Global Policy Forum

Australians Debating Immigration and National Identity


By Tim Johnston

International Herald Tribune
January 28, 2007

On the face of it, it's a minor bureaucratic alteration: Australia is changing the name of its Department of Immigration and Multicultural Affairs to the Department of Immigration and Citizenship. But this renaming, which takes effect on Tuesday, represents a much deeper change in government policy: a shift of emphasis from celebrating the cultural diversity of its immigrant population to promoting an Australian cultural unity.

The move is taking place against a backdrop of intense debate about what it means to be Australian, with rising nationalism fueled by worries that the country is being torn apart by competing immigrant value systems. Australia is not unique in attempting to find a way to limit the divisive impact of large-scale immigration, and the government seems to be moving away from British-style multiculturalism toward French-style integration.

Prime Minister John Howard has always had reservations about the concept of multiculturalism, and although he has led the country for more than 11 years, it is only now that he has started to put significant pressure on the system. He has tightened up the requirements for attaining citizenship, including doubling the waiting period and promoting a written test for new citizens.

He will be leading his center-right Liberal Party and it coalition partners into an election this year against a revitalized opposition Labor Party, and in the past he has made significant gains at the ballot box by appealing to the insecurities of middle Australia, particularly over illegal immigration. Migrants constitute a relatively small part of his coalition's support.

Malcolm Turnbull, a rising star in Howard's government and until recently his parliamentary secretary, gave voice to these concerns in a recent speech. "There was a time in the 1990s when I feared that multiculturalism was heading to a stage where the concept of Australia would cease to exist. So concerned were we about our ethnic or cultural backgrounds, we would forget what we were today and Australia would be seen less as a nation than as just a place where people lived, but did not call home," he said.

James Jupp, the director of the Center for Immigration and Multicultural Studies at the Australian National University in Canberra, does not believe the name change will have a significant policy effect, but he says it does send a message. "The message of multiculturalism is that both sides have to adjust," he said. "The new message is that this is a liberal, democratic, English-speaking society which has been well established and it is up to people who come from other cultures to adjust their behavior accordingly."

Some 25 percent of Australians were born outside the country, more than in any other nation apart from Israel, and the debate about how far Australia should bend to accommodate the values of new arrivals, or how far they should assimilate to Australian values, is not new.

For many years successive governments operated a "White Australia" policy, severely limiting immigration from non-European countries. Since the demise of the White Australia policy in the 1960s and 1970s, hundreds of thousands of immigrants from all over the globe have made their home in "the lucky country," bringing with them over 200 languages, some of the world's best fusion cuisine, and the makings of a cultural backlash.

Once Australia was proud of the policy of multiculturalism that had allowed its new citizens to celebrate both their heritage and the culture of the society they had joined. But today there is an increasing feeling, particularly on the right of the political spectrum, that clinging too closely to some inappropriate aspects of that cultural heritage is incompatible with Australian culture.

The debate became more than academic in December 2005. A mob of white Australian youths, incensed by what they saw as sexual harassment of women and violent behavior by groups of Australian Lebanese youths, gathered on a south Sydney beach and went on a rampage, beating up anyone they could find of Middle Eastern appearance. The riots left deep scars on the national psyche.

Speaking at a citizenship ceremony last Friday to mark Australia Day, Howard outlined some of what he thought were typically Australian values: democracy, the rule of law, sexual and racial equality, and a common language, English. But his words carry little comfort for people like Keysar Trad, a Lebanese immigrant and the head of the Islamic Friendship Association of Australia. "I love these values, but when he talks about them, they are little more than clichés; they tend to be exclusive," he said. "They are encouraging racism through national pride. It's a recipe for a highly polarized society."

Many immigrants like Trad complain that the Australian flag and Australian nationalism have been hijacked by white Australians of European extraction: "There's an attitude that if you are not white, you are somehow less equal," he said. Howard has added to the suspicion that some cultures are less equal than others. If multiculturalism "means that we're going to encourage people to maintain their differences and that basically we have an attitude that, well, all cultures are equal, all cultures are the same, then I don't think people feel comfortable with that," he said in a radio interview last year.

"You can't have a nation with a federation of cultures. You can have a nation where a whole variety of cultures constantly influence and mold and change and blend in with the mainstream," he continued, adding, "The core culture of this nation is very clear; we are an outshoot of Western civilization." "The situation is definitely getting worse," Trad said. "The attitude now is much more tolerant of racism."

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