The folly of ethnic empowerment

About 30 years (roughly equivalent to the span of one generation) after the Australian government had sought (and brought) able-bodied European workers to contribute to the development of the nation; and the arrival of a number of war-displaced Europeans (the refugees); there was a surprising move by some Australians of immigrant descent. They claimed that English is not our national language.

As a former director of policy on ethnic affairs and multiculturalism, I (perhaps with tongue in cheek) asked my boss if Latin would meet the linguistic needs of all the Europeans in the country. Logically, in terms of a projected future, only Mandarin and Spanish might have qualified as Australia’s other national languages. But, what led to the ambition to downgrade English, already a universal language? The flexing of imported ethnic muscles!

The next step in this direction was the suggestion that immigration entry should be based on the proportions of the ethnic communities already in Australia. A similar claim had once been made in the USA. I was reminded of the White Australia policy, which was becoming progressively tinted; the hoped-for cosmopolitan Australia was to remain predominantly white, but not British.

The third proposal fell onto fertile policy ground. All of a sudden, in the 1970s, all that wonderful settlement assistance initially provided to the immigrants from Europe by the Anglo-Australian members of the Good Neighbour movement in the 1950s; and subsequently followed by employees of all agencies – both public (in the main) and private – endeavouring to guide non-English speakers to any services they might require; all this was suddenly claimed to be inadequate.

Instead of NESB immigrants (those of a non-English speaking background) being shown the way to available services for approximately 20 years, they were now to be taken there by social workers speaking the requisite languages. These workers would be employed by the various ethnic communities using government grants. It was a parallel settlement service that was sought, and achieved, at great expense.

Having had extensive contact (by chance and by choice) with immigrants and refugees since their arrival from the late 1940s, in the 1980s I questioned the need for this policy. In my capacity as Chief Ethnic Affairs Officer I heard strong criticism of this policy from established European immigrants from a wide range of countries. Since they had been able to settle in Australia successfully, where was the need for the new settlement policy, they asked.

Significantly, 2 notable senior ethnic community members, while careful not to publically challenge their younger compatriots, proposed to me a limit of 10 years for this policy. The ‘young Turks’, including junior academics, disagreed. Ethnic separation and empowerment were on the rise. Ethnic advisory councils, at both federal and state levels, proliferated, at great taxpayer expense. (Yes, I am a former Treasury official too.)

When the federal government came up with a policy of multiculturalism, to manage multiculturalism (whatever that thought-bubble was), I realised that this was no more than an exercise in competitive ethnic vote-catching. Significantly, when one government reduced the qualifying residence period for citizenship from 5 years (out of 8) to 3 years, the other then reduced it to 2 years. As we insiders said to ourselves, all that any of our imports with criminal intent had to do was to lie low for 2 years. They couldn’t then be deported.

What did multiculturalism policy achieve in terms of enhancing the successful integration of our new settlers? We were already relating to one another smoothly. We do not need the government or ambitious ethnic persons to tell us how to relate to one another.