Growing up in a country town in North Queensland I had little exposure to other cultures. I went to school with quite a few indigenous children but I knew little about indigenous culture. In fact now I come to think of it they didn’t make a fuss of it either, but seemed determined just to get on in life As a legacy from the gold rush days there were quite a few Chinese in town and they were diligent shopkeepers and market gardeners. And as a result we had one Chinese restaurant.
A couple of uncles from my mother’s side of the family, whom we often visited down on the coast, worked as canecutters during the cane season and spent the off-season fruit picking in the south. Their next door neighbours on one side were Italian and some of their friends were Italian. One had been industrious enough to have raised the capital to purchase a small cane farm of his own. We rather liked these people as they were good humoured, laughed and sang a lot, and drank considerable amounts of wine. Wine was not readily available in those days so they would buy it by the barrel. When it arrived there would be a happy day when they got together and bottled the wine. It must have been a dry red wine of some sort. My father, who at that stage, like most Aussie blokes, drank mainly beer used to call it “sour wine”! (However, in due deference to his heritage my dad was also rather partial to a “wee dram”!) And of course these Italian immigrants could speak adequate English and integrated well. To our eternal gratitude they also ate different foods. Not only was there lots of pasta but they introduced us to alternative vegetables like zucchinis and aubergines. They were largely all good Catholics and this soon manifested itself in the local cemeteries where ornate tombstones and mausoleums started to dominate. And quickly following in their footsteps in the surrounding towns Italian restaurants began to appear.
On whatever dimension you might choose to measure, these immigrants added to the richness of Australian life. They contributed positively to our economy. They enriched our culture. They integrated well into our communities.
Maybe I was naïve or perhaps just unobservant but I didn’t appreciate there was any great problem with indigenous people in my youth. Most of my sporting teams included aboriginal boys. And we all got along just fine. Some of them were very talented athletes. In primary school I noticed some had exquisite handwriting. I suppose I should have noticed that not many went into High School. But in those days you could leave school at fourteen and most of the indigenous boys I knew had aspirations only to be stockmen or labourers. So I didn’t pay much attention when their numbers thinned in the higher grades.
There was one occasion, however, that should have perhaps sent more warning bells than it did. I was perhaps fourteen and went to the school dance. Even without the attraction of mixing with the opposite sex, school dances were fun and the main reason that was so, was because some dedicated teachers used to take us for dancing lessons in the lunch hour. As a result we learnt many of the old time dances – the pride of Erin, the gipsy tap, the progressive barn dance, the military two-step and so on. School dances only went from about 7:00pm to 10:00pm. About halfway through the night I noticed an aboriginal girl (let’s call her Evelyn even though that wasn’t her name) that had seemingly sat there all that time and nobody had danced with her. I went across and invited her to dance with me. She shyly agreed. When the dance was finished and I walked her back to her seat one of my teachers came over to me. She said, “Thank you for dancing with Evelyn.” I just shrugged my shoulders and responded, “That’s OK. She was nice.”
In my boyish idealism I just saw someone, who for some reason wasn’t being included. I never thought much about the colour of her skin.
When I went to University, I started to hear stories about Charlie Perkins and his protest against discrimination on the basis of colour. I was appalled to hear about this and I began to realise life for some indigenous people at least was more difficult than I might have imagined.
I can’t recall hearing anything about multiculturalism before Gough Whitlam came to power in 1972. The colourful, but dubious Al Grassby was given the Immigration portfolio and proceeded to advance the multiculturalism cause. By this time the White Australia policy had been thoroughly discredited and Australia was beginning to receive migrants from all over the world. Whilst previously we had drawn our immigrants from the UK and Europe we were now admitting increasing numbers of people from Asia, Africa, the Middle East and South America.
