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Australian Multiculturalism: successes, problems and risks

By John Menadue - posted Wednesday, 27 November 2002

In a broad sense, ‘Australian multiculturalism’ describes the cultural and ethnic diversity of Australia. More than 50 per cent of Australians were born overseas or have at least one parent born overseas.

More specifically, ‘Australian multiculturalism,’ as a public policy, attempts to manage the consequences of that diversity. It acknowledges the right of all Australians first, to cultural identity – the right within limits to express their cultural heritage in such areas as religion and language; second, to social justice – the right to equality of treatment and opportunity, regardless of race, language, religion and gender; and finally, to economic efficiency – the need to maintain and develop the diverse skills and talents of all Australians.

This is in contrast to assimilation, which assumes that newcomers will abandon their cultural identity as soon as possible.


Australian multiculturalism also importantly insists that with the rights of newcomers go certain obligations. First, there must be an over-riding and unifying commitment to Australia and its future. Second there must be acceptance by all of the basic principles and structures of Australian society – the Constitution, Rule of Law, Parliamentary democracy, freedom of speech and religion, English as the national language and tolerance and equality. A superstructure of diversity can only be built securely on a common and secure sub-structure. Furthermore, diversity for its own sake is not sufficient. The test is what it contributes to the common good.

Australian culture, society and institutions are dynamic – today's Australian society is different from that of yesterday. It is good to look back and value what we have inherited. Federation was a great national achievement, but our founding fathers didn’t get it all right. They entrenched racism in our constitution and White Australia was the first legislation of the Federal Parliament. Australian society today is more open and tolerant than the society in which I was brought up. There never was a golden age for the Australian cultural identity. Nostalgia must be tempered with realism. Our cultural identity is a work in progress.

The most meaningful job of my life was Head of the Department of Immigration and Ethnic Affairs under Malcolm Fraser and Ian Macphee in the early 1980s. I knew that I was part of nation-building. I also learned at that time that it was possible to manage a humanitarian program for 100,000 Indo-Chinese refugees while at the same time protecting our borders. Malcolm Fraser showed that humanitarianism and border protection could be managed together. John Howard tells us that it can’t be done.

I contend that Australian multiculturalism is our greatest achievement, but it has always been fraught with tension. Its challenge is to risk present comfort for a better future for ourselves and others.

As Moses and the Israelites discovered, change is risky and it can be painful. But if it is properly led and managed it can bring great benefits. The key for us is to get the scale and timing of change right. My own experience is that innovation and improvement do not come from sameness and homogeneity. They come from difference, diversity, challenge and competition. Over the years, I think Australia has got it about right – but not in the past year.

Facts about Australian Multiculturalism


Of Australia’s 19 million population, 28 per cent were born overseas and a further 25 per cent have at least one parent born overseas. Net immigration is about 75,000 to 100,000 per annum, which will give Australia a population of about 25 million by 2051. Nine per cent will be of Asian background.

According to the Department of Immigration and Multicultural Affairs, the top 10 countries of origin are the United Kingdom, New Zealand, Italy, Vietnam, Greece, China, Germany, Philippines, Netherlands and India. Two hundred foreign languages are spoken, with the leading five languages other than English being Italian, Greek, Cantonese, Arabic and Vietnamese. Each of these five languages is spoken by more than 100,000 people.

Two thirds of second-generation migrants marry outside their cultural and ethnic backgrounds. Forty per cent of Australians are of mixed cultural origins. These quite remarkable figures belie the concerns about ethnic separateness down the generations.

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This is an edited version of an address to the Boston, Melbourne, Oxford Conversazioni on Culture and Society, Melbourne on September 7/8 2002.

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About the Author

John Menadue AO is a former Australian Public Servant. He was head of three Federal Government Departments, including Immigration and Prime Minster and Cabinet. John was also a Telstra Director and Chief Executive Officer of Qantas. He is Chair of New, an independent online political newsletter.

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