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Forty years of multiculturalism

19 December 20130 comments

multicult pic3It is 40 years since former Labor immigration minister Al Grassby first uttered the word ‘multiculturalism’ in a speech in Australia.

Since then Grassby, the Whitlam government, of which he was part, and several other Labor administrations have fallen by the wayside.

Multiculturalism, though, is still going strong.

Some people hold that Canada was the first nation to introduce multicultural policies and Australia second. But the Canadian Prime Minister of the time Pierre Trudeau introduced a multiculturalism policy as a solution to the growing controversy, and indeed violence, caused by resentment between English-speaking and French-speaking Canadians.

It could be argued that Australia was the first nation to forge truly forward-looking, pluralistic and multi-ethnic public policy.

But Australia’s path to multiculturalism, like so many great or monumental pieces of history, happened almost by accident.

Arthur Calwell was Australia’s first immigration minister who oversaw a large and ambitious migration program that opened up Australia to migrants from non-British countries.

But the Labor Government of the day maintained the White Australia policy and was committed to seeing migrants assimilate totally into Australian society.

Calwell opened the bottle but it took a couple of decades for the genie to emerge.

It wasn’t until the Whitlam Government of the early 1970s that expectations that migrants would leave behind their cultures and languages while adopting ‘the Australian way’ began to erode.

Grassby, a colourful and flamboyant figure with alleged connections to the mafia, first used the phrase ‘multiculturalism’ in 1973. His intention was that everyone who arrived in Australia could enjoy all the rights and responsibilities of full citizenship; they weren’t just visitors.

It fell to Malcolm Fraser, who succeeded Whitlam as Prime Minister, to navigate policy through the political and social reality of the Australia’s first wave of arriving by boat.

The end of the Vietnam War created a humanitarian crisis and between 1976 and 1982, 2000 people reached Australia by boat. Fraser’s decision to accept 70,000 refugees from South East Asia was a pivotal one which was helped by bi-partisanship from the Labor opposition.

It was the final nail in the coffin of the White Australia policy and the harbinger of a more culturally diverse and outward looking Australia.

Of course, Asian migration caused heated debate through the 1980s and 90s culminating in the rise of Pauline Hanson, who claimed it was damaging to Australia’s traditional values.

But the horse had already bolted and with a population travelling overseas more often; and with half of Australians either migrants or the children of migrants, the wave of anxiety over Asian migration subsided.

A recent Scanlon Foundation survey found that 84% of Australians believe multiculturalism had been good for Australia.

Today Australians, and particularly younger Australians, are more accepting of cultural diversity and are more curious about other cultures.

All this gives us reason to think that, despite the current issues around asylum seekers, Australia’s brand of multiculturalism is generally in good shape and is still something of an example for the world.