Journal Entry #5

Published

4 years ago

How successful has multiculturalism been in replacing British culture as the unifying description of Australian society?

The problem is the gulf between the word and its political meaning. Multicultural means many cultures, yet no Australian PM would support this exclusive interpretation because it cannot sustain a nation…
–        Paul Kelly[1]

In an address to the Sydney Institute earlier this year, Immigration Minister Chris Bowen spoke of the ‘genius’ that is Australian multiculturalism. Although both British Prime Minister David Cameron and German Chancellor Angela Merkel have recently presented a bleak and dismal view of multiculturalism’s ‘utter failure’ to provide national cohesion,[2] notably in the face of Islam extremism, Chris Bowen’s speech points to an Australian Labor future that seeks to reignite multiculturalism doctrine within Australian national meaning – a doctrine that has in recent years been silently swept under the political carpet. For Bowen, a nation that can “recognize and celebrate different cultural heritages but insist that [their] future is common, is shared”,[3] is a country that will ultimately prove to be more confident, more vibrant and more diverse. Indeed, these national aspirations can be provided by the very ‘genius’ that is Australian multiculturalism.

However, this firm embrace of ‘multiculturalism’s’ unique achievement is one that is certainly not held by all Australians. Paul Kelly’s editorial in The Australian highlights the very problem that has for long surrounded the concept of ‘multiculturalism’ since its political adoption in the mid 1970s: quite simply and profoundly accurate Kelly notes, “the truth is that multiculturalism as a political concept has not been embraced by the Australian public.”[4] Kelly’s views incited re-actions on both sides of the ‘multicultural’ divide, even former NSW Premier Bob Carr weighed into the debate, arguing that Bowen’s speech was rather enlightened and reflective within the wider climate of multicultural retreat, but in regards to the reception of the term itself within Australian society he could only suggest that “we let it grow naturally.”[5]

These current debates that surround the recent revival of multiculturalism is by no means new to Australian discourse. Rather, the problems that multiculturalism has in defining a sense of national identity within an Australian history, a history that was once quite intolerant to its cultural immigration, have persisted throughout its popular political incarceration into society. Rather what these recent debates warrant is a greater study into multiculturalism’s ability to provide national meaning to a people that had once reveled in a predominately ‘white’ British race patriot past. This essay seeks to examine the rise of Pauline Hanson’s ‘One Nation Party’ as a key indication of multiculturalism’s inability to inspire widespread national sentiment and consensus. Namely, this essay suggests that Hanson’s ascendency denotes multiculturalism’s failure to account for a large majority of the Australian public that still connects with a long held British ‘white race’ sentiment. Further, through the understanding of key cultural decisions made under the Howard government, this essay wishes to consider the recent debates on Australian multiculturalism as movements that have sprung out of multiculturalism’s complicated role in the construction of Australian national identity.

Firstly however, it must be noted that this essay does not propose that multiculturalism has completely failed in Australia. Rather, support for it is still obviously widespread and its ability to provide national meaning throughout the governments of Whitlam, Fraser, Hawke and even Keating speaks to its ability to ensure that national cohesion can be maintained in defiance to both a distinctly aggressive Australian or British myth. But the Hanson phenomenon and in many ways the ascendency of Howard denote a clear indication that even after more than two decades of official government policy, multiculturalism has not been able to generate a deep and pervasive nation-wide commitment to its concept. To quote Stuart Hall, multiculturalism has not been able to secure “a social authority sufficiently deep to conform society into a new historic project.”[6]

The concept of multiculturalism itself was actually imported to Australia from Canada, in the early 1970s – the concept was widely used under the Fraser government, but was first notably introduced by Gough Whitlam. Since its introduction to Australian politics, the concept of multiculturalism has indeed remained the centerpiece of official government policy. In the wake of the British race patriot ideal collapse from the mid 1960s, Australian political leaders turned to multiculturalism as a means to provide an alternative national unifying myth that would speak more directly to its changing and diversified population make-up. In fact, the very nature of multiculturalism’s ideology ensured that Australia’s national meaning could move away from a majorly ‘white’ superior racial and cultural homogeneity past to a future that welcomed the new Australian immigration towards ethnic and cultural diversity.

