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John Howard's multicultural paradox.

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As I write, multiculturalism is once again in the h eadlines, this time courtesy of

comments by Treasurer Peter Costello who last week lashed out at ‘mushy

multiculturalism’ and warned that migrants who did not share Australian values

should be stripped of their citizenship’ ( Age 24 February 2006). Costello’s claims

come at a time when Australians are still coming to terms with the ugly riots that took

place in Sydney before Christmas, when approximately 5000 young ‘Australians’

swarmed to Cronulla beach in the city’s south-east, with the express intention of

reclaiming the beach from ‘lebs’ and ‘wogs’. Fuelle d by drink, sunshine and a

distorted form of racial-nationalist pride, the pro test turned into a fully-fledged riot,

flag-draped demonstrators turning violently on peop le of Middle Eastern appearance

and those that tried to help them, including police and ambulance officers. At least ten

people were injured and scores of others arrested. The events led, in turn, to a spate of

violent reprisal attacks by young Lebanese-Australi an men, forcing the police to

lockdown certain sections of the city. Despite some return to normality, Sydney today

remains in a state of alert, with fears of further attacks and rioting.

For social commentators on the progressive-left, th e distressing events at Cronulla,

and Costello’s recent foray into the politics of im migration, come as no surprise. They

have interpreted them as the culmination of the cou ntry’s retreat from progressive,

anti-racist, multicultural attitudes and institutio ns since the Howard government

assumed power ten years ago. They highlight numerous examples of Howard’s and

his supporters willingness to ‘play the race card’ for political advantage since 1996.

Not surprisingly, the Howard government has consistently rejected claims that it is

anti-immigration, anti-immigrant, or even anti-mult icultural. Its main concern, it

stresses, is to give more emphasis to the notion of ‘core’ Australian values. It urges

the need for a strong, coherent and unambiguous res ponse to the various forces that

threaten social stability at the present time, incl uding ethnic tribalism, religious

fundamentalism and terrorism. It highlights the str ong support the government’s

approach enjoys amongst ‘mainstream’ Australians.

1 Aspects of this paper were presented at Conference: ‘O n the Right Path? Reform and Reaction in Australia, Frei Universitat, Berlin, September 26 ‐2 7 2006.


Which view is correct? Has the Howard government killed off Australian

multiculturalism? Should it? Are its personal and p olitical interests, and a racist

undercurrent in Australia, returning the country to the assimilationist policies of the

pre-Whitlam era of the 1960s? Or are its attitudes and policy approaches ‐ and public

opinion generally ‐ more complex?

Such questions have received significant attention from political pundits during the

past decade. Yet the quantity of commentary has not always been synonymous with

quality. Constructed in the context of the highly p olarised, ideologically-charged

debate on immigration, race and national identity t hat has been the backdrop to the

Howard years, much public discourse has tended to be partisan, emotive and

rhetorically-driven, rather than analytic and histo rically and conceptually precise. This

has tended to obscure and confuse some very fundamental issues, like what

multiculturalism is, and how it functions as an asp ect of Australian immigrant

settlement policy (as opposed to its place in the h istory and politics of national

identity, or its role in the political contest betw een Labor and the Liberals). It has also

distracted attention from other important considera tions, for example, the success or

otherwise of Australia’s migrant settlement model, and its continuing relevance in the

21 st century.

This paper seeks to clarify some of this confusion in the course of assessing how

Australian multiculturalism is doing after almost t en years of social conservative, neo-liberal rule under Howard. It examines the current government’s approach in the

context of multiculturalism’s always highly contest ed, highly politicized history, and

its dual identity as both a public policy program a nd an ideology. It identifies the

various, sometimes conflicting, interests and value s that have shaped both former and

current government approaches, and the extent to wh ich policies have changed over

time. It considers multiculturalism’s future in the face of current perceived threats to

national sovereignty and identity.


