Immigration minister Chris Bowen chose a curious venue for the launch of his statement on the revitalisation of multiculturalism. Just nine days earlier, his host, Sydney Institute executive director Gerard Henderson, renounced his longstanding commitment to the policy. As backflips go, this was a double with pike. For decades, Henderson had been the leading barracker for multiculturalism on the conservative side of Australian politics, quoting statistics on inter-racial marriage ad nauseam. Yet in the Sydney Morning Herald on 8 February he declared it to be a failed doctrine. He now believes that John Howard’s critique ‘was essentially correct’. Make that a triple somersault with pike.
For Henderson the problem lies with the ‘small minority of Islamists who reject the West while choosing to live within Western societies’. His column made no mention of rates of inter-racial marriage. Guess Who’s Coming To Dinner? Alas, not Gerard anymore. Fancy Nancy has taken falafel off the Institute’s menu.
Contrast this with Mr Bowen’s desire to ‘recognise, embrace and proclaim the genius of Australia’s multiculturalism’. This high-falutin language identifies the policy’s real problem: it’s an exercise in public sector delusion. The gap between multicultural theory and practice is unbridgeable.
While governments have the capacity to change the relationship between the state and citizens (this is, after all, what the legislative process is about), their impact on the relationship between citizens is minimal. How an individual views someone else’s culture will depend, in large part, on their personal experiences with that way of life. If, for example, they have found the culture to be slothful and ignorant, they will do everything they can to avoid it, as is their right in a free society. In these circumstances, ministerial proclamations about the ‘genius of multiculturalism’ are treated as political pap.
I am not aware of anything governments can do to make people like each other. Perhaps the best policy is one of ‘do no harm’. That is, avoiding racist and other divisive statements, such as those advanced by Howard in the late 1980s and shadow immigration minister Scott Morrison more recently.
The hot button issue in Australian race relations is distrust of Muslims. The contribution of government and the media has been to significantly inflate the risk to Australia of Islamic-inspired terrorism. People have been bombarded by ‘war on terror’ hyperbole, adding to existing prejudices against migrants from a Middle Eastern background.
In its final form, multiculturalism is a matter for civil society. The impotence of the state can be seen in the details of Bowen’s speech. He announced three initiatives, each of them ineffective. The first was to establish a new government committee, the Australian Multicultural Council, to oversee the minister’s policy of genius. This is typical of Rudd/Gillard governance, where nothing happens without an extra talkfest convening and pontificating in Canberra.
The second ‘initiative’ was the creation of a National Anti-Racism Partnership and Strategy. You know the type, using taxpayers’ money to pin posters to the walls of social work offices; in this case, telling people to be nice to each other. Finally, Bowen proclaimed that, henceforth, his Parliamentary Secretary for Immigration and Citizenship, Senator Kate Lundy, will be known as the Parliamentary Secretary for Immigration and Multiculturalism.
I have not been swept away by such a transformation since Prince changed his name. On the streets of Cronulla and Lakemba they are talking about nothing else. Consider the wow factor: a politician, not in cabinet, not even in the ministry, that nobody outside the political class has ever heard of, has a new title. That should sort out those One Nation types. It’s a boon, not for race relations in Australia, but for the printing industry and the production of new government letterheads.
If Australian multiculturalism was comfortable in its own skin, the recent furore concerning Collingwood AFL President Eddie McGuire would not have occurred. His comment describing western Sydney as ‘the land of the falafel’ would have been interpreted for what it was: harmless banter between two rival football clubs. A valuable PhD thesis awaits a student interested in the media studies question: why do newspapers beat up certain statements while ignoring other, genuinely offensive comments? Take, for example, Ian Thorpe’s admission that he asked his friends to ‘lie through their teeth’ about his return to professional swimming. This was a major public figure condoning dishonesty, but the commentariat brushed it aside.
Or try this comparison. Which statement do you find morally offensive: ‘the land of the falafel’ or Tim Elliott writing in the Sydney Morning Herald on 21 February: ‘Doesn’t the name Brothers & Sisters suggest incest to you? Come to think of it, a little incest might spice up this (television) show.’ Spice up? More like spew up, for the Herald’s readership.
The things one learns from the diary section of The Spectator Australia. I never pictured the Australian’s foreign editor, Greg Sheridan, as a rugby league man, let alone a fan of the Canterbury-Bankstown Bulldogs. Surely there is too much radical foreign policy in downtown Lakemba and Bankstown for Shero’s liking. In fact, this might be a solution to the multicultural conundrum. It could even help the peace process in the Middle East: seating Sheridan, Sheikh Hilaly and DJ Yallah next to each other as they cheer on their beloved Doggies. The amazing healing powers of rugby league football.