However, this new ‘multiculturalism’ stance came in the face of long Australian restriction to ‘Asian’ immigration for decades. For much of its early history, Australia had maintained its status as a ‘white’ race in the Asian region, a ‘far-flung outpost of Europe’, nowhere better exemplified than in the White Australia Policy. The fact that the White Australia Policy was the very first major legislative issue to be dealt with by the parliament suggests that this perceived importance of ‘racial purity’ was at the centre of the symbolic glue that held Australia’s ‘national community’ together[7]  - reflecting a desire to construct a modern national identity based on a British racial and cultural homogeneity. As David Walker wrote of pre-WWII Australia, “the need to live in relatively close proximity to an awakening Asia lent a certain drama and intensity to the Australia situation, it conferred a special status of Australia as a continent set aside for the development of the white race.”[8] The White Australia Policy exemplified to the Australian public the their national identity as one intertwined with the discourses of ‘white’ racial homogeneity. And, for long, this policy sustained the Australian nation.

However, after WWII and in the face of an increasingly strong Asian ‘near north’, as the first Minister for Immigration, Arthur Calwell said, Australia had to either ‘populate or perish’. With Britain’s retreat East of Suez (1964 – 1968) and the fall of Singapore (1942), it was becoming increasingly obvious that Britain’s global colonial power was dwindling, and with it, the British race patriot ideal that had sustained Australia’s national image since its federation. In fact, it could be argued that later governments’ adoption of ‘multiculturalism’ was more out of necessity than desire: the British world-wide identity could simply no longer sustain an increasingly ‘racially’ diversified Australian public on the other side of the world to the ‘mother country’.

As a result the White Australia Policy was gradually dismantled from the mid-1960s, although it was not formally abolished until 1972 under the Whitlam Government, which finally scrapped all references to ‘race’ from the immigration law: a change that enabled large numbers of people who had once been generally classified as ‘non-white’ to migrate to Australia. As Peter Lawrence noted on the admittance of thousands of ‘Asian’ immigrants into Australia from the mid-1970s onwards, many Australians were “forced to accept that the days of Australia as a purely white European outpost were finally over.”[9] And with this change came a new Australian national doctrine, an image of a ‘multicultural’ Australian identity that fundamentally represented a racial epistemological break in the official national discourse on who could now be included in the ‘Australian people’. While ‘race’ was fundamentally important in earlier times, it was now officially and completely irrelevant: Australia would no longer discriminate on ‘racial grounds’. Even John Howard insisted in 1997 that, “non-discrimination is a non-negotiable element of Australia’s immigration program.”[10]

It is particularly important to note the deletion of ‘race’ within the new concept of multiculturalism, a break that cannot be underestimated within the national psyche. While the discourse of multiculturalism does provide some sense of national narrative, it is not distinctly Australian or overtly patriotic as the British ideal once was. It is from this understanding that the rise of Pauline Hanson should denote multiculturalism’s failure to offer ‘white’ Australians with a particular means to articulate their experience with this long held association with ‘race’ – a discourse that had for long been at the forefront of the Australian national imagery. While Hanson’s views are racist at times, her opinions represent a much larger discourse that surround the viability of the multiculturalism debate. Hanson’s main political target is undeniably the concept of ‘Asian’ immigration, as she puts it, “I and most Australians want our immigration policy radically reviewed and that of multiculturalism abolished. I believe we are in danger of being swamped by Asians.”[11] Although not representing ‘most’ of Australia, although her opinions gained wide support from those outside of the main metropolitan areas, specifically in Queensland,[12]we see here that for Hanson, the term ‘Asians’ and ‘Australians’ are mutually exclusive categories, as they had been for a long and formative period in Australian history. In using these opposites she is clearly invoking a racial debate that was suppose to have all but disappeared with the White Australia Policy. As she puts this old racial differentiation: “Of course, I will be called racist but, if I can invite whom I want into my home, then I should have the right to have a say in who comes into my country.”[13] The Australian ‘home’ here is implicitly coded as ‘white’ in full continuity with the old ideal of ‘White Australia’.

Hanson’s views on multiculturalism however by no means came out of nowhere. In fact it was most notably Geoffrey Blainey who first sparked the attack on ‘Asian immigration’, Hanson’s views are a mere extension of what the ‘Blainey debate’ of the 1980s had ignited. In 1984 Blainey criticized multiculturalism for tending to “emphasize the rights of ethnic minorities at the expense of the majority of Australians”, a term that for Blainey invoked anti-British sentiments even though “people from the United Kingdom and Ireland form the dominant class of pre-war immigrants and the largest single group of post-war immigrants.”[14] Arguing that immigration policies were now biased in favour of ‘Asians’ and against migrants from Britain and Europe, Blainey stated that, “too many Asians were undesirable because they might endanger Australia’s social, economic, and political structures.”[15]Blainey, however, did not call for a complete stop to ‘Asian’ immigration, rather just a significant reduction to it. But his opinions explicitly conjures up ideas of ‘race’ as a distinct marker for what Blainey saw as the limits to Australian society. And, over a dozen years later, Hanson repeats history, proving that the debate over multiculturalism is long but finished.