My own experience with other nationalities was increased by exposure to those who were studying in Australia under the Colombo Plan. Under the Colombo Plan students from the Asia-Pacific were allowed into Australia to access our universities. While I was studying Engineering many of my classmates were such people. They had strange and barely pronounceable surnames like Tham and Ng. Most were devoted students, although some had a penchant for gambling. We used to play poker and blackjack in the lunch rooms which was in defiance of the Faculty’s regulations. In the breaks they could be caught studying the form guide for the weekend’s races. One, whose name I won’t divulge, was held in awe not only because he had represented his country at the Olympics at boxing but even more so because he had a live-in girlfriend. Such avant-garde behaviour might have occasionally come to notice among the bohemians in the Arts faculty, but never among the staid, conservative engineers! Mind you he was an exception and all the other Asian students I can remember were good conservative people, just intent on attaining their degrees. Most of them, of course did. And many stayed on in Australia thus increasing our pool of competent professionals and actively participating in our economy and community life.
At this stage, in my experience, multiculturalism wasn’t front of mind for many of us. Many would have shared my experience of engaging with people of other nationalities and other races just in the course of our everyday lives without making much of a fuss about it. In general most of these people made a useful contribution to our society and integrated well into our communities. Sure they preserved some aspects of their cultures and we were grateful for it. They celebrated cultural events which lay outside our calendar. When they did so they often wore clothing traditional to their own cultures which most of us admired. They had their own cuisine which gradually made its way into our expanding diets much to our benefit. Their music and ceremonies were often attractive and accepted by all of us. They preserved what they felt were critical dimensions of their traditional cultures but not at the expense of embracing the Australian way of life.
But in recent decades things have changed. Whereas once we were happy to have immigrants from different nationalities and different cultures join us in being Australians and enriching our society by adding their cultural nuances to ours, multiculturalism now seems to mean that if you are an immigrant you are free to impose your cultural demands on us without any obligation at all to integrate into the Australian way of life.
In this process we have made many mistakes. In principle, I believe diversity is good for us. We have benefitted enormously from what our diverse immigrants have brought to our society. Diversity allows us to compare and contrast different values, beliefs and lifestyles, make judgments upon them, and decide which may be better and which may be worse. It is important, in other words, because it allows us to engage in political dialogue and debate that can help create a more universal language of citizenship.
But I believe it is imperative for our progress that any immigrant must come to us agreeing to comply with our laws and being willing to integrate into our society.
Now I would submit that the other threat to our ideal of multiculturalism comes not from without but from within. I would make the same demands of our indigenous peoples as I have outlined in previous essays. We have modified our laws to ensure our indigenous citizens are given some advantages with respect to such things as welfare, job opportunities and health. I have no problems with that. But they must also share the same obligation as our immigrants to contribute both economically and socially to our society. They need also to acknowledge they are subject to the law of the land just as every other Australian is.
One of the problems of multiculturalism, as it is now envisaged, is that we must give special consideration to those who are out of the mainstream Australian culture. Whilst I don’t believe that this is helpful, the way we go about it is even more dysfunctional. We solicit advice about how to deal with these communities by going to “spokespersons” and listening to what they have to say.
This is a mistake. There is no single indigenous community or, indeed, a single Muslim community. When we go to a so-called representative for advice all we get is a particular parochial slant on the issue at stake.
Many in the indigenous community complain that Government imposes things on them without consultation. It is often evident that no amount of consultation would result in a consensus view because there are so many conflicting indigenous voices to contend with.
By now you are probably aware that I perceive the main problems with multiculturalism come from how to deal with our indigenous population and how to deal with our Islamic immigrants. And to tell the truth I see much similarity in the problems that arise from both minority communities and our ineffectual attempts to deal with these two different minorities.
As we saw above, the Government’s attempts to deal with these communities by consulting with various representatives is doomed to failure because the cultures are quite diverse and the representatives usually only present their own particular parochial viewpoint. These minority communities don’t have a single voice which can encapsulate the beliefs of all.
As Kenan Malik, the Indian-born English writer, lecturer and broadcaster has written:
Multicultural policies attempt to manage diversity by putting people into ethnic and cultural boxes, defining individual needs and rights by virtue of the boxes into which people are put, and using those boxes to shape public policy.
