My three year old grand-daughter's swimming class in Canberra has four children in it: one Indian, one Chinese, one white, and my grand-daughter who is one quarter Vietnamese, one quarter African-American and two quarters white. It largely reflects the broader population at the pool on Saturday mornings - last week there was an Ethiopian family as well.
It is a multiracial community with one culture, at least on Saturday mornings. The kids come in from the car park with one or two of their parents, they get ready for their classes, they swim, they get out, they get dressed in the change rooms and they leave, sometimes via the café. They all do the same thing.
It is all harmonious and everyone is happy. I am relieved that my brown-skinned, curly haired grand-daughters do not stand out, that they are merely on a gradient between very white and very black. Skin difference is the norm.
Last week Immigration Minister Chris Bowen offered an impassioned defence of Australian multiculturalism, saying it had "strengthened Australian society". He claimed our multiculturalism had worked. In contrast, German Chancellor Angela Merkel had recently condemned it for having "utterly failed" in her country, and British Prime Minister David Cameron claimed it had fostered more division than unity in his.
If you go to the Canberra pool on Saturday morning with my grand-daughters, you might conclude Minister Bowen is right. Apart from skin colour, most of the families at the pool on Saturday mornings are 'just like us'.
But this is a case of successful multiracialism. It is not the same as multiculturalism. Multiculturalism implies respect for all cultures. That's fine when it's simply a matter of girls in dirndl's dancing around a maypole, or some ethnic groups avoiding ham and bacon. And what does it matter if people go to a synagogue or temple or mosque instead of a church if they are pious individuals who do good in the community? It doesn't.
What does matter is when the culture does not mirror our own liberal, humanitarian and egalitarian culture. When Imams refer to women as "pieces of meat", it sets the women's liberation movement back decades. The memory of it gives you momentary sympathy for Shadow Immigration Minister Scott Morrison's alleged suggestion in the Party room to limit Muslim immigration.
Notwithstanding some women willingly wear the niqab, there are many who are coerced into wearing what can only be described as mediaeval dress. I have to suppress real rage when I see the niqab worn in Australia though I merely grit my teeth at the more moderate hijab head scarf as worn by Indonesians. The niqab is allegedly because men cannot control their sexual desires. This is profoundly insulting to the majority of Australian men – our fathers, husbands, brothers and sons – who do not go about sexually molesting women who happen to show their faces and other bits of skin.
When Somalian refugee Ayaan Hirsi Ali, later author of the books 'Infidel' and 'Nomad', was an adviser to the Labour Party in the Netherlands, she recommended that all Muslim schools be closed down. Why? Apart from other reasons relating to integration, it was because girls were not getting an equal education. This, and tales of female genital mutilation, brings out my feminist rage. I well remember, some decades ago now, the mild discrimination my sisters and I faced within the family – having to argue to go to university, for instance, when my brother's going was assumed – and I have no desire to revert to the 'bad old days'.
At what point, then, does multiculturalism go from being an inherent 'good' to being problematic? How much of it can we embrace wholeheartedly? We all love the Multicultural Festival, it seems, but that is confined to singing, dancing and food. We can put our hands over our collective heart and proclaim multiculturalism is all good.
But when a woman from whatever culture – and it may not be Muslim – is denied her full right to personhood, then it is a problem. When little girls are subjected to female genital circumcision, it is a problem. When gangs adopt an 'eye for an eye' approach, when individuals call for the death penalty, when the Australian 'fair go' ethos is rejected, it is a problem.
Diversity is great, but it has its limits. Racial diversity – as at the Canberra swimming pool – is heartwarming. Having restaurants with food from all over the world has added immeasurably to Australia's cultural life. Likewise with music. But at some point we have to focus on unity and cohesion, as well as diversity. A common language lies at the heart of national unity, though it is desirable to have bilingual or multilingual speakers in the community. Every effort must be put in to ensure all migrants have access to English classes so that they might fully integrate. There must be acceptance of our rule of law and the equality of all citizens – women as well as men – under that law. There must be full participation in our democratic processes.
Australia can be proud of its liberal, democratic, humanitarian and egalitarian culture. It must not be abandoned in the wholesale and uncritical adoption of an ideology that, in its extreme forms, is at odds with those values we cherish.