Confusions about Multiculturalism

Child with multicultural fingers

Recent publications in the Australian media suggest, Australian multiculturalism, seen as a strategy of managing cultural diversity and a social policy – has been often misunderstood and confused with ethno-cultural pluralism and assimilationist melting pot.

Confusions about Multiculturalism

by Jan Pakulski, University of Tasmania

Paper presented at the Symposia on ‘Migration and Multiculturalism Today’ in Hobart on 25 November 2011 and Melbourne 30 November 2011.

Religions for Peace Australia publishes this paper, courtesy Prof. Jan Pakulski of the University of Tasmania.

As a number of recent publications in the Australian media [1] suggest, Australian multiculturalism, seen as a strategy of managing cultural diversity and a social policy – has been often misunderstood and confused with ethno-cultural pluralism and assimilationist ‘melting pot’.

These confusions are hardly surprising in the light of scarcity of public clarifications and paucity of informed debate. As argued below, Australian multiculturalism is a difficult concept and a complex policy-strategy. It raises a number of questions that need to be addressed in both the political, academic and public forums. If swept under the carpet, these questions are likely to be answered in a biased way, thus multiplying the confusions, undermining public confidence in multiculturalism and the bi-partisan consensus about multicultural policies. Such a collapse of consensus would pose a serious danger, especially at the time when Australia enters its second ‘immigration revolution’[2].”

Let me highlight some of the popular confusions about multiculturalism with the intention of clarification rather than evaluation or advocacy.

The underlying principles

As rightly noted by almost all observers, multiculturalism has many meanings. It refers to the ‘demographic reality’ of ethno-culturally diverse Australian (or any other) society, to the philosophical and sociological theory (modernisation through socio-cultural differentiation) that informs multicultural policies, to the policies embraced by Australian governments since the late 1970s (tolerant ethno-cultural pluralism), and to an ideal, a set of goal-values (unity in diversity) that underlies these policies.

While most critics focus on the first—and the most superficial—meaning (ethno-cultural diversity), this paper focuses on the last three meanings. They have been combined by groups of Australian sociologists in the 1970s (especially Jerzy Zubrzycki, the Chair of the AEAC, and his collaborator Jean Martin) into a consistent vision cum social policy of Australian multiculturalism, subsequently presented in a number of papers and adopted by successive (ALP and Coalition) governments as a policy-strategy towards ethno-cultural diversity.

The 1977 AEAC paper – the first document that clearly spells out the meaning of Australian multiculturalism – highlights three core issues of multiculturalism, and the 1982 ACPEA paper adds the fourth one. They form the core principles of Australian multiculturalism:

  1. social cohesion understood as national integration, that is, institutional arrangements for allocating resources and resolving conflicts;
  2. equality of opportunity and access;
  3. freedom to chose and maintain one’s own cultural identity understood as ‘the sense of belonging and attachment to a particular way of living’; and
  4. social duty of requirement of shared ‘responsibility for, commitment to and participation in society’ (1982:12).

The subsequent documents, especially the 1989 National Agenda for Multicultural Society, underplays the centrality of national integration (social cohesion) by multiplying the core goals-principle to eight [3].’ Together, these eight principles articulate a somewhat crowded normative framework for policies concerning migrant adaptation and ethno-cultura1 diversity in Australia. While national integration is still at the top of the 1989 list of goals-principles, it is spelled out more vaguely than in previous documents (as a ‘commitment to Australia’), and its importance is in many ways qualified by the other seven goals-principles. [4]

One can say that in its original and early formulations (1977-82) Australian multiculturalism envisages sustained ethno-cultural diversity in the context of national unity, cohesive society and equity, all secured by the shared ethos of equal opportunities; shared meta-institutions of (common) law, liberal democracy and English language; and by the ‘common’ duty of social engagement and participation.

Obviously, these original goals-principles form a dynamic long-term goal-aspiration, an ideal type, a model that can never be fully achieved, but can be approximated to an increasing degree. It has been a realistic goal-aspiration in the sense of having firm theoretical foundations, normative backbone and a strong anchoring in Australian history. Similarly, from the proverbial day one, multiculturalism has been a part of the broader liberal-democratic institutional framework contrasted with the past discriminatory White Australia policies and mono-cultural assimilationism.

Together with multicultural strategy, the subsequent Australian governments have embraced tolerant liberal-egalitarian policies compatible with a vision of modern, open, diverse and fair Australia. This vision, to repeat, is contrasted with assimilationism – a strategy that requires and expects migrants to ‘melt in’ and lose their original identity – and with all forms of ethno-cultural stratification, including apartheid (a doctrine of steep ethno-cultural stratification disguised as ‘separate development’). Ethnocultural assimilation and stratification, including the American ‘melting pot’, became the two major rivals of the multicultural vision.

