Thursday, February 17, 2011

Multiculturalism, migration & Australian life

With Neil offline until 18 February, I thought that I should pick up one of his interests. Yesterday the Australian Government launched a new multicultural policy. You will find the policy here, The People of Australia – Australia's Multicultural Policy; the Government has also released The Response to the Recommendations of the Australian Multicultural Advisory Council in The People of Australia.

Both are very much your current Australian Governments style policy documents. The first has a big title and is 16 pages long, but most of it is photos. The second lists all the things the Government is doing to implement particular recommendations and is replete with words such as partnerships; the detail can become a bit eye glazing. 

The Minister's speech announcing the policy appears to have contained more interpretive material, but I haven't been able to find it on line. 

The Policy

The policy begins by setting out principles: 

  • Principle 1: The Australian Government
    celebrates and values the benefits of cultural
    diversity for all Australians, within the broader
    aims of national unity, community harmony and
    maintenance of our democratic values.
  • Principle 2: The Australian Government is
    committed to a just, inclusive and socially
    cohesive society where everyone can
    participate in the opportunities that Australia
    offers and where government services
    are responsive to the needs of Australians
    from culturally and linguistically diverse
  • Principle 3: The Australian Government
    welcomes the economic, trade and
    investment benefits which arise from our
    successful multicultural nation.
  • Principle 4: The Australian Government
    will act to promote understanding and
    acceptance while responding to expressions
    of intolerance and discrimination with
    strength, and where necessary, with the
    force of the law.
  • The Government will establish a new
    independent body, the Australian Multicultural
    Council (AMC), to replace the current Australian
    Multicultural Advisory Council (AMAC).

It then outlines actions:

  • In response to AMAC’s cultural diversity statement
    recommendation three, the Government
    will implement a new National Anti-Racism
    Partnership and Strategy
  • To ensure that government programs and services
    are responsive to Australians from culturally and
    linguistically diverse backgrounds, the Australian
    Government will strengthen the access and equity
  • The Australian Government will reprioritise
    the existing scope of the Diversity and Social
    Cohesion Program to include funding
    for multicultural arts and festivals small
  • the Australian Government will establish a Multicultural
    Youth Sports Partnership Program.


As a general comment, I could wish that the Government had not reintroduced the word multiculturalism into the debate. The problem with the word is that it has so many attachments now that it risks twisting discussion. Discussion ends by centring on the words "multicultural" and "multiculturalism" rather than the underlying principles.

Each country is different and responds to the challenge of accepting different people in different ways. At the end of the Second World War with a largely culturally homogeneous population over 90% locally born, Australia chose to begin a mass migration program. Later, Australia chose to make that policy non discriminatory on grounds of race or religion.

One can debate the meaning of the word chose. but they were choices and did have consequences Today, 44% of Australians are born overseas or have a parent born overseas. The country is home to an increasingly diverse mix of people whether classified in terms of race, ethnicity, nationality or religious beliefs.

This spread is important. While individual groups have grown in numbers and as a proportion of the Australian population, no single national or ethnic group outside the originally dominant Anglo-Celtic stock has grown sufficiently as a proportion of the population to constitute a significant threat or problem - perceived or real - to underlying national unity or indeed to political power. Australia is a country of multiple groups - there is no real equivalent to the Negro or Hispanics of the US experience.

Since the Second World War, Australia has had official policies towards the integration of its new arrivals into the community. These have gone by various names and are much debated in this country. In all cases, a central issue has been to find the right balance between absorption into the broader community and the retention of the culture, religion, history and values from home that remain important to all migrant groups. So far, the country seems to have managed this pretty well.

One thing that has aided the acceptance and absorption process has been the willingness of ordinary Australians and of specific communities to accept new arrivals. I gave an example of this back in back in October 2008 in Sunday Essay - for Ramana: India and Australia:

Woolgoolga was Australia's first truly integrated multi-race town.

The first Sikh settlers came to Woolgoolga in the 1940s. Initially they worked as labourers on the banana plantations, but later acquired leasehold and freehold banana plantations. Sikh migrants from other parts of Australia were attracted to this area once they were aware of an established Sikh community.

The establishment of the Sikh community was made possible by the welcome of the host community. There are anecdotes of locals assisting the Sikh migrants in business, financial affairs, correspondence and encouragement to maintain their culture and religion. There were three members of the host community on the committee which built the First Sikh Temple of Australia in Woolgoolga.

