ISSN (Print) - 0012-9976 | ISSN (Online) - 2349-8846

A+| A| A-

Crisis of Australian Multiculturalism

Crisis of Australian Multiculturalism

Rising violence against Asian immigrants in Australia reflects a crisis of multiculturalism in the country. Trends towards majoritarian and racial politics, desperate efforts by the conservative forces in the Liberal Party to champion the cause of core Australian values, and the inability of the domestic advocates of multiculturalism to counter the bigoted politics in the country have all contributed to the crisis.

COMMENTARY

-

Crisis of Australian Multiculturalism

Vibhanshu Shekhar

-

-

“ ”

-

--

“”

-

“”

-

ethnicity, liberalism, Christianity, the Labour political elite, notwithstanding its emphasis on promoting multicultural and Asianised outlook, has found it difficult to challenge the e thno-centric conservative discourse, allowing external as well as internal projection of the country as a racist

Rising violence against Asian immigrants in Australia reflects a crisis of multiculturalism in the country. Trends towards majoritarian and racial politics, desperate efforts by the conservative forces in the Liberal Party to champion the cause of core Australian values, and the inability of the domestic advocates of multiculturalism to counter the bigoted politics in the country have all contributed to the crisis.

Vibhanshu Shekhar (vibesjnu@gmail.com) is with the School of International Studies, Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi.

Economic & Political Weekly

EPW
december 26, 2009

T
he first decade of the 21st century has brought forth two parallel, though somewhat paradoxical, trends in Australia – rise in the immigrant population and anti-immigrant socio-political discourses in the country. While the Asian immigration has seen the largest percentage increase since 2001, they have also been the worst victims of different types of racial attacks, with the latest racial attacks against ethnic Indians in Melbourne since May 2009. These two sets of developments reflect renewed t ension in Australia between competing visions of an integrationist liberal Australia or a multination and multicultural Australia. The real question facing the country today is – can and should Australia retain its Anglo-Celtic outlook as its core identity against the prevailing trend towards greater Asianisation?1 The Liberal leadership has tried to project bipolarisation of federal electoral politics by pitching the Anglo-Celtic Liberal Party against the multiculturalist and pro-Asian Labour Party. While the liberal political elite has called upon protecting the core Australian values – Anglo-Celtic

vol xliv no 52

society. As a result, the idea of multiculturalism has suffered a serious setback, being downgraded from a unanimously accepted face of Australia to mere a policy initiative of the Labour government.

As the pace of immigration into Australia has gone up, introducing a much more ethnically diverse national outlook, the liberal-conservative resistance to idea of multiculturalism has begun surfacing in different forms – declining political consensus over the principle of multiculturalism, racially charged anti-immigrant political statements, post-9/11 and post-Bali anti-Muslim discourse and the outbreak of racial riots in the country. However, before discussing these discourses, it is important to highlight the most significant trigger factor and a fundamental transformation chracterising Australian society – growing Asian population and consequent transformation in the demographic profile of the country.

Towards Asianisation of Australia

The demographic pattern of Australia has changed considerably during the last 35 years, ever since the government launched

COMMENTARY

with the full fanfare, multiculturalism as the future face of Australia. The immigrant share of population has gone up from 8% in 1973 to more than 25% in 2006. As per the 2006 Census, while the Europeans constitute the largest section of immigrant population (47% of total immigrant population), Asians have emerged as the second largest immigrant category (27% of total immigrant population) in Australia.2 Moreover, Asian immigration has registered a sharp increase with those from China and India taking the lead. During the period of 2001-06, Asians constituted roughly 25% of total immigration, compared to only 7% immigrants coming from Europe.3 Though the United Kingdom remained the most common country of origin with 24% of total immigrants a rriving between 1996 and 2006, China (9.4% of total arrivals) ranked third and India (8.4% of new arrivals) ranked fourth.4 In other words, Australia is being Asianised, augmenting the gradual mainstreaming of non-Anglo-Australian cultural systems, greater multi-ethnicisation of social and economic space and the emergence of immigrants as an important electoral constituency.

The new wave of Asian immigration is markedly different from its predecessors of 1960s and 1970s when the majority of immigrants were coming either as refugees or as unskilled labour, in search of better life. A majority of new Asian immigrants belong to younger generations, coming to Australia either as professionals or as students, bringing in much-needed skilled labour, large amount of foreign exchange to the host economy and contributing also to the younger outlook of the country. According to the official web site of the Department of Immigration, “overall, migrants contribute more in taxes than they consume in benefits and government goods and services”.5 Moreover, the second generation of Asian immigrant families of the 1970s and the 1980s is A ustralia-born and educated and therefore speak the same Australian English. As a result, the new immigrants are more confident and demand socio-economic and political parity in the workplace, educational institutions and in the distribution of public u tilities. While the Australian society, in general, has welcomed the new trend, the conservative elements have viewed the changing demographic profile as a dilution of Australia’s “white core”, demanding the discontinuation of multiculturalism and nationwide effort to protect the core. Moreover, the majoritycentric and race-driven electoral politics of the Liberal Party leadership have f urther emboldened the conservative and racist elements in the country.