However, as the early papers point out, also from day one, Australian multiculturalism has been misunderstood and confused, mainly with the policies that guided its Canadian, British and American counterparts. And these confusions have seldom been clarified, thus resulting in perpetuation of misunderstandings.

Distinctive Australian multiculturalism

The Australian version of multiculturalism is quite distinctive and unique. Unlike the American ‘melting pot’ rival, Australian multiculturalism allows minorities to retain their cultural identity and cultivate some of their traditional lifestyles. But it rejects ethno-cultural segmentation and cultural regionalism, both found, in various degrees, in the Canadian and British policies towards minorities. Instead, it has embraced a vision of ‘horizontal’ and ‘dispersed’ cultural differentiation that takes a form of culturally diverse groups and communities. Such a ‘compromise’ reflects a liberal vision of ‘ethnic groups with continuity and some measure of autonomy’ recommended by the intellectual creators of the Australian multicultural vision. (1977:5; 1982:12).

Multiculturalism, as these creators stress, is not about immigrant selection, but about the way in which government and the Anglo-Australian majority treat diverse ethno-cultural minorities – be it immigrant or established – or about the majority-minority relations. In that sense, to use a popular cliche, multiculturalism has always been a vision and strategy ‘for all Australians’. At its very heart lies a vision-goal of a culturally diverse but well-integrated society that grants equal rights and opportunities to (and imposes the same duties on) all its citizens regardless of their culture.

The 2011 Unity Cup was held at Windy Hill in celebration of Melbourne’s diverse multicultural society.

The 2011 Unity Cup was held at Windy Hill in celebration of Melbourne’s diverse multicultural society.

Such a society, the Australian multicultural vision stipulates, celebrates cultural diversity as an asset, and not a threat or liability. At the same time it is clearly recognised that the Australian society has been predominantly British in its origins, Anglo-Australian (or Anglo-Celtic) in its cultural background, and liberal-democratic in its ideology and institutional framework (common law, parliamentary democracy). Diversity of cultural backgrounds and identities does not undermine traditional solidarity (mateship), and does not undermine a strongly egalitarian, or rather equitarian (‘a fair go’), popular ethos.

This is possible because (initially white European, and subsequently all) migrants have been welcomed in Australia as a solution to the ‘populate or perish’ dilemma. Both during the colonial years and as an independent nation Australia has always controlled the inflow of migrants and regulated their entry – at least until the recent inflow of ‘illegal refugees’ and asylum seekers.

This approval of migrants as a necessary addition created specifically Australian dispersed ‘ethnic communities’. Predominance of such dispersed communities (as opposed to territorially concentrated ‘nationalities’ distinguishes Australian multiculturalism from the Canadian and British cases (‘territorialised pluralism’), as well as from the American ‘melting pot’ producing distinctive ‘ethnic strata’. Thus, unlike in Canada, multiculturalism was adopted in Australia as a strategy of dealing mainly with the consequences of mass migration, while in Canada it was a tool for legitimating the formation of relatively autonomous indigenous ‘nations within a nation’. Yet, in spite of these differences, Australian and Canadian multiculturalism have remained similar – though as siblings rather than twins.

Great Britain adopted quite different strategies of dealing with its cultural minorities. It can be described as liberal tolerance of immigration combined with indifference and minimal facilitation. It is little exaggeration in describing this approach as, in fact, a benevolent neglect. There has been no encouragement of cultural retention, no assistance in identity or lifestyle maintenance, and very little intervention in the settlement cum integration process.

The contrasts have been even sharper when we compare Australian multicultural policies with the approach of the European societies, such as France and Germany. Both countries have adopted what may be called liberal assimilationism. Migrants there have been tolerated, rather than welcomed, and they have been expected to assimilate culturally: become French and Germans respectively in their identities and lifestyles. You cannot be ‘good French/German’ without closely approximating ‘typical French/German’, though the typicalities have always been multiple, and they include some established sub-national variations. In Australia, by contrast, one ‘can be a good Australian without being a typical Australian’ – at least in theory and intention of multiculturalism.