Hanson speaks “not as a polished politician but as a woman who has had her fair share of life’s knocks,” who continually criticized government policies which, to her, promoted “a type of reverse racism applied to mainstream Australians” by supporting “various taxpayer funded ‘industries’ that flourish in our society servicing Aboriginals, multiculturalists and a host of other minority groups.”[16] Her political party ‘One Nation’ is a decisive indication of her bottom line concern: “To survive in peace and harmony, united and strong, we must have one people, one nation, one flag.”[17] But above all, her views of ‘oneness’ – racist or not – reflect a much deeper cultural desire for national homogeneity, a desire in direct confrontation with the diversity that is celebrated in multiculturalism. From Blainey to Hanson, this can only show that not much has changed in the debate surrounding the viability of multiculturalism’s non-racial outlook to provide national cohesion to a large section of ‘white’ Anglo-Celtics in Australia that had for long identified with the ‘racial’ myth of British supremacy. The very problem of multiculturalism for both Blainey and Hanson is in its inability to talk about ‘race’, elements of diversity that for these two figures – and a large section of the voting public that supports Hanson’s claims – is a threat to the Australian way of life. As Peter Cochrane observed, “Hanson is the voice of old Anglo-Celtic Australia, resentful of its displacement from the centre of Australian cultural life by the new ethnic Australians and nostalgic for a time when it imagined its identity was both secure and central.”[18] There is for Hanson supporters a clear symbolic gap between the official representation of ‘multicultural Australia’ and the contradictory experience and historical memories of their past – experiences that for them are denied by the official discourse of multiculturalism.

Howard’s subsequent reluctance to overwhelming defend multiculturalism in the face of Hanson’s ascendency, provides a highly interesting way to position the current controversy that surrounds Chris Bowen’s multicultural revival. In Howard’s government-commissioned discussion paper ‘Multicultural Australia: The Way Forward (National Multicultural Advisory Council, 1997)’, there is one key question: “Is multiculturalism an appropriate term to describe a policy for managing cultural diversity or has it outlived its usefulness?”[19]Indeed, Howard’s subsequent decision to re-name the Department of Immigration and Multicultural Affairs to the Department of Immigration and Citizenship – in which he dropped the reference to ‘multiculturalism’ all together – signals that perhaps Howard did perceive that the term multiculturalism could no longer adequately speak to the diversified Australian public. Before his ascension to Prime Minister, Howard spoke to columnist Gerard Henderson in 1989, saying of multiculturalism:

The objection I have to multiculturalism is that multiculturalism is in effect saying that it is impossible to have an Australian ethos, that it is impossible to have a common Australian culture. So we have to pretend that we are a federation of cultures and that we’ve got a bit from every part of the world. I think that is hopeless.[20]

Howard’s problem with multiculturalism is that it essentially does not provide enough national unity. Multiculturalism, if anything, promotes acceptance of cultures that live together but provides no attempt to join them – it fails because it does not provoke ‘assimilation’, a concept also recently stressed by British PM David Cameron.  For Howard, it was the idea of ‘mateship’ that could provide this national unity, a unity in national mythology to which all Australians could respond.[21]

Further, in 2006, Howard introduced a new Citizen Test to all migrants wanting to gain citizenship status to Australia. An internet-based multiple-choice quiz of 30 questions testing migrants’ knowledge of Australian history, culture, values and government in English, the new Test was a direct statement against the inabilities of multiculturalism to promote uniquely ‘Australian’ values and morals. And although Howard never expressed a desire for a monoculture homogeneity – as Prime Minister he could never possibly have been able to do so – he acknowledges the current sociological reality of diversity can no longer be aptly described in the term multiculturalism. But whatever Howard’s trappings about multiculturalism, Howard always maintained that “the absolute unqualified embrace of a culturally diverse, harmonious and tolerant Australian community is not in question.”[22]