The political dynamics of Australian multiculturali sm

Nearly all modern, liberal-democracies are multicul tural nowadays, though all in

different ways. Despite its recent troubled record on race and ethnic relations,

Australia has long been regarded as an important in novator in multicultural policy,

with its strong institutional approach to migrant s ettlement, protection of ethnic rights

and management of cultural diversity. This manifest ed itself in the introduction of an

impressive array of programs and policies during th e late 1960s and throughout the

1970s, amongst them a grants-in-aid system to deliv er welfare and services to

migrants through ethnic organisations, expanded English language services, a

comprehensive Translator and Interpreter Service, migrant resource centres, the

creation of the Federation of Ethnic Communities Councils (a government-funded

umbrella organisation for the state-based Ethnic Co mmunities Councils), the

multicultural, multilingual Special Broadcasting Se rvice in radio and television, and

the Australian Institute of Multicultural Affairs ( AIMA) which conducted research on

multicultural affairs, provided advice to governmen t, and information and education

to the general public.

Australian multiculturalism developed primarily as a response to the perceived failure

of post-war assimilation policies to ensure the int egration of immigrants, especially

those of non-English speaking background (Jupp 2002, Lopez 2000; Tavan 1997). It

has always maintained this pragmatic emphasis on integrating new migrants into the

host society. As Jupp (2002, p.93) suggests, Austra lian multiculturalism is best

understood as a component of immigration settlement policy, not primarily a cultural

maintenance or cultural relativist policy as is the case in countries like Canada.

Neither has it embodied a structural pluralist visi on of society, as far as government

policies and principles have been concerned. While political and community leaders

early conceded the right of ethnic groups to preser ve and develop their cultural

distinctiveness, and to take responsibility for the delivery of migrant services and

welfare, this has generally been in the context of an assumed adherence to Australian

values and institutions. Lopez (2000, p. 447) corre ctly summarises ‘cultural

pluralism’ as one of the most significant tradition s in Australian multicultural thinking

and practice, with its conceptualisation of ‘an eth nically and culturally diverse

society, existing within a unified state, where mos t of the existing ‘core institutions’

and ‘core values’ of the host society are preserved ’. An ‘ethnic rights’ model has also


been popular, with its emphasis on developing an et hnic consciousness amongst

migrants as the basis for sustained political mobil isation.

Despite many positive innovations, multiculturalism has always been a politically

sensitive doctrine and policy program, vulnerable t o the conflicting demands of

sectional interests, shifting historical circumstan ces, and the source of considerable

public anxiety. ‘Mainstream’ Anglo opinion in parti cular has tended to be more

sceptical, concerned that the emphasis on cultural diversity and funding of ethnic

organisations is at the expense of Australian natio nal identity, that it gives

disproportionate political influence to ethnic comm unity leaders, and that it is costly

to the Australian taxpayer.

The first real sign of trouble manifested itself in the early 1980s when esteemed

historian and public intellectual Professor Geoffre y Blainey argued that

multiculturalism was fomenting ‘a nation of tribes’ (Blainey 1984; Markus and

Ricklefs 1985). Various other conservative commentators and political leaders during

that decade echoed Blainey, including several members of the Liberal Party of

Australia and John Howard in his capacity as leader of that party. In 1988, the

Fitzgerald Committee, a government-commissioned inquiry into immigration, noted

considerable public confusion and resentment about various aspects of policy,

including Asian immigration and multiculturalism, many viewing the latter as ‘social

engineering which actually invites injustice, inequ ality and divisiveness’ (CAAIP

1988, p. 3). That year too, sociologist Katherine B etts published a book, Ideology and

Immigration , which argued that popular opinion did not support immigration and

multiculturalism, but that debate on this sensitive issue was being stifled by

Australia’s intellectual and political elites, most whom supported immigration and

multiculturalism in order to distinguish themselves from what they considered to be a

highly parochial culture (Betts 1988).

Partly in response to these criticisms, but reflect ing other imperatives as well,

including the influence of neo-liberalism and chang ing economic circumstances,

successive governments since the 1980s have worked hard to reassert ‘a culture of

control’ over immigration matters and appease popular sentiment, even as they have

remained committed to large immigration intakes and the principles of cultural


pluralism and non-racial discrimination. This has b een expressed in various ways,

including an increasing emphasis on economic immigration, cuts to migrant spending,

a harsher attitude towards unauthorized asylum-seek ers, and a shift from a

discretionary model of decision-making in immigration to a more rules-based system

(Tavan 2005, p. 221; Jupp 2002, various chapters).

