conform. Howard likes that. Integration is less radical, and it is the word Howard prefers, even if what he really means is so close to assimilation it doesn’t matter. I am, nonetheless, in favour of integration, at least in the sense that there has to be an over-riding commitment which sacrifices some aspects of diversity for the common good. In practice this is, and always has been, difficult. Should Quakers and Jehovah’s Witnesses be jailed in wartime, for example, because they oppose war? Should Catholics come under suspicion because they have a degree of loyalty, sometimes very intense, to a foreign potentate in Rome? Those might seem silly, but they have exercised the minds of Australians in the past. Many of the issues people have today will seem as silly to future generations.

The word multiculturalism certainly raises hackles, yet the word diversity doesn’t quite as much, and if I told you I was proud of Australia being a cosmopolitan society you would probably agree with me. I find that very strange. So let us see what it is we are objecting to when we bridle at multiculturalism. I now borrow from my other blog.

Face the Facts— This is the third edition of Face the Facts, published for the Australian Government by the Human Rights and Equal Opportunities Commission in 2003.
What is Australian multiculturalism? from Face the Facts:

Australia is made up of people from diverse cultures and backgrounds. Multiculturalism celebrates this diversity and recognises the challenges and opportunities that come with it. The main principles of Australia’s policy of multiculturalism are:

  • Responsibilities of all – all Australians have a civic duty to support those basic structures and principles of Australian society which guarantee us our freedom and equality and enable diversity in our society to flourish.
  • Respect for each person – subject to the law, all Australians have the right to express their own culture and beliefs and have a reciprocal obligation to respect the right of others to do the same.
  • Fairness for each person – all Australians are entitled to equality of treatment and opportunity. Social equity allows us all to contribute to the social, political and economic life of Australia, free from discrimination, including on the grounds of race, culture, religion, language, location, gender or place of birth.
  • Benefits for all – all Australians benefit from productive diversity, that is, the significant cultural, social and economic dividends arising from the diversity of our population. Diversity works for all Australians.


Racism No Way— lots of information, including resources on the various communities and cultures in Australia.
NSW Charter of Principles for a Culturally Diverse Society.
The Migration Heritage Centre of NSW values and promotes our diverse cultural heritage.
Australian Multiculturalism for a New Century: Towards Inclusiveness — Australian government report 1999.

Now you tell me what there is there to get excited about, and why we should reject it?

The leadership this country needs would embrace all of the above passionately, not retreat from them. It would be seeking, as at certain levels many who serve the government have been doing, to grant our right to embrace our own cultural and personal identities within the framework of a generous and tolerant home country. But we have not had such leadership in recent years.

Fortunately in practice we often do better than our leadership in this regard, and to be fair not everything the government has done has been bad; but it is a bad move to pander to those who misunderstand or misrepresent multiculturalism as we have evolved it in Australia in order to embarrass the Labor Party and secure the most unreflective right wing voters, and to capitalise on our fear of aliens and terrorists, who may well, let’s face it, speak good English and pass multiple choice tests. What the government should be doing is educating the Australian public on the nature and advantages of our diversity, pretty much along the lines of the extract from Face the Facts above, even if that particular articulation is watered down considerably from the 1997 version. Resiling from those principles does not create harmony; rather it tends to exacerbate suspicions and tensions.

This is just one of many ways in which, in my opinion, the Howard years have been destructive ones for Australia, culturally and socially at least. This saddens rather than angers me, because it need not have been so, even with a conservative government. People like Bruce Baird and Petro Georgiou indicate alternative conservative visions which we have, to our great cost, moved away from thanks to the tone set by the likes of Howard and Ruddock.*

On that other blog I also quote English parliamentarian Lord Bikhu Parekh:

We instinctively suspect attempts to homogenize a culture and impose a single identity on it, for we are acutely aware that every culture is internally plural and differentiated. And we remain equally sceptical of all attempts to present it as one whose origins lie within itself, as self-generating and sui generis, for we feel persuaded that all cultures are born out of interaction with and absorb the influences of others and are shaped by wider economic, political and other forces. This undercuts the very basis of Afrocentrism, Eurocentrism, Indocentrism, Sinocentrism and other kinds of centrisms, all of which isolate the history of the culture concerned from that of others and credit its achievements to its own genius.From a multiculturalist perspective, no political doctrine or ideology can represent the full truth of human life. Each of them — be it liberalism, conservatism, socialism or nationalism — is embedded in a particular culture, represents a particular vision of the good life, and is necessarily narrow and partial. Liberalism, for example, is an inspiring political doctrine stressing such great values as human dignity, autonomy, liberty, critical thought and equality. However, they can be defined in several different ways, of which the liberal is only one and not always the most coherent…

I deeply suspect attempts to homogenize a culture and impose a single identity on it, and that is what Howard is really about. That is why his approach must be confronted and rejected.

