Multiculturalism in Australia

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Multiculturalism in Australia is today reflected by the multicultural composition of its people, its immigration policies, its prohibition on discrimination, equality before the law of all persons, as well as various cultural policies which promote diversity, such as the formation of the Special Broadcasting Service.[1]

According to the 2011 census, 26% of the population were born overseas and a further 20% had at least one parent born overseas.[2] Aboriginal Australians make up approximately 2.5% of the population.[3] Australia's diverse migrant communities have brought with them food, lifestyle and cultural practices, which have been absorbed into mainstream Australian culture.[4][5]

Historically, Australia adhered to the White Australia Policy. The policy was dismantled after World War II by various changes to immigration policy.



Prior to settlement by Europeans, the Australian continent was not a single nation, but hosted many different Aboriginal cultures and between 200 and 400 active languages at any one time.[citation needed] According to the 2006 census some 150 indigenous languages are still spoken.[citation needed] The present nation of Australia resulted from a process of immigration intended to fill the continent (also excluding poterivals to the British Empire). Settlers from the United Kingdom, after 1800 including Ireland, were the earliest people that were not native to the continent to live in Australia. Dutch colonisation and possible visits to Australia by explorers and/or traders from China,[citation needed] did not lead to permanent settlement. Until 1901, Australia existed as a group of independent British settler colonies.

White Australia policy: 1800s to 1972[edit]

The Immigration Restriction Act 1901, known informally as the White Australia policy, restricted non-European immigration to Australia from 1901 to 1973. The policy limited the ethnic and cultural diversity of the immigrant population. The policy was an attempt to preserve the British ethno-cultural identity of the Australian nation, promote European immigration, and to exclude persons who did not fit the European, predominately Anglo-Celtic, character of Australian society. As the twentieth century progressed and the number of migrants from the United Kingdom became insufficient to meet labour shortages, immigrants came increasingly from other parts of Europe, such as Italy, Greece, Germany, the Netherlands, and the former Yugoslavia.[6]

People whose parents were both born in Australia percentage of the population in Australia divided geographically by statistical local area, as of the 2011 census

Multiculturalism adopted: 1970s - Present[edit]

Following the initial moves of the Whitlam Labor government in 1973, further official national multicultural policies were implemented by Fraser's Conservative Coalition government in 1978.[7] The Labor Government of Bob Hawke continued with these policies during the 1980s and early 1990s, and were further supported by Paul Keating up to his electoral defeat 1996. CALD (or Culturally and Linguistually Diverse) policies continue to be implemented at all levels of government and public service, such as medical support systems which cater specifically to non-English speaking residents.[8]

The meaning of multiculturalism has changed significantly since its formal introduction to Australia. Originally it was understood by the mainstream population as a need for acceptance that many members of the Australian community originally came from different cultures and still had ties to it.[9] However, it came to mean the rights of migrants within mainstream Australia to express their cultural identity. It is now often used to refer to the notion that people in Australia have multiple cultural or ethnic backgrounds.

The overall level of immigration to Australia has grown during the last decades. Net overseas immigrants increased from 30,000 in 1993[10] to 118,000 in 2003–04,[11] and 262,500 in 2016-17.[12]

According to the 2011 census, 26% of the population were born overseas, with a further 20% having at least one parent born overseas.[2] Of the population born overseas, 82% lived in the capital cities.[2] Aboriginal Australians make up approximately 2.5% of the population.[3] As of 2008, Australia was ranked 18th in the world in terms of net migration per capita, ahead of Canada, the USA and most of Europe.[13]

According to the National Agenda for a Multicultural Australia, the Australian government is concerned with three broad policy areas: cultural identity, social justice, and economic efficiency.[14]

The top ten religions in Australia account for less than 63% of the population.[15]


A number of projects by government and non-government entities have been established to facilitate multiculturalism in Australia.

The capital, Canberra, has developed a tradition of holding the National Multicultural Festival, held over a week in February.[16] There is also Harmony Day which seeks to promote a tolerant and culturally diverse society.

