What’s the point of multiculturalism?

Australia is a multicultural society – among the most diverse on earth. Established in the late 18th century as a prison outpost of British imperialism through the bloody conquest of the lands of the continent’s indigenous peoples, its subsequent history has been marked by waves of immigration, initially mainly from the UK and northern Europe, but more recently from all around the world.

Since 1945, more than 7.5 million migrants have settled here. More than one-quarter of the population was born overseas. This compares with 23 percent in New Zealand, 21 percent in Canada, and 13 percent in the US. Among OECD nations, only Luxemburg, Israel and Switzerland have a higher proportion of migrants. Nearly 20 percent of Australians speak a language other than English at home.

Of those born overseas, the UK (1.1 million) and New Zealand (483,000) contributed the highest numbers. The next biggest source countries were China (319,000), India (295,000), Italy (185,000) and Vietnam (185,000). People from these six countries made up around half of all those of migrant backgrounds living in Australia in 2011.

It’s not just that Australia has a “multicultural history”. Multiculturalism is still very much a work in progress. Today, the UK and New Zealand have been overtaken by China and India as the biggest source countries in Australia’s annual migrant intake.

Both temporary and permanent migration levels are at record highs. In 2015, there were a total of 300,000 visas granted to international students, compared with around 170,000 a decade ago. There were 96,000 temporary 457 visas, compared to 50,000 ten years ago. And there were 190,000 permanent migrants, compared with 120,000 in 2005.

All this is much higher than migration levels in the post-World War II migration boom of the 1950s and 60s, when permanent migration to Australia was around 100,000 a year.

The historically high level of migration today is a reflection of business demand for skilled labour. The majority of permanent migrants are selected by the government to address supposed skills shortages. Australia’s so-called humanitarian intake is minuscule in comparison – between 11,000 and 15,000 a year for the past three decades.

The demographic reality of multiculturalism is very much visible. Australia’s major cities are cultural melting pots, bringing together religious practices, art, food and other forms of cultural expression from every corner of the globe. The biggest migrant communities have put their stamp on whole districts and suburbs.

Forty-two percent of Sydney’s population was born overseas. This is followed by Perth’s 41 percent, Melbourne’s 37 percent and Brisbane’s 30 percent. Compare the US city of Miami – known for its large population of Cuban and other Latin American expats – where 39 percent of the population was born overseas. In London, the proportion is 36 percent, in Paris 22 percent and in Berlin just 13 percent.

Australia’s cultural diversity is accepted and for the most part actively supported by the vast majority. According to recent research by the Scanlon Foundation, around 85 percent of people agree that “multiculturalism has been good for Australia”.

In recent years, however, the voices of the minority of critics have grown louder. The likes of Pauline Hanson, right wing Liberals such as Corey Bernardi and George Christensen, and the far right and neo-Nazi street thugs make no secret of their desire to return to the days of White Australia.

The One Nation policy on multiculturalism reads: “Multiculturalism has failed everywhere. It is negative and divisive, a weight that is drowning our once safe and cohesive society. One Nation will abolish multiculturalism and the Racial Discrimination Act and promote assimilation, nationalism, loyalty and pride in being an Australian”.

The election of Hanson and her One Nation colleagues to the Senate and the steady increase in the party’s polling over subsequent months show there is an audience for this kind of racism. The election of Donald Trump as US president is likely to give them a further boost.

In this context, it can seem as if multiculturalism is under serious threat. In response to the rise of Hanson, the left has been called upon to rally in its defence with increasing regularity. The reality, however, is that the racist rhetoric emanating from Hanson and her ilk is highly unlikely to result in any major shift away from the multicultural status quo.

The reason is simple. From the perspective of Australia’s capitalist class and the establishment politicians, government bureaucrats, academics and so on who serve them, multiculturalism has been a raging success.

For them, however, it’s about much more than cultural festivals and foreign language films. Economically, it has brought the labour needed to keep big business profits flowing. Ideologically, it has provided the glue to hold society together and head off the potentially explosive resistance of otherwise marginalised migrant groups.

Rather than being a threat to Australian “national identity” – as Hanson and Co. would have us believe – multiculturalism is very much an established part of it. To fully understand the role it plays, it’s necessary to go back to its origins in the late ’60s and ’70s, and trace its development through the subsequent decades.


After the Second World War, the rapid expansion of capitalism in Australia required increasing numbers of immigrant workers. Between 1945 and 1965, more than 2 million migrants arrived. The largest contributor was the UK, but there were also increasing numbers from southern, central and Eastern Europe and the Middle East. The biggest groups included Italians, Greeks and Maltese.

These migrants received very little in the way of support to start their new lives. It was a matter of “sink or swim”, the expectation being that they would rapidly assimilate into the mainstream.

At the same time, the economic conditions they faced worked to keep them on the margins. They were overwhelmingly concentrated in the most poorly paid and dangerous jobs. And just in case they didn’t clock on to their inferior status, they copped a steady stream of abuse about “dirty wogs” and so on.

