Integration the Key to Multicultural Success

February 19, 2011 by Colin Rubenstein
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Federal Immigration Minister Chris Bowen on Wednesday spoke at the Sydney Institute praising the “genius of Australian Multiculturalism”. Yesterday, he launched a new national multicultural strategy entitled The People of Australia. It was also announced that the government will establish a new independent advisory body to help implement and build on the policy. Meanwhile, Senator Kate Lundy has been named Parliamentary Secretary of Immigration and Multicultural Affairs, and will now focus on implementing the new policy.


Dr Colin Rubenstein

This appears to be a welcome shot in the arm for a vital policy which, despite bipartisan agreement on its  essentials, has sometimes been somewhat neglected in recent years. Both sides of politics paid the concept lip-service, but in practice, there has frequently been, in both major parties, a lack of energy, focus or new thinking devoted to Australian Multiculturalism.


This is despite the fact that Australian Multiculturalism has, over the more than 30 years it has been official federal and state policy, helped create and sustain what is one of the most successful multi-ethnic, tolerant and democratic societies in the world. It contributes effectively to our social cohesion, economic prospects and positive profile in our region and beyond.

Yet, multiculturalism is still poorly understood. Some commentators, misleadingly looking at the European models, blame it for a multitude of ethnic tensions and other social problems. But it is not multiculturalism – at least not the model of it enunciated in official Australian public policy – that is causing the ethnic and social problems critics identify.

Centrally, Australian multiculturalism has always been about both responsibilities and rights. The policy accepts and respects the “right of all Australians to express and share their individual cultural heritage”, the right to equality of treatment and opportunity, and the removal of discriminatory barriers. But it does so only “within an overriding commitment to Australia and the basic structures and values of Australian democracy”. These values include parliamentary democracy and the rule of law, freedom of speech and religion, mutual respect and tolerance, equality of the genders and English as the language of civic discourse.

It is certainly not the case, as some on both sides of the debate seem to think, that multiculturalism stands for “anything goes” with respect to anti-democratic beliefs, racist violence, or the promotion of terrorism. The key concept for Australian Multiculturalism has always been integration into the core values and institutions of Australian life, avoiding the pitfalls of the other two discredited models of separatism and assimilationism.

Many European versions of “multiculturalism” have fallen into the trap of failing to stress responsibilities, integration and core democratic values. This is why some commentators – not least German Chancellor Angela Merkel – have recently discussed multiculturalism’s supposed “failure.” A few weeks ago, British Prime Minister David Cameron delivered a considered speech on the problems confronting multiculturalism in Britain. I would humbly suggest that if the UK were to replace what has served as multiculturalism in Britain with Australian Multiculturalism, most of the problems he raised would be addressed.

Meanwhile, back at home, extremists and racists have long been assailing the core values that are integral to the Australian concept of multiculturalism. Unfortunately, this threat has sometimes been compounded over the years by government failures to always apply the policy consistently and effectively, and to articulate clearly what Australian Multiculturalism actually entails.

While obviouslyAustralia continues to have some problems with intolerance and extremism, Australian Multiculturalism is not their cause, but rather helps to provide the framework for addressing these problems. Arguments to the contrary are essentially proposals to throw the baby out with the bathwater.

Intolerant, separatist and anti-democratic doctrines are actually best tackled from the vantage point of Australian Multiculturalism, which marginalises and rejects such views as violations of the shared core values that are its hallmark.

Issues and events like the Cronulla riots of 2005, the development of small homegrown Islamist terror groups like that led by Abu Benbrika, and the activities of some resident and visiting Muslim clerics who preach separatism from non-Muslims, violent jihad and/or racist conspiracy theories are all challenges that are best understood and countered within the framework of Australian Multiculturalism.

It’s heartening, therefore, that the Gillard government has launched a new policy document and  restored the word “multiculturalism” to the portfolio of a parliamentary secretary. However, much remains to be done to now move forward with refurbishing the substance of the policy as well.

As the government does this, it should be careful to avoid repeating questionable decisions such as giving credibility to visitors who represent a worldview inconsistent with the core values of Australian Multiculturalism – and be wary of those who would take multiculturalism down the slippery slope of “anything goes.”

Meanwhile, Prime Minister Gillard should both seek and receive support from the opposition, where key federal and state leaders including Tony Abbott, Ted Baillieu and Barry O’Farrell, have long been on record as supporters of Australian Multiculturalism.

Australian Multiculturalism is a policy which has served us well, and  properly weighted between our rights and responsibilities, can further help us resolve pressing social challenges. If revitalised and renewed, it will continue to benefit Australia’s harmony, diversity and cohesion.

Dr. Colin Rubenstein is Executive Director of the Australia/Israel & Jewish Affairs Council (AIJAC). From 1997 until 2006, he was a member of the Federal Government’s Council for a Multicultural Australia and its predecessor, the National Multicultural Advisory Council.

This article was first published in “The Australian”


One Response to “Integration the Key to Multicultural Success”
  1. Michael says:

    With all due respect if you listen to European leaders who have woken up [ late] to the fact that Today’s Multiculturalism is a disaster , sure it works years ago however everything changes.

    We can see in UK & Europe how certain Minorities have not integrated and have placed pressure on their host countries to adapt their culture and customs and to be treated as a separate class of immigrant [ or else!]

    Multiculturalism worked in Australia until about the 70’s for example the Chinese, Jews, Italians, Greeks, Vietnamese , Cambodians all adapted , integrated , added value and didn’t make demands on our Government to make special rules and exceptions for them or try to change our culture or way of life. [ let alone create any danger]

    Any Australians that believe multiculturalism is working here have some other motif or have never been to Europe to see for themselves where we are heading.

    We need immigration but not at any cost.

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