Being Australian 7: inclusive multiculturalism Aussie style 2

I wrote three very relevant posts on this back in July 2007, enriched as they are by Jim Belshaw’s comments and reservations.

  1. Assimilation, Integration, Multiculturalism: policy and practice in Australia since 1966 1 – which has had 1,939 reads since publication.
  2. Assimilation, Integration, Multiculturalism: policy and practice in Australia since 1966 2
  3. More on multiculturalism etc

See also Diversity on my English/ESL blog. From that one let me quote:

… What is multiculturalism? by Bikhu Parekh (1999).

We instinctively suspect attempts to homogenize a culture and impose a single identity on it, for we are acutely aware that every culture is internally plural and differentiated. And we remain equally sceptical of all attempts to present it as one whose origins lie within itself, as self-generating and sui generis, for we feel persuaded that all cultures are born out of interaction with and absorb the influences of others and are shaped by wider economic, political and other forces. This undercuts the very basis of Afrocentrism, Eurocentrism, Indocentrism, Sinocentrism and other kinds of centrisms, all of which isolate the history of the culture concerned from that of others and credit its achievements to its own genius.

From a multiculturalist perspective, no political doctrine or ideology can represent the full truth of human life. Each of them — be it liberalism, conservatism, socialism or nationalism — is embedded in a particular culture, represents a particular vision of the good life, and is necessarily narrow and partial. Liberalism, for example, is an inspiring political doctrine stressing such great values as human dignity, autonomy, liberty, critical thought and equality. However, they can be defined in several different ways, of which the liberal is only one and not always the most coherent…

Bikhu Parekh really is a member of the British House of Lords, unlike Lord Monckton of climate fame.

Now let me quote what in one official formulation Australian policy has been, as stated in the Howard years when it was reformulated:

The policy reaffirms the fundamental principles of the New Agenda for Multicultural Australia, and sets strategic directions for 2003–06.

The government’s aim is to build on our success as a culturally diverse, accepting and open society, united through a shared future and a commitment to our nation, its democratic institutions and values, and the rule of law.

This vision is reflected in the four principles that underpin multicultural policy:

  • Responsibilities of all – all Australians have a civic duty to support those basic structures and principles of Australian society which guarantee us our freedom and equality and enable diversity in our society to flourish
  • Respect for each person – subject to the law, all Australians have the right to express their own culture and beliefs and have a reciprocal obligation to respect the right of others to do the same
  • Fairness for each person – all Australians are entitled to equality of treatment and opportunity. Social equity allows us all to contribute to the social, political and economic life of Australia
  • Benefits for all – all Australians benefit from the significant cultural, social and economic dividends arising from the diversity of our population. Diversity works for all Australians.

The new policy statement also maintains a commitment to the goal of communicating the relevance of multicultural policy to all Australians. However, it responds to changing times and needs with some new strategic directions and focuses. It gives particular emphasis to:

  • the goal of community harmony and social cohesion
  • the government’s access and equity strategy, which aims to ensure government services and programmes respond to the realities of Australia’s diversity
  • promoting the benefits of our diversity for all Australians.

The version in the Keating years added language to “respect for each person” but the statement above reflects rather well the way things still are and the way I have understood Australian multiculturalism for the past 20 years. There is nothing very radical there, and the emphasis is on inclusiveness, not on divisiveness.

Unfortunately the words “divisive” and “multiculturalism” are too often joined. Even the following item is affected, despite the fact I endorse what it says otherwise. Its source will surprise my regular readers: The Australian Spectator! This is an odd hybrid magazine which adds eleven pages of Australian content to the front of the UK Spectator, the preferred train reading of Tories. (It is a magazine worth reading, but I don’t know how long the Aussie version will last; nothing from it is published online.) Here is the current editorial:


That is entirely consistent with my conception, which I believe is the Australian conception, of what inclusive multiculturalism is about.

For the detail I can’t really improve on my 2007 posts!