By the late 1960s, it was obvious that the old policies no longer fitted the demographic reality, and there were growing concerns about the potential threat to “community cohesion” from migrant groups forming a permanently excluded underclass. Within the Labor Party, the discussions that led to the policy of multiculturalism began in the years leading up to the election of the Whitlam government in 1972.

The 1973 strike at the Ford car factory in the Melbourne suburb of Broadmeadows brought things to a head. Around 75 percent of the factory’s 6,000 workers were migrants. The pay was low, and management treated the workers like dirt.

Language and cultural differences were used to keep the workforce divided. This worked for a time, but by early 1973 their frustrations had reached boiling point. When their conservative union leaders told them they had to wait to strike, the workers took matters into their own hands. A mass meeting on 18 May voted to walk out immediately.

Four weeks later, after Ford offered a measly $4 a week pay rise and some other minor concessions – far short of what the workers were demanding – the union leaders called another mass meeting and recommended a return to work. The vote was close, and when the chair, Communist Party member and leader of the Metalworkers Union Laurie Carmichael, ruled that it was carried, many workers were enraged. They rushed the stage, and Carmichael had to flee the hall.

On 13 June, the day allocated for the return to work, 1,500 or so militants arrived at 7.30am, intent on picketing to stop work resuming. They were outraged to find that 1,000 workers had already entered the plant, having been told by Ford to come in early.

For the next few hours, the strikers fought running battles with the police and physically attacked the plant. At one point, they pushed down a concrete wall and threatened to throw the smashed up pieces at the cops. By 4pm, the workers who had gone inside the plant had been convinced to leave, and the strike was back on.

The strike was ended on 23 July only after an improved offer from Ford. Still, a substantial minority of militants wanted to hold out for more.

The Ford Broadmeadows strike signals, almost to the day, the beginning of the age of multiculturalism in Australia. According to a government research paper, multiculturalism “was first presented as the basis for migrant settlement, welfare and social-cultural policy in Australia in a 1973 speech … by the minister for immigration under the Whitlam Government, Al Grassby”. That speech was delivered in Melbourne on 11 August, less than three weeks after the end of the strike.

This was no coincidence. The strike had shown the potentially explosive militancy of migrant workers who felt they had little to lose. It also showed how, through their action in taking the fight up to a giant multinational like Ford, these workers had captured the imagination of the broader working class.

The media of the day were full of vitriol about the lawless ethnic mob. But this didn’t stop an outpouring of solidarity and donations to the strike fund totalling half a million dollars in today’s terms. In the context of the broader radicalisation in Australian society at the time, this was a dangerous precedent.

The strategy used by the officials finally to push through a vote to return to work – of splitting the workers up into different ethnic groups to vote – was highly symbolic of the ideal of multiculturalism as the government saw it. It wasn’t a matter of fostering cultural diversity for its own sake. Rather, the emphasis from the start was on putting a dampener on resistance and fostering “social cohesion”.

The division empowered the more conservative elements within each group and marginalised the militants. The subsequent history of multiculturalism in Australia has repeated this basic dynamic, writ large, on the level of Australian society as a whole.

From Fraser to today

In the years following Grassby’s speech, the idea of multiculturalism took hold on both sides of politics. In fact, the Liberals under Malcolm Fraser did the most to entrench it.

During his period as prime minister from 1975 to 1983, Fraser put in place the basic “infrastructure” of multiculturalism, much of which remains in place today. He established the Australian Ethnic Affairs Council, the Australian Institute of Multicultural Affairs, SBS television and a network of multicultural resource centres. He expanded existing settlement services like English language training, accommodation for new arrivals, interpreting and translating. And he significantly increased the government support available to ethnic community organisations.

In the subsequent Hawke-Keating era from 1983 to 1996, notwithstanding various reshuffles and rebranding, this institutional infrastructure continued to expand. In addition to recognising the benefits of multiculturalism as means of promoting social cohesion, the Labor Party saw in the policy an opportunity to cement its electoral dominance among ethnic groups. It made ample use of federal, state and local government funding to build on this constituency.

The first two decades of multiculturalism in Australia helped a layer of migrants find their place as “community leaders”, politicians and capitalists.

Australia’s “rich list” is now littered with the names of prominent migrants – the Grollos, Valmorbidas and Makrises, Frank Lowy, Harry Triguboff and Huy Truong. These figures, and the innumerable others who have made their fortunes as migrant Australians, have helped, over time, to keep a lid on dissent. The message, promoted endlessly by media and politicians alike, is that, with a bit of gumption, anyone can make it to the top.

This is a key element of the policy of multiculturalism. By opening the door for a layer of migrants to get ahead, it helps justify the continuing exclusion of the majority of working class migrants. And in the cases where there may be “trouble” in a particular section of the community, it creates a ready-made pool of more “respectable” figures who can be relied upon to step in and calm things down.

This dynamic – of multiculturalism being used as a bludgeon against those who are deemed not to “fit in” appropriately – has been elevated to a fine art by the governments of the past two decades. This period, which began with the election of the Howard government in 1996, might appropriately be called the era of punitive multiculturalism.