Multicultural policy has also undergone important c hanges. The Hawke Labor

government implemented significant cuts to programs in the mid-1980s, including the

abolition of the well-regarded AIMA. However, considerable pressure from ethnic

groups led to a re-appraisal of its approach. In 19 89 it introduced the National Agenda

for a Multicultural Australia . This was characterised by a shifting emphasis awa y

from migrant needs and entitlements, to an insisten ce on the rights of all Australians

to express their cultural identity and access multi culturalism; also its attempts to

balance social democratic ideals of justice and equ ity for migrants with a neo-liberal

commitment to economic efficiency. It represented i n effect, a shift from an ethnic

rights to a ‘citizenship model’ of multiculturalism ; acknowledging cultural diversity

as an integral component of Australian society, and freedom to express one’s cultural

heritage as a fundamental human right, but limiting that pluralism through the

requirement of ‘an overriding and unifying commitment to Australia’ and acceptance

of ‘the basic structures and principles of Australi an society’ (National Agenda 1989;

Castles 2001, p.809).

In practical terms, the Hawke-Keating Labor years o f 1986-1996 were characterized

by the expansion of multicultural programs. This in cluded the establishment of the

Office of Multicultural Affairs to promote multicul tural policies and monitor

government programs, and the Bureau of Immigration, Multicultural and Population

Research (BIMPR) to provide research and information to policy-makers. Ideas like

‘Productive Diversity’ were propagated in order to emphasise the economic benefits

of immigration and cultural pluralism in a rapidly globalising world. Consultative

relations with ethnic organisations were also reinf orced.

Strong efforts were also made to develop multicultu ralism as a nationalist ideology,

with public political discourse strongly emphasisin g ‘cultural diversity’ and

‘tolerance’ as core characteristics of Australian n ational identity, crucial to the


country’s future prosperity. Controversially, attem pts began in the early 1990s to

incorporate Indigenous Australians within the broad parameters of multicultural

policy. This was justified on the grounds of a need for a more inclusive approach

towards Indigenous Australians. It was a provocativ e move, nevertheless, in light of

repeated assertions by Indigenous people of their s pecial place in Australian society as

the country’s original owners, and their unwillingn ess to be seen as just one more

ethnic group amongst many.

The Hawke-Keating Labor years had mixed results, raising important questions about

the broad direction of policies since the 1980s and whether it has effectively fulfilled

the social justice objectives that were fundamental to multiculturalism’s evolution in

the first place. On the one hand, new settlers and cosmopolitans responded positively

to attempts to better incorporate immigrants and In digenous Australians into the

national story. Ethnic groups enjoyed a closer dial ogue with governments at both state

and federal level. Australia experienced relatively little ethnic conflict. On the other

hand, many migrants continued to experience structu ral inequities and injustices.

Australian Bureau of Statistics data reveals that i n June 1995, the unemployment rate

for migrants of non-English speaking background (NESB) was 12.2 per cent,

compared to a national average of 8.1 per cent. The rate for some groups was much

higher, including Lebanese (25.1) and Vietnamese (26.8) (ABS 1995, cited in Castles

2001, p. 810). Castles’ (2001, p. 810) sobering ass essment is that multiculturalism

during this period ‘did not succeed in eliminating racism and the social exclusion of


Hindsight also reveals mainstream Australia’s uneas e with aspects of Labor’s

approach. The party’s election loss in 1996 which b rought John Howard’s coalition

government to power has generally been attributed t o popular hostility towards former

Labor Prime Minister Paul Keating’s ‘big picture’, ‘new values’ politics in which

multiculturalism loomed large (Brett 2005, Markus 2001). Labor’s strong association

with ethnic interests was undoubtedly another contr ibuting factor.

Multiculturalism under Howard

The current Prime Minister’s long-standing suspicio n of multiculturalism is well

known. He studiously avoided the term for years while opposition leader. He


precipitated a major debate in 1988 when he publicl y queried the rate of Asian

immigration. He openly declared in 1997 that ‘multi culturalism 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 a re a federation of cultures and that

we’ve got a bit from every part of the world’ (cite d in Brett 2005, p. 37).

His reticence was apparently confirmed when he won office in 1996 and his

government immediately abolished key multicultural programs including the Office

of Multicultural Affairs and the research-oriented BIMPR. Spending was decreased

on a range of welfare and services, including the c apacity of newcomers to access

unemployment benefits and the Adult Migrant English program. Ethnic organizations

like FECCA were quickly marginalised, the government setting limits on funding and

downgrading consultative efforts. Very controversia lly, Indigenous Affairs was

merged into the portfolios of Immigration and Multi culturalism ‐ a decision

interpreted by many as further evidence of the gove rnment’s hostility towards

Indigenous self-determination.

