Multiculturalism means ‘join us’, not ‘change us’

For the past four decades multiculturalism has dominated the policy orthodoxy on social cohesion in Australia. The primary focus of multiculturalism has been to build an appreciation of ethnic and cultural diversity to combat intolerance and discrimination that was denying Australians the opportunity to fully participate in Australian life. It has had success in this regard.

The Howard Government’s policy statement, A New Agenda for Multicultural Australia, sought to shift this emphasis of multicultural policy and adopted the term ‘Australian multiculturalism’ to bring a greater focus on what communities had in common as Australians.

The policy deliberately set out to explicitly recognize the supremacy of Australian values, the primacy of the English language, respect for existing institutions and adherence to the rule of law. Labor’s policy has moved away from this focus and reverted back to the more traditional emphasis on accommodating and promoting diversity, almost as an end in itself, as has long been practiced in the UK and Europe.

While I consider there are very real differences between the situations in UK and Europe with Australia, I believe the efforts of Prime Minister Cameron and Chancellor Merkel to speak frankly about the performance of multiculturalism in their own countries and seek out a new post multiculturalism agenda is a positive step that we should also not be afraid of.

I am always personally reluctant to use the term multiculturalism as it simply means too many things to too many different people and increasingly runs the risk of fuelling division and polarising the debate, which is the antithesis of what it is supposed to achieve.

The question should not be whether one is for or against multiculturalism.

We should acknowledge in the debate, as I do, that a consensus has emerged on the existence and benefits of ethnic, racial and religious diversity in our society. Having affirmed this consensus we must then ask what practical policies are needed to remove the new barriers that are emerging.

What matters is not what we call a policy but whether it works.

After four decades of focusing on promoting the virtues of diversity, with myriad taxpayer funded programmes, I am uncertain that lack of appreciation of diversity is the principal barrier to economic and social participation for Australians of different ethnic, racial or religious backgrounds and affiliations. It is more likely that such barriers are specific to particular communities, often within these groups, and located in discrete geographic locations. The remedies are therefore more likely to fall within the domain of more mainstream social and economic portfolio policy areas.

The 2012 social cohesion study for the Scanlon Foundation affirmed these points. The study found that once again that there is broad acceptance of the existence and benefits of cultural diversity within our society. However they also discovered an increasing level of frustration and disaffection amongst Australians living in specific areas of high ethnic concentration, caused by perceived social and economic failure in these communities and an increasing level of what I would term self imposed cultural withdrawal.

It surely cannot be the purpose of multicultural policy that Australians elect to disengage from our society for religious, cultural or ethnic reasons.

This sounds a warning about the need to take a more bespoke approach to these issues and restore some balance by ensuring that we are more focused on promoting what we have in common rather than how different we all are.

We must also send a strong message that cultural tolerance is not a license for cultural practices that are offensive to the cultural values, and laws, of Australia and that our respect for diversity does not provide license for closed communities.

This is not what Australia is all about. It is also in direct conflict with the overwhelming experience, spirit and practice of immigration to Australia; where people have come to join us, not change us.

Scott Morrison represents the seat of Cook in the House of Representatives and is the Shadow Minister for Immigration and Citizenship. The text was excerpted from his recent speech to the Menzies Centre for Australian Studies, Kings College, London. The full text is available here

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