Andrew Markus suggests that the failure of subsequent governments to gain popular support for the reformed immigration and multicultural policies has to do with a failure “to allay unreasonable fears of the dangers of multiculturalism, and to create a climate of confidence that the legitimate interests of Anglo-Australians were being protected.”[23] In Australia, the ‘Anglo-Celtic mainstream’ culture is, and has always been, predominately British in origin, and ‘white’ in its outlook. By repressing the fundamental ideas of ‘race’ rather than acknowledging its existence and continual power in the national psyche for a large portion of the Australian public, multiculturalism has failed to adequately provide ‘mainstream’ Australian’s with a national myth to rival that of the British race patriot ideal: multiculturalism has failed to provide ‘old’ Australians with ways of reimagining themselves as an integral part of the ‘new’ Australia. The rise of Hanson, and indeed even Howard, speaks of this recent shift towards a renewal of ‘conservative’ discourse with its emphasis on assimilation where ‘whiteness’ is unspoken but undeniable, which, many would argue will lead Australia to a racist and discriminatory future. However, this essay maintains that such recent debates over the ‘M-word’ is only invocative of multiculturalism’s inability to provide a national mythology in which all Australians – ‘white’ or not – can identify with. As Paul Kelly noted, “the problem with multiculturalism is obvious: the right wing believes it undermines unity and the left-wing hijacks the concept to promote separate ethnic cultures. Nothing is likely to change.”[24]The ideals of multiculturalism will for long be debated, but it has become apparent, that in the face of such a strong history of British mythology, the latent forces of multiculturalism may no longer be able to withstand the tide of sentimental history. It will be interesting to see the multicultural doctrine that Chris Bowen, and the current Federal Labor Party, will employ in such a discourse that has both firm supporters and harsh critics.

 Bibliography:

Ang, Ien, and Stratton, Jon, ‘Multiculturalism in Crisis: The New Politics of Race and National Identity in Australia’ in Ien Ang (ed.), On Not Speaking Chinese: Living between Asia and the West (London: Routledge, 2001), pp. 22 – 41.

Bowen, Chris, ‘Address to the Sydney Institute – The Genius of Australian Multiculturalism’, February 16, 2011, full text found at:

http://www.chrisbowen.net/media-centre/speeches.do?newsId=4154

Carr, Bob, ‘Multiculturalism: When the Time is Right’ , Thoughtlines with Bob Carr, posted to weblog on February 23, 2011, full text found at: http://bobcarrblog.wordpress.com/2011/02/23/multiculturalism-when-the-time-is-right/

Cochrane, Peter, ‘Race Memory’, Australian Review of Books, November, 1996.

Curran, James, The Power of Speech: Australian Prime Ministers Defining the National Image(Melbourne: Melbourne University Press, 2006).

Geoffrey Blainey, All for Australia (North Ryde: Methuen Haynes, 1984).

Hall, Stuart, ‘Subjects in History: Making Diasporic Identities’, in Lubiano Wahneema (ed.), The House that Race Built (New York: Vintage Books, 1988).

Hanson, Pauline, ‘Maiden Speech (10 September)’, reprinted in The Truth (Ipswich: no publisher, 1996).

Howard, John, ‘Address at the National Multicultural Advisory Council Issues Paper Launch – Multicultural Australia: The Way Forward’, Melbourne Town Hall, 11 December 1997.

Kelly, Paul, ‘Weighed down by the M-word’, The Australian, posted to website on February 23, 2011, last visited on 26/09/11, full text found at:

http://www.theaustralian.com.au/news/opinion/weighed-down-by-the-m-word/story-e6frg6zo-1226010322408

Lawrence, Peter, Australian Opinion on the Indo-Chinese Influx 1975 – 1979, Research Paper No. 24, (Griffith University, Brisbane: Centre for the Study of Australian Asian Relations, April 1983).

Markus, Andrew, Race: John Howard and the Remaking of Australia (Sydney: Allen & Unwin, 2001).

Markus, Andrew, ‘How Australians See Each Other’, in the Committee to Advise on Australia’s Immigration Policies (eds.), Immigration: A Commitment to Australia, Consultant’s Reports (Canberra: Australian Government Publishing Service, 1988).

National Multicultural Advisory Council, Multicultural Australia: The Way Forward (Canberra: Department of Immigration and Multicultural Affairs, 1997), full text found at:
http://www.immi.gov.au/general/notices/macpaper.htm

Ricklefs, M.C., ‘Why Asians?’, in Markus, Andrew, and Ricklefs, M.C., (eds.), Surrender Australia? (Sydney: Allen & Unwin, 1985).