The Howard era has also been marked by a series of controversial decisions and

debates. This began with the Prime Minister’s elect ion in 1996 on the back of a

populist pledge to rule ‘For All of Us’ (a message many believed was a veiled appeal

to Australia’s Anglo-mainstream), continued with hi s refusal at first to repudiate the

anti-immigration, anti-multicultural, anti-Indigeno us claims of Independent MP

Pauline Hanson, and the sordid Tampa crisis and ‘ch ildren overboard’ affair in which

unauthorised asylum-seekers from the Middle East were vilified as a threat to national

sovereignty and the cultural and ethical standards of decent, mainstream Australians.

This led in turn to the introduction of one of the developed world’s most hard-line

approaches to unauthorised asylum-seekers ‐ with th e blessing of a majority of the

public (Markus 2001; Marr and Wilkinson 2003; Manne and Corlett 2004).

Most recently, the terrorist bombings in London and Bali have sparked renewed

debate within Australia about multiculturalism (Par kinson 19 July 2005). Government

members have apparently encouraged anti-multicultural sentiment with hints of the

dangers lurking beneath Australia’s seemingly calm multi-ethnic exterior. Howard has

warned that a close eye will be kept on Muslim mosques, prayer halls and schools to


ensure they are not disseminating extremist ideas a nd encouraging terrorism. Various

senior ministers have jostled to outdo each other i n public declarations of loyalty to

the nation, and severe rebukes of those they believ e are not acting ‘Australian’

enough. Liberal MPs Sophie Panapolous and Bronwyn Bishop have gone so far as to

recommend that Muslim girls in state schools be ban ned from wearing the hijab, the

wearing of which by young people, they insist, is n ot much more than an ‘act of

rebellion’, ‘an iconic item of defiance’( Age 26 Aug. 2005). In the wake of the

Cronulla riots, questions have inevitably being ask ed about the extent to which they

were fuelled by anti-Muslim rhetoric within government circles in recent months.

Still, there is an inherent paradox about Australia n immigration policy during the past

decade that many of the current government’s critic s fail to acknowledge. Since 1996

immigration rates have increased steadily to approx imately 130,000-140,000 in 2005-06 (excluding humanitarian and refugee intakes). Th is is almost double the number of

people entering when Howard first took power a decade ago. The overseas-born now

represent approximately 23 per cent of the Australi an population. Ethnic diversity

remains a crucial feature of annual immigration int akes and of the population as a

whole, with almost 200 different language groups ca lling Australia home. Despite

historical antipathy towards Asian immigration, set tlers born in that region now

represent almost 42 per cent of annual entry rates. Australia’s ethnic composition is

also significantly affected by the large influx of temporary visitors it receives each

year, including tourists, students, and now increas ingly, temporary workers. Whether

he admits it or not, as journalist Paul Kelly recen tly pointed out, ‘Howard is now one

of the main architects of Australia as a multicultu ral society’ (Kelly 2005).

The Prime Minister, furthermore, has not completely overturned Australia’s

commitment to multiculturalism. The Racial Discrimination Act remains in place. In

1999, after some initial equivocation, his governme nt publicly reaffirmed its

commitment to multicultural principles in the form of a policy document: New

Agenda for a Multicultural Australia. It re-endorsed it again in 2002 in the form of

the statement Multicultural Australia: United in Diversity: Updat ing the1999 New

Agenda for Multicultural Australia (Commonwealth Government of Australia 2002).


These statements go further than previous ones in t heir determined shift away from an

‘ethnic rights’ model, declaring multiculturalism t o be for all Australians, not just

migrants (the decision to append the prefix Australian to the term multiculturalism is

prime evidence of that). But they show significant policy continuities as well. The

recent statement identifies four main principles of multiculturalism: a) the

responsibilities of all Australians ‘to support tho se basic structures and principles of

Australian society which guarantee us our freedom a nd equality’, b) the right of all

Australians, subject to the law, ‘to express their own culture and beliefs’ and the

reciprocal obligation for them to respect the right s of others, c) that all Australians are

entitled to equality of treatment and opportunity, d) that all Australians benefit from

productive diversity, that is ‘the cultural, social and economic dividends arising from

diversity’. Such claims effectively endorse the pri nciples established in Hawke’s

National Agenda for a Multicultural Australia of 1989, with its acknowledgment of

the reality of cultural pluralism in Australia, its strong focus on the rights and

responsibilities of all citizens, the economic bene fits of immigration and

multiculturalism, and nominal support for principle s of social justice and equity.

