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Growing up Australian

By Agnes Tay - posted Friday, 22 September 2006

I was listening to the radio the other day, and people were asked whether September 11 had changed their lives. Many said “not really”, or “no, not much”. A few referred to more care while travelling. Only one person mentioned issues relating to being Muslim.

I wonder though, has the change caused by September 11, the Bali bombings and the London Underground bombings been so profound, so deep within our national psyche, that we have convinced ourselves that there has been no change at all? If the attacks on September 11, 2001 had not occurred, I wonder whether the word “multiculturalism” would have still become a dirty word in some quarters and said with a sneer. I wonder whether people (including contributors on On Line Opinion) would be wistfully thinking of days gone, calling for a celebration of the greatness of Western civilisation, and declaring integration and “assimilation” as Australia’s immigration policy for the 21st century.

Is it fear that has caused Australian’s to hark back to a racist immigration policy which was implemented until the mid 1960s? Assimilation was based on “a belief in the benefits of homogeneity and a vision of Australia as a racially pure white nation”. The term assimilation “implies almost total absorption into another linguistic and cultural group - an assimilated individual gives up his or her cultural identity” (see National Multicultural Advisory Council).


But what are we being asked to assimilate into? The 2001 census reports that 65 per cent of Australians have non-Australian ancestry. The majority of us have an “ancestry”, a cultural history through our parents which is non-Australian.

I was astounded to read that “[t]here was no notion of Australian citizenship until the Nationality and Citizenship Act 1948 came into effect in 1949. Prior to that, Australians were “British subjects”. British subjects who were born in Australia or had lived in Australia since January 26, 1944 automatically became Australian citizens: everyone else, including British subjects, had to apply for Australian citizenship”).

Our national identity is truly very young - we literally only became “Australian” about 58 years ago (compared say, to the American Declaration of Independence of 1776). Perhaps this is why we struggle so much to articulate a national identity.

So for those who hark back to the early days of settlement, to the times of Banjo Paterson, Dorothea McKellar et al - you are harking back to times when Australians did not even exist in law. We should instead be looking towards our future, to what all of this cultural diversity means, to how we can make this all work.

The multicultural policy of the federal Government reads like tautological humour - “Multicultural Australia - United in Diversity”. I wondered whether the authors of said policy thought they were being clever or funny (I decided on the former, as not too many public servants I know are renowned for their sense of humour). It made me to really think about what I want my children to understand by the term multicultural, and what I want them to learn about being Australian.

My children are second generation Australians on their father’s side, second generation on my side. They inherit their Chinese ancestry from me, and their English one from their father. They know about the English Premier League, Christmas, and Chinese New Year. They will grow up in a non-denomination Christian leaning household, with Buddhist tendencies, and attend a Catholic school. They will hopefully learn another language, being probably Italian or French. They will eat roast dinners with Yorkshire pudding, as well as fried noodles and curries.


This is what multiculturalism has given my children and I thank God that they’re Australian.

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About the Author

Agnes Tay is a lawyer (currently on maternity leave). Agnes holds a Bachelor of Laws (Hons) and Bachelor of Arts (English and Comparative Literature) from Murdoch University.

Creative Commons LicenseThis work is licensed under a Creative Commons License.

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