Critique and debate[edit]

Political positions[edit]

In 1996, John Howard's Liberal-National Coalition was then elected to government. Howard had long been a critic of multiculturalism, releasing his One Australia policy in the late 1980s which called for a reduction in Asian immigration.[citation needed] He later retracted the policy, citing his then position as wrong.[citation needed] Shortly after the Howard government took office, a new independent member of Parliament, Pauline Hanson, made her maiden speech in which she was highly critical of multiculturalism, saying that a multicultural society could never be strong.[citation needed] Hanson went on to form her own political party, One Nation. One Nation campaigned strongly against official multiculturalism, arguing that it represented "a threat to the very basis of the Australian culture, identity and shared values" and that there was "no reason why migrant cultures should be maintained at the expense of our shared, national culture.".[17]

Despite many calls for Howard to censure Hanson,[citation needed] his response was to state that her speech indicated a new freedom of expression in Australia on such issues, and that he believed strongly in freedom of speech.[citation needed] Rather than official multiculturalism, Howard advocated instead the idea of a "shared national identity", albeit one strongly grounded in certain recognisably Anglo-Celtic Australian themes, such as "mateship" and a "fair go".[citation needed] The name of the Department of Immigration, Multiculturalism and Indigenous Affairs was changed to the "Department of Immigration and Citizenship". However, Australia maintained a policy of multiculturalism, and government introduced expanded dual-citizenship rights.[citation needed]

Intellectual critique[edit]

The earliest academic critics of multiculturalism in Australia were the philosophers Lachlan Chipman[18] and Frank Knopfelmacher,[19] sociologist Tanya Birrell[20] and the political scientist Raymond Sestito.[21][when?] Chipman and Knopfelmacher were concerned with threats to social cohesion, while Birrell's concern was that multiculturalism obscures the social costs associated with large scale immigration that fall most heavily on the most recently arrived and unskilled immigrants. Sestito's arguments were based on the role of political parties. He argued that political parties were instrumental in pursuing multicultural policies, and that these policies would put strain on the political system and would not promote better understanding in the Australian community.[22][23]

Prime Minister John Curtin supported White Australia policy, saying, "This country shall remain forever the home of the descendants of those people who came here in peace in order to establish in the South Seas an outpost of the British race."[15]

Prime Minister Stanley Bruce was a supporter of the White Australia Policy, and made it an issue in his campaign for the 1925 Australian Federal election.[24]

It is necessary that we should determine what are the ideals towards which every Australian would desire to strive. I think those ideals might well be stated as being to secure our national safety, and to ensure the maintenance of our White Australia Policy to continue as an integral portion of the British Empire.[24] We intend to keep this country white and not allow its people to be faced with the problems that at present are practically insoluble in many parts of the world.[25]

Labor leader H. V. Evatt said in 1945 at the United Nations Conference on International Organization:

You have always insisted on the right to determine the composition of your own people. Australia wants that right now. What you are attempting to do now, Japan attempted after the last war [the First World War] and was prevented by Australia. Had we opened New Guinea and Australia to Japanese immigration then the Pacific War by now might have ended disastrously and we might have had another shambles like that experienced in Malaya.[26]

Another leader of the Labor Party, Arthur Calwell (1960-1967) supported the White European Australia policy. This is reflected by Calwell's comments in his 1972 memoirs, Be Just and Fear Not, in which he made it clear that he maintained his view that non-European people should not be allowed to settle in Australia. He wrote:

I am proud of my white skin, just as a Chinese is proud of his yellow skin, a Japanese of his brown skin, and the Indians of their various hues from black to coffee-coloured. Anybody who is not proud of his race is not a man at all. And any man who tries to stigmatize the Australian community as racist because they want to preserve this country for the white race is doing our nation great harm... I reject, in conscience, the idea that Australia should or ever can become a multi-racial society and survive.[27]

He was the last leader of ALP and Liberal parties to support it.

Historian Geoffrey Blainey achieved mainstream recognition as a critic of multiculturalism when he wrote that multiculturalism threatened to transform Australia into a "cluster of tribes". In his 1984 book All for Australia, Blainey criticized multiculturalism for tending to emphasise the rights of ethnic minorities at the expense of the majority population and for being "anti-British", despite the British being the largest group to have migrated to Australia. According to Blainey, such policies created divisions and threatened national cohesion. He argued that "the evidence is clear that many multicultural societies have failed and that the human cost of the failure has been high" and warned that "we should think very carefully about the perils of converting Australia into a giant multicultural laboratory for the assumed benefit of the peoples of the world."[28]

In one of his numerous criticisms of multiculturalism, Blainey wrote:

For the millions of Australians who have no other nation to fall back upon, multiculturalism is almost an insult. It is divisive. It threatens social cohesion. It could, in the long-term, also endanger Australia's military security because it sets up enclaves which in a crisis could appeal to their own homelands for help.