Paradoxically, one may say, assimilationism seldom results in effective assimilation and integration. In fact, it typically produces ethnic stratification and alienation – the fact clearly recognised by the creators of Australian multiculturalism. Neither the Algerian refugees in France, nor the Turkish ‘guest-workers’ in Germany, have ever been seen and treated as legitimate ‘new nationals’. Unlike migrants in Australia, they have never been systematically assisted in their settlement and integration, let alone helped in sustaining their cultures. They have been reluctantly tolerated as ‘guests’ (in fact, unwelcomed visitors) and expected either to return to their counties of origin, or to ‘blend in’. They often suffer from widespread prejudice and discrimination, and many of them fail to acquire citizenship rights and legal protection.

Finally, the American ‘melting pot’ strategy and policy combines tolerant integrationism with a version of open assimilationism that insists on, and expects, that all migrants embrace the ‘American way of life’. This ‘American way of life’ has been relatively flexible in the sense of regional variation. But the American ethnic ‘melting pot’ does not support retention of migrant identities, even in a hyphenated version. Americans expect migrants to ‘melt in’. Moreover, there has been no governmental assistance in this process of ‘melting in’; this is a matter left for individuals and groups themselves.

Equal rights are granted to individuals and accompanied by an ethos of free competition – which results in a dynamic but steep ethno-racial stratification in wealth and status. More recently, there has been a considerable hardening of policies and attitudes towards Arabs, Muslims and illegal migrants from Latin America – an unfortunate consequence of terrorist attacks, security scares, Middle Eastern wars, growing competition for scarce jobs (unemployment) and publicised waves of ‘ethnic crime’ (drug smuggling). This is worth mentioning here because some commentators point to the US as a ‘successful migrant society’. If it is successful, it is a qualified success.

These differences in national policies towards migrants and minorities are seldom recognised and rarely understood. In fact, many critics confuse Australian multiculturalism with its Canadian, British, European and American counterparts, and many misinterpret the absence of multiculturalism (in the Australian sense) with its excess or failure.

Thus some critics of multiculturalism in Australia have triumphantly announced that British PM, Mr David Cameron and German Chancellor, Ms Angela Merkel, have recently lamented the ‘failure of multiculturalism’ in their countries. Yet, neither Germany nor Great Britain has ever embraced multiculturalism of a type adopted in Australia. On the contrary, as mentioned before, British governments have traditionally pursued policies of tolerant and benign neglect towards ethno-cultural minorities, and German governments have practiced assimilationism.

What Mr Cameron and Ms Merkel criticised were, in fact, some disastrous consequences of their non-multicultural (largely neglectful and/or assimilationist) policies. Such policies predictably create ethno-cultural stratification and widen ethno-racial and ethno-religious divides. Moreover, as recognised by the ‘founding parents’ of Australian multiculturalism, the assimilationist policies sometimes trigger vicious circles of social discrimination, fragmentation and alienation, as well as occasional outbursts of hostile backlash on both sides of widening ethno-cultura1 divides. Therefore the alleged ‘failures of multiculturalism’ mentioned by Ms Merkel and Mr Cameron simply reveal and confirm the pitfalls of assimilationism in Great Britain and Germany.

Integrative multiculturalism

Finger pointing on Harmony Day

This brings us to the second misunderstanding and confusion. Australian multiculturalism aims, and it has always aimed, at social cohesion or social integration – and not ethnic or religious division fragmentation, let alone separatism. Its original principles, in other words, stress ‘social cohesion’ as the main goal-aspiration. Modem sociology calls this type of institutionalised social cohesion (an outcome-concept) ‘social integration’ (a process-concept). Social integration works when components-groups function harmoniously as a part of the larger whole – here, a national society.

Thus Australian multiculturalism is not— and has never been—an invitation to, or a licence for, ethno-racial or religious segmentation, division, isolation, let alone apartheid [5]. As stressed by the ‘founding parents’, ‘in a cohesive multicultural society, national loyalties are built on ethnic loyalties.’ (1977:16). The 1982 paper and the 1989 National Agenda are even more explicit in stressing ‘the premises that all Australians should have an overriding and unifying commitment to Australia, to its interests and future first and foremost’.

Moreover, social integration (cohesion) is perfectly compatible with social-cultural diversity, that is, with a wide freedom to embrace and cherish diverse traditions, to cultivate diverse identities, and to practice diverse lifestyles. This is because integration (cohesion) is not identical with homogeneity, uniformity or conformity. On the contrary, one of the distinctive features of social bonds in modern society is the fact that these bonds unify groups and individuals that are different and unique. Such modern social bonds (of complementarity) accommodate difference and diversity.

They also generate a sense of approval of diversity as a desirable social characteristic. One should add that this is widely understood and accepted by both the social-cultural majority and minorities.

