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Australia’s multicultural future is a story in three parts

What distinguishes Australia is the extraordinary extent to which people of different cultural backgrounds work, play and form families together. AAP

Australia’s multicultural future is a story in three parts

I was recently asked by the Federation of Ethnic Communities Councils of Australia to contribute my thoughts on “the narrative of multiculturalism”.

I pondered awhile. What could make the account provocative but persuasive, gripping but reassuring, honest yet celebratory? How could I persuade those who fear that a commitment to ethnic or religious diversity might undermine social cohesion?

I decided that Australia’s multicultural future would require three major chapters.

Say what you mean to say

In Australia’s story, the noun – multiculturalism – should be used infrequently. Any “-ism” has ideological undertones. It suggests social engineering: a political philosophy being foisted on an unwilling public. We need to treat people with emotional intelligence.

The adjective – multicultural – is both more neutral and more compelling. Multicultural Australia is a powerful description of the evolution of the national identity to which we are all contributing in our everyday lives.

We need to be clear on our message. What distinguishes Australia is not just our ethnic diversity but the extraordinary extent to which people of different cultural backgrounds work, play and form families together. Multicultural policies simply frame the process by which our cultural roots intertwine.

One can also talk meaningfully of multicultural policies. Government interventions are necessary to the extent that they ensure that barriers to equality of opportunity are removed and that migrants’ skills, ambitions and entrepreneurial drive can be harnessed for everyone’s benefit.

Strike a delicate balance

It’s important to ensure that Australia’s narrative doesn’t lose direction. Pride in multicultural diversity must not slide down the slippery path of cultural relativism. We should not feel that we have to accept inappropriate behaviours for fear that criticism might cause cultural offence – or, worse still, turn a blind eye to them.

We need instead to proclaim that our commitment to a multicultural future is firmly founded on distinctive liberal values and a framework of universal rights. Those principles include:

  • freedoms of speech and assembly;

  • respect for dissent and for the views of others;

  • equality of the sexes and before the law; and

  • acknowledgement of individual property rights.

These are the hallmarks of a secular society that extols a free press, an independent judiciary, democratic politics and voluntary philanthropy.

These are the values of reason not dogmatism. They liberate knowledge. They are the foundation of human freedom, personal liberty and political pluralism.

Australia hasn’t always lived up to those standards, but these are the aspirations against which we measure our success. They underpin rule of law and representative government.

Australia’s narrative should affirm that these values lie at the heart of our multicultural ethos. We need to emphasise that the right to express one’s own cultural perspectives and beliefs imposes a reciprocal responsibility to accept the rights of others to express different views. That does not mean that we cannot argue about them.

Multicultural policies do not require us always to hold back our criticisms for fear that they will be perceived as culturally insensitive or politically incorrect. Open but polite public discourse should be the hallmark of civic engagement in a multicultural Australia.

Accentuate the positive

It is vital that multicultural policies protect all Australians from systemic discrimination or the public expression of personal prejudice whatever their race, religion, birthplace or sexual preference. We should all have equal access to the government services we need to support and assist us and enjoy equal opportunity to build fulfilling and self-reliant lives.

But it’s equally important that we don’t convey our multicultural story from only the perspective of social deprivation and disadvantage. Instead, we need to proclaim the economic benefits brought to Australia by skilled migrants and their families and the entrepreneurial energy that often characterises risk-taking refugees. Migrants are motivated to succeed.

Multicultural policies need to ensure that the education, skills, overseas qualifications and business acumen of newcomers can be fully employed. This is good for the well-being of individual families but it’s even better for Australia’s economic development.

We need to imagine a bigger story. In a world of global competition, it’s important to recognise and make use of the heterogeneous cultural and linguistic skills of migrants and their children. This is not just a matter of affording fairness to ethnic groups but of securing Australia’s future prosperity.

In this most fundamental of ways, multicultural policies really are for all Australians.

Back to the future

For me, this narrative is persuasive. I have to confess, however, that it’s not new.

The thrust of the story has been told before – in the late 1980s, when I was head of the Office of Multicultural Affairs during the development of the National Agenda for a Multicultural Australia (which was accepted by all sides of politics). Perhaps, in 2015, by looking back to the future we can better inform our response to the challenges we face today.

Some things we did not anticipate a generation ago – the emergence of home-grown terrorism, for example. New responses are required to tackle these new dilemmas.

The story of Australia’s multicultural future needs to be informed by an understanding of the past. Those who do not know history’s mistakes are doomed to repeat them – but those who do not appreciate history’s successes are fated to ignore important lessons that are still relevant today.