Blainey remained a persistent critic of multiculturalism into the 1990s, denouncing multiculturalism as "morally, intellectually and economically ... a sham."

Historian John Hirst argued that while multiculturalism might serve the needs of ethnic politics and the demands of certain ethnic groups for government funding for the promotion of their separate ethnic identity, it is a perilous concept on which to found national policy.[29] Hirst identified contradictory statements by political leaders that suggested the term was a nonsense concept. These included the policies of Prime Minister Bob Hawke, a proponent of multiculturalism while at the same time promoting a citizenship campaign and stressing the common elements of our culture,[30] and anti-multiculturalism statements by Prime Minister Howard, who aroused the ire of multiculturalists who thought that he was suggesting closing down Italian restaurants and prohibiting the speaking of the Italian language when he proposed no such thing.[29]

According to Hirst, multiculturalism denies the existence of a host Australian culture:

Insofar as multiculturalism makes what it calls 'Anglo-Celts' the equivalent of Italians and Turks, it denies the very notion of a host. [Multiculturalists assert] we are all immigrants of many cultures, contributing to a multicultural society. This may serve the needs of ethnic politics. As a serious historical or sociological analysis it is nonsense. To found policy on it may be perilous.[29]

Critics have argued that multiculturalism was introduced as official policy in Australia without public support or consultation. According to academic Mark Lopez: "Multiculturalism was developed by a small number of academics, social workers and activists, initially located on the fringe of the political arena of immigration, settlement and welfare. The authors responsible for versions of the ideology were also principal actors in the struggle to advance their beliefs and make them government policy". Lopez asserts that through "core groups and activists' sympathisers and contacts ... multiculturalism became government policy ... because the multiculturalists and their supporters were able to influence the ideological content of the Minister's sources of policy ... Contemporary public opinion polls implied ... in the general population, a widespread resentment, or a lack of interest, of the kinds of ideas advanced by multiculturalists. ... The original constituency for multiculturalism was small; popular opinion was an obstacle, not an asset, for the multiculturalists." Furthermore, according to Lopez: "Multiculturalism was not simply picked up and appreciated and implemented by policy makers, government and the major political parties ... [I]n every episode that resulted in the progress of multiculturalism, the effectiveness of the political lobbyists was a decisive factor. ... [Multiculturalism was] tirelessly promoted and manoeuvered forward".[7] However, the above argument have been contested by others, who note that "Government sponsored conferences were in fact held at least once a year from 1950 to discuss immigration issues and to provide information for both government and the Australian public".[31]

Critics associated with the Centre for Population and Urban Research at Monash University have argued that both Right and Left factions in the Australian Labor Party have adopted a multicultural stance for the purposes of increasing their support within the party.[32] A manifestation of this embrace of multiculturalism has been the creation of ethnic branches within the Labor Party and ethnic branch stacking.[33]

Following the upsurge of support for the One Nation Party in 1996, Lebanese-born Australian anthropologist Ghassan Hage published a critique in 1997 of Australian multiculturalism in the book White Nation.[34] Drawing on theoretical frameworks from Whiteness studies, Jacques Lacan and Pierre Bourdieu, Hage examined a range of everyday discourses that implicated both anti-multiculturalists and pro-multiculturalists alike.[citation needed]

In exploring the discourse of multiculturalism others have argued that the threat to social cohesion and national identity have been overstated.[35][36] For instance, Ramakrishan (2013) argues that the "largely European" cultural traditions of the population have been maintained despite greater ethnic diversity.[35] Others have asserted that the emphasis on notions such as 'Identity, citizenship, social cohesion and integration' serves more as a catchphrase rather than pragmatic attempts to address the given issues.[37] Kerkyasharian (2008) argues:

