Strategic Research Centres

Multiculturalism in Australia

Tue, 11 Oct 2011 14:18:00 +1100
Former President of Portugal Dr Jorge Sampaio, the United Nation's High Representative for the Alliance of Civilisations visited Australia for Australia's first UN Forum on Social Inclusion and for a meeting with Australia's Foreign Affairs Minister Kevin Rudd (6 and 7 October).

He took time to answer questions about the future of multiculturalism from Deakin University's Communications Editor Danielle Crisp:

What do you think are the major issues associated with multiculturalism in Australia?

I think that multiculturalism in Australia is associated with a successful story.

So I really would like to emphasise this point and commend Australia for its pioneering achievements in building a truly multicultural society, one that combines diversity and social cohesion, a vibrant cultural life and good economic performance.

These are markers of your success, I have no doubt about it.

In spite of new challenges it faces now because of a number of changes over the years, Australia has a unique acquis in terms of multiculturalism.

So we should make it more assertive and less defensive, we should defend its core principles and reinvigorate public awareness and commitment to some of its core duties – education, welfare and cultural services.

Australia is considered a multicultural society but we have not been without race related trouble (e.g. Cronulla riots). Such issues have led some to suggest Australia's multicultural policy is failing. Do you agree? Why/why not?

Not at all and one should avoid to import debates from abroad that do not reflect the local realities and are an oversimplification of complex data.

Illiteracy persists but this is not a reason to pretend that education is bad. The same applies to multiculturalism. Are there are problems? Yes, there are. Are there shortcomings? Yes indeed. Are there new challenges and trends? Yes there are and we cannot ignore that new dividing lines are emerging, creating a breeding ground for all kinds of extremism and anti-migration and often for anti-Islam populism.

But this means two things.

One, increasing popular concerns over culture, migration and identity are a wake-up call and a reminder of a crisis of trust in the system that has to be restored.

Two, multiculturalism has to be revisited, by acknowledging its pitfalls but also its strengths, and making it capable of responding to new challenges ahead. Re-visiting multiculturalism might lead to delineate a new, progressive form of multiculturalism that basically prevents throwing the baby out with the bathwater.

By a progressive form of multiculturalism I mean two things: on the one hand, spelling out multiculturalism as a two-way street with no barriers between minorities and the majority population and where the cultural needs of the mainstream matter as much as respect for the cultures of individuals belonging to minorities; on the other hand, to focus on cultures and identities as a dynamic, open and inclusive process that provides individuals with a sense of belonging, community and collective mission.

Why do you think multiculturalism is viewed negatively by some people?

There are various sorts of reasons – but I will focus only on the need for democracies to elaborate further on how to deal with cultural diversity and how public policies should respond to it.

A kind of cultural pluralism based on the core concept of citizens as equals in the public sphere is needed to play down the politics of differences that will only lead to social fragmentation and exclusion.

At the same time, attention has also to be re-focused on cultural symbols and a vibrant state-building narrative because all individuals have to be provided with a sense of belonging, community and collective mission that stimulates self-esteem and autonomy in order to progress as individuals within social structures.

These problems are normal because life is dynamic and each time - and wave of migrants, I would add - has its challenges.

Each generation expresses some anxiety about the unfamiliar, the new and the uncertainties brought by change. But fears have to be addressed, myths deconstructed and trust restore with appropriate action.

What can be done to change this negative perception?

We need both to deal with the roots of problems and eradicate the main causes and to deconstruct myths, stereotypes and prejudices that shape negative perceptions.

I do believe that in our century of global communication we really need to invest more in education, in media literacy and youth programs.

This is all about the United Nations Alliance of Civilizations (UNAOC) which is a five years' old initiative of the United Nations that is mainly focused on promoting a culture of respect, tolerance, dialogue and peace based on universal human rights and human dignity.

The UNAOC stands for the fourth pillar of sustainable development, promoting good governance - or democratic governance - of cultural diversity, intercultural dialogue, understanding and trust within and among societies.

After all, it brings forth a new agenda for living together, covering four main fields of action – education, youth, media and migration.

What do you see as the main advantages/benefits of multiculturalism?

It seems to me that the key of success of multiculturalism in Australia is due to a right balance between equal cultural circumstances and equal opportunities.

I believe that any successful formula has to reconcile diversity and social cohesion, to combine a modern sense of belonging, community and collective mission, based on a dynamic and inclusive definition of culture and identity, social justice and also economic efficiency.

Australian multiculturalism as the reality of its cultural and ethnic diversity and as public governance of this diversity is a great achievement.

But it has never been free from tensions, problems and risks, and it was not achieved overnight.

As a work in progress, multiculturalism needs to move on and be reinvigorated – through education, welfare and indeed culture because after all it is through culture in a broad perspective as a way to develop social interaction, trust and understanding that people are bond closer together, thrive and ensure better socio-economic outcomes.

As the UN High Representative for the Alliance of Civilizations, I am here to learn with you and to invite Australia to bring to the Alliance's various platforms of dialogue and cooperation its unique experience and to reflect together on what has changed and on how multiculturalism can be updated and extended into a new progressive model.

On the other hand, I would also like to make the Alliance more present at civil society level and develop synergies and a network of joint actions.

In this regard our online resource called IBIS – Integration, Building Inclusive Societies – is a powerful platform for exchanges but there are also other opportunities for cooperation that will explore further.

In this regard I hope that our annual Forum in Doha, on 11-13 December we will make a new step forward in implementing this collaboration.

Further information:

The forum was brought to Australia by Deakin University's Centre for Citizenship and Globalisation, the Ethnic Community Council of Victoria (ECCV), the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade (DFAT), the Department of Immigration and Citizenship (DIAC), the Australian Multicultural Foundation of Australia (AMF), the Victorian Multicultural Commission (VMC), the Municipal Association of Victoria (MAV), Darebin City Council and many other state and commonwealth agencies.


Australia's Foreign Minister, Kevin Rudd (left) and Dr Jorge Sampaio, the United Nation's High Representative for the Alliance of Civilisations.
Australia's Foreign Minister, Kevin Rudd (left) and Dr Jorge Sampaio, the United Nation's High Representative for the Alliance of Civilisations.
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  • Australian multiculturalism as the reality of its cultural and ethnic diversity and as public governance of this diversity is a great achievement.
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Sandra Kingston
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17th May 2011