Multiculturalism in action

THE most sensible and mature comment about the so-called Muslim riots came not from a politician, but from an immigrant.

Giving the inaugural Australian Multicultural Lecture in Canberra, the Westfield founder Frank Lowy told an audience that included Julia Gillard and Tony Abbott: "Multiculturalism is a work in progress."

Absolutely correct; it is not a settled and steady state, but a dynamic, developing process. And it has been so since long before the word was coined, and will go on being so for the foreseeable future.

Lowy should know: in his 60 years in Australia he has watched it evolve and change. Born in Czechoslovakia in 1930 he lived in Hungary, France and Israel before migrating to Australia in 1952. This was at the height of the first great migration period following the World War II, when developing Australian industry was crying out for manpower and the slogan "populate or perish" became a catch cry.

But successive Australian governments were selective about who was admitted: White Australia, one of the covenants of federation, was still considered untouchable policy. And even within that overarching criterion, there were grades: the British, of course, were the immigrants of choice, followed by other northern Europeans. As time went on, economic imperatives demanded that the intake be widened. The new wave from the Mediterranean was led by Italians and Greeks, but Turks and other middle Easterners were also allowed through the net.

The definition of who was white and who wasn't soon became all but meaningless and in 1967 the government of Harold Holt formally put the White Australia policy out of its misery, although it was not until Labor under Gough Whitlam gained office five years later that a new policy was put in place. It was called 'multiculturalism'. Whitlam's flamboyant Immigration Minister Al Grassby is usually given credit for coining the name, but it quickly passed into common usage.

Its essence was non-discrimination on grounds of colour or creed, but it took things a little further: instead of expecting newcomers to assimilate completely and vanish seamlessly into the predominantly Anglo-Celtic populace, it acknowledged that they could not and would not forget their background and ancestry and would bring at least some of their traditions with them. This was not always accepted by conservative Australians, who hoped and expected that once what they saw as the Labor aberration was out of the way and things returned to normal it would be corrected.

But instead Malcolm Fraser embraced the concept and enlarged upon it, even setting up the ethnic broadcasting service that became SBS to service the needs of the immigrants. Fraser realised that taking immigrants from all over the world would entail more than a change in the national diet and the importation of a few foreign films; it would go to the whole idea of just who or what was Australian, and that this would cause a certain amount of social upheaval, which he was ready to wear for the sake of the principle.

But as always, there were some unforseen consequences. For starters some of the incoming groups like the Vietnamese were coming straight from conflicts, and they brought some of their hatreds and resentments with them. This was nothing new; in the past fierce anti-communists from the Baltic countries and the eternally hostile Serbs and Croats had played out their implacable and sometimes violent antagonisms in their adopted homeland, but the outbreaks were easily forgotten, at least partly because they looked pretty much like everyone else.

The Vietnamese were more easily distinguishable, and when Lebanese gangs started following the same pattern, the backlash set in. And of course after the events of 2001, which made the words Arab, Muslim and Terrorist into synonyms for the shock jocks and their followers, the more excitable commentators started claiming that multiculturalism had failed - that we should abandon it and go back to the good old days.

But even if that had been possible (which it wasn't; the horse had well and truly bolted) the retreat would have been not only craven and selfish, but unnecessary. Multiculturalism has not failed; it is just, as always, adapting. The problem, if it is really a problem, is that it takes a little time for those who have come from autocratic regimes to come to terms with democracy - to understand that it has its obligations as well as its freedoms.

The fact that the people, rather than the self-appointed rulers, make the laws does not mean that they can be ignored. They can, of course, be changed - by the people, and all the people, Muslims included, have the right to push for the changes they want. But if these are rejected by the majority, that's that. That's democracy. And in the end all the laws are subject to the Australian Constitution, a document with all the inviolability of holy writ, and which, in our secular society, in fact supersedes it.

This is not an easy concept for those who take their religion seriously to grasp, and a lot of Christians have trouble with it as well. Still, all but the fanatics eventually succumb, and the fanatics, Muslim or Christian, are always a small minority who can be dealt with by the police. Glitches such as those that occasionally occur are certainly not a reason to panic and reverse a principled - even noble - policy.

In all of history, multiculturalism has only ever been tried twice as a conscious and deliberate national goal: after World War I in the United States ("Give me your tired, your poor, your troubled masses yearning to breathe free, the wretched refuse of your teeming shore; send these, the homeless, tempest-tossed, to me; I lift my lamp beside the golden door.") and after World War II in Australia (" We are one, but we are many, and from all the lands of earth we come; we share a dream and sing with one voice: I am, you are, we are Australian").

Okay, our clarion call may not sound quite as impressive, but it is no less worthy of pride and celebration for that. And (dare I say it) much more Australian.

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