Both, the defenders and detractors of multiculturalism often ignore this point. This is probably because the original vision of ‘unity in diversity’ is quite complex. As the ‘founding parents’ of multicultural policy state (AEAC, 1977:18)

What we believe Australia should be working towards is not a oneness [understood as homogeneity and conformism – JP], but a unity, not a similarity, but a composite, not a melting pot but a voluntary bond of dissimilar people sharing a common political and institution structure.

Let us translate this admittedly hermetic phrase into more colloquial English. It means that social integration does not mean or presuppose homogeneity, similarity and conformity to one set of cultural values and norms – or as the author put it ‘a oneness’. On the contrary, as noted by a 19th century French sociologist Emile Durkheim, modern social integration/cohesion (social solidarity) rests on difference, complementarity and inter-dependency.[6] Social integration in modern complex society – ‘a unity’ in the passage quoted above – presupposes differences and relies on diversity, but it relies on equity, that is equality of opportunities and absence of discriminations. Such a form of integration (unity in diversity through equity) is found in all modern societies, and it is regularly generated through division of labour (occupational diversity and specialisation) and the cultural ethos of liberal individualism. Thus social and cultural differentiation and the resulting diversity are not symptomatic of pathological fragmentation or dissipation of social bonds, but a part of a perfectly normal social modernisation.

Multiculturalism in Australia

This brings us to the very theoretical and normative core of multiculturalism. It assumes that cultural diversity brought by both, the mass non-British migrations and by the progressive social modernisation is compatible with national unity, harmony and solidarity. When properly managed (by controlling stratification), socio-cultural diversity does not take a form of ethno-territorial divisions, but socio-cultural complementary pluralism, a cohesive mix of different traditions and lifestyles, different groups with diverse outlooks and faiths, united by shared national commitment, identity and meta-institutions.

This assumption is derived from social theory that portrays modernisation as enhancing ‘unity in diversity through equity’, as well as from the experience of most modern societies that become more culturally diverse without losing their national cohesion. But it works better where cultural minorities are dispersed, (rather than territorially concentrated), where they enjoy equal and reciprocated recognition and respect (rather than suffering discriminations), and where they are well integrated in all aspects of social life (economically, politically, culturally).

These sociological insights help in understanding both, the radical and conservative opposition to, and criticism of, integrative multiculturalism. The former comes from groups that treat multiculturalism as a struggle against what is seen as a persisting and oppressive socio-cultural stratification combined with a dominance of the Anglo-Celtic majority. The latter comes from social-cultural establishments that treat all minority assertions as usurpations, as well as from traditional rural, small-town and suburban communities, less affected by both mass migration and social modernisation than the metropolitan centres. In such social settings, cultural diversity is less appreciated, and sometimes seen as a threat, rather than a valuable asset.

Reciprocal multiculturalism

Another and closely related confusion ignores reciprocities inherent in the concept and model of Australian multiculturalism. This multiculturalism implies – rather than explicitly states – both the rights and the mutual duties/obligations in the majority-minority relations. The ‘minority rights’ involve recognition and respect for difference (right to ‘cultural identity’), equality of opportunity, and the right to assistance in both integration and in sustaining a chosen cultural identity.

The obligation side is perhaps less clearly spelled out and less clearly articulated in the 1977 paper. It includes integration and respect for diversity, but also inter-cultural understanding, commitment to and respect for majority, especially for the shared meta-institutions (common law, equal rights, liberal democracy and English language).

The 1982 ACPEA paper states more explicitly that it is a duty of all groups to integrate in a wider society, and this duty is understood as shared responsibility for, and shared participation and involvement in, social life of the nation – in its economic, political and cultural dimensions. Reciprocal engagement and interaction, in other words, are among the original and principal goals-aspirations of Australian multiculturalism. Social isolation and closure – in fact, any form of particularism that does not acknowledge mutuality, the shared national responsibility and engagement – are not the option.