Walker, David, ‘Australia as Asia’, in W. Hudson & G. Bolton (eds.), Creating Australia: Changing Australian History (St Leonards: Allen & Unwin, 1997).


[1] Paul Kelly, ‘Weighed down by the M-word’, The Australian, posted to website on February 23, 2011, last visited on 26/09/11, full text found at:

http://www.theaustralian.com.au/news/opinion/weighed-down-by-the-m-word/story-e6frg6zo-1226010322408

[2] Both British Prime Minister David Cameron and German Chancellor Angela Merkel recently spoke on ‘Multiculturalism’s Failure’ at the Munich Security Conference, 5 February 2011.

[3] Chris Bowen, ‘Address to the Sydney Institute – The Genius of Australian Multiculturalism’, February 16, 2011, full text found at: http://www.chrisbowen.net/media-centre/speeches.do?newsId=4154

[4] Paul Kelly, ‘Weighed down by the M-word’, last visited on 26/09/11.

[5] Bob Carr, ‘Multiculturalism: When the Time is Right’ , Thoughtlines with Bob Carr, posted to weblog on February 23, 2011, full text found at:http://bobcarrblog.wordpress.com/2011/02/23/multiculturalism-when-the-time-is-right/

[6] Stuart Hall, ‘Subjects in History: Making Diasporic Identities’, in Lubiano Wahneema (ed.), The House that Race Built (New York: Vintage Books, 1988), p. 7.

[7] Ien Ang, and Jon Stratton, ‘Multiculturalism in Crisis: The New Politics of Race and National Identity in Australia’ in Ien Ang (ed.), On Not Speaking Chinese: Living between Asia and the West(London: Routledge, 2001) pp.28 – 31.

[8] David Walker, ‘Australia as Asia’, in W. Hudson & G. Bolton (eds.), Creating Australia: Changing Australian History (St Leonards: Allen & Unwin, 1997), p. 133.

[9] Peter Lawrence, Australian Opinion on the Indo-Chinese Influx 1975 – 1979, Research Paper No. 24, (Griffith University, Brisbane: Centre for the Study of Australian Asian Relations, April 1983), p. 26.

[10] John Howard, ‘Address at the National Multicultural Advisory Council Issues Paper Launch – Multicultural Australia: The Way Forward’, Melbourne Town Hall, 11 December 1997.

[11] Pauline Hanson, ‘Maiden Speech (10 September)’, reprinted in The Truth (Ipswich: no publisher, 1996).

[12] In the first half of 1997, at the height of her popularity, Hanson attracted more than 10% national support. Rothwell’s 1997 opinion poll suggested that one in four voters were prepared to back her party. By the end of 1997 however her support had declined.

[13] Pauline Hanson, ‘Maiden Speech (10 September)’, 1996.

[14] Geoffrey Blainey, All for Australia (North Ryde: Methuen Haynes, 1984), p. 34.

[15] Geoffrey Blainey quoted in M.C. Ricklefs, ‘Why Asians?’, in Andrew Markus and M.C Ricklefs (eds.), Surrender Australia? (Sydney: Allen & Unwin, 1985), p. 37.

[16] Pauline Hanson, ‘Maiden Speech (10 September)’, 1996.

[17] Pauline Hanson, ‘Maiden Speech (10 September)’, 1996.

[18] Peter Cochrane, ‘Race Memory’, Australian Review of Books, November, 1996.

[19] National Multicultural Advisory Council, Multicultural Australia: The Way Forward (Canberra: Department of Immigration and Multicultural Affairs, 1997), full text found at:

http://www.immi.gov.au/general/notices/macpaper.htm

[20] Quoted in Andrew Markus, Race: John Howard and the Remaking of Australia (Sydney: Allen & Unwin, 2001), pp. 85 – 89.

[21] James Curran, The Power of Speech: Australian Prime Ministers Defining the National Image(Melbourne: Melbourne University Press, 2006), p. 329.

[22] John Howard, ‘Address at the National Multicultural Advisory Council Issues Paper Launch – Multicultural Australia: The Way Forward’, Melbourne Town Hall, 11 December 1997.

[23] Andrew Markus, ‘How Australians See Each Other’, in the Committee to Advise on Australia’s Immigration Policies (eds.), Immigration: A Commitment to Australia, Consultant’s Reports(Canberra: Australian Government Publishing Service, 1988), p. 22.

[24] Paul Kelly, ‘Weighed down by the M-word’, last visited on 26/09/11

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