Multiculturalism: National Outlook, Electoral Agenda

The idea of multiculturalism was launched in 1973 by the Gough Whitlam-led labour government as an attempt to emancipate the country from its shameful and racist “White Australia” policy, better reflect upon its increasingly diverse population, facilitate inter-race harmony and promote Asian immigration that could address the manpower problem in a scarcely populated country. Multiculturalism remained a consensus principle of the country until the late 1980s. Even the Malcolm Fraserled Liberal government supported the idea of multiculturalism during the late 1970s and the early 1980s and declared it in N ovember 1981 as a unique achievement of Australia (Fraser 1981). However, the growing number of the immigrant population and their support for the Labour Party prompted the Liberal Party under the new leadership of John Howard to widen its social base by drawing within its fold the Anglo-Celtic constituencies that constitute approximately 75-80% of the country’s population. The anti-multiculturalism campaign that began during the late 1980s was essentially an outcome of this shift in the electoral strategy of the Liberal Party that gave a fillip to the racial politics in the country and widened the socio-political divide between the Anglo-Celtic and immigrant population of Australia. Three key components of this strategy can be identified.

First, there has been a constant effort by the liberal conservative elite to identify Anglo-Celtic values as Australia’s “core culture”, which is being eroded by the growing population of “outsider” Asian immigrants. Identifying multiculturalism as a divisive principle and against the interests of the country, John Howard questioned the long-term applicability of the idea of

december 26, 2009

multiculturalism, which perpetuates division in society and demands preferential treatment for some cultures at the cost of others. Such an approach has widened the socio-political divide between the Anglo-Celtic community and the Asian immigrants. In an interview to the Sydney Morning Herald in February 2006, Howard characterised multiculturalism as a distorted concept often amounting to nothing but “a federation of cultures” (Humphries 2006).

Second, instead of bridging the sociocultural divide, the Liberal Party leadership has issued racially charged political statements at regular intervals to further widen the divide. The Labour Party’s victory during the federal elections in 1990 and 1993 is also attributed to the antimulticulturalism rhetoric of John Howard in 1988 that swung the immigrants’ support in favour of the Labour Party led by Paul Keating (Scott 2000). A virulent Liberal attack on the immigrants and the multiculturalism came in 1994 from a Liberal Party leader, Pauline Hanson, who characterised Asian immigrants as antiwhites with a ghetto-lifestyle, called for resumption of the white Australia policy and formed her own One Nation Party. She was removed from the Liberal Party and was arrested later for fraudulently forming the One Nation Party. The former Prime Minister of Australia, John Howard (1996-2006) refused to condemn her racist remarks then and blamed the national media later in August 2009 for misunderstanding her.6 So much so that the Liberal Party government even changed the n omenclature of the immigration department from Department of Immigration and Multicultural Affairs to Department of Immigration and Citizenship. The i ntroduction of a citizenship test in 2007 was a Liberal effort to curb the growing number of Asian immigrants in the country and ensure their “Australiana” outlook before they legally become Australians.

Finally, societal tensions and growing vulnerability of Australia to global developments, such as the rise of radical Islam and the economic crisis, have been projected as a result of large-scale Asian immigration allowed under the principle of multiculturalism. While the global western projection of Muslims as “the other” have mobilised the Liberal-conservative

vol xliv no 52

EPW
Economic & Political Weekly

COMMENTARY

elements against the Muslim immigrants, the global economic crisis have offered a valid excuse to oppose the Asian immigrants by blaming them for the growing unemployment in the country. In other words, the principle of multiculturalism has adversely affected the core structure of Australian society.

Anti-Muslim Discourse

Another set of liberal conservative offensive has come in the form of public exhortation of the Huntingtonian thesis of civilisational clash emanating from the influx of Muslim immigration in the country and growing vulnerability of Christian Australia to the Islamic terrorism. Viewed in this context, John Howard actually seemed to replicate the George Walker Bush-led Republican electoral agenda of anti-Muslim hysteria. The Bali bomb blast of October 2002 was projected as Australia’s 9/11 and Indonesia-based Jemaah Islamiyah as its Al Qaida. In August 2005, the treasurer of the Liberal Party, Peter Costello suggested that Muslims should go to another country if they did not subscribe to “Australian Values”. The hate campaign against the Muslims was manifest in the racist violence against the Lebanese Muslims in Sydney in December 2005. In fact, the Sydney riot was an outcome of John Howard’s Islamophobia, a political strategy to cash in on the sentiments of Anglo-Celtic and Christian population.

A similar story was repeated in the case of the detention without charge of B risbane-based Indian doctor, Mohammad Hanif in July 2007, sparking popular uproar against the local police and the p olitical leadership. While the public outcry against the detention of Mohammad Hanif reflected the growing popular support for the idea of multiculturalism, the highhandedness of the government brought forth the prevailing Islamophobia of the Howard-led Liberal Party government.