Of course, most of the debate over multiculturalism has nothing to do with actual government policies or laws on cultural diversity. Detractors have no viable policy alternative, other than the imposition of a nebulous set of 'Australian values'. When pressed to define these values, they will usually cite some broad principles, such as fairness, equality and so on. All well and good – because multiculturalism stands for these same principles.[37]

See also[edit]


  1. ^ Molloy, Bruce (1993). "Changing Cultural Channels: SBS-TV, Imparja and Australian Television". Communication Institute for Online Scholarship.
  2. ^ a b c "Reflecting a Nation: Stories from the 2011 Census". ABS. Retrieved 13 January 2014.
  3. ^ a b "Main Features - 2011 Census Counts — Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Peoples". Australian Bureau of Statistics. Archived from the original on 20 December 2016. Retrieved 16 December 2016.
  4. ^ "About Australia: Our Country". Retrieved 25 October 2013.
  5. ^ "About Australia: People, culture and lifestyle". Retrieved 25 October 2013.
  6. ^ Graeme Hugo, Paul Callister, Juthika Badkar (2008). Graeme Hugo, Soogil Young (eds.). Labour Mobility in the Asia-Pacific Region: Dynamics, Issues and a New APEC Agenda : A Survey and Analyses of Governance Challenges on Labour Migration for APEC Economies. Institute of Southeast Asian Studies, Singapore. p. 148. ISBN 978-981-230-895-5.CS1 maint: uses authors parameter (link) CS1 maint: uses editors parameter (link)
  7. ^ a b Mark Lopez (2000),The Origins of Multiculturalism in Australian Politics 1945–1975, Melbourne University Press, Carlton South, Victoria (ISBN 0-522-84895-8)
  8. ^ "Information for non-English speakers". NPS Medicines Talk. June 2010. Retrieved 3 November 2010.
  9. ^ Lyle Allan (1983), 'A Selective Annotated Bibliography of Multiculturalism', in Social Alternatives (University of Queensland), Vol.3, No.3, July, page 65.
  10. ^ "1301.0 - Year Book Australia, 2005". Australian Bureau of Statistics. 21 January 2005. Archived from the original on 24 December 2014.
  11. ^ "3101.0 - Australian Demographic Statistics, Jun 2004". Australian Bureau of Statistics. 8 December 2004. Archived from the original on 24 December 2014.
  12. ^ Statistics, c=AU; o=Commonwealth of Australia; ou=Australian Bureau of (27 July 2018). "Main Features - Summary". Retrieved 30 March 2019.
  13. ^ "Net migration rate: Countries Compared". 2009. Retrieved 10 August 2018.
  14. ^ "National Agenda for a Multicultural Australia".
  15. ^ a b "Table 12: Religious Affiliation – Australia: 2001 and 2006 Census". The People of Australia - Statistics from the 2006 Census (PDF). Department of Immigration and Citizenship. 2008. pp. 46–49. ISBN 978-1-921446-74-0. Archived from the original (PDF) on 9 December 2008.
  16. ^ "National Multicultural Festival, 5 - 7 February 2010". Archived from the original on 27 October 2009. Retrieved 19 June 2009.
  17. ^ "Pauline Hanson's One Nation - Immigration, Population and Social Cohesion Policy 1998". Archived from the original on 29 June 2011. Retrieved 1 February 2012.
  18. ^ Lachlan Chipman (1980), 'The Menace of Multiculturalism,' in Quadrant, Vol. 24, No. 10, October, pp. 3–6
  19. ^ Frank Knopfelmacher (1982), 'The case against multi-culturalism,' in Robert Manne (ed.), The New Conservatism in Australia, Oxford University Press, Melbourne, Victoria, pages 40–66
  20. ^ Tanya Birrell (1978), 'Migration and the Dilemmas of Multiculturalism,' in Robert Birrell and Colin Hay (eds.), The Immigration Issue in Australia, A Sociological Symposium, Department of Sociology, School of Social Sciences, La Trobe University, Bundoora, Victoria, pages 132–146
  21. ^ Raymond Sestito (1982), The Politics of Multiculturalism, The Centre for Independent Studies, Sydney, New South Wales (ISBN 0-949769-06-1)
  22. ^ Raymond Sestito (1982), The Politics of Multiculturalism, The Centre for Independent Studies, Sydney, New South Wales (ISBN 0-949769-06-1), pages 30–36
  23. ^ Lyle Allan (1983), 'A Selective Annotated Bibliography of Multiculturalism', in Social Alternatives (University of Queensland), Vol.3, No.3, July, page 68
  24. ^ a b "ISSUES OF THE ELECTIONS". The Age (21, 999). Victoria, Australia. 6 October 1925. p. 11. Retrieved 9 December 2016 – via National Library of Australia.
  25. ^ Bowen, James; Bowen, Margarita (2002). The Great Barrier Reef: History, Science, Heritage. Cambridge University Press. p. 301. ISBN 0-521-82430-3. Retrieved 24 January 2008.
  26. ^ Rhodes, Campbell (25 June 2015). "Dr Evatt Goes to San Francisco". Museum of Australian Democracy at Old Parliament House. Retrieved 10 August 2018.
  27. ^ Calwell, Be Just and Fear Not, 117
  28. ^ Blainey, Geoffrey (1984). All For Australia, North Ryde, NSW: Methuen Haynes (ISBN 0-454-00828-7)
  29. ^ a b c John Hirst, Sense and Nonsense in Australian History, Black Inc. Agenda, Melbourne (ISBN 978-0-9775949-3-1), page22
  30. ^ John Hirst, Sense and Nonsense in Australian History, Black Inc. Agenda, Melbourne (ISBN 978-0-9775949-3-1), page23
  31. ^ Hughes, Linda (1997). "Multiculturalism: How Far Can Australia Go?". Journal of Christian Education. 40 (3): 17–25.
  32. ^ Ernest Healy (1993), 'Ethnic ALP Branches - The Balkanisation of Labor,' in People and Place Vol.1, No.4, Pages 37–43
  33. ^ Ernest Healy (1993), 'Ethnic ALP Branches - The Balkanisation of Labor,' in People and Place Vol.1, No.4, Pages 37
  34. ^ "Hage, G. (1997) White Nation: Fantasies of White supremacy in a multicultural society, Annandale, NSW: Pluto Press (ISBN 1-86403-056-9)"
  35. ^ a b Ramakrishna, D; 2013. "Multiculturalism in America, Australia and India". Social Change (SAGE Publications). 43 (1): 99–110.
  36. ^ Foster, L & Stockley, D (1980). "Multiculturalism in the Australian Context". Journal of Sociology. 16 (2): 109–114.
  37. ^ a b Kerkyasharian, Stepan (2008). "Defending multiculturalism". Around the Globe. 4 (3): 26–27.

