Multiculturalism in Australia is failing.
Scenes from the Sydney protests (Image: Jamie Kennedy, Flickr)
Earlier this month, some members of Sydney’s Muslim community took to the streets to vent their fury at an anti-Islamic video that had already provoked an explosive reaction around the world. The resulting violence and displays of intolerance – embodied in the now-infamous image of a child holding a poster advocating the beheading of “all those who insult the prophet” – have again raised questions about the state of multiculturalism in Australian society. According to Gerard Henderson, the riots were “yet more evidence that multiculturalism – after a promising start – has failed”. Other commentators and public figures, like Frank Lowy, quickly leapt to its defence.
What is actually meant by the term “multiculturalism”? It refers partly to the simple fact that Australia has a culturally and ethnically diverse society. But more than that, it refers to the policy choices that Australia has made to respond to, accommodate and foster this diversity: such as our migration policies, anti-discrimination laws and the rights we grant to minority groups.
So to determine whether multiculturalism is failing, it’s important to consider the primary aims of multicultural policy. There are three basic “dimensions” outlined by the Government:
- All Australians should have a right to express and share their cultural heritage
- All Australians should have a right to equality of treatment and opportunity
- All Australians should be able to develop and use their talents in Australia’s economy
These goals also come with a series of limitations:
- All Australians, regardless of their background, should be united in their commitment to Australia and its interests
- All Australians should respect the basic structures and principles of Australian society, including non-discrimination and the rule of law
- The right to express one’s own cultural identity must be balanced by an obligation to respect the identities of others
So multiculturalism would be failing if achieving its primary aims is becoming ever more difficult.
The issue of multiculturalism’s failure is not unique to Australia. In the past two years, Germany’s Angela Merkel, Britain’s David Cameron and France’s Nicolas Sarkozy have all declared that multicultural policies had “failed”. Australia has tended to see itself as a success story when it comes to incorporating diverse identities: but is that still true today?
Multiculturalism has created isolated ethnic and religious enclaves.
Sydney suburbs like Bankstown and Lakemba, home to substantial Lebanese Muslim populations, are prime examples of hotspots where ethnic communities have chosen to isolate themselves from the mainstream, instead of participating in society and being committed to Australia. Community leaders foster values incompatible with fundamental principles of Australian society – for example, promoting intolerance toward other faiths and expressing objectionable views about women.
Some ethnic minorities have not fully accepted Australia’s basic values and norms.
Multiculturalism relies on everyone accepting a basic set of core norms and principles, but this is not occurring for some. For instance, while most Muslims may live peacefully in Australian society, the violent protests in Sydney showed that some members of the Muslim community still cannot or are unwilling to observe accepted norms of behaviour or appropriate types of political expression. They resort instead to anti-social behaviour that intimidates those with views different to their own.
Multiculturalism has degraded Australia’s culture and national identity.
Multiculturalism has privileged the maintenance of distinct cultural and ethnic affiliations instead of promoting a common Australian identity with its shared history, values, symbols and institutions. This has fractured Australian’s national identity by emphasising what divides us rather than what we have in common.
Multiculturalism has led to friction and violence.
Violent flare-ups like the 2005 Cronulla riots and attacks against Indian students in 2009 highlight the fragility of Australia’s social harmony. Tensions between different groups are increasingly coming to the surface in similar ways to what has been observed in western European countries. More broadly, members of ethnic minorities continue to experience racism on an everyday basis.
Migrants are highly integrated in Australian society.
Immigrants and their offspring have integrated quickly into Australia’s society and economy. Research shows that almost all second-generation Australians are proficient in English, irrespective of their parents’ English ability, which has enabled them to find their way in Australian society and gain employment. This sets Australia apart from countries like Germany, where guest workers were brought in without a serious effort to include them in wider society.
The overwhelming majority of Australians coexist peacefully and respectfully.
Despite ongoing fears of outbreaks of racially-charged violence – most notably the fear of another “Cronulla” – the reality is that major cases of racist violence remain rare. There is, moreover, a widespread political and societal consensus that opposes racism in all its forms. The vast majority of Australians, regardless of their ethnic or cultural identity, live harmoniously with each other.
Racial and ethnic tensions have been driven by unrepresentative fringe elements.
Violence or aggression on ethnic and religious grounds remains restricted to a small number of people who are unrepresentative of their communities as a whole, and as such does not reflect a fundamental problem in multiculturalism. For instance, Muslim community leaders and ordinary Muslim Australians immediately and emphatically condemned the recent outbreak of violence in Sydney in response to an anti-Islamic internet video.
The problems with multiculturalism show that it is a work in progress, not that it is failing.
It is true that migrants from some backgrounds have found it more difficult to integrate and to accept Australia’s fundamental values and principles. However, this is a natural consequence of the transition from illiberal, autocratic societies to an open liberal democracy; such problems are not insoluble or permanent, and will decline in importance as new migrant communities adapt to Australian society.
- Cameron is right, and multiculturalism has failed by Andrew Bolt
- How I lost faith in multiculturalism by Greg Sheridan
- Multiculturalism still has a long road to travel to reach all by Gerard Henderson
- Multiculturalism: a principled work in progress by Mungo MacCallum
- Muslim unrest doesn’t denote cultural crisis by Tim Soutphommasane
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