In a major speech Angela Merkel announced that German Multiculturalism had failed. It is tempting to assume that her comments apply equally to Australia. In some respects her comments do apply but they do not apply so much to the concept but to the lazy way the idea of Multiculturalism has been adopted by policy makers - few have bothered to understand the principles of multiculturalism and have consequently implemented policy decisions that reflected the key principles of multiculturalism.
From 1974 to 1973 I was involved at different levels in developing position statements on multiculturalism both in the UK and here in South Australia. As a migrant myself I welcomed a policy that introduced the notion of core values. The multicultural argument as it was developed in Australia was centred on the notion that there were a set of core values that all Australian residents needed to commit to so as to ensure we created a cohesive society.
It was a deliberate attempt to identify what may be called the idea of public reason. It was an attempt to distinguish between those areas of debate that belonged in the public domain and those that belonged in the private domain. It was a reaction against the notion that to be Australian you had to be totally assimilated into Australian society and leave all vestiges of your culture at the border. The multicultural ideal was perhaps best expressed by a French family that I visited. The father said to me: “Outside the home it is Australia but inside my home it is France.”
The sort of core values that were identified included the need for all Australian residents to learn English as our common language. Residents from non-English speaking backgrounds were thus encouraged to be bilingual.
The problem on a day-to-day level lay in identifying what areas properly belonged in the domain of public reason and which didn’t. This problem was exacerbated by the assumptions that were made about people from minority cultures and the failure to recognize that civil society, even without the influx of migrants, is naturally diverse.
For example I was called to a school to deal with a problem associated with girls from a Turkish background. I visited the school and was told by the teachers that the parents removed the girls from school at around year 8 because they did not see education as being necessary for girls. Interestingly they had not talked to the parents as such but as one teacher put it “I know all about Islam and what they think of women.”
I spent a day with the Turkish community. I discovered that the moment the girls were old enough they were enrolled in TAFE. I also discovered that the parents removed their girls not because education was not valued but because they were concerned about the lack of supervision during play time - they felt the girls would be vulnerable from unwanted advances from the boys. The way we organize our playgrounds is something about which Turkish parents had some legitimate concerns - no teacher can argue that all children are ‘100% safe’ under their supervision all the time. Indeed playground supervision is a constant headache for any school administrator - teachers are forever on the lookout for unsuitable behaviour and although most is nipped in the bud there is always some that slips through.
The school and the Turkish community resolved the situation by allowing the parents to come in to supervise the girls at playtime - it did not take long for the parents to be working alongside the teachers in ensuring that all children behaved appropriately.
But what Angela Merkel was objecting to is something that has also crept into the interpretation of multiculturalism in Australia - it can best be described as a form of state sanctioned apartheid. Instead of accepting that all societies are naturally diverse and that the legitimate role of public policy is to distinguish between those areas that belong in the public domain and those which are properly confined to private domain we have begun to confuse the two areas.
In Australia children have rights that are not always consistent with those of the home - for example arranged marriages: arranged marriages are O.K. but the state will not force a boy or a girl to enter into such an arranged marriage if they do not wish to do so. We can make Halal and Kosher food available in the community but we have community health laws which apply - this means that one cannot slaughter an animal in a public place.
I stated from the outset that part of the problem with multiculturalism is that few people really understand the concept. It tends to be translated as giving people carte blanche to do whatever they like as long as it is their culture. This was never the intention of any of the people who have over the years written about multiculturalism but if you are responsible for administering policy and are unsure of your ground it is a lot easier to exclude things from the arena of public reason. If parents demand that their children be taken out of school to observe a religious festival then say yes - much easier to argue the point. This used to crop up over Easter - a Greek parent confronted me about this issue when I refused to give his children the right to be off school for the celebration of the Orthodox Easter. He argued that the non-orthodox Christian children had Easter off so why shouldn’t his? I know how a Florida school board made the decision to allow students off school for religious holy days. The story was relayed that there was mass conversion to Judaism because the Jews had the most religious holidays!
I believe that we too need to have a debate about these issues in Australia but instead of focusing on multiculturalism it would be more profitable to identify what our core values are - precisely what is covered by the domain of public reason and what can be excluded. If we use this as a starting point we will continue to have some skirmishes on the boundaries but it would seem to me a more positive way to deal with culture conflicts.
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