The federal government and all major political parties must recommit to multiculturalism.
In recent months we have seen the word “multiculturalism” dropped from the name of the relevant government department. We have seen the introduction of special requirements for people of Arabic descent seeking permanent residency.
Most recently, we have also seen the government introduce a citizenship test which has polarised views and caused concerns among some sectors of the community. The opponents challenge, rightly in my view, the appropriateness of subjecting citizenship candidates to a more strenuous testing regime, particularly as it disadvantages large sectors of the community. But how does all of this sit within the context and reality of Australia in the 21st century?
Most people acknowledge the multicultural reality of Australian society. As the Minister for Immigration and Citizenship, Kevin Andrews said at the recent annual congress of the Federated Ethnic Community Councils of Australia: “Australia is a multicultural society, full stop.” But I think there should be no full stop here, rather a comma, from which flows an affirmation by government that there is a policy supporting this fact and that this policy ensures that basic human rights are respected.
Multiculturalism as a policy of community harmony has worked well in Australia for more than 20 years. It provides a guiding ethos for a dignified, equitable and just process of integration and is consistent with universal human rights principles.
Yet, in this my fourth year, as the Acting Race Discrimination Commissioner at the Human Rights and Equal Opportunity Commission (HREOC), it saddens me to say that over the last few years there has been an increasing ambivalence, and at times, antagonism towards multiculturalism: both as a set of principles and as a government policy framing social relations in Australia. We saw this most graphically in the aftermath of the 2005 London attacks and the Cronulla riots in 2006, which some politicians and media commentators in these respective countries attributed to the policy of multiculturalism.
Many argued that the freedom to enjoy and practice one’s own culture and religion, the bedrock of a multicultural society, does not work when some cultures and religions are not compatible with the core values of that society. Moreover, some argued that this incompatibility between cultures and beliefs has led to an erosion of social stability and national cohesion which manifests itself in riots like those in Cronulla and unrest taking place in other countries throughout the world.
What these commentators fail to point out however, is that showing respect for each other’s culture, religion and race is a core universal value and fundamental to our democratic principles. Universal whether in Australia, London or Hanoi.
Instability is caused not through a diversity of cultures and religions coming together, but when our relationships are governed by racial prejudice and religious intolerance. These fractured relations are further fuelled when these attitudes are mixed with fear. Yet this fear has no relation to actual reality.
Australia is one of the most diverse nations on earth. Australians speak some 364 languages of which 170 are Indigenous languages. The interaction between our cultures is producing new, exciting ways of life and relationships. Given its importance and success, and the ever-expanding reach of globalisation, the time is right for the Australian Government and all political parties to issue a statement of commitment to a policy of multiculturalism, which also affirms the primacy of Australia’s Indigenous heritage. The Australian Government can’t drag its feet any longer when it comes to committing to the one policy that plays a central role in providing a rational and democratic antidote against all forms of extremist action.
As we move further into the 21st century, we need to uphold policy principles of multiculturalism that: enshrine the freedom of all Australians to practice their culture and religion; that provide equal access and opportunity for all Australians to participate fully in the country’s economic, social, cultural and political life; that highlight the responsibility of all Australians to commit to the democratic system and respect the rights of all individuals; and which maximise the economic benefits of multiculturalism for all.
Fear and prejudice is a potent mix that leads to mistrust and social conflicts: as a nation, it is crucial that we recognise and celebrate the role that multiculturalism can and does play in breaking these negative, destructive cycles.