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Why multicultural policy looms as a Senate bargaining chip

Pauline Hanson’s return to politics provides a catalyst for a likely intense debate over multiculturalism in the coming months and years. AAP/Dave Hunt

Why multicultural policy looms as a Senate bargaining chip

Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull’s allocation of the multiculturalism portfolio to conservative ACT Liberal senator Zed Seselja could reflect a number of motivations, both rational and perverse.

Multiculturalism is once more in the crosshairs of its opponents. With senator-elect Pauline Hanson and News Corp commentator Andrew Bolt drawing on apprehensions about Muslims to drive their contributions to the heightening of social anxiety, how will Turnbull’s oft-proclaimed “most successful multicultural nation in the world” handle the rumbling?

Multiculturalism may well be supported by 80% of Australians, but this level drops when anxiety about border security rises. So, multiculturalism’s opponents have much to gain from heightened public concern about “Muslim immigration”.

Hanson’s election has helped clarify the sides of the debate around how Australians have “imagined community” for more than 30 years, since Geoffrey Blainey first shaped the opposition arguments. There is one nation with many cultures, which was Bob Hawke’s 1989 definition of multiculturalism. And then there should be only one culture albeit followed by many races, which is Hanson’s conceptualisation – though wrongly labelled as “One Nation”.

The first sees Australia as a civic nation in which reciprocity and difference, supported by core commitments to democracy and equality, provide the architecture for creativity and cohesion.

The second sees Australia as an (Anglo-Christian) ethnic (multicoloured) monocultural nation in which assimilation into an imagined singular worldview drives calls for cohesion and claims of social strength.

So what does the immediate and long-term future hold for Australian multiculturalism?

Hanson’s return

Hanson’s election to the Senate points to the transformative politics that have been re-ushered into federal political life, and into the wider debates around the nature of Australian race and cultural relations.

Her re-declaration of war on multiculturalism – she played a significant role last time around in John Howard’s reluctance to utter the “M” word – has provided a catalyst for what will be an intense debate over coming months and years.

This debate will not so much involve Hanson herself, but rather be conducted between the various multiple perspectives on cultural diversity, and to what extent and in what forms it should be institutionalised in Australia.

Yes, minister

Seselja celebrates a conservative multiculturalism. He says he supports the government’s position on leaving Section 18C of the Racial Discrimination Act unchanged, but he previously backed the conservative fallback position of removing the two more contested provisions about insult and offend.

When she was minister, Concetta Fierravanti-Wells made much of the multicultural communities’ supposed opposition to same-sex marriage; both she and Seselja share this opposition. This perspective could well have saved three or four Liberal seats on Chinese and Korean Christian Democrat preferences – including that of her successor, Craig Laundy.

Tony Abbott appointed Fierravanti-Wells to the portfolio. Turnbull replaced her with Laundy from the moderates, but now he has appointed someone from the right once more. Seselja will be firmly in Hanson’s sights in her push to have multiculturalism and all its works (like SBS) axed.

Perhaps Turnbull decided that either Seselja will be truly tested in this battle and apply his undoubted toughness, or that he and Hanson are so close together on so many other issues that they’ll cobble up a deal before the multicultural lobby groups wake up.

What to expect

Seselja, in interviews with ABC Radio National and SBS, has revealed he supports multiculturalism – by which he means honouring ethnic community tradition while joining the Australian mainstream.

As he is a member of the government, and for as long as the government position is to leave Section 18C alone, he will stand by that position – though he may still push internally to change it.

Seselja said “it’s reasonable that people feel unease” about Islamic terrorism in response to TV personality Sonia Kruger calling for an end to Muslim migration. However, he did reiterate the government’s position that the immigration program does not discriminate on religious grounds.

But Seselja did not publicly voice his support for members of the Muslim community who may feel intimidated or victimised by calls for Muslim immigration to be banned – a call now echoed by right-wing Tasmanian senator Eric Abetz. Nor did he distance himself from Kruger’s endorsement of Bolt’s “understanding” of the drivers for potential vigilante attacks on the Muslim community and its institutions.

Seselja indicated that reworking “Labor’s multiculturalism policy” was on his to-do list. This is bizarre, as the current policy was taken almost unchanged by Labor from the considered policy of containment and minimisation developed during the Howard era.

Multiculturalism will clearly be one of the trading goods carried in the saddlebags of the government’s peacemakers in the Senate. How it will be shed, and for what deals, remains to be seen. That its components will be among the first sacrifices offered seems most likely, but the multicultural communities that defended Section 18C are alert to the dangers.

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