Introduction and summary Evolution of multicultural policy



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Introduction and summary

Evolution of multicultural policy


Australia is a culturally diverse society. Our indigenous people have always had a rich variety of cultures, languages and customs.

Even the members of the First Fleet came from a number of ethnic backgrounds.

Our diversity has grown continually ever since, and especially during the last fifty years, as a result of large-scale migration from non-English-speaking countries and the eventual adoption of a non-discriminatory immigration policy.

The population has grown through immigration which has been actively encouraged by the governments of the day, particularly since 1945.

Among the most profound changes in Australia over the past half century has been the evolution in public policy from the White Australia Policy to a non-discriminatory immigration policy, with the parallel transition from assimilation to integration and then to multiculturalism.

The policy of assimilation spans the period up to the mid 1960s and was based on a belief in the benefits of homogeneity and a vision of Australia as a racially pure white nation. It effectively excluded non-European immigration.

It also dominated the treatment of our indigenous population, the forceful adoption of indigenous children into white Australian families being just one example of assimilationist thinking.

Integration, in the broad sense, does not imply minority cultures giving way totally to a dominant culture.

Instead, they influence the dominant culture which is modified to some extent by the newer cultures. Integration, however, does not encourage ongoing cultural diversity – everyone is expected to adopt the integrated culture.

Multiculturalism continues the strong emphasis of previous policies on social harmony but recognises and positively accepts that Australia is, and will remain, a culturally diverse country; and it offers a set of guidelines for enhancing social harmony.

It seeks to ensure that this diversity is a positive force in our society and recognises that the absorption of newly arrived people into the Australian community necessarily involves all sectors of the community making some adjustments.

There are many aspects of the Australian way of life that newcomers are required to accept. These include the law, our democratic form of government, and English as the national language.

But, equally, Australian multiculturalism recognises that many migrants and their children will choose to retain many of their customs and cultural traditions, some of which will be adopted by other Australians.

In other words, the inclusion and participation of migrants and their descendants in Australian life occurs naturally and, within the bounds of our democratic and legal framework, the individual whether migrant or Australian-born must be free to choose which customs to retain and which to adopt.

The changes Australia has experienced in recent decades have had major, but differentiated, impacts on all sectors of Australian society.

While most Australians have benefited and are positive, some may see the world changing and moving too quickly, threatening their employment and wellbeing and even the values upon which their lives have been built, values that are so important for their self-identification as Australians.

Such concerns are felt by numerous people across both urban and rural Australia and has given impetus to a search for scapegoats.

For a portion of the community, multiculturalism has become one of the scapegoats. As a result we have seen a growth in criticism of multiculturalism, including the emergence of political parties that have sought to exploit community concern by advocating thinly veiled policies of bigotry and division.

The Council believes, nonetheless, that multicultural policies have served Australia very well, contributing to a fairer and more just society. Australia, with all its cultural diversity, remains a cohesive and harmonious society and this diversity has contributed significantly to its economic, cultural and social sophistication.

Like all areas of public policy, however, multicultural strategies need to be continually reviewed and updated in the context of the changes in our society and our relationship with the global community.

The Council has undertaken a review not only through its own deliberations but has also taken into account a wealth of input from widespread consultations, submissions to the Council’s issues paper Multicultural Australia: The Way Forward, relevant literature and commissioned research and reports.

This report contains the Council’s recommendations arising out of the review.


The continuing importance of multiculturalism


The Council supports the view that an important measure by which a civilisation should be judged is its treatment of minorities.

It could be argued that the welcome and assistance Australia’s governments and people have given to new settlers, including refugees, reflect our commitment to such a principle: because it is the right thing to do and because the values of justice and equity are deeply embedded in our democratic principles.

These new settlers, in return, have contributed greatly to Australian society, often in the face of major difficulties.

The combined goodwill of all has been crucial in the evolution of our harmonious multicultural society which is a major achievement of Australian democracy.

A wide range of multicultural policies and programs have been enacted over the past twenty-five years and Australia’s social, administrative and legal infrastructure has adjusted to the needs and potential of an increasingly diverse community. Some programs have been initiated by the Commonwealth Government, others by State, Territory and Local Governments.

The education sector, business and unions have also contributed.

Much has happened among social, cultural and religious groups and in the wider community because most people have become comfortable with the fact that their daily lives now routinely involve meeting and dealing with people from different backgrounds. The continuing social harmony of our community owes much to these combined efforts.

The 1989 National Agenda for a Multicultural Australia stated that 'the challenges of a multicultural society do not simply resolve themselves.

Government action - in the form of multicultural policies - is needed in certain areas to promote social harmony, to ensure a fair go and to harness our human resources in the most productive way for Australia’s future’.