There is further evidence of policy continuity, des pite overall cuts to migrant

spending and different points of emphases. Key mult icultural institutions have been

maintained, including the SBS, the nation-wide Tran slator and Interpreter Service, the

Adult Migrant English Program, numerous settlement and migrant community service

programs and promotion of the benefits of cultural diversity (DIMIA Population

Flows 2002-2003; Budget Statements 2005-2006). There are new initiatives as well,

like the education-focused Living in Harmony Initiative , an Access and Equity

Strategy to enhance migrant access to government se rvices, and the Council for

Multicultural Australia that provides policy advice to government. These latter

programs have correctly been identified as having l imited substantive effect (Jupp

2005, p. 179), but, again, they indicate some conti nuity with the broad principles and

policies set down in the Hawke-Keating era. Overall funding for multicultural,

citizenship and settlement programs has increased s teadily during recent years, in line


with increases in immigration intakes. 2 It is a fact that Howard’s critics have given

surprisingly little attention to.

How do we explain the anomalous position of the Howard Government? The apparent

retreat from the orthodoxies and institutions of th e past three decades are no doubt

largely attributable to the Prime Minister’s person al outlook, political considerations

and the remarkable influence he has had over public policy and political culture

during the last ten years. Howard possesses a funda mentally liberal-conservative view

of the national community. He understands society i n key terms of ‘individuals’

‘family’ and ‘nation’. He strongly endorses what ph ilosopher Charles Taylor calls ‘the

politics of dignity’, that is the liberal assumptio n of the fundamental equality and

dignity of all human life (Taylor 2004). Strictly s peaking, Howard is not the racist that

many of his critics claim him to be.

His perspective, however, makes him inherently suspicious of the ‘politics of

difference.’ As Howard himself pointed out in the l ate 1980s, multiculturalism is

problematic for him because it ‘ensnares individual s in ethnic communities, denying

them the opportunity to fully participate in Austra lian society’. It risks limiting the

freedoms of individuals and dividing the nation. It has the potential to subvert the

notion of equality for all by giving undue influenc e and benefits to special interests

(see Brett 2005, pp. 24-28). In this respect, Howar d’s personal concerns embody those

of many liberal democratic polities today as they a ttempt to balance demands for

equality to be extended to the recognition of ‘part icularity’, with long-held liberal

views about equality and blindness to difference.

Howard’s respect for individual rights and antipath y for ethnic politics are regarded

by his supporters as evidence of a true egalitarian ism and inclusiveness. This is partly

true (the end of the White Australia policy was fou nded after all, on the refusal to

continue to recognise racial difference in immigrat ion and citizenship policies). There

are limits to this outlook, nevertheless. Howard’s public discourse tends to downplay

the significance of ethnicity in the formation of p ersonal identity, portraying it almost

2 The total price of outputs for citizenship, cultura l diversity and settlement programs increased from $84.43 million in 1999-2000 to $141.4 million in 200 5-06. The largest increase was in the area of settlement services (Commonwealth Government of Australia, Department of Immigration and Multicultural and Indigenous Affairs, Portfolio Addit ional Estimates Statements, 1999-2006).


like a lifestyle choice rather than a deeply embedd ed sense of values and associations.

Happy to laud the cultural contributions of migrant s to Australian society, and to urge

their unequivocal loyalty to Australia, he is less likely to acknowledge the difficulties

migrants face in dropping old values and habits, an d embracing new ones (this is by

no means a trait unique to Howard of course). More problematic is his neglect of the

ways in which race and ethnicity can structure soci al relations and entrench powerful

inequalities and injustices; manifested, for exampl e, in his consistent refusal to

acknowledge the reality of racism in Australian soc iety.