The 1989 National Agenda for Multicultural Australia also articulates the reciprocal duties in a clear way:

‘[The goals of multiculturalism] apply equally to all Australians, whether Aboriginal, Anglo-Celtic or non-English speaking background; and whether they were born in Australia or overseas. There are also limits to Australian multiculturalism. These may be summarised as follows:

  • multicultural policies are based upon the premises that all Australians should have an overriding and unifying commitment to Australia, to its interests and future first and foremost;
  • multicultural policies require all Australians to accept the basic structures and principles of Australian society – the Constitution and the rule of law, tolerance and equality, Parliamentary democracy, freedom of speech and religion, English as the national language and equality of the sexes; and
  • multicultural policies impose obligations as well as conferring rights: the right to express one’s own culture and beliefs involves a reciprocal responsibility to accept the right of others to express their views and values.’ (1989:8)

The problem seems to be not so much with understanding of mutual rights and duties, but with balancing them. For example, there are wide differences in perception of the proper role of ethnic structures, especially ethno-specific organisations: some see them as primarily the organisational devices for cultivating ethnic bonds, and sustaining ethnic cultures and identities. Multiculturalism implies a slightly different role and emphasis. Minority organisations serve not only for cultural sustenance, but also as integrative mechanisms, as social ‘adapters’ to wider society. [7] They are supposed to prevent particularistic closure, open up ethno-cultural communities, and assist in ‘mainstreaming’ their members.[8] Striking the ‘right’ balance between these two roles is difficult, though – and often regarded as controversial.

There is also a fair degree of confusion about majority’s rights and duties implied by multiculturalism. The majority has a right to respect for its ‘democratic’ prevalence and de facto hegemony, especially the affirmation of British-Australian meta-institutions of common law, liberal democracy and common English language. The majority has also a liberal ‘duty of care’ towards minorities, and this duty involves not only tolerant acknowledgement (respectful recognition), but also equity and fairness in treatment. This is worth stressing because the duties of majority implied by multiculturalism are often portrayed as passive ‘tolerance of (one is tempted to say ‘reluctant acknowledgement’) minorities. In fact, it is more than that. Multicultural philosophy sees diversity as an asset for all Australians. Such asset has to be actively sustained through assistance in its preservation – and this requires investing resources in both, the integrative assistance and the much less popular assistance in preserving minority cultures, especially their languages.

Again, this may be a banal conclusion, but pointing to the problem of balancing rights and duties in the majority-minority relations, and balancing the integrative and culture-sustaining assistance is far from banal. In fact, it touches a number of problems and controversies, often ‘swept under the carpet’. One of them concerns political-ideological selectivity in interpretation of multiculturalism. In the hands of some left – libertarian critics, multiculturalism turns into a battle cry against discrimination of ethno-racial minorities. This struggle against domination is legitimate – though only a minor part of the multicultural agenda. The similar partiality or selectivity mars the arguments of conservative critics, who regard culture as largely a private matter, a process that should be left free from government ‘interference’. Yet, if left without such ‘interference’ (a code world for ‘assistance’), small and poorly resourced groups would be deprived of the choice of their cultural identity and ‘sentenced’ to forcible assimilation. Such assimilation ‘by default’ would reduce multiculturalism to superficial celebration of ‘food, costume and dance’ – the only form of diversity tolerated before the 1970s.

Respectful multiculturalism

Multiculturalism rejects cultural domination of the majority, but it is respectful of majority’s rights, especially the rights reflecting the origin of the major institutions and the democratic ‘rights of numbers’ (the majority status). This is worth mentioning because some portray multiculturalism as a hostile rebellion against the Anglo-Celtic majority – an equivalent of a revolutionary challenge to Anglo-Australian ‘ruling cast’. This is obviously an interpretive error. Multicultural vision has deep British roots. It reflects, and originates from[9], a powerful stream of British liberal philosophy that stresses tolerant accommodation of differences, openness and concern with individual and group freedoms. It is a ‘liberal multiculturalism’ (Levey 2010) embedded in the rich liberal-democratic political traditions in the similar way as the Australian political system is embedded in the British (including Scottish and Irish) political philosophy and the Westminster model.

Yet, as mentioned earlier, multiculturalism also adds to this ‘British tradition’ also some elements of a distinctive Australian flavour, mainly the sense of equity, fair go, and egalitarian mateship, the latter most evident in the readiness to assist all ethnic groups in both, prompt integration and in retaining their identities, together with the cherished elements of specific cultures.

This affinity makes Australian multiculturalism ‘naturally’ respectful ofthe Anglo-Australian majority and its traditions – after all, it is an emanation of these traditions. The Anglo-Australian majority is therefore treated as a benign hegemony who warrants and politically protects the multicultural principles and policies. The majority, in other words, is seen as a defender of multiculturalism, rather than an imposer of the Anglo-Australian culture. This mirrors the attitudes of many Anglo-Australians to their old political masters in London. It has been largely free of hostility (but also free of deference) because—unlike the USA—Australia has never fought for its political independence, though it asserted her cultural distinctiveness.

