What future for Australian multiculturalism? - The Centre for Independent Studies
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What future for Australian multiculturalism?

The fate of Australian multiculturalism may have been sealed on the steps of the Sydney Opera House on Monday 9 October 2023. That was the date when ordinary Australians viewed with horror scenes of pro-Palestine flag-waving protesters chanting “Gas the Jews!” — a claim now denied by police — and baying for the blood of their Australian Jewish neighbours.

And all this as the NSW police, pleading helplessness before the law, looked on and did nothing, apart from arresting a man for carrying an Israeli flag.

Over succeeding weeks, thousands of keffiyeh-sporting protesters, revelling in the gory atrocities perpetrated by Hamas terrorists against innocent Israeli civilians, massed in parks and city-centres around the country to denounce Israel and chant that “Palestine” could only be free when it occupied all the territory between “the river” and “the sea”. Not within living memory had Australian Jews felt so fearful about walking the streets of their own cities.

So much for tolerance and diversity. And so much for the multiculturalism of which Australians had been so proud. It now appeared multiculturalism had simply encouraged cultural separatism and helped to fan hostility between different sections of the community. Even though Australian multiculturalism was never simply the product of idealistic liberal dreaming, critics thought their scepticism about its aims was justified.

The strategy of ‘multiculturalism’ was devised in the 1970s as a pragmatic program to integrate the large flow of non-British migrants  after World War II. Policies focused solely on assimilation had left migrants experiencing social exclusion that had led to a huge waste of human capital. Better instead to adopt a new approach aimed at achieving greater social integration by promoting greater tolerance of cultural diversity in the lifestyles and identities of immigrants.

“The social and cultural rights of migrant Australians are just as compelling as the rights of other Australians,” Labor Immigration Minister, Al Grassby, said in his famous 1973 speech. The policy goal of multiculturalism was “unity in diversity” and was informed by a deeply held commitment to the moral principles of equity and reciprocity: dissimilar people in a voluntary bond agreeing to share a common social structure.

For the most part, the Australian model of multiculturalism has been highly successful. According to the Scanlon Foundation’s 2023 Mapping Social Cohesion (MSC) Report (compiled before the Gaza war began), 89 per cent of us think multiculturalism has been good for Australia; 86 per cent of us oppose rejecting migrants on the basis of race or ethnicity; and 83 per cent oppose rejecting migrants on the basis of religion. Such findings clearly put the lie to any claim that Australia is a bastion of colonialist, white supremacy.

At the same time, the MSC Report found Australians remain divided on whether immigrants were committed to Australian values. In 2019, 31 per cent agreed with the statement, “too many immigrants are not adopting Australian values”; in 2023 this proportion had risen to 45 per cent. While support for multiculturalism remains high, the report also found that many have mixed views about the success of migrant integration. Multiculturalism appears to be a work in progress. But that progress has faltered and the damage done may well be irreparable.

One of the axioms of Australian multiculturalism is that ethnic communities do not bring to these shores conflicts generated or ongoing in their countries of origin. While tensions between communities are inevitable, these must never spill out into open hostilities. Tolerance of diversity in this country has its limits. It must always bounded by a non-negotiable commitment on the part of immigrant communities to the spirit of Australian law and order.

This means the bloody, bitter and long-standing conflict between Israel and the Palestinians must never be played out on the streets of Australian cities and our university campuses. Yet this is precisely what has been happening as leaders turn a blind eye to behaviour that torments innocent people, intimidates students and threaten the lives and livelihoods of Australian citizens, regardless of their ethnicity. Debate is fine; death threats are not — and can never be tolerated.

And prominent Islamic leaders have also successfully taken some key tenets of multiculturalism and turned them against the basic institutions structures of Australian society. Thus, Muslims faced with imposition of restrictions on hate speech and vilification often denounce them as ‘disrespectful’ manifestations of intolerance and cultural hostility. Launched from behind the shield of ‘Islamophobia’, these attacks frequently cow critics of such behaviour — including the police — into silence and inaction.

Architects of Australian multiculturalism insist that political leadership is essential for securing the social cohesion to be generated by programs of cultural pluralism. However, troubled by possible retribution at the ballot box in electorates with high Muslim populations, the Albanese government has been disturbingly slow to speak out against the resurgent antisemitism that now threatens to pull apart the fabric of our multicultural society. Labor’s decision to vote at the United Nations in favour of granting Palestinians rights that could lead to statehood even provoked an angry backlash from its own backbench MPs.

If political leadership really is essential to the success of Australian multiculturalism, it may be that the slide into what has been described as a “dictatorship of virtue” is already well under way. The danger now is that today’s generation of leaders, themselves formed by a 50-year program of cultural pluralism and diversity, fail to understand the critical role government must play in enforcing duties of shared responsibility and mutual tolerance.

Many of our leaders appear to have long since slipped their moorings and drifted towards a recklessness as to the dangers of social segmentation and division. And if that is the case, Australian multiculturalism will indeed inadvertently sink from damage of its own creating.

Peter Kurti is Director of the Culture, Prosperity & Civil Society program at the Centre for Independent Studies, and Adjunct Associate Professor of Law at the University of Notre Dame Australia