Australian Exceptionalism: Why Australian Multiculturalism Works

Book Review: Don’t Go Back to Where You Came

From: Why Multiculturalism Works

Tim Soutphommasane (newsouthbooks, 2012)

By Tim Watts, MP for Gellibrand

In January 2012, Teresa Gambaro, the Federal Coalition’s Citizenship spokesman, caused controversy by suggesting that immigrants needed to be taught to use deodorant in order to integrate with Australian society.

This was a relatively new, but increasingly common theme in modern conservative politics. Notwithstanding a few long-term antagonists like former Queensland Premier, Johanes (Joh) Bjelke-Petersen (who once equated multiculturalism to “a few migrants want(ing) their spicy tucker”) on the whole, the multicultural policies pursued by the Whitlam, Fraser, Hawke and Keating Governments have enjoyed bipartisan support. In recent times this consensus has broken down. Like their conservative peers in Western Europe, hard Right conservatives like Senator Cory Bernardi have been intoning that ‘multiculturalism has failed’ with only slightly more rhetorical subtlety than Joh did 40 years ago.

In fact, Bernardi recently went so far as to say that Australian multicultural policy “is exactly the same process that has caused such chaos in some comparable nations” with “catastrophic consequences wherever it has been tried”. Tim Soutphommasane’s latest book, Don’t Go Back to Where You Came From: Why Multiculturalism Works offers a valuable factual corrective to the hard Right and sets out a model for progressives who want to protect the extraordinary success of Australian multiculturalism. Soutphommasane recounts the history of Australian multicultural policy from White Australia and cultural assimilation to the policies ushered in by Al Grassby and then built upon by each subsequent Australian Government. In outlining the distinct characteristics of Australian multicultural policy, Soutphommasane argues convincingly that those who claim that ‘multiculturalism has failed’ in Australia are attacking a strawman.

In practice, Australian multiculturalism differs markedly from the European experience in both policy approach and practical outcomes. By tracing the development of Australian multicultural policy over 30 years, Soutphommasane demonstrates that Australian policymakers have consistently pursued multiculturalism as an expression of citizenship. Recognising that ethnic and cultural heritage can form an important part of a citizen’s self-identity, Australian multicultural policy has adopted a presumption that government and society should afford individuals the liberty to express this aspect of their identity. Soutphommasane further shows that by viewing multiculturalism through the prism of citizenship, Australian multicultural policy has placed a heavy emphasis on the unifying and overarching obligations we all have as citizens in a liberal democracy.

As a result, the importance of ensuring that new Australians develop the skills necessary for democratic, cultural and economic participation in Australian society has always been a focus of Australian multicultural policy. More than being mere symbolism, the development of these citizenship skills in immigrant communities has been a core objective of multicultural councils and government programmes, yet such objectives have recently been criticised by the hard Right. As such, policymakers have long seen the principles of liberal democracy, rule of law, equality of the sexes, freedom of speech and religion trump respect for cultural liberty when these two are in conflict.

The contrast between this Australian, citizenship-centric model of multiculturalism and the various models of European multiculturalism described by Soutphommasane is striking. For example, in Germany multiculturalism was a pathway to a permanently excluded underclass due to exclusionary laws which link eligibility for citizenship to an individual mother’s ethnic heritage. This led to the emergence of generations of immigrants who had grown up in Germany without a stake in the society in which they lived.

By contrast, France offered citizenship to all, but on condition that their individual expression of cultural identity (whether through the wearing of headscarves or niqabs in schools and other public places) was suborned in the name of republication ‘equality’. The result is a policy akin to assimilation in Australian in the 1950s.

Finally, Soutphommasane touches on the experience of Holland, which has perhaps most coloured perceptions of multiculturalism in the world. Holland is a hotspot for the critics of multiculturalism given the murder of Theo van Gough by Islamic extremists and the appalling subsequent treatment of Ayaan Hirsi Ali. These events have been misunderstood by the hard Right in Australia. The Dutch approach to multiculturalism has been strongly influenced by historic divisions within its community. Dutch civil society has long been arranged under the tacit ‘pillarisation’ (verzuilung) of society in which social groups (principally protestant, catholic and socialist) were granted substantial liberty of cultural expression, but in practice, lived largely distinct lives. Dutch policy makers failed to apply sufficient emphasis on the development of unifying, common citizenship skills and for the most part left immigrant communities to distinct ‘pillars’ of their own. Soutphommasane points out that as a consequence: “Dutch multicultural policy, for example, never prioritised among its immigrant arrivals the importance of acquiring the Dutch language. Many children of immigrants failed, and still fail, to develop full command of Dutch”.

To an Australian reader, the idea of second generation immigrants in a society who are unable to speak English is an utterly foreign concept. Taking stock, if ‘multiculturalism’ can be said to have failed in Europe, a large part of the blame must surely be attributed to flawed implementation by policy makers rather than to the concept itself. Europe has much to learn from the Australia’s antipodean model of multiculturalism. Soutphommasane points out that “Australia is one of the very few OECD countries... where the children of immigrants constitute a higher proportion of people in highly skilled occupations than the children of natives”. Ditto educational achievement. The Australian model has also allowed a proportionately high level of immigration over an extended period of time without the kind of racial violence and social unrest that has been experienced in countries such as the United Kingdom, France and Germany.

It has enabled numerous first generation children of immigrants like Joh Bjelke-Petersen, Teresa Gambaro and Cory Bernardi to become elected Members of Parliament. As such, one cannot but agree with Soutphommasane that “[i]f there has been any crisis of Australian multiculturalism, it has been intellectual, one manufactured by critics”. Don’t Go Back To Where You Came From also provides a warning about the kind of actions and policies that could jeopardise the success of the Australian model.

To this end, Soutphommasane offers a mature analysis on the public debate over asylum seekers and immigration levels and its impact on the Australian multicultural model. Soutphommasane also warns against underplaying the importance of national symbols and makes an impassioned plea for their trustees to make these unifying symbols accessible to new Australians. This includes both recognising the contributions made by those such as Chinese- Australian sniper Billy Sing to institutions like the ANZAC tradition and demanding more ethnic faces on Neighbours. Similarly, Soutphommasane emphasises that the Left should not recoil from calling out cultural practices that fundamentally conflict with the principles of Australian liberal democratic society. Soutphommasane has an most important political message for progressive politics – do not to abandon the territory of multiculturalism to the attacks of the hard Right. Don’t Go Back To Where You Came From makes it clear that in the Australian model of multiculturalism, we as a nation have achieved something exceptional that we ought to be proud of. It is an achievement that has contributed to Australia’s economic and cultural prosperity and something that should not be sacrificed in the face of an ignorant and opportunistic political attack imported from the other side of the world.