John Howard was a master of the art. On the one hand, he put himself forward as a critic of multiculturalism. To head off the challenge posed by Pauline Hanson and her newly founded One Nation Party, he moved the Liberals sharply to the right. Particularly in the years of the “war on terror” from 2001 onwards, he brought anti-Muslim and anti-refugee sentiment to a fever pitch.

During this time, talk of multiculturalism all but disappeared from the government playbook. This culminated in 2007 with the changing of the name of the Department of Immigration and Multicultural Affairs to the Department of Immigration and Citizenship.

During the final years of his prime ministership, Howard advocated a shift back to the policy of assimilation. In a 2007 radio interview, he said, “There’s every reason to try and assimilate, and I unapologetically use that word, a section of the community, a tiny minority of whose members have caused concern, and after all, once somebody’s become a citizen of this country, the best thing we can do is to absorb them into the mainstream”.

But all was not as it seemed. Howard may have presented as an opponent of multiculturalism, but the government he led continued to increase funding to migrant services and other multicultural initiatives, and immigration levels continued to rise.

There may seem to be a contradiction here. How could Howard talk on radio about absorbing people into the mainstream, and at the same time continue to fund programs whose purpose, supposedly, was to promote diversity? Was Howard beholden to the “multicultural lobby”? Or was there something else at play?

To see why there was no contradiction, you have to go back to an understanding of what multiculturalism is really about. It isn’t, in fact, opposed to assimilation in the way that many people – critics and supporters alike – believe. In exchange for the recognition of a very particular form of diversity – festivals, cuisine, music, dance and so on – it demands, on a deeper level, assimilation to the norms of Australian nationalism.

All Howard did was tighten the screws. In the infamous campaign slogan he used in the 2001 “Tampa” election – “We will decide who comes to this country and the circumstances in which they come” – the “we” was meant, and in the case of many, more conservative, migrants, clearly taken, as a multicultural “we”.

The template for punitive multiculturalism established by Howard was taken up with aplomb by the Rudd-Gillard and Abbott-Turnbull governments that followed. Turnbull, for example, explicitly links a commitment to multiculturalism with the necessity to persecute and torture refugees.

In a statement earlier this year, he said that “barely a day goes past when I don’t celebrate that we are the most successful and harmonious multicultural nation in the world”. But he immediately linked this “celebration” to the fact that the “government is in control of our immigration program, deciding who can come here”.

If you’re rich, or you’ve got skills that can be exploited by Australian businesses, you can expect to join our diverse, open, welcoming society. If you’re poor, desperate and fleeing persecution, you can expect to be locked up, labelled a “terrorist” and generally treated like you’re the scum of the earth. That’s what being a “harmonious multicultural nation” is all about.

The treatment of Muslims in Australia is the epitome of punitive multiculturalism. As far as the Australian state is concerned, it’s okay to be Muslim, to wear the veil, celebrate Ramadan and so on, so long as you do it in the “appropriate” way. That involves, above all, maintaining silence on the crimes of Australian imperialism.

Millions of dollars of government funds continue to be allocated to various Muslim community organisations, often in association with so-called “de-radicalisation” efforts. Immense pressure has been put on Muslim leaders to police their communities. And for those who refuse to toe the line, there’s a massive police and security apparatus to back it all up.

We can agree, then, with the Race Discrimination commissioner Dr Tim Soutphommansane when he said earlier this year, “Australian multiculturalism has an emphatic conservative spirit”. Australia is a multicultural nation. But read in light of the Ford Broadmeadows strike and the “riotous” behaviour of the migrant workers involved, it translates into something like: sit down, shut up and stop challenging the “business as usual” of Australian capitalism.

So long as you do that, you’ll get along all right as part of multicultural Australia. But for those “others” who refuse to play the game – whether refugees, Muslims or migrant workers fighting for a better deal – you can expect to have the full force of the well-practised and heavily armed racism of the Australian state brought down on you.

The future

The continuing demand for skilled labour and an ageing population mean relatively high levels of immigration will continue in Australia in coming decades. This fact, combined with the success of multiculturalism in helping maintain social cohesion and the smooth functioning of Australian capitalism over the past four decades, makes it extremely unlikely that Hanson and her ilk will get their way. Multiculturalism won’t be wound back any time soon.

This is something to be celebrated. The idea of Australia as a multicultural nation and the federal, state and local government programs provide (albeit limited) support for migrant communities and offer a degree of protection from the more overt forms of racism.

For the left, however, it’s not enough simply to defend multiculturalism from its opponents on the right wing fringe. Multiculturalism is a step forward from White Australia, but it’s a decisive step backwards from the kind of class struggle based “unity in diversity” that was seen at Ford Broadmeadows.

The latter points to the potential for a genuine overcoming of the racism and inequality suffered by migrant workers under capitalism, whereas multiculturalism is a policy that aims, fundamentally, to maintain the status quo.