Issues of multiculturalism – Part 1

In 1995, the United Nations International Year for Tolerance (and the twentieth anniversary of the enactment of Australia’s Racial Discrimination Act), the then Prime Minister of Australia claimed that there is in Australia “no language not spoken, no culture not understood, no religion not practised”. It must be true; it was in the news! In any event, this means that we must have the most culturally diverse nation in the world; or is it only linguistically diverse?

The Office of Multicultural Affairs also told us then that multiculturalism is a policy for managing the consequences of cultural diversity; that this policy confers upon us two rights and a responsibility. The rights are: to express and share our cultural heritage; and to equality of treatment and opportunity. The responsibility is to utilise effectively the skills and talents of all Australians. The Office also identified certain limits to Australian multiculturalism: that we should have an overriding and unifying commitment to Australia; that we should accept the basic structures and principles of Australian society, viz. the Constitution and the rule of law; tolerance and equality; parliamentary democracy; freedom of speech and religion; English as the national language; and equality of the sexes; and that we have an obligation to accept the rights of others to express their views and values.

All this is eminently reasonable and sensible, except that bit about “managing”. In addition, the chairman of the Australian Multicultural Foundation (Sir James Gobbo), an ethnic community leader of great competence and renown, said (also in 1995) that he looked forward to “the day in the not too distant future, when our cultural diversity and our policies of tolerance and respect in handling this diversity will be so much a part of the fabric of our society, that we shall no longer need to use such words as multiculturalism and ethnic.”

While commending Australia’s multicultural philosophy as initially introduced, and its relative success, he pointed out that multiculturalism does not propose policies of affirmative action; and that there is a need for us all “to understand and insist on the shared spiritual values of our various cultures.” This view parallels the mature view (expressed also in 1995) of the President of the Czech Republic that the best hope for a peaceful multicultural civilisation in the world is to understand and insist on “the shared spiritual values of all cultures.”

Another outstanding ethnic community leader (Emeritus Professor Jerzy Zubrzycki) questioned (also in 1995) whether the term ‘multiculturalism’ is not now out of date. He pointed out that, to the opponents of a non-discriminatory immigration policy, the term has negative connotations and is associated with “incidents of political separatism” (which surfaced in the Gulf War). “Many cultures, one Australia” has greater attraction for him.

While supporting the thrust of current multicultural policy, he raised two important issues: that “not all traditions, cultures and customs are necessarily equal,” and that wooing the ethnic vote throws the policy “out of balance.” Where “some minority values are totally inconsistent with fundamental values of the dominant Australian culture” (e.g. where “the family takes the law into its own hands to redress a wrong done to one of its members”), “it would be nonsense to say that every culture is equally valued and therefore legitimate.”

(The above extract from ‘Destiny Will Out’ is about the federal government seeking to manage the growing ethno-cultural diversity of Australia. The issues of rights and responsibilities arising from this diversity were quite correctly set out. However, is it ever realistic for governments in the democratic West to tell communities how to get along with one another? Or, do people of different origins learn to accept one another through living together, and not in tribal enclaves?

Enabling adult immigrants to learn English, offering a shared education for all children, and indicating that any imported cultural attitudes and practices which may be incompatible with Australia’s institutions and social mores will need to be moderated in order to qualify for the equal opportunity structures available to all, may be all that governments need to do to achieve an integrated people from diverse origins and traditions.

I am, naturally, gratified to have support from the eminent persons I have quoted above for my long-held views about the great need in any nation for cultural cohesion; such cohesion to evolve under the umbrella of a shared nationality, with its fulcrum resting on long-tested institutional structures, and social mores.)