This fact often ignored by both, the advocates and critics. Australian multiculturalism is both respectful of majority – without being deferential – and mindful of its distinctive liberal democratic roots. It is often interpreted as a sort of ‘social contract’ between the majority and minorities. The majority accepts minorities and affirms cultural differences in the expectation of minorities being respectful of the majority – of its core values, norms, traditions and meta-institutions that generated the multicultural vision. The rights of minorities to cultivate different cultural identities and lifestyles are accompanied by duties and expectations of (democratic) respect for the majority and of (reciprocal) social engagement, both in the spirit of respect for the liberal-democratic traditions.

Cultural Celebration, Adelaide

Cultural Celebration, Adelaide

Because of this moderate stance and respectful character, one of today’s critics, Greg Sheridan, could write in 1996: ‘There is nothing in multiculturalism that could cause any worry to any normal person. Multiculturalism officially promoted an overriding loyalty to Australia, respect for other people’s rights and Australian law, recognition of people’s cultural origins, respect for diversity, the need to make maximum economic use of the skills people bring to Australia and equity in access to government services.[10].

Robust multiculturalism

Critics may rightly object to the above portrayal of multiculturalism as excessively calculative. Indeed, depicting multiculturalism as a ‘social contract’ between two ‘opposite sides’ needs to be qualified. In fact, the majority and minorities are more ‘partners’ than ‘sides’. While the metaphor of ‘social contract’ helps in highlighting a sense of reciprocity implied by multiculturalism, the concept of partnership helps in highlighting the commonality of multicultural goals and purposes. This is why the 1982 paper is titled ‘Multiculturalism for all Australians‘. It highlights the fact that ‘unity in diversity’ is the common goal-aspiration carrying with it some duties of mutual engagement and shared participation. It also spells out more clearly than the earlier documents the limits to socio-cultural pluralism and the ‘non-negotiable’ elements of national commitment.

To simplify, Australian multiculturalism admits a degree of socio-cultural pluralism – but not the systemic-institutional, political, legal or linguistic pluralism. [11] It envisages cultural and organisational diversity within some limits. It protects the united nation (with multiple traditions but common and overarching national identity and solidarity), the federal Australian state, the single Australian justice system, the common liberal-democratic political principles and practices (Australian constitution and democracy), and English as the official common language. These ‘common’ and ‘non-negotiable’ elements may be called ‘meta-institutions’ that form a shared ‘institutional umbrella’. No element of this common umbrella can be waved in the name of rights to cultural identity and diversity.

Again, most of that is widely understood. Most people understand that Australian multiculturalism has never tolerated national separatism, legal pluralism (in the sense of multiple and incompatible legal systems) [12], and pluralism of official languages. Nor has it condoned discriminations and exclusions, even those belonging to ‘venerable’ cultural traditions. Consequently, multicultural approval has never extended to polygamy, violence or discriminatory treatment, even if some such practices are approved by some cultural traditions or religions. It has always been mindful and respectful of ‘common core of institutions, rights and obligations’ (1982:11).

Cultural Celebration, Sydney

Cultural Celebration, Sydney, 2011

Yet, there have been attempts at such ‘extensions’ of multicultural practice. Such proposals, coming mainly from religious minorities, may prove harmful to multicultural consensus and legitimacy. They are often incompatible with the basic principles of social cohesion (social integration) and equity. Moreover, such radical proposals of ‘extensions—that is, moving beyond the integrative, respectful and equitable multiculturalism—de-legitimise multiculturalism politically by undermining support not only in the majority, but also among minorities concerned about equal treatment.

Equally dangerous is a conservative backlash – the tendency for reducing multiculturalism to a superficial form of ethnic food, costume and dance. The pressures in this direction – towards trivialisation of cultural diversity – are as strong as the opposite pressures towards its radicalisation. And they are equally dangerous. The trivialised ‘ornamental multiculturalism’ castrates ethnic cultures of their ‘core values’ and strips them of their creative and inspiring potential. Such trivialised ‘ethnicity’ becomes an embarrassing mask for assimilation. It should be distinguished, though, from some truncated forms of cultural expression that are partial and folkloristic without losing their authenticity.

These ‘drifts’ beyond the robust Australian multiculturalism are worth mentioning because the very concept becomes vulnerable to confusions. As mentioned above, ‘multiculturalism’ starts to mean everything and anything. It suffers from a serious ‘conceptual stretch’ that makes it a hostage of confusing (mis)interpretations and criticisms.

A failure or a quiet achiever?

