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Is Australia's Multiculturalism Going Through A Mid-Life Crisis?

Almost 50 years since Australia adopted multiculturalism as a government policy, and its premise is still being debated. One conservative thinker says "promoting diversity for its own sake" is no longer good enough.

This week, a report from the University of Melbourne's Youth Research Centre found racial discrimination, particularly at school, was still a reality for many young Australians.

Around one in five respondents said they had experienced racial discrimination in a school setting, according to the Multicultural Youth Australia Census Status Report.

What does this say about our multicultural country?

The Youth Report cited high numbers of people who witnessed racial discrimination on the street (23.1 percent) and on public transport (21.7 percent). IMAGE: AAP.

The term 'multicultural society' was first used by an Australian Government official in a 1973 speech by Labor's then Minister for Immigration, Al Grassby.

Fast forward several decades and while formal language around the policy seems to be shifting, research indicates Australians are still in favour of it.

Prime Minister Scott Morrison was recently accused of avoiding the word 'multiculturalism'. When he held the Immigration portfolio under former PM Tony Abbott in 2013-14, he referred to Australia as an "immigration country".

Meanwhile, 85 percent of Australians agree "multiculturalism has been good for Australia," according to last year's Mapping Social Cohesion Report by the Scanlon Foundation.

Despite this, the belief that people from different cultures can live peacefully alongside each other is being tested by a rise in far-right extremist groups. 

An Australian citizenship ceremony, conducted prior to a football game. Image: Getty.

The concept of multiculturalism has long been misunderstood, according to former Federal Race Discrimination Commissioner Zita Antonios.

"It has always been about one set of laws for every single Australian, irrespective of ethnicity, race or language background," Antonios -- who held the role in the mid to late 90s -- told 10 daily.

At that same time, she said multiculturalism "promises a respect and acceptance of different cultural practices and beliefs so long as they remain consistent with Australian law."

There remains a consistently high level of endorsement of multiculturalism in Australia, according to the 2018 Mapping Social Cohesion Report. Image: The Scanlon Foundation.

Multiculturalism has to switch direction to be sustainable as official policy, Dr Jeremy Sammut from The Centre For Independent Studies said.

"Its focus needs to change from promoting diversity for its own sake, to focusing on the challenges of ensuring social cohesion."

Those challenges include migrants "who might find it easier not to integrate" while they live in ethnic communities and "maintain connections to their homelands through modern travel and technology," Sammut said.

It is important to make the distinction between Australia's ‘top-down’ and ‘bottom-up’ multiculturalism, political sociologist Dr Rachel Busbridge said.

"‘Top-down’ is that of the state [which has] been increasingly politicised by the government and certain politicians -- particularly in relation to border security and national identity.

‘Bottom-up’ is everyday, ordinary multiculturalism we encounter as we go into the world," she explained.

Busbridge added identifying the disconnect between how some politicians talk about multiculturalism and how ordinary people experience it is vital.

"On the everyday level, cultural diversity is generally seen as a good thing. Perhaps we need politicians who are able to speak to this, or at the very least don’t irresponsibly politicise identity and race-based issues."

The Scanlon Foundation's 2018 report found while the majority of Australians understood multiculturalism as a "two-way process of change", 64 percent said migrants should change their behaviour to be "more like Australians".

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From Then To Now

Successive governments have released official multicultural statements since the late 1970s, after the Fraser Government made it a political priority.

Prior to this, the country's White Australia policy restricted non-European immigration to Australia from 1901 to 1973 and focused on assimilation.

"Multicultural Australia: United, Strong, Successful" was the country's most recent statement, made by former PM Malcolm Turnbull in 2017, where he boasted "Australia is the most successful multicultural society in the world".

A citizenship ceremony conducted prior to a cricket game in Perth. Image: Getty

The Morrison government -- voted in by Liberals last year and up for general election this year -- is yet to release their updated statement or position.

The 2016 Census showed nearly half of Australians (49 percent) were either born overseas, or one or both parents were born overseas. More than one-fifth (21 percent) of Australians speak a language other than English at home.

Yet some experts argue Australia's unbroken ties to Great Britain have meant despite keeping a multiculturalism policy for almost half a century, our national identity is complicated.

"The idea that ‘Australian’ equals ‘Anglo’ has hung around for a long time. The memory of the White Australia policy goes against a really developed sense of patriotism," Busbridge said. 

For some, rhetoric around multiculturalism is seen as a political correctness which can stifle honest debate.

Contact between groups has waned because many are "hyper sensitive" to aversion, said Sammut.

"[There is a] fear of giving offence and copping the associated hassle of being accused of racism or offensiveness."

"This goes against the easy and open Australian social style of focusing on  what we have in common not what divides us, and threatens to turn multicultural differences into harder social divisions."

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Busbridge said far-right groups had recently tried to hijack the idea of who is “Australian".

“It's essential to refuse the claims of racists who want to claim the idea of the Australian nation for themselves,” she said.

Tension points will always exist despite Australia being "one of the most diverse and harmonious multicultural societies", Antonios acknowledged.

These can be "manufactured" about certain groups where "scapegoats are sought" and used as a political wedge in the lead-up to an election.

"That approach might have been fruitful in the past, but in 2019 there are ample signs multicultural Australia sees through the ruse and rejects it."

Contact the author: samelia@networkten.com.au.