The Prime Minister’s retreat from multicultural ide als is not explained by personal

values alone. Politics has also been a powerful mot ivating factor. One of the most

striking characteristics of his years in power have been his attempts to distinguish his

government’s record of achievements from that of hi s Labor predecessors, especially

in the areas of social and cultural policy. More ur gent still, has been the matter of

winning and keeping the support of those elements i n the community who have

transformed their contempt for globalisation and po st-material values, including

multiculturalism, into a significant electoral forc e in recent times. This includes the

socially-conservative blue collar battlers who dese rted Labor in 1996 and the one

million people who voted for the populist Pauline H anson’s One Nation Party in the

1998 federal election, on the back of that party’s strong anti-immigration, anti-multicultural, anti-Indigenous campaign.

Practical considerations drive Howard’s policies as well; namely the broad

transformation of Australia’s economy and society d uring the past two decades, and

changing assumptions of the role of government. While it was a Labor Government

that initiated a broad program of neo-liberal refor m in Australia during the 1980s, it is

the current government that has overseen the almost near-completion transformation

of the economy, with significant cuts to government spending, and the liberalisation

of the labour market, financial sector, industry an d trade. Cuts to migrant settlement

services and the de-institutionalisation of multicu lturalism are no doubt aspects of a

much broader rationalisation of government spending and services. They may also be

attributable to the changing nature of immigration during the past two decades. With

the Skill stream now constituting approximately 65 per cent of the Migration program


(almost 78,000 migrants entered under this stream i n 2004-05), and an increasing

proportion of migrants now possessing English skill s, there is presumably less overall

demand today for social welfare and settlement serv ices than there was during the

eras of high unskilled immigration of previous deca des.

The Prime Minister’s worldview no doubt blinds him to the extent to which human

dignity and respect requires the accommodation of c ultural difference and ‘the politics

of equal worth’. But Howard is not completely indif ferent to or unaffected by the

enormous changes Australian society has undergone during the past thirty years, or

the social, moral and political and practical princ iples at stake. His government’s most

recent multicultural statement expressly and repeat edly acknowledges the reality of

cultural diversity in Australia and the fundamental right of citizens to express their

cultural differences; albeit always in deference to ‘core’ civic and national values:

‘Citizenship is a strong unifying force in our dive rse multicultural community. Our

commitment to and defence of Australian values of equality, democracy and freedom

unite us in our diverse origins, and enhance the ab ility of all of us to participate fully

in all spheres of Australian society (Commonwealth Government of Australia 2002, p.


Howard is also a deeply pragmatic man, well attuned to the practical consequences of

the neo-liberal project he is close to completing. Cultural pluralism is an inescapable

consequence of economic globalisation and Australia’s increasingly porous economic

and geographic boundaries. This offers both benefit s and challenges for governments.

Multiculturalism is a valuable cultural asset for a country keen to attract highly

skilled, cosmopolitan middle-class professionals to its shores (Hage 2003). A multi-ethnic population is also a tangible material resou rce for a nation-state keen to further

its economic and strategic interests in the global market. As the current statement on

multiculturalism points out: ‘It helps us to forge links with the rest of the world that

can deliver increased trade and investment through the expansion of markets and the

development of diverse goods and services’ (Commonwealth Government of

Australia 2002, p. 8). On the other hand, high immi gration and ethnic pluralism

present ongoing challenges for liberal democratic g overnments in terms of justice and

equity, and maintaining social cohesion and stabili ty. This has undoubtedly compelled


a continuing commitment to migrant settlement servi ces and cultural diversity


Cultural pluralism and thirty years of multicultura l policy have also created their own

political momentum. Howard’s early years as Prime Minister were characteried by his

desire to distinguish himself from Keating and his resistance to the ethnic politics of

the Labor Party. But political longevity and the La bor Party’s woes have given

Howard more confidence and a sense of control over the nation’s destiny.

Multiculturalism is no longer the political and cul tural threat it once seemed (even if

the government’s public discourse at the moment suggests otherwise).

There is also the matter of public opinion. Notwith standing the electoral strength of

Howard’s socially conservative battlers, majority o pinion still apparently favours the

status quo; that is, the maintenance of multicultur alism (this, after all, has now been in

place for over thirty years, far longer than assimi lation lasted as the official postwar

settlement policy for migrants). Whatever the perso nal views and political preferences

of government members, or the quirks of the Austral ian electoral system that allow

elections to be won and lost on the basis of few se ats, they cannot entirely ignore the

support for multicultural ideals amongst key sectio ns of the population, including

immigrants, the business community, the nation’s in tellectual elite, influential

sections of the mainstream media, bureaucrats, and sections of both the Labor and

Liberal parties.