Today over 95% of Woolgoolga's banana industry and 10% of that in Coffs Harbour is owned and operated by Australians of Sikh ancestry.There are 2,500 Sikhs in the Coffs Harbour City Council area and 450 students enrolled at Woolgoolga Public School of whom 21% are Sikhs. Of Woolgoolga High School's 877 students, 12% are Sikhs.

This mixing of host and new arrivals means that most Australians cross ethnic and cultural divides in one way or another. We all mix with and generally marry within our own groups. That's normal. But the divisions between groups are shaded, overlapping, not hard lines. Further, the generally open nature of Australian society has allowed social mobility, while the mainstream culture has absorbed enough elements over time from other cultures to add to the feeling of comfort for new arrivals.

The most fanatical Aussies are often migrants or their children. This actually makes me a little uncomfortable sometimes because I don't like some aspects of current Australian nationalism. However, it's also just as well given that migrants and their kids are now close to half the Australian population.   

If Australia has done pretty well why, then, does the Government feel the need to reinstate a multicultural policy, one whose wording risks re-opening a previous domestic debate?  Indeed, the cry of political correctness resurgent has already appeared.

I have to be very careful with what I say here. I am not interested in becoming re-involved in certain domestic debates. However, I think I can make two objective points.

The first is that there has been some erosion in support for an open immigration policy, as well as some loss of tolerance in the Australian community. The reasons for this are complicated, but have not been helped by the political leadership on either side. The second is that demographic realities dictate that Australia will remain a migrant country. I don't think that we have any real choice. We thus have something of a divergence now between attitudes to migration and the country's needs.

Quite a bit of the debate at present is actually code-worded and links to changing attitudes to the Muslim faith that have arisen especially since 9/11 and the War on Terror. Even where code words are used, people know that this is the case. The Minister made it clear in his speech, while the issue is explicit in a number of stories in today's Australian media. I quote from just one piece in today's Sydney Morning Herald.     

THE opposition immigration spokesman, Scott Morrison, urged the shadow cabinet to capitalise on the electorate's growing concerns about ''Muslim immigration'', "Muslims in Australia" and the "inability" of Muslim migrants to integrate.

Mr Morrison's suggestion was made at a meeting in December at which ministers were asked to bring three ideas for issues on which the Coalition should concentrate its political attack during this parliamentary term.

The Herald has learnt several colleagues, including the deputy leader, Julie Bishop, and the former immigration minister Philip Ruddock, strongly disagreed with the suggestion, pointing out that the Coalition had long supported a non-discriminatory immigration policy and saying it was not an issue that should be pursued.

I have no idea whether or not  Lenore Taylor's report is correct. However, it makes my point.

Again, I have to be very careful in what I write. No-one doubts that Muslim extremism is an issue. There is plenty of evidence from other countries such as India and Pakistan that religious divides can ignite tensions and terrors. However, it's the relevance to Australia that is the issue.

The problem of the potential importation with migrants of ideas and attitudes that are in some way antipathetic, or risk being antipathetic, to their new country is not new. Australia has had plenty of experience with this. Just taking a few post war examples, the Hilton Hotel bombing appears to have been linked to Hindu extremism; tensions between Christian and Muslim Lebanese did appear in this country during the Lebanese civil war; during the Tito period in Yugoslavia a Croation training camp was discovered on the NSW South Coast; Australians fought on all sides of the Balkan conflicts; inter-ethnic tensions led to soccer riots; Armenians and Turks disagree on the genocide; Tibet protests lead the Chinese Embassy in Australia to help orchestrate protests by Chinese students; and so it goes on.

The challenge for any country is to find a way of managing such tensions, of in some ways quarantining potential adverse effects while still allowing freedom of speech and indeed protest. Generally this is handled in one or more of three ways: in selection of migrants; in social expectations in the host country as to what behaviour is acceptable; and in the use of laws as appropriate to regulate behaviour.

The exact form and mix adopted varies from country to country. In the Australian case we do use security screening, something that has its own problems. Beyond that, our central expectation is that immigrants will observe our law and, in a broad and generally non prescriptive sense, attempt to fit in. If there are actual or perceived failures in behaviour whether by home born or immigrants.

Our approach has become more prescriptive over the last forty years. The old term New Australians, a term that applied to all migrants, has been replaced by a focus on citizenship. We actually have no term now to describe residents who are not yet citizens and, indeed, may not become citizens. I find it mildly ironic that our focus on citizenship has increased at just the time that the concept itself has become more attenuated in a mobile world of multiple citizenships.

