Evolution of multicultural policy
Australia is a culturally diverse society. Our indigenous people have always had a rich variety of cultures, languages and customs.
Even the members of the First Fleet came from a number of ethnic backgrounds.
Our diversity has grown continually ever since, and especially during the last fifty years, as a result of large-scale migration from non-English-speaking countries and the eventual adoption of a non-discriminatory immigration policy.
The population has grown through immigration which has been actively encouraged by the governments of the day, particularly since 1945.
Among the most profound changes in Australia over the past half century has been the evolution in public policy from the White Australia Policy to a non-discriminatory immigration policy, with the parallel transition from assimilation to integration and then to multiculturalism.
The policy of assimilation spans the period up to the mid 1960s and was based on a belief in the benefits of homogeneity and a vision of Australia as a racially pure white nation. It effectively excluded non-European immigration.
It also dominated the treatment of our indigenous population, the forceful adoption of indigenous children into white Australian families being just one example of assimilationist thinking.
Integration, in the broad sense, does not imply minority cultures giving way totally to a dominant culture.
Instead, they influence the dominant culture which is modified to some extent by the newer cultures. Integration, however, does not encourage ongoing cultural diversity – everyone is expected to adopt the integrated culture.
Multiculturalism continues the strong emphasis of previous policies on social harmony but recognises and positively accepts that Australia is, and will remain, a culturally diverse country; and it offers a set of guidelines for enhancing social harmony.
It seeks to ensure that this diversity is a positive force in our society and recognises that the absorption of newly arrived people into the Australian community necessarily involves all sectors of the community making some adjustments.
There are many aspects of the Australian way of life that newcomers are required to accept. These include the law, our democratic form of government, and English as the national language.
But, equally, Australian multiculturalism recognises that many migrants and their children will choose to retain many of their customs and cultural traditions, some of which will be adopted by other Australians.
In other words, the inclusion and participation of migrants and their descendants in Australian life occurs naturally and, within the bounds of our democratic and legal framework, the individual whether migrant or Australian-born must be free to choose which customs to retain and which to adopt.
The changes Australia has experienced in recent decades have had major, but differentiated, impacts on all sectors of Australian society.
While most Australians have benefited and are positive, some may see the world changing and moving too quickly, threatening their employment and wellbeing and even the values upon which their lives have been built, values that are so important for their self-identification as Australians.
Such concerns are felt by numerous people across both urban and rural Australia and has given impetus to a search for scapegoats.
For a portion of the community, multiculturalism has become one of the scapegoats. As a result we have seen a growth in criticism of multiculturalism, including the emergence of political parties that have sought to exploit community concern by advocating thinly veiled policies of bigotry and division.
The Council believes, nonetheless, that multicultural policies have served Australia very well, contributing to a fairer and more just society. Australia, with all its cultural diversity, remains a cohesive and harmonious society and this diversity has contributed significantly to its economic, cultural and social sophistication.
Like all areas of public policy, however, multicultural strategies need to be continually reviewed and updated in the context of the changes in our society and our relationship with the global community.
The Council has undertaken a review not only through its own deliberations but has also taken into account a wealth of input from widespread consultations, submissions to the Council’s issues paper Multicultural Australia: The Way Forward, relevant literature and commissioned research and reports.
This report contains the Council’s recommendations arising out of the review.
The continuing importance of multiculturalism
The Council supports the view that an important measure by which a civilisation should be judged is its treatment of minorities.
It could be argued that the welcome and assistance Australia’s governments and people have given to new settlers, including refugees, reflect our commitment to such a principle: because it is the right thing to do and because the values of justice and equity are deeply embedded in our democratic principles.
These new settlers, in return, have contributed greatly to Australian society, often in the face of major difficulties.
The combined goodwill of all has been crucial in the evolution of our harmonious multicultural society which is a major achievement of Australian democracy.
A wide range of multicultural policies and programs have been enacted over the past twenty-five years and Australia’s social, administrative and legal infrastructure has adjusted to the needs and potential of an increasingly diverse community. Some programs have been initiated by the Commonwealth Government, others by State, Territory and Local Governments.
The education sector, business and unions have also contributed.
Much has happened among social, cultural and religious groups and in the wider community because most people have become comfortable with the fact that their daily lives now routinely involve meeting and dealing with people from different backgrounds. The continuing social harmony of our community owes much to these combined efforts.
The 1989 National Agenda for a Multicultural Australia stated that 'the challenges of a multicultural society do not simply resolve themselves.
Government action - in the form of multicultural policies - is needed in certain areas to promote social harmony, to ensure a fair go and to harness our human resources in the most productive way for Australia’s future’.
The Council believes this is as valid today as then. Australia is, and will always be, a multicultural society, irrespective of our immigration intake, and multiculturalism remains an important means of addressing the challenges and opportunities of our cultural diversity.