If you want a thoughtful approach to the paradox of personal and cultural identity and some answer to the problems that may present, you would do worse than read Amin Maalouf, writing as a Lebanese expatriate in France.

To those who ask, I explain with patience that I was born in Lebanon, lived there until the age of 27, that Arabic is my first language and I discovered Dickens, Dumas and “Gulliver’s Travels” in the Arabic translation, and I felt happy for the first time as a child in my village in the mountains, the village of my ancestors where I heard some of the stories that would help me later write my novels. How could I forget all of this? How could I untie myself from it? But on another side, I have lived on the French soil for 22 years, I drink its water and wine, my hands caress its old stones everyday, I write my books in French and France could never again be a foreign country.Half French and half Lebanese, then? Not at all! The identity cannot be compartmentalized; it cannot be split in halves or thirds, nor have any clearly defined set of boundaries. I do not have several identities, I only have one, made of all the elements that have shaped its unique proportions.

Sometimes, when I have finished explaining in detail why I fully claim all of my elements, someone comes up to me and whispers in a friendly way: “You were right to say all this, but deep inside of yourself, what do you really feel you are?”

This question made me smile for a long time. Today, it no longer does. It reveals to me a dangerous and common attitude men have. When I am asked who I am “deep inside of myself,” it means there is, deep inside each one of us, one “belonging” that matters, our profound truth, in a way, our “essence” that is determined once and for all at our birth and never changes. As for the rest, all of the rest — the path of a free man, the beliefs he acquires, his preferences, his own sensitivity, his affinities, his life — all these things do not count. And when we push our contemporaries to state their identity, which we do very often these days, we are asking them to search deep inside of themselves for this so-called fundamental belonging, that is often religious, nationalistic, racial or ethnic and to boast it, even to a point of provocation.

That, my friends, is the reality that our politics, whatever the variety, must come to terms with. Howard’s politics does not.

* For a very thoughtful presentation of some of these matters from a conservative viewpoint, see Jim Belshaw’s Pauline Hanson and the Australian Way.

See too Gay Erasmus (Adrian Phoon): African Refugees on “a young refugee from Burundi who migrated less than a month ago to Australia.” [No longer online, unfortunately.]

He’s exactly the kind of refugee that Pauline Hanson last week sought, ineffectually, to scapegoat when she openly feared the supposedly indiscriminate, unthinking endorsement of AIDS-carrying African migrants entering the country. The 24-year old is also the kind of person who exposes John Howard’s headline-grabbing citizenship test as a farce. For if he were to become a citizen of Australia somewhere down the track, the qualities he offers the nation won’t be in any way due to his ability to define ‘mateship’ in a meaningless test.He speaks several languages fluently, including English, and has extensive experience both in translation work and in computing. He’s also a poet, and says that he writes verses to retreat from the atrocities he’s witnessed. He’s expressed interest in doing social work and is investigating his tertiary study options.

This is indeed what Howard and his friends forget in their relentless search, driven by their atavistic political “philosophy”, for crowd-pleasing but cheap solutions to genuine problems.

M’s encounter with John Howard

I rarely tell stories from M, as he prefers I don’t, but this one is both true and symbolic, in my view.

In 1999 M, who is Chinese, was a waiter at a political function where John Howard was present. He and his colleagues — male, female, and ethnically diverse — were carrying the drinks and nibbles. Over some period M noticed that John Howard would look around, even if M was nearest, for a waiter of Anglo-Celtic appearance and catch that waiter’s attention. Having seen this happen a number of times, M decided he wasn’t going to serve John Howard as his body language and actions were sending quite a strong message.

Eventually John Howard could no longer ignore M, and turned to him for a drink. M walked away.

M’s boss carpeted M for this, saying “Don’t you know who that is? That’s the Prime Minister!”

“I don’t care who he is,” said M. “I’m not serving him…” And he explained why, using some good English expletives to reinforce the point and making a rather obvious interpretation of Howard’s earlier actions.

I can guarantee that happened; even if Howard was not consciously doing it, what it revealed was certainly interesting. He was relaxed and surrounded by political colleagues at the time, away from the public gaze. M is not a liar, nor is he given to exaggeration. This event has coloured his and my views on Howard ever since.

Written by Neil

December 16, 2006 at 10:20 am

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