It remains the case that to be Australian is actually an emotional commitment, not a piece of paper. That is why citizenship is actually so important to many migrants. It is a formal recognition of an emotional commitment already made. 

I may seem to have come a long way from my main argument. Leaving political point scoring aside, the real reason that the Government has reinstated a multicultural policy lies, I think, in the erosion of support that has taken place for an open and non-discriminatory migration policy. The policy seeks to reaffirm core principles and, if necessary, lay the basis for formal action should people breach those principles.

Will it work? Well, I think it depends on what you mean by work. In the short term, it could well have some negative effects by reviving debates over words that should really be either very carefully defined or even put aside. However, I also think it important that key principles should be affirmed and defended. The issue, to my mind, lies in the extent to which the Government and its principle spokespeople will actually defend and implement those principles in cases where the immediate apparent political interest dictates otherwise.

At the end of the day, none of this may matter. While those of us who chatter, and I do classify myself as a member of the chattering classes although many of my views may seem opposed to the standard definition, talk around things, the dynamics of Australian life and especially popular culture are very powerful.

Listening to the young, how they talk and what they say, Australian is everywhere. I talked about this once in the context of a train trip to Parramatta. Visually, the train was full of apparently different school kids from a dozen obviously different ethnic groups. Shutting my eyes and listening, the differences vanished. It wasn't just accent or words, the ubiquitous like is an example, but commonality of topic and idea. 

There are going to be some problems where different appearance or religion attach to groups divided on other matters because this reinforces difference.  The ethnic gangs of Western Sydney are a current example. There are also going to be continuing inter-generational problems. However, my feeling is that the dynamics of Australian life and culture will, over time, simply over-ride this.

I had been going to talk about some of the detail, of real problems that I think have not yet been properly addressed such as the aging of previous migrant communities and the problems this creates. However, this post has already become one of my very long essays. Maybe later. 


I mentioned that the press had been running hot on this one. Because I know from Concerts, comments and content management that at least some visitors value my links, links to media reports on this topic follows:

If you want to see why this is a complicated issue for the Government see Immigration minister stands ground on return of boat disaster orphan to Christmas Island, Human rights bid to block orphan's return to detention, That's not guts. That's not an apology.

I was going to give you more, but links disappear very fast. It then takes a lot of time to find the, time I don't have!

I find this quite often. For someone who is interested in the pattern of reporting, it's quite frustrating!

Postscript 2

This one is really running hot on the Australian media today. I will try to do an update tonight. The Government's problem, and its a problem for the opposition too, is that the release of the policy coincided with the sending back to Christmas Island of those attending funerals in Sydney for those killed in the recent boat disaster. This included an orphaned boy.

Nobody can win on this one except, perhaps, Australia. The opposition is split down the middle with those wishing to play the migration card essentially corralled by others. The Minister for Immigration is struggling to reconcile his policy statement with refugee treatment. Who can argue against an orphan boy?

Based on comments, the public is split with the usual range of arguments on both sides.

Postscript 3

This discussion did continue hot. I almost didn't add anything, because I found aspects so depressing. I will explain why in a moment. First, some of the media coverage:

I haven't attempted to scan all outlets, but it will give you a feel. I also haven't looked at the international coverage of the debate.

I said that I found it depressing: in going back to talk about multicultural as an ism, old wounds have been re-opened. I find that I can't be rational on this one. I find that I respond emotionally because of the previous imposition of that ism in a way I resented, that prevented sensible discussion on issues. That is a personal view. I am simply explaining how I feel. I hope that it's clear that I do support a pluralist Australia.

In arguing for a pluralist Australia, I have tried to avoid the use of code words. Instead, I have tried to mount arguments based on evidence. When I write I have people like me in my mind, Australians and especially older Australians whose emotional resentments to certain attitudes and events from the 1990s colours their thinking.

I also have some of my daughters' friends in mind, of the attitudes and views that come through on Facebook, of some of the resentments that I know are around. I know that I won't reach this group directly - they don't read blogs! - but they are still there in my thinking.

I do not know whether the Government wanted to wedge the opposition on this issue. If so, they have succeeded. However, this has come at a cost. Instead of building a consensus, instead of helping Australians think about issues, we have gone back to an old and not especially helpful debate.

Last night on the ABC's 7.30 report, I think that the last two links above refer, the Minister for immigration stated that one of the reasons for the Government's actions was the international debate on multiculturalism, the argument mounted by the French President among others, that it had failed. As I remember it, the Minster wanted to make the point that Australia was different.

