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Multiculturalism – what the figures really mean

By Graham Cooke - posted Thursday, 10 March 2011

When the University of Western Sydney's Challenging Racism project revealed that a staggering 95 per cent of Canberrans supported multiculturalism, I posted it on my Facebook page. After all, here was proof of what I had believed in and written about for more than a decade – something I had always thought to be the case but never had reliable figures to prove until now.

Almost at once I got a reply back from one of my Facebook friends, pointing out that the survey also found that 41.7 per cent of Canberra people had expressed anti-Muslim sentiments, 21.5 per cent stated they were anti-Indigenous and 19.2 per cent described themselves as anti-Jewish.

"Not really something to be proud of," she said.


No matter that the ACT came out on top as the least racist and most accepting jurisdiction with the anti-Muslim figure well down on the national average of 49 per cent, these are still confronting statistics. Ikebal Patel of the Federation of Islamic Council said he was surprised by them and the chair of the Canberra Multicultural Community Forum, Sam Wong's initial reaction was one of shock.

Which is why the survey has received so much attention even when it was produced at the moment regimes were disintegrating across the Middle East and Christchurch was devastated by an earthquake – but a little bit of sober reflection is necessary.

The survey is actually saying that four out of five Canberrans are NOT anti-Jewish and a similar number are NOT anti-Indigenous. Try and get a similar figure in favour of tolerance of the Jews in Moscow or in Rome, or in almost any European capital – and that's before we even start to think about Teheran or Riyadh.

Canberra's intolerance of Indigenous Australians was also well below the national average. We do not live in a perfect world and changes in community attitudes tend to be glacial. We are moving in the right direction, but more work needs to be done.

The nearly 42 per cent who declared themselves anti-Muslim does deserve more serious consideration. On the face of it the figure looks shocking, but it would be interesting to know just what sprang into people's minds when the question was put to them.

Did they get a mental picture of suicide bombers inserting themselves into crowds and blowing themselves up to create indiscriminate mayhem – or the fanatics who take over a plane and fly it into a building?


Or were they thinking of the guy who drives them to the airport in a taxi or the woman in a headscarf teaching their kids at the local primary school? Surveys usually demand black and white 'yes' or 'no' answers in a world where there are many shades of grey.

The real danger in producing figures like this is that opportunists will seek to exploit them for personal and political advantage. The days have long gone when governments led or even defied public opinion when they decided on a particular course of action. In these focus group-driven times what is popular has become what is right, and as satirist H.L. Mencken one famously said, the most inferior ideas are usually the easiest ones to sell.

Which is why I was delighted to hear the Member for Fraser, Andrew Leigh's calm, but colourful rejection of the attacks on multiculturalism in Parliament recently.

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About the Author

Graham Cooke has been a journalist for more than four decades, having lived in England, Northern Ireland, New Zealand and Australia, for a lengthy period covering the diplomatic round for The Canberra Times.

He has travelled to and reported on events in more than 20 countries, including an extended stay in the Middle East. Based in Canberra, where he obtains casual employment as a speech writer in the Australian Public Service, he continues to find occasional assignments overseas, supporting the coverage of international news organisations.

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