Hate Campaign and Race Riots

The racial riots both in the past as well as in the 21st century have acted as an effective instrument for the spread of narratives of inter-racial hate, sociocultural tension and justification of “white Australia”. Even after the termination of violence, the narratives of riot continues producing

Economic & Political Weekly

EPW
december 26, 2009

and reproducing the discourses of hate, vitiating relationships between the communities in conflict. In fact, the riots have helped project the fear of continued vulnerability of the Anglo-Celtic community against the “outsiders”, calling upon the need for a united aggressive approach to address the problem. Three cases are worth mentioning. The rise of “Neo-Nazi Skinheads” during the 1980s resulted into large-scale attacks in the suburbs of Melbourne against the helpless Vietnamese, who had migrated to Australia as refugees, popularly known as “boat people”. The riots against the Vietnamese led to the discourse of sociocultural tension b etween the Anglo-Celtic community and the Mongoloid community.

The Sydney riots of December 2005 i nvolved the Lebanese Muslims. Instead of limiting the social ambit of hate against the Lebanese Australians, the riot soon became a hate campaign against the Muslims, feeding on the fear factor of Islamic terrorism and Jihadi activities against White-Christian Australia. The episode further vitiated the inter-ethnic relationships of Muslims and Christians. While Mongoloids or popularly known as “Asian Australians” became the “outsiders” during the first story of riot, Muslim Australians became outsiders as a product of the post-riot narratives of hate, enabling the conservative elements to assert the Anglo-Celtic core structure of Australia. The Melbourne riots of 2009 against ethnic I ndians repeat the similar story with the only difference in the characterisation of “the other”. This time ethnic Indians are identified as the “outsiders”. With the i nclusion of ethnic Indians, pejoratively known as “curry-munchers”, almost every major Asian immigrant community in Australia has been identified as “the outsiders”, targeted and pitched against the Anglo-Celtic core.

Conclusion

The crisis of Australian multiculturalism highlights trends towards majoritarian and racial politics, desperate efforts on the part of the Liberal conservative forces to champion the cause of protecting the core Australian values, and the inability of the domestic advocates to counter the bigoted politics in the country. Moreover,

vol xliv no 52

the old stereotypes are being replaced by the new ones, breeding mistrust, interracial hostility, and the spectre of racial violence. Multiculturalism as a political philosophy of the state is losing its political and social appeal in the face of calibrated campaign of the Liberal conservative political elite to marginalise and delegitimise the principle that was once the consensus motto of the country. Australia cannot think of its all-round development in an atmosphere filled with racial bigotry, hate campaigns and political manipulation.

Notes

1 The term “Anglo-Celtic” is used to refer to a majority of the white Australian population whose ancestry comes from the North, Central or Western part of Europe.

2 “A Picture of the Nation: The Statistician's Report on the 2006 Census”, Australian Bureau of Statistics, Government of Australia. http://www.ausstats.abs.gov.au/ausstats/subscriber.nsf/Lookup Attach/2070.0Publication29.01.091/$File/20700 _A_Picture_of_the_Nation.pdf (accessed on 02 October 2009).

3 Ibid.

4 “Asia Migrants Flock to Australia”, BBC News, Asia-Pacific, 29 January 2009, http://news.bbc. co.uk/2/hi/asia-pacific/7857515.stm (accessed on 26 September 2009).

5 “Fact Sheet 4 – More than 60 Years of Post-war Migration”, Department of Immigration, Government of Australia, http://www.immi.gov.au/media/fact-sheets/04fifty.htm (accessed on 26 September 2009).

6 Jamie Duncan, “Media Unfair to Pauline Hanson, says John Howard”, The Australian, 4 August 2009, http://www.theaustralian.news.com.au/ story/0,25197,25883289-26103,00.html (accessed on 20 September 2009).

References

Fraser, Malcolm (1981): Multiculturalism: Australia’s Unique Achievement, Inaugural Address, The I nstitute of Multicultural Affairs, Melbourne, 30 November, http://www.multiculturalaustralia. edu.au/doc/fraser_1.pdf

Humphries, David (2006): “Live Here and Be Australian, Howard Declares”, Sydney Morning Herald, 25 February. http://www.smh.com.au/news/ national/live-here-be-australian/2006/02/24/ 1140670269194.html

Scott, Andrew (2000): Running on Empty: Modernising the British and Australian Labour Parties ( London: Central Books).

available at

EBS News Agency

1180, Sector 22-B Chandigarh 160 022 Ph: 2703570

Dear reader,

To continue reading, become a subscriber.

Explore our attractive subscription offers.

Click here

Comments

(-) Hide

EPW looks forward to your comments. Please note that comments are moderated as per our comments policy. They may take some time to appear. A comment, if suitable, may be selected for publication in the Letters pages of EPW.

Back to Top