Like Jim I enjoy They’re a Weird Mob even if it is inevitably rather dated. I certainly howled with laughter over the book and its sequel and it remains funny to this day and is, one has to say, benign enough in its humour. It should be noted that the author was not really an Italian-Australian; since then much has been written from genuine “Wog” (Greek-Australians especially have reclaimed the word for comic purposes) perspectives, Looking for Alibrandi (book and movie) being just one among many in this genre.

Jim was especially displeased by film critic Paul Byrnes saying of They’re a Weird Mob (1966):

The film was an enormous hit at the Australian box office, grossing $2 million, on a budget of $600,000. It was one of the first feature films to deal openly with questions of prejudice against ‘New Australians’, albeit in a way that also flattered an Anglo audience. Nino encounters more kindness than prejudice, and quickly adopts ‘Australian ways’, becoming a model migrant. The film was in tune with the ‘assimilationist’ view then dominating Australian immigration policy.

Jim goes on:

Now all this may appear perfectly okay, but consider the following.

The opening point is that it is the first feature film to deal openly with questions of prejudice against “New Australians”. Note that “New Australians” is in brackets. Note that the film flatters an “Anglo” audience. Nino quickly adopts “Australian Ways”, again the italics, becoming a model migrant. Note, too, that the film was in tune with the “assimilationist” view, more italics, then dominating Australian immigration policy.

Now look at the clips illustrating the film. Two out of three deal with prejudice. The title’s chosen for these clips are “Why don’t you go back to your own country” and “a dago just the same”. So what does all this tell you about the film, about Australia?

Now look at the real context.

The book itself was published in 1957 as a story by Nino Culotta. At that stage the mass migration program was less than ten years old. As I outlined in my Migration Matters series, this was a unique program in the post war period since it is the only case where a country chose to admit migrants at a scale huge enough to ultimately change the very nature of society. This was done with remarkably little prejudice or social distress…

The book did record prejudice, but with humour. When Nino meets the man who would become his father in law for the first time, an Irish Catholic, he responds to the prejudice by pointing to a picture of the Pope on the wall, asking why he has a picture of an Italian there.

In its picture of prejudice, the book brings out a key distinguishing feature of Australians, our capacity to distinguish between individuals and any prejudice we may have about the group that that individual comes from. This feature is a key part of the reason why migration worked.

The book’s sequel followed Nino and his Australian friends back to Italy, tracing out further the nature of cultural differences.

As for the assimilationist tag, I can only say this.

Assimilation simply meant fitting in. We did not expect migrants to give up their language, to change their religion, to change what they ate, to pass citizenship tests. We expected them to be proud of their past. I could wish that we still had this policy in place.

I don’t have much of a problem with any of that until the last section, for in contrast the official history from the Department says:

Australia’s approach to immigration from federation until the latter part of the 20th century, in effect, excluded non-European immigration. The ‘White Australia policy’ as it was commonly described, could not, however, withstand the attitudinal changes after World War II, and the growing acknowledgment of Australia’s responsibilities as a member of the international community. In 1966, the Liberal-Country Party Government began dismantling the White Australia policy by permitting the immigration of ‘distinguished’ non-Europeans.

The prevailing attitude to migrant settlement up until this time was based on the expectation of ‘assimilation’ – that is, that migrants should shed their cultures and languages and rapidly become indistinguishable from the host population.

From the mid-1960s until 1973, when the final vestiges of the White Australia policy were removed, policies started to examine assumptions about assimilation. They recognised that large numbers of migrants, especially those whose first language was not English, experienced hardships as they settled in Australia, and required more direct assistance.

In the classrooms where I worked it was a long time before that assistance manifested itself in practice. Well into the 1970s the prevailing practice for migrant students from language backgrounds other than English was “sink or swim”. Amazingly, many swam, but we didn’t necessarily notice those who sank. It was quite common, and humiliating, for recently arrived migrant students to be put in with the “slow learners”. I recall a woman I taught in Dip Ed at Sydney University still being angry because as a child in Port Kembla she, then a recently arrived Chilean, had experienced this. The only real help was from her fellow students. Obviously she “swam” eventually or I would not have met her in the Dip Ed class.