A pointed reminder of this was the results of two o pinion polls released in the

immediate wake of the Cronulla riots. One, a Sydney Morning Herald-Age poll, found

that 80 per cent of respondents supported multicult uralism and only 10 per cent

opposed it. The other, The Australian’s Newspoll , suggested far more opposition, with

more than double the amount reporting that multicul turalism is bad for Australia

(Kelly 2005). While not underestimating the signifi cance of the resistance expressed,

or the specific factors that may have distorted the se poll results (for example, people

using the poll as a protest against the riots), the y suggest that multiculturalism still

carries some positive leverage, and that a radical shift in policy will be avoided unless

domestic and international political circumstances change dramatically. This is not

surprising. Incrementalism is a common feature of p olicy-making in pluralistic


liberal-democracies like Australia, as governments constantly attempt to balance a

variety of competing pressures, interests and value s. Notwithstanding Howard’s

overwhelming political success, and the revolutiona ry nature of some of his reforms,

especially since winning control of the Senate, we should not ignore evidence of

caution and continuity in politically sensitive por tfolios, or where the policy

fundamentals seem right.

John Howard’s resolution of his multicultural parad ox has been to walk a fine line,

moving ambivalently between an overtly assimilationist and ‘soft’ cultural pluralist

position. He has conceded minimal ground to the plu ralists with his pragmatic

acknowledgment of the reality of cultural diversity in Australia, and the inherent right

of people to express and maintain their cultural id entity. He has maintained those

aspects of immigrant settlement and cultural policy that are fundamental to the

maintenance of social order and well-being, or whic h achieve positive cultural, social

and political outcomes. At the same time he has str ipped policy of its more radical

political and ideological potential, especially in relation to ‘ethnic rights’, structural

pluralism and national identity. He has constructed a public discourse of ‘core values’

and ‘core identity’ that has been highly popular an d differentiates his government

from his main political rivals, even if a close exa mination reveals some policy


If Howard’s ambivalence frustrates his critics, it must also be conceded that it reflects

Australia’s own; a settler society which has always been sensitive towards

immigration and which continues today to oscillate between loyalty to its British

colonial, social liberal origins and traditions, an d the attractions of the brave new,

globalised, neo-liberal, pluralistic, multi-ethnic realities of the early 21 st century

(Beilharz 2005; Dixson 1999). Herein lies one of th e fundamental paradoxes of

Howard’s success. This very ambivalence, this willingness to live with paradox, has

undoubtedly contributed to his electoral strength a nd his ability to carry his beloved

‘middle Australia’ with him on sensitive cultural a nd economic issues.

It is not incidental that attitudes towards immigra tion have stabilised since the Hanson

controversies of the late 1990s, despite significan t increases in immigration. This

partly reflects heightened economic optimism. It al so attests to the Howard


government’s astute political handling of the immig ration portfolio as a whole (as

distinct from ethical and practical considerations, and whether the national interest has

always been served). As Brett suggests, Howard’s co nsummate skill as a politician,

unlike his predecessor Paul Keating, has been his c apacity to position himself at the

centre of mainstream Australia, not beyond it or ab ove it: ‘Where Keating spoke to

the nation, Howard spoke from it ‐ straight from th e heart of its shared beliefs and

commonsense understandings of itself’ (Brett 2005, p. 32). When Howard publicly

admits his mixed feelings towards immigration and multiculturalism, and his

preference for ‘core’ values and an unequivocal (ho mogeneous) identity, he

simultaneously amplifies people’s own anxieties abo ut such issues and assures them

that in matters of national values and identity he is really on their side ‐ no matter

what is actually happening in policy terms.

This is not to deny the limits of Howard’s approach or the potential dangers it

contains. His handling of immigration and multicult ural issues has been politically

astute in some respects, but it also holds inherent dangers, not least for his

government. For every foray into the politics of im migration brings with it the

capacity to alienate yet another ethnic group or se gment of the community, or perhaps

more significantly, to create unrealistic expectati ons about policy outcomes amongst

more conservative segments of the population (note, for example, Pauline Hanson’s

immediate response to Peter Costello’s comments on multiculturalism this week that

if he was really serious about the intention to str ip people of their citizenship if they

failed to respect Australian values, he should imme diately introduce some legislation).