The Council believes this is as valid today as then. Australia is, and will always be, a multicultural society, irrespective of our immigration intake, and multiculturalism remains an important means of addressing the challenges and opportunities of our cultural diversity.


The meaning of multiculturalism


One of the issues the Council was asked to consider was the terminology, of which the terms 'multicultural’ and 'multiculturalism’ are the most important.

The adjective 'multicultural’ is frequently used to mean 'multi-ethnic’ or 'culturally diverse’, and there would appear to be little disagreement in the community that this is an appropriate word to describe Australian society.

The Council is aware that the noun 'multiculturalism’, which denotes an active public policy, appears to generate stronger reactions, both positive and negative, than the adjective 'multicultural’.

Among the questions asked in the Council’s issues paper Multicultural Australia: The Way Forward was: 'is multiculturalism an appropriate term to describe a policy for managing cultural diversity, or has it outlived its usefulness? If the latter, what alternative term would you suggest?’

The answers provided were quite polarised and some submissions reflected a major misunderstanding of the meaning of the term 'multiculturalism’ as it is used in public policy.

Most saw it positively, as a policy that delivers significant benefits to Australia and is needed to ensure justice and equity for all Australians.

On the other hand, some submissions suggested that multiculturalism applies only to migrants from a non-English-speaking background and seems to deny Australian culture.

A number criticised what they perceived as overemphasis on the rights of particular groups without stressing their corresponding obligations.

Having considered all the input, the Council believes, however, that the term 'multiculturalism’ has served the Australian community well and best describes our positive acceptance of the reality and significance of our cultural diversity and the proactive approach to addressing the challenges and opportunities arising from it.

The Council also notes that opinion polls indicate a high level of support for multiculturalism.

The Council has therefore recommended the continued use of the term, with the addition of the prefix 'Australian’ wherever appropriate, to recognise that our implementation of multiculturalism has been uniquely Australian.

The Council acknowledges the challenge arising from the wide differences in understanding of the meaning of the term 'multiculturalism’, particularly between those who are positive and those who are negative about multicultural policy.

The Council believes that to achieve the objective set out in its terms of reference of 'ensuring that cultural diversity is a unifying force for Australia’, it is essential that there is clarity in the understanding and use of the term 'multiculturalism’.

Accordingly, it has recommended the following definition of multiculturalism:



Australian multiculturalism is a term which recognises and celebrates Australia’s cultural diversity. It accepts and respects the right of all Australians to express and share their individual cultural heritage within an overriding commitment to Australia and the basic structures and values of Australian democracy. It also refers to the strategies, policies and programs that are designed to:

  • make our administrative, social and economic infrastructure more responsive to the rights, obligations and needs of our culturally diverse population;

  • promote social harmony among the different cultural groups in our society;

  • optimise the benefits of our cultural diversity for all Australians.

A vision for Australian multiculturalism


The Council is confident that the great diversity of skills and talents of the Australian people, and the strength of our democratic system and the principles and values that underpin it, will ensure that our culturally diverse community achieves success through all its members working together towards a common vision.

The Council has recommended the adoption of the following vision for Australian multiculturalism:



A united and harmonious Australia, built on the foundations of our democracy, and developing its continually evolving nationhood by recognising, embracing, valuing and investing in its heritage and cultural diversity.

The Council sees this vision as the ultimate goal and guiding rationale for multicultural policies and the most viable option we must pursue as a nation if we are to maximise the dividends of our diversity, while continuing to avoid the serious communal disharmony that has weakened many other pluralistic societies.


The democratic roots of Australian multiculturalism


The Council starts from the proposition that Australian multiculturalism has been built on our free democratic system.

Australian democracy guarantees us our freedom, our basic human rights and our fundamental equalities.

Likewise, Australian democracy requires our loyalty and our commitment to the basic structures and principles of our society.

The democratic foundations of our society contain a balance of rights and obligations: the basic structures and principles of Australian democracy make us a free society but our freedom in practice is dependent upon our abiding by our mutual civic obligations; as Australians we have equal rights and equal obligations but, while all Australians have a right to expect equal opportunities, our society does not guarantee equal outcomes; and we owe loyalty to Australia, whose laws, institutions and traditions guarantee our basic human rights.

This is a constitutive principle of our nation that is of fundamental importance to the development of Australian multiculturalism.

Not only has our democracy evolved in such a way as to give rise to multiculturalism, but our democratic institutions and traditions also provide the foundation and framework that enable diversity in many forms to flourish in our society.

The Council believes that the best way to ensure that multicultural Australia continues to develop as an essentially harmonious society, for the good of all Australians, is to protect and strengthen our democratic values and institutions and to continue to build multicultural policies and programs on the foundation of our democratic system.


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