We English teachers had neither the training nor the experience even to know where to begin in teaching those whose first language was not English. But at Dapto in 1970 I met the first ESL teacher I had ever seen. There she was in a school of 1,400 with mainly UK migrants, but a fair sprinkling of those of other backgrounds, and she did what she could, even attempting to train the rest of us. Unfortunately we did not really know what she was talking about and left her to it, not really being at that stage able to integrate her perspective into our concept of English teaching which was in those days still rooted in the literary critical ethos of the time: Matthew Arnold via Leavis, essentially a form of cultural snobbery that was uncomfortable with anything outside “the great tradition”.  Grammar and language teaching, such as it was, depended on memories of the traditional grammar we had been taught in school, notoriously useless as an instrument of instruction for English as a second language. (Much more adequate variants of traditional grammar aimed at second language learners — for example Longman Student Grammar — have since emerged.)

Anyway, most of us reasoned, it was the student’s problem, not ours. They had come here so they must learn English or fail, and if they didn’t learn it was probably because they were stupid, or spent too much time working in their parents’ fish shops, or their parents let them down by talking Italian or Greek at home…

The first fully developed ESL programs (as distinct from mainstreaming) that I saw were in the late 1970s at schools such as Cringila Public School in the Illawarra and Hurstville Boys High. The latter was interesting as the teacher, Dave Chadwick, had been a classmate of mine at SBHS and was actually a German and Latin teacher; the rest of the school referred to the isolated portable classroom where he did his mysterious things as “Wog Hollow”. That was actually symptomatic of the time.

My first attempt really to help a student from a language background other than English was a boy in Wollongong from Laos who turned up at school one day still wearing some military uniform or other from the civil war he had escaped from. Some of what I did instinctively does stand up in retrospect — trying to establish what interested him and working from there with texts based on that, for example — but I really was flying blind.

In my case it was not until I had a year working in an ELICOS college with overseas adult students from China and Korea especially in 1990 that I began to get some idea of how to go about this different approach to English teaching, and I formally consolidated that with a Graduate Certificate in TESOL from UTS in 1998. It is fair to say, though, that I learned most through practice, trial and error, and from colleagues at the ELICOS college who were experienced and trained.

In the two decades after the 1970s much had changed. First there were changes in official policy towards the background languages and cultures of what were no longer called “New Australians” but rather “Ethnic Communities”. The word “muticulturalism” had appeared and been refined under the Fraser and Hawke governments in a generally bipartisan spirit, despite rumblings of discontent which became louder as the newly arrived increasingly looked less and less like “us”. The “melting pot” was increasingly being replaced by “the salad”.

In the 1990s all hell began to break loose on that front, on talkback radio and in other fora, culminating in the whole One Nation experience and the election of the Howard Government in 1996. Those who suspected something had gone “too far” gained the ascendancy.

I disagree with Jim when he says that assimilation simply meant fitting in. It did imply giving up something or losing something. It did imply that what had shaped life and experience before migration had to be jettisoned. At the same time I agree that fitting in is necessary, though that does not mean necessarily abandoning differences from the “mainstream”.* At this level, conceptually at least, Jim and I would probably agree, except that I would see that as a given in the kind of Australian multiculturalism we saw emerging in the Whitlam/Fraser/Hawke years.

More recently see Multiculturalism is not (necessarily) the enemy…, Say something a bit more constructive than “Awk!”, Migrants to sit English test, Speak English, mate! What are ya, a Muslim or something?,The joy of Gnomespeak, and these two pages: Literacy and Ninglun and the Japanese Backpacker.


When humour is no longer funny?

It seems to me that you would have to be dreadfully puritanical not to laugh at and with They’re a Weird Mob and I really can’t see any Italian-Australians being hurt by this movie; in fact some of the cross-cultural conflicts and misunderstandings in the movie/book can be seen as critical of mainstream Australia, not of the migrant. If that is not to take it too seriously… Many migrants can tell stories like some we see in that movie. My German friends Tilly and Willy in Wollongong had a wonderful tale to tell of the “help” Tilly received from a neighbour in Dapto who taught her the “correct” English to use in the bank: “Excuse me. I want to make a f*cking withdrawal!” Tilly got it down pat and set off for the bank with (to her) surprising results… Perhaps, so soon after World War II, the neighbour was not over-fond of Germans?