Notwithstanding some broad continuities in policy a nd principle, Howard’s ultra-

‘soft’ multiculturalism also represents another ste p away from the doctrine’s original

commitment to enhancing the social and economic status of migrants in real terms (a

retreat that began with the Hawke Labor Government’s National Agenda for a

Multicultural Australia of 1989). The Prime Ministe r often refers to the ‘tolerance’ of

Australians in his public speeches, and the contrib ution this has made to the overall

success of our immigration program. This is undenia bly true. But tolerance is not the

open respect and understanding between ethnic groups that many people aspire to,

and underestimates, perhaps, the true potential of multiculturalism (it is telling that


more than thirty years since the inception of multi culturalism, some politicians still

see the wearing of the hijab as a lifestyle choice! ).

Neither is tolerance adequate to the task of uphold ing professed national principles of

social justice and equity. Despite the strong rheto ric of ‘equality’ favoured by Howard

and other neo-liberals, many migrant success storie s, and the middle-class nature of

contemporary immigration, the available evidence suggests that significant numbers

of settlers continue to experience real inequalitie s, including older groups from

Southern Europe, lower-skilled immigrants, and vari ous refugee groups who have

arrived since the 1970s, including those from Vietn am, Lebanon, the Middle East and

African nations (see Cresciani 2003; Castles 2001, p. 810; Coughlan 2001, pp. 730-31; Australian , 4 January 2006). This inequality is by no means n ew, as I’ve already

suggested, and suggest continuing deficiencies in i mmigration settlement policies. In

the absence of more concerted efforts, the social a nd economic gap between such

groups and middle Australia is set to grow.

Finally, concerns remain as to whether the governme nt’s approach is sufficient to

steer the country through the difficult challenges to national sovereignty, stability and

identity currently posed by issues such as terroris m, religious fundamentalism,

refugee pressures, economic and social inequality, and growing ethnic tension.

Howard’s willingness to exploit the politics of imm igration and ethnicity, epitomised

by the Tampa crisis and ‘children overboard’ affair may have won him some short-term electoral benefits, but it has come at the exp ense of his government’s moral

authority, Australia’s social fabric and reputation , and the human rights of many

vulnerable people. These developments are a potent reminder as well of the rapidity

with which public policy and opinion can lapse into more sinister forms of

ethnic/racial politics if circumstances and politic s allow. Australia’s long adherence to

multicultural principles and programs, and its gene rally positive history of ethnic

harmony, offer no absolute protection against futur e problems. The recent Cronulla

riots are an important reminder in this respect.


Multiculturalism has defined Australian settlement policy for over thirty years,

officially acknowledging the reality of cultural pl uralism in Australia, and affirming


the responsibility of governments to manage that pl uralism and assist the integration

of new settlers through institutional means. Despit e its longevity, it has always been a

highly contested policy and doctrine, with public o pinion divided about its meanings,

objectives and functions, and policy emphases shift ing in accordance with changing

circumstances. Successive leaders, beginning with t he Hawke Labor Government

during the 1980s, have struggled to balance social realities and the needs of migrants

with broader political pressures. It is questionabl e whether multicultural policies, as

they have evolved since the late 1980s, have achiev ed the social justice and equity

considerations of its original architects.

Since winning power in 1996, the Howard Government has endorsed the broad

principles and policy directions set down by the Ha wke Labor government in the

1980s, while at the same time further affirming the limits of Australian

multiculturalism with its strong civic-nationalist emphasis on core values and identity,

its shift away from principles of ethnic rights and social justice, and the abolition of

some policies and programs. These narrow parameters have been politically popular

but are problematic in the context of current threa ts to social stability. They represent

a step backwards in the path towards a progressive immigration settlement policy and

the creation of a stable, cohesive multi-ethnic soc iety that began tentatively with the

introduction of mass European immigration in the 1940s. Still, the momentum of high

immigration and thus cultural pluralism continues u nabated, as does the need for

governments to deal responsibly, practically and et hically with this particular social

reality in the interests of social stability and fu ture prosperity. While it has no doubt

suffered a significant blow, claims of the death of Australian multiculturalism are



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