Monday 23 May 2022 | 12:54 | SYDNEY
Monday 23 May 2022 | 12:54 | SYDNEY

Multiculturalism in the Asian Century


Nick Bryant


This post is part of the Reactions to 'Australia in the Asian Century' White Paper debate thread. To read other posts in this debate, click here.

9 November 2012 09:08

This post is part of the Reactions to 'Australia in the Asian Century' White Paper debate thread. To read other posts in this debate, click here.

What role does Australian multiculturalism have to play as the Asian Century progresses? At a time when the country is reaching out to its neighbours, it seems axiomatic that Australia should celebrate its ethnic diversity and particularly the contribution of its Asian-born citizens.

Unsurprisingly, then, multiculturalism receives a strong endorsement in the White Paper, along with a realistic appraisal.

Australia has by and large managed its increasing ethnic diversity successfully. But there have, from time to time, been difficulties. Australia needs to continue to strengthen and build upon our institutional frameworks to address racial discrimination and to preserve and promote social cohesion and inclusion.

Recently, multiculturalism has come under fire in Europe. David Cameron believes it has 'encouraged different cultures to live separate lives'. The German Chancellor Angela Merkel has declared it 'dead'. Here in Australia, their arguments have found an echo from conservative commentators, like Greg Sheridan of The Australian and Gerard Henderson of The Sydney Institute.

However, a new book from Melbourne academic Tim Soutphommasane, Don't Go Back To Where You Came From, argues not only that it works, but also that Australia has come to rival Canada as the world's most successfully multicultural country.

Just as Australia's economic model has proven unusually robust, the same is true of its multicultural model. 'Australian governments have always balanced the endorsement of cultural diversity with affirmations of national unity,' writes Soutphommasane. 'The freedom to express one's cultural identity and heritage has been formalised as a right...but this has been balanced by civic responsibilities.' It's a winning formula, he says, and gives Australia an in-built advantage at the start of the Asian Century.

For all that, the country could do better.

To begin with, the positive language of the White Paper seems at odds with the government's increasingly unwelcoming immigration and asylum seeker policies. Notes Soutphommasane: 'For many, the retreat from population growth and immigration, along with a hardened posture on asylum seekers, could be seen as a proxy attack on the conditions for a multicultural Australia.'

The White Paper claims also that Australians with Asian heritage have become 'active participants in Australian community and civic life'. But Soutphommasane shows that they are largely absent from the country's national institutions. Parliament can only boast three politicians of non-European background: Penny Wong, Lisa Singh and the indigenous Liberal MP Ken Wyatt. Wong is Canberra's only Asian-born politician.

The Australian Defence Force does not do much better. The 2007 Defence Census showed that 94% of the permanent members of the ADF were born in Australia, the UK, Ireland or New Zealand. Only 1% of permanent members hail from Asia.

Nor does Australian television, with the obvious exception of SBS, hold up a mirror to the country. Neighbours has not had a character of Asian background who has lasted more than a year. Commercial television especially could do much better, and there is a commercial imperative to do so. The ratings success of shows like MasterChef and Australian Idol is no accident. Both are more representative of the new Australia.

'A form of Anglo-Celtic community still defines the theory and practice of government,' he notes, and animates its national stories. But even in the ANZAC legend can be found 'unlikely dashes' of Asian flavour. Consider the role at Gallipoli and in France of Billy Sing, a sniper who was born of a Chinese father and British mother.

What makes Don’t Go Back To Where You Came From especially resonant is that Soutphommasane is the son of refugees. His parents escaped Laos following the communist rise to power in 1975, and made their home, via France, in Sydney's western suburbs. His study, which is both a history of the massive demographic changes that have overtaken this country and also a manifesto for placing multiculturalism at the very heart of national life, makes a vital and timely contribution to the Asian Century debate.