Muslims and graffiti

Do these ‘drifts’ and confusing criticisms indicate that Australian multiculturalism is merely misunderstood – and therefore in need of clarification – or do they also herald a more fundamental problem, namely, that Australian multiculturalism proves a failure, that it does not deliver the promised ‘unity in diversity’, does not produce a cohesive and yet culturally diverse society?

It is legitimate to ask whether or not multicultural visions and policies encourage – perhaps against the intentions of its creators and advocates – dangerous social fragmentation, or even pathological alienation. After all, such pathologies are diagnosed, to varying degree, in all modern societies, including Australia. This question, though, requires a careful consideration and a careful response based on a more systematic assessment.

Even a superficial observation indicates that the countries that adopted multicultural policies – Australia and Canada – are quite successful in maintaining high levels of social stability and egalitarian harmony. Australia, in particular, seems to have a relatively low level of ethno-communal strife, low level of ethnic concentration and separation, low levels of ethno-specific crime, high level of ethnic occupational integration and high level of minority and migrant political engagement and participation. There are no signs of serious ethnic fissures or conflicts, though there are signs of discrimination and economic alienation of Aboriginal peoples, and prejudice against migrants – refugees from South Asia, Middle East and Africa. The latter, though can hardly be attributed to multicultural policies because they pre-date multiculturalism and are diagnosed – often in much stronger form – in societies that have not endorsed multiculturalism.

The problem is that any good assessment-evaluation of complex policies and their outcomes is awfully difficult. There are, of course, numerous assessments, but they often rely on anecdotal ‘evidence’, use absolute (or unrealistic) standards, and pre-judge the results. Such assessments do more harm than good – and most of them aim at producing emotional heat, rather than rational light. For example, one can ignore ‘arguments’ that Australian multiculturalism has failed because there is still ethno-racial discrimination, or because some drunken youths occasionally clash over their ‘territory’, or because there are cases of ethno-specific crime, or because there are cases of religious intolerance, or because some hatred graffiti appears in Sydney and Melbourne.

It is not that such cases should be ignored – most of them are symptomatic of some real and important social ills – but they cannot constitute evidence for assessment of multicultural policies. Similarly, neither the pathologies of Bradford, mentioned by Mr Cameron, nor the hostile alienation of some Turkish migrants in Frankfurt, as lamented by Ms Merkel, can help us in assessing multiculturalism.

So we must pause before jumping to any general conclusions and look at the relevant information with a cool and unprejudiced manner. And such relevant information is surprisingly hard to find, especially in a most useful (for evaluation) comparative form.[13] We have some good studies of ethno-territorial concentration/segmentation, some studies of ethnic endo/exogamy, some data on occupational concentration/integration, some information about language competence and use, some studies of religious attitudes and orientations, some studies of ethnic stratification and mobility, and some fragmentary data on political attitudes and participation. While the overall impression is of successful outcomes, there are no systematic and comparative studies that would give us a clear, comprehensive and relative (time and space) picture of ethno-cultural relations in Australia and among her counterparts. And this, in turn, makes multiculturalism hostage to persisting speculations and distorted judgements.

Download this page as PDF document


[1] For example, Staff writer, ‘Immigration Minister Chris Bowen announces Australian Multicultural Council’, Herald Sun, 17 February 2011; Greg Sheridan ‘How I lost faith in multiculturalism’, The Weekend Australian 2-3 April 2011; Chris Bowen, ‘Why Sheridan and the Immigration Minister parted company on road to multiculturalism’, The Australian, 16 April 2011; Patricia Karvelas, ‘Liberal senator warns against multiculturalism’ The Australian, 20 May 2011; Greg Sheridan, ‘European model a wretched failure’, The Australian, 11 August 2011; Chris Merritt, ‘Goodbye to rights under sharia’ The Australian, 18 May 2011.

[2] The first revolution consisted of a shift from British to mass non-British migration in the late 1940s; the second shift has been occurring since the 1980s from the predominantly European, to the predominantly Asian mass migration. See Marcus et al. (2009).

[3] “All Australians should have a commitment to Australia and share responsibility for furthering our national interests.

All Australians should be able to enjoy the basic right of freedom from discrimination on the basis of race, ethnicity, religion or culture.

All Australians should enjoy equal life chances and have equitable access to and an equitable share of the resources which governments manage on behalf of the community.

All Australians should have the opportunity fully to participate in society and in the decisions which directly affect them.

All Australians should be able to develop and make use of their potential for Australia’s economic and social development. All Australians should have the opportunity to acquire and develop proficiency in English and languages other than English, and to develop cross-cultural understanding.

