Why Chris Bowen isn’t afraid of multiculturalism (but others are)

Now is the time to debate multiculturalism in Australia. AAP/David Crosling

Multiculturalism is back. At least it would seem that way. The Immigration Minister Chris Bowen is speaking about it, a parliamentary inquiry is looking into it, and the government is producing pamphlets on the subject. The question is how seriously should we take Bowen? Is Labor genuinely interested in reinvigorating multiculturalism? Can it succeed?

Bowen’s speech contained some noteworthy elements.

The first is the powerful affirmation he offered of Australian multiculturalism.

What he described as its “genius” is the belief that migrants should be welcomed as full members of society. He said migrants bring with them a host of resources that have tangible benefits for countries in a globalised world including capital, education, languages, skills and networks.

Another significant element is Bowen’s emphasis on the (social) liberal roots of multiculturalism, and its relationship to ‘core’ values like individual freedom, justice and equity. He insisted we must provide these basic rights to immigrants who struggle with the settlement process.

Bowen was careful, nevertheless, to identify limits to liberal freedoms by emphasising a civic model of multiculturalism that balances individual rights with social cohesion. This approach does not advocate ethnic separatism. “Australian Governments do not defend cultural practices and ideas that are inconsistent with our values and ideals of democracy, justice, equality and tolerance.”

Also significant is the Minister’s affirmation of multiculturalism at a time when Germany’s Angela Merkel and Britain’s David Cameron have declared it a failure.

He rejected their assessments on the grounds that, unlike Australia, those countries have not really experienced multiculturalism.

“One could argue that the large Turkish guest worker populations have not properly integrated into German society because, frankly, they have not been invited to…”

This willingness to diverge from international opinion is significant. Since the 9/11 attacks, Australian leaders have shown themselves willing to shape immigration policies according to other states’ agendas.

Bowen’s speech signalled a desire to disentangle immigration and multiculturalism from the broader issue of terrorism and security. It reinforces the point that the problems of migrant integration which are at the heart of security concerns in Europe and the United States have not been exactly replicated in Australia. This means they require a different response.

Ultimately, there is nothing particularly new about Bowen’s multiculturalism.

The key principles identifies are identity, equality, rights, responsibilities and national interest. These echo earlier models, especially the 1989 National Agenda for a Multicultural Australia.

Nevertheless, he has provided a lucid and intelligent defence.

So, can attempts to reinvigorate it succeed? This will depend on various factors, including the depth of the government’s commitment.

Some commentators believe the speech sought to embarrass the Liberal Opposition after two prominent members of that party courted controversy on migration issues.

Senator Corey Bernardi claimed political debate has been stifled as people tie themselves in knots in an attempt to be politically correct. While his colleague Scott Morrison had to climb down after saying levels of migration were “out of control”.

But there are more complex motivations.

A younger generation of Labor politicians came of age during multiculturalism’s heyday. They are now clearly prepared to use the advantage of incumbency to mobilise on the issue.

This includes people like Bowen, who grew up in multicultural Western Sydney, and Parliamentary Secretary for Immigration and Citizenship (and now multiculturalism) Kate Lundy.

Another important contributor is Maria Vamvakinou, Labor MP for the seat of Calwell in Melbourne’s north. She is also the chair of the Joint House Inquiry into Multiculturalism.

When I interviewed Vamvakinou recently, her genuine passion was obvious. She outlined the challenges her many migrant constituents face. These include language difficulties, housing, employment, identity, health services and youth disaffection.

Like Bowen, she believes multiculturalism improves the life chances of new settlers. She also thinks it benefits the community as a whole.

She sees the opportunity it gives Australia to capitalise on the range of languages spoken here and strengthen ties with other countries.

She wants a national languages framework that will encourage greater multilingualism amongst Australians and ensure a new generation of language teachers is created.

The other challenge for Labor will be the politics of the issue.

Multiculturalism has potency as a nationalist narrative. It is one of various stories we use to articulate a distinct Australian identity and experience.

But it is much more nebulous and problematic as a prescription for how Australian society should be organised.

Despite its enduring nature, many people resent multiculturalism because they equate it with ethnic separatism and vested interests. It remains vulnerable to political attack.

Bowen understands this, emphasising that bipartisanship is necessary for multiculturalism to succeed.

Vamvakinou remains optimistic despite these challenges. She senses a shifting popular mood, even while acknowledging that some MPs have “crossed the line” in recent years in relation to asylum-seekers and Muslims.

The proof of course, will be in the pudding.

Will the Gillard government back its statements with substantive programs like those Vamvakinou seeks? Does it have the stomach for a political fight if the Liberal Party wills it?

It will also depend on whether Australians are prepared to think anew about multiculturalism. Whether it is truly back remains to be seen.

In the meantime, some sections of the federal parliament will be doing their best to ensure it is.