Go forward to 1990-1994. By then I was accustomed to seeing my own countrymen (to an extent) through the eyes of those overseas students and through M. What I/they saw was often welcoming, but not always. (Ouyang Yu has made a career out of writing about such things…)

In 1993-94 as my own modest contribution I was compiling my anthology for schools From Yellow Earth to Eucalypt: stories and poems from China and Australia (Longman 1995). I went back fifty years before They’re a Weird Mob to a story which I had found hilarious when it was read to us in class in 1956: “A Golden Shanty” by Edward Dyson. The plot-line is still very funny, but it is difficult to read it now quite as innocently as I read it in 1956 or, presumably, as its first readers did fifty or sixty years earlier. It does seem relevant to ask “What values and attitudes do you find in this story?” and “Who is valued and who is denigrated in this story?” Of course the butts are the stereotypical Bog Irish and the cunning but inscrutable Oriental, standard fare in just about every issue of The Bulletinat the time. The assumption is there is another class of person altogether — the readers — who are themselves none of the above and implicitly superior, or the stereotype has no point. (Another stereotype not found in this story but common at the time was the effete English noble or Remittance Man, so it isn’t entirely a matter of favouring all Anglos.)…

Ouyang Yu commented: “The idea was fixed in the white Australian mind that somehow the Chinese were a species of inferior human beings, not fit to share the continent with white men as colonisers…” In my book I set students the following task:

Imagine this story is on a short list for an anthology of Australian literature to be used in schools. Would you select it? Write a carefully reasoned report to the editor of the anthology giving your recommendation, and your reasons.

I hope that was a suitably open question for a Year 11 student to try. I had in editing the story added notes near some of the more gross manifestations of prejudice referring them to Eric Rolls’s Sojourners where they could find alternative views of the Chinese on the gold fields.

What disturbed me as I revisited the story was that we had all roared at it in 1956, except perhaps for Billy Ling… What also disturbed me was that in that mid 1990s period one was hearing attitudes concerning people like M not a hundred miles from those fed by (or reflected in) Dyson’s portrayal of the Chinese, with other stereotypes added in of Triads and Tongs and Communist agents… Until in 1996 we were told we were being “swamped by Asians.” Honestly, I was almost physically sick. Indeed I so reacted in the way of helping every Asian I saw (almost) that I gave myself a hernia assisting a struggling Korean with some heavy luggage here in Elizabeth Street Surry Hills and ended up in hospital!

In another chapter of the book I published a talk by photographer William Yang explaining why for the first thirty years of his life under assimilationist pressure he preferred to be William Young, and how he eventually rediscovered the Chinese culture that his Australian-born parents in rural Queensland (also under assimilationist pressure) had elected not to pass on to him. My question then always elicits interesting reponses: it is this.

Do you think William Yang’s Australian identity is stronger or weaker now?

There are probably three possible answers. I get all three. The discussions that follow are always interesting and bear on my own understanding of what Australian multiculturalism has been and, perhaps, still is.

It is also a great story for anyone wanting to explain the use of the past perfect tense…

* Reading James Jupp’s monumental tome confirms my picture fairly well. It appears the first real moves towards ESL support began when Snedden was Education Minister in 1970, with some states making moves two or three years before; hence the presence of an ESL teacher at Dapto in 1970. Major developments really had to wait for the Fraser years.


Consider the following information from Year Book Australia, 2005.

There has been a significant change in the source countries of permanent arrivals, with settlers arriving from more diverse regions of the world since the mid-1990s compared with the early-1980s (table 5.32). In 1982-83, 28% of settler arrivals to Australia were born in the United Kingdom, 9% were born in Vietnam and 7% were born in New Zealand. In 2002-03 the United Kingdom and New Zealand both contributed 13% of all settler arrivals, although in 2001-02 New Zealand-born settler arrivals contributed 18% of all settler arrivals in that year whereas settler arrivals born in the United Kingdom only contributed 10%. Settler arrivals born in China (7%), India (6%) and South Africa (5%) each contributed 5% or more of all settlers in 2002-03 compared with only 1%, 2% and 3% respectively in 1982-83 (table 5.32).