All Australians should be able to develop and share their cultural heritage. Australian institutions should acknowledge, reflect and respond to the cultural diversity of the Australian community.” (1989:14).

[4] Thus the 1989 National Agenda for Multicultural Australia spells out the principles as including: ‘three dimensions of multicultural policy:

  • cultural identity: the right of all Australians, within carefully defmed limits, to express and share their individual cultural heritage, including their language and religion;
  • social justice: the right of all Australians to equality of treatment and opportunity, and the removal of barriers of race, ethnicity, culture, religion, language, gender or place of birth; and
  • economic efficiency: the need to maintain, develop and utilize effectively the skills and talents of all Australians, regardless of background.’

[5] As the ACPEA paper (1982:2-3) says, ‘This [vision of society in Australian multiculturalism] is different from a society based on separate development, in which physical isolation or rigid inter-group barriers result in separate institutional arrangements – such as different legal, political or educational systems – and there is very little common purpose and shared identity.’ The paper spells out the meaning of the duty of multicultural integration as ‘equal responsibility for, commitment to and participation in society.’ (1982: 12). It also warns against the danger of group separatism:

‘Groups should not separate themselves from the rest of the community in a way that denies either the validity of Australian institutions or their own shared identity as Australians. The pursuit of group interests should not be taken so far that they damage the nation as a whole or unfairly infringe the rights of other groups.’ (1982:26)

[6] Modern societies, Durkheim (1933) argued, are like jigsaw puzzles: their constitutive elements (groups and associations) ‘fit in’ well only when they are different from each other, and therefore capable of complementing each other in the functional, structural and cultural sense. We value diversity and praise uniqueness of groups and individuals because we rely on complementary and difference for our survival and success.

[7] The ACPEA (1982:30) considers group – and ethno-specific structures ‘to be acceptable where they:
* do not create a situation where equality of opportunity is seriously at risk;
* do not result in an unreasonable economic or social cost to the rest of the Australian community; and
* do not infringe individuals’ rights to chose their own identities and live accordingly.’

[8] Thus the Polish Association in Hobart – one of the oldest and most successful ethnic organisations in Australia – offers not only the course of Polish language, aimed at cultural sustenance, but also equally popular course of English aimed at cultural integration.

[9] As rightly pointed out by Naraniecki (2010), Jupp (in Jupp and Clyne 2011) and Levey (in Jupp 2011).

[10] Quoted after Chris Bowen ‘Why Sheridan and the Immigration Minister parted company on road to multiculturalism’, The Australian, 16 April 2011.

[11] ‘Multiculturalism must be based on support for a common core of institutions, rights and obligations if group differences are to be reconciled. Except for adaptations of tribal law that may be applicable to some groups of Aboriginals, a socially cohesive Australia requires a legal framework that has one set of provisions applying equally to all members of society, regardless of their origin.   … To allow each cultural group freedom to develop its own legal codes, political institutions and practices would threaten the existence of Australia as a cohesive nation.’ (1982: 15-16)

[12] Except for some elements of indigenous traditional law recognised in some traditional Aboriginal settlements.

[13] For notable exceptions are Jupp and Clyne (2011) and Jupp et al. (2007).


Australian Council on Population and Ethnic Affairs (1982) Multiculturalism for all Australians. Canberra: AGPS.

Australian Ethnic Affairs Council (1977) Australia as a Multicultural Society, Canberra: AGPS.

Durkheim, Emile (1933) The Division of Labour in Society. New York: Free Press.

Jupp, James and Michael Clyne (eds) (2011) Multiculturalism and Integration. A Harmonious Relationship. Canberra: ANU E- Press.

Jupp, James, John Nieuwenhuysen and Eric Dawson (eds) (2007) Social Cohesion in Australia. Sydney: Allen and Unwin.

Levey, Geoffrey B. (2010) ‘Liberal multiculturalism’ in D.Ivison (ed) The Ashgate Research Companion to Multiculturalism. Aldershot: Ashgate.

Marcus, Andrew, James Jupp and Peter McDonald (2009) Australian’s Immigration Revolution. Sydney: Allen and Unwin.

Naraniecki, Alex (2011) ‘Dilemmas of Australian multiculturalism’, paper presented at the Symposium on Immigration and Multiculturalism Today, Melbourne 30 November 2011.

Office of Multicultural Affairs (1989) National Agenda for Multicultural Australia. Canberra: AGPS, Canberra. Quoted after the web version accessed in Oct 2011:

Source: Prof. Jan Pakulski, University of Tasmania, November 2011; all rights reserved. Published with permission.

Photo Credit: Essendon Football Club