It is an approach that encourages not social engagement but social fragmentation. It also tends to treat minority communities as if each was a distinct, singular, homogenous, authentic whole, each composed of people all speaking with a single voice, each defined primarily by a singular view of culture and faith. In so doing, it often ignores conflicts within those communities.
There is no single ‘Muslim community’ or ‘African Caribbean community’ any more than there is a single ‘Christian community’ or ‘white community’. Muslim communities are as varied and conflicted as every other kind of community. What often happens, though, is that the most progressive voices within minority communities get silenced as not being truly of that community, while the most conservative voices get celebrated as community leaders, the authentic voices of minority groups. This is where liberal multiculturalism meets rightwing anti-Muslim bigotry. Anti-Muslim bigots often portray all Muslims as reactionaries. Multiculturalists all too often take the reactionaries to be the authentic voice of Muslim communities.
Now one of the problems we face in dealing with either the issues of indigenous Australians or the issues associated with our Islamic minorities is that if we express our concerns about these minorities we are shouted down as being racist or bigoted. Whilst it may be true that many who voice concerns about these minority groups are indeed racist or bigoted, many are not. The “progressives” avoid having the difficult conversations by shutting them down and censoring them with such name calling. Then instead of having a productive debate we each sit in our own ideological silos hurling insults at each other. How useful is that?
As I have written previously, Australian citizens, whether belonging to minority groups or not, must accept some basic obligations and responsibilities.
In a previous essay about the indigenous disadvantage I wrote:
Perhaps I have a simple mind but I can’t help thinking that indigenous progress is only going to occur when we and they accept that our expectations of indigenous people should be no different to our expectations of everyone else.
And I would add that I believe this is true of any minority group. So what are these basic obligations and responsibilities?
The first of these is that irrespective of your ethnic, religious or national background you must comply with the law of the land. Any thought that traditional indigenous law (whatever that may mean) or Sharia law could countervail Australian law must be put aside. That is a prerequisite of Australian citizenship.
Secondly, as an Australian citizen you have a responsibility to contribute to our society with both economic and social contributions. We have a society that seeks to provide support to those who have either physical or psychological disabilities. That is appropriate. But those of us who are sound of mind and sound of body need to earn our way and make our reasonable contribution. If we have disabilities that prevent that we make such a contribution, then it is fair and reasonable that we provide welfare support but we must make a reasonable attempt to make an economic contribution before we resort to welfare. Employment should be actively pursued even if this means moving to areas of greater economic activity.
Thirdly, the more vulnerable in the minority communities must also be protected from the excesses of their traditional practices or their unwillingness to ensure basic principles of equality, fairness and parental responsibility. Women suffer unduly in many indigenous societies and many fundamentalist Islamic societies. We can’t allow such practices to prevail. As well in many traditional indigenous societies children’s health and safety are compromised and their education neglected. We shouldn’t tolerate that either.
It is probably unfair of me to single out these two minority groups, indigenous and Moslem. But it is these two groups that seem to be most difficult to integrate into mainstream Australian social and cultural norms.
Perhaps I don’t even know what multiculturalism is supposed to be! On reflection there seems to be two elements.
Firstly there is the lived experience. As I have indicated above, I believe we are immeasurably richer for the diversity in our population resulting from our multi-ethnicity and multi-nationality. I have enjoyed broadening my understanding by learning more about our indigenous peoples and our diverse immigrants. But I suppose I have enjoyed this experience largely because most of the people I have encountered have enriched our Australian culture without seeking to displace it.
Secondly, there are the politics that have evolved about supporting multiculturalism and this has not been so helpful. The policies in support of multiculturalism have often sought to give special consideration for the beliefs and practices of the minority communities and unfortunately at the expense of the broader community. And sometimes have even eroded our basic freedoms, such as free speech.
In the end I think that John Howard was right. In a recent interview where multiculturalism was raised he said, “Australia can’t afford to have a federation of cultures.” There needs to be an overarching agreed set of values and beliefs. Those values and beliefs should be amenable to change and be modified by what we learn from other cultures but they shouldn’t be allowed to be put aside entirely by minorities.