China (excl. SARs & Taiwan Prov.)
New Zealand
South Africa
United Kingdom
All settler arrivals


China (excl. SARs & Taiwan Prov.)
New Zealand
South Africa
United Kingdom
All settler arrivals


China (excl. SARs & Taiwan Prov.)
New Zealand
South Africa
United Kingdom
All settler arrivals


China (excl. SARs & Taiwan Prov.)
New Zealand
South Africa
United Kingdom
All settler arrivals

(a) Information in this table is based on stated traveller intention at arrival or departure; it has not been adjusted for change in traveller intention or multiple movement.

Source: Migration, Australia (3412.0).

Much of the increase in the figures for China probably reflects family reunion migration following the large numbers who arrived in 1989-1990 (M among them) and stayed on. Mind you, quite a few of those (I know this anecdotally) have returned to China too, finding they had better prospects back there.

The figures for the UK are of interest as well.

We should of course remember that while place of birth probably reflects ethnicity, it may not.  South Africa, the UK, and even New Zealand are cases in point. I have encountered quite a few Chinese students whose place of birth is New Zealand, for example.

Multiculturalism, assimilation, integration, acculturation

Jim Belshaw in his comments on my first entry on this topic questioned the official version of migration policy that I presented there, and he is right to do so. It was not quite as that schematic view suggests. James Jupp (ed) The Australian People (Sydney A&R 1988) has several chapters in its 1000 or so very large pages that clarify much in that regard. By the 1960s the words assimilation and integration were often used almost interchangeably, while the phrase cultural pluralism seems to have predated the first use in the 1970s of the word multicultural (borrowed from Canada) and has since often been used as a close synonym.

You will note I have a fourth word in that list. This is a word much used in the ESL literature. Briefly, I find it preferable to assimilation which, despite some usage to the contrary, does suggest a one-way process. Acculturation is:

  1. the process by which the culture of an isolated society changes on contact with a different one
  2. the process by which a person acquires the culture of the society that he/she inhabits.

Such adaptation does not necessarily involve total absorption. I find Martin Krygier’s 1997 Boyer Lectures of much interest for this, and much else. (It appears, by the way, that I may have played a small part in restoring those lectures to the ABC archive.)

I oppose the ideas of multiculturalism and cultural pluralism to the ideas of monoculturalism and assimilation in part on pragmatic grounds — in fact Australia is a culturally plural society — and partly on ideological grounds, just as, in the second instance, much opposition to the idea of multiculturalism is patently ideological. However, I am what might be called by some a "soft" multiculturalist. I think, for example, that Ghassan Hage and similar students of the issue adopt too extreme a position. (See "Our shared, core values are but a myth underpinning this new racism" in my Big Archive.) However, just how much must be shared to allay real concern about our social harmony? A core issue is obviously acceptance of our laws. But even there you will find issues to ponder. What about cases of conflict between religious belief and the law of the land? One might think, for example, of Jehovah’s Witnesses or, having seen Witness recently, the Amish in the USA, or any other group that on some matters stands outside on things like participation in war. Generally we seem to find a way around such conflicts.

I do think, however, that the current obsession with "Australian values" (and the baggage that seems to be coming with it) is veering dangerously close to an unreflective monoculturalism, and that I find both unjust and dangerous*. To take just one contentious issue, I see no reason why a woman cannot wear a head scarf while being thoroughly acculturated to Australian life, or as much so as needs concern anyone. But I have been here before!

Here are some sites of related interest:

* For an extreme example see this archive entry.

So the policy which enables the individual to develop his or her personal identity most fully in a new country is not assimilation. It is inclusive multiculturalism. This is a policy Australia has practised with considerable success.

So my contention is that multiculturalism has not only delivered a fairer, more interesting society and culture in Australia, but it has also enlarged the choices, and therefore the freedom, of all Australians. How this works for the individual will be the topic in the next post.

BTW: I have joined The Hellenic Club. No doubt Greek is spoken there, but isn’t compulsory. I do so love this multicultural city!