Further reading[edit]

  • Allan, Lyle (1983), 'A Selective Annotated Bibliography of Multiculturalism', in Social Alternatives (University of Queensland), Vol.3, No.3, July, pages 65–72.
  • Blainey, Geoffrey (1984), All For Australia, Methuen Haynes, North Ryde, New South Wales. ISBN 0-454-00828-7
  • Bostock, William W. (1977), Alternatives of Ethnicity, Cat and Fiddle Press, Hobart, Tasmania. ISBN 0-85853-030-9
  • Clancy, Greg (2006), The Conspiracies of Multiculturalism. The Betrayal That Divided Australia, Sunda Publications, Gordon, New South Wales. ISBN 0-9581564-1-7
  • Hirst, John (2005), Sense and Nonsense in Australian History, Black Inc. Agenda, Melbourne, Victoria. ISBN 978-0-9775949-3-1
  • Lopez, Mark (2000), The Origins of Multiculturalism in Australian Politics 1945–1975, Melbourne University Press, Carlton South, Victoria. ISBN 0-522-84895-8
  • Sestito, Raymond (1982), The Politics of Multiculturalism, Centre for Independent Studies, St Leonards, New South Wales. ISBN 0-949769-06-1
  • Soutphommasane, Tim (2012) Don't go back to where you came from : why multiculturalism works, Sydney, N.S.W.: NewSouth Pub., ISBN 978-1-74223-336-9
  • Theophanous, Andrew C. (1995), Understanding Multiculturalism and Australian Identity, Elikia Books, Carlton South, Victoria. ISBN 1-875335-04-8