That may be true. However, it missed the point. The last thing we needed to was to get dragged into a discussion on the success or failure of an ism. It has derailed the discussion.

I have been involved in debate on some of these issues for more time than I care to remember going right back to the days when I had to defend the abolition of the White Australia Policy at country political meetings. I have found that people break into a number of groups:

  • The die hards who won't and can't listen. You just have to put up with them.
  • The strongly committed who retain their views, but who are prepared to listen and who will respect your views and even vote for you. The late Peter Andren, the independent member for Calare in the Australian House of Representatives, is a fascinating case study here. Representing a socially conservative electorate, Mr Andren took positions on certain issues that would have been political suicide for others. It can't have been easy for him. But his electorate respected the fact that he was straight; they voted for him in large numbers on the totality of his views and on his track record.
  • Those who are prepared to listen, to modify their views.

In considering the maintenance of social cohesion at a time of change, you can largely ignore the die hards on either side. They chat to each other when they agree, past each other when they disagree. Essentially, they reinforce each other's positions. They have the capacity to derail, that has to be watched, but beyond that they cancel each other out.

It is the second and third groups that have to be reached. Here I have found that time is required; people have to be able to think things through. You can't just tell them.

At a purely personal level, I don't want to talk about multiculturalism. However, I do want to talk about the underlying issues as I see them. It's a difficult challenge!   

Postscript 4

Dear oh dear, I do feel strongly on this one.  Having just written that I didn't want to talk about multiculturalism I found myself thinking of a new series of posts called multiculturalism twists.

Let me take an example. I have previously expressed reservations about the three themes that are meant to unify the proposed new national curriculum. Now the material released by the Government links those themes to multiculturalism.

No curriculum is value free. Further, the content is effectively controlled by the cultural gatekeepers. With content necessarily limited, in choosing one area, those gatekeepers necessarily drop out others. The problem is that the gatekeepers have dropped things that I consider to be important, added others that I have reservations about.

In modern society, the school system is a major transmitter of culture and of attitudes.

As we have seen in communist societies, attempts to inculcate particular attitudes and beliefs are problematic. What is more subtle and insidious is the way in which exclusion of fields of information affects later thought. If people have no access to information on particular things - if their thought is subtly conditioned by words, by inclusions and exclusions - then thought changes. Things die. 

I am very conscious of this because things that I value, consider to be important, have been written out of the school curriculum. In their place has come many things that I disagree with. I can handle the disagreement, I find it hard to handle the exclusion. It's very hard to argue a case for something that has been important when the entire information base has been removed, when people have no idea of the factual base involved.

If I were to use my knowledge, my writing skills, my understanding of the internet, my passion on certain things, to mount a wholesale attack on multiculturalism, I suspect that I might have an impact. I know the hot buttons, the code words that will energise. I have lots of examples that I can use. Yet in trying to destroy multiculturalism I would risk igniting the very things that I also detest.

There is no way I can win in this.

I recognise that some of the things I say, the very assertion that I might have an impact, may sound egotistical. One of my commenters on a public policy post where I was talking about the need for change said stop being so turgid, get over it. I recognise that things need to change, that the views I have on certain issues may be old fashioned, past it.

Yet I reserve the right to attack, to try to forensically analyse specific measures and ideas. I may be an old troglodyte, a gargoyle on a building worn by time, but I also care. I don't have the certainty I had when I was younger, age brings a more nuanced approach, but we still have to try.  

Postscript 5

Since I am reporting reactions as well as my own views, here are a few blog reactions:


Anonymous said...

Hi Jim

Sweeping generalisations first:

1) Postwar to late 70’s Australia had need of a great pool of low or partly skilled workers.
2) 80’s onwards, much less so – in fact the skillbase now required for the Australian workforce has changed so much as to make it difficult for Australia to properly absorb/employ our current level of migrant intake.
3) Australia is not unique. The industries of the 20th century Western world relied on large numbers of un/semi-skilled workers; the 21st is seeing that need filled by the East; we have and are exporting the need for a low skilled workforce.

I just think it is almost impossible for newly arrived migrants to get the “Weird Mob” experience: the car, the house, the wife and kids, the friendship and security.

People are caught up in the aspirations of those around them. Failure to succeed, to fit in is leading to “Australian” community fragmentation.

Integration, assimilation, multiculti call it what you want will happen anyway, as soon as the migrant can hold his head up as a producing member of the community.


Jim Belshaw said...

I am sure that you are correct about the general changes in the world of work, kvd. However, I'm not sure about the next step in your argument.

Leaving aside arguments about the use of migrant workers to do jobs that locals don't want to do,I don't think that its true as a general statement that we are having diffficulties in absorbing current migrant intakes so far as jobs are concerned.

Most of our migrant intake falls, I think, in the skilled or family reunion categories. The first group finds it easier to get jobs in a general sense, the second has an existing support network to help them. The relatively small number of refugees falls into a different class.

It's an interesting question that I hadn't thought of before. To waht degree has the change in the composition of the migrant intake actually invalidated all these types of arguments?

If you look at the on-ground position, it seems to me that most of the migrant intake actually fits in pretty well in the sense that we don't talk about them. The groups that we do talk about tend to involve small numbers compared with the overall intake and to be geographically concentrated. If I'm right, then the discussion is actually misfocused in that we have a specific, not general, problem.

One of the difficult issues I find in discussions about fragmentation in the Australian community is that a degree of fragmentation has indeed taken place, but it's a quite separate issue from migration. Julia's two million un or underemployed, the problem of generational unemployment, are arguably signs of broader fragmentation.

This interfaces with the migration issue at several levels: issues of unsuccesful migrants; the question of bringing in migrants when there are un or underemployed; and the real sleeper issue, migrants who are actually too succesful and who therefore raise some resentment.

None of this is actually very easy. Take the un or underemployed. As I started to argue a little while ago, this breaks up into several groups. Looking at these, it's not clear to me that a reduced migrant intake would have any impact on the number. In fact, it might even increase it.

Anonymous said...

Hi Jim

One would have to be particularly insensitive to remain oblivious to your depth of personal feeling in this - and all I can say is the following is well intentioned,and an honest attempt to state my own feelings.

1) I think this recent re-emergence of m-c and immigration is a beat up. As far as I know, the Sydney Institute does not throw on a public session at the drop of a hat, therefore the Minister's comments were probably prepared in advance, and would have had regard to various European leaders' comments.

2)The fact that the Opposition spokesman this week managed to appear quite insensitive, added to that report of his urging of his front bench to run with this last December was probably simple "luck of the Irish" for the ALP; it gave them a means to paint Mr Abbott & Co into a corner. That's politics, but more importantly, it seems to have broken whatever consensus had been in place till this week.

3) I agree we have managed the receipt of migrants into our workforce very well. However, the skilled/family reunion basis is being skewed somewhat by the need to accommodate the arrivals via Christmas Island. And even that doesn't cause me great concern.

4) What does interest me is the "first" generation - either arriving with parents, or being born here of migrant parents. My hesitant opinion is that it is these young people who are most in need of support, education, encouragement to make something of their lives outside their circle of family and friends.

5) It used to be that 2-2.5% unemployment was "full employment". Now it's 5% or thereabouts - admittedly of a much bigger labour force. And the nature of employment has changed greatly in the last 20 years, meaning a higher level of qualification is required.

I realise that just about every word of more than one syllable carries "loaded meaning". I hope the only offense caused by the above is that of common sense - I can live with that.

With respect

Jim Belshaw said...

Hi KVD. Your points on timing are well taken.

As you noted, the recent re-emergence of m-c and immigration is arguably a beat up.

If we look at the evidence, it's very difficult to generalise. As an example, I appear in the 44% because may father was born in NZ.

In terms of my own life experiences, I have a very large number of friends and colleagues who are either migrants or first generation from multiple countries. They have generaly done very well. Their children have generally done well.

Put them aside on the grounds that they are a bit older and look at my daughters' cohorts. A considerable number of them were either born overseas or are first generation. The academic honours boards at schools like theirs are quite heavily dominated by the group we are talking about.

I guess that the point I am making is the need, and this applies to me too, to avoid generalisations.

At times I think that there are different conversations going on that have lots to do with the people talking but do not have a clear nexus with the actual things talked about.

I do get cranky with some of the arguments put. More usefully, what interests me is the variety and pattern of experiences. I was searching towards this in one of my postscripts when I suggested that the current debate might be skewed.

To further amplify this, take my comment on the attenuation of Australian citizenship. To the ordinary reader, this must have seemed a strange comment. However, among the professional and entreprenurial young, and this includes a lot of migrants and first born, Australian citizenship is really just a piece of paper on a broader journey.

Roughly speaking, for every two migrants that arrive, one local leaves on a long term basis. This applies to all Australians, but seems to be especially strong among those of Indian and Chinese descent.

We live in a new world in which the professionally mobile can go every where. Australia as a migrant country is actually at the cutting edge of this.

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