Shmigel: Australia: Multiculturalism is in, and that’s a good thing

On the need in Australia for a conservative case for multiculturalism, learning from the Canadian experience:

According to the latest Census results, for the first time, more than half of Australians (51.2 per cent) are now either born overseas or have at least one parent born overseas.

Ethnics and migrants, dear Speccie readers, now have the numbers. Multiculturalism – broadly defined – is in the majority.

If there’s one word or concept that gets many conservatives and many libertarians ‘highly focused’ that is definitely it: multiculturalism. In some ways, that’s understandable when we consider ‘progressive’ ills rightly or wrongly associated with it.

Given the demographic facts of Australia, it may be time for people on the centre-right of Australia’s political spectrum to think anew about what’s historically been positioned by some as a necessarily bad thing.

Perhaps it is time for the conservative case for multiculturalism.

But first, let’s step back. What’s been the critique of multiculturalism in the past? These points might summarise it:

  • Multiculturalism segregates Australians into different types – the ghetto argument.
  • Multiculturalism undermines mainstream Australian values – the cultural subversion argument.
  • Multiculturalism is social engineering – the ‘collectivism is bad’ argument.

While familiar, do these arguments actually stand up against factuality? Not so much.

In the first respect, after many decades of diversity and of pro-multicultural policies, the reality is that the vast majority of everyday interactions between Australians of up to 200 different ethnic, religious, and linguistic backgrounds are entirely civil and respectful. Inter-ethnic relations are in most respects completely normal and unremarkable. They’re in fact dead-set boring 99 per cent or more of the time.

Migrant groups have always tended to both geographically and culturally assimilate more than they tend to segregate. The trend, as driven by migrants themselves, isn’t toward any ghettos or enclaves, but toward the new outer suburban and multi-ethnic residential developments that dominate our major cities’ real estate sales. (Home ownership is greatly valued by our largest and fastest growing ethnic group – Indians – in particular.)

The truth is that, regardless of settlement status or ethnic background, much more binds us than drives us apart. The number of formal complaints to various human rights bodies or government agencies, no less criminal charges via the legal system, based on internecine hatred or ethnic violence between Australians is tiny. In 2020, in a culturally diverse society of some 23 million, there were some 100 complaints about racial hatred to the Human Rights Commission of which 20 per cent were between neighbours and 30 per cent were workplace-related.

Truth be told, migrants tend to readily settle and integrate, and their non-migrant neighbours and workmates tend to readily accept them. Think of the Vietnamese migration of the 70s and the once-prevalent mythology around Cabramatta and other ‘enclaves’ that accompanied that wave. Many in that era were convinced that was the end of our culture as we know it. Those are now but distant memories. We don’t even think twice about our Vietnamese origin neighbours or our child’s schoolmate. If we do, it’s likely to consider ourselves lucky to have such respectful and hard-working neighbours and their smart kids.

In the second respect, unlike many European countries, we actually have very little disagreement – beyond some squeaky media grabs from time to time – about our beliefs. English is uncontested as our language; in fact, it’s the legislated language in some states. We generally abide by the same norms; our settlement and citizenship system, unlike those of France or Germany for example, encourages that. People may well practice their home cultures in their homes, houses of worship, and community centres, but, if we’re honest, there’s little evidence of a substantive impact on our home-grown and common one.

In the third respect, it’s hard to deny the individual aspiration of the majority of people from migrant and ethnic backgrounds. In fact, they tend to own more small businesses than ‘non-ethnics’; they tend to succeed in higher education to a greater extent than ‘non-ethnics’, as any quick look at the annual HSC or VCE results shows.

Those on the centre-right need to consider this evidence that many people from migrant and ethnic backgrounds are about taking responsibility, working hard, and getting ahead at the individual and family levels – rather than counting on some hand-out mentality targeted at ‘groups’ or ‘victims’. Their presence, and indeed now predominance, in Australian society, is reinforcing social goods that our side values.

While there are vast differences between ethnic backgrounds – say Indian people and Chinese people – and vast differences within any given ethnic group itself, a generalisation is possible: people from migrant and ethnic backgrounds exemplify the characteristics that many of us on the centre-right see as positive and constructive. Multiculturalism is working in favour of our model of society.

For some more depth, consider the pro-business behaviours of our migrants and ethnics. In recent years, small businesses have contributed around $400 billion to Australia’s GDP (or about a third of the total economy) and employed some 40 per cent of the business workforce. Less known is that a third of small businesses are run by first or second-generation migrants, some 80 per cent of whom didn’t own a business before coming to Australia. Migrant business owners employed 1.4 million people across Australia and had an annual revenue that was 53 per cent higher than for non-migrant businesses.

If we more broadly consider ethnic connection, the numbers are even bigger: the clear majority of small businesses in Australia are owned by Australians with a non-Anglo surname.

That is a fine level of entrepreneurialism that the centre-right should embrace and admire. And, in purely political marketing terms, migrant and ethnic small business is a significant constituency to respect and work with (read: not pander to).

And, both major parties do in fact ‘get it’ in part. It’s standard practice for there to be specific election campaigning on both sides with regard to ethnic communities and the way that they communicate. Both parties are also smart enough to realise that there isn’t an ‘ethnic vote’ per se and that people, regardless of background, vote on similar issues such as the economy and social services. You can, though, certainly lose large swathes of voters if you don’t show you are respectful of people’s origins or treat them as second-class citizens.

Participation, rather than communications, will be the key going forward. Canada, for example, with a similar multicultural dynamic has for a few generations now had Ministers of significant ethnic background (putting aside Francophone politicians) from both sides of politics. While there were further changes at the last election, Australia’s parliament is yet to significantly look like its suburbs.

To get to that point, and the centre-right would be purely electorally dumb not to aspire to it, we need to drop some of our misconceptions. That starts with avoiding semantic slippage and not so automatically labelling specific policy concerns as somehow solely products of ‘multiculturalism’. That kind of generalisation has hints of a deeper institutional racism and, therefore, the centre-right would want nothing to do with it.

It might be better to think of multiculturalism not as policy or policy objective, but rather as what my old boss, Barry O’Farrell, thought of it. He said: ‘Multiculturalism is simply a way of life.’

If its strong features are pro-opportunity and pro-family, the centre-right should be welcoming that way of life.

As I was writing this piece, I walked past a theatre in western Sydney where a citizenship ceremony was taking place. There were dozens of people and family units who were clearly not ‘Anglo’ for a lack of a better term. All were impeccably dressed; all held Australian flags; all were intensely proud of this the day they became Australians. They are winners and the centre-right should back them.

Source: Multiculturalism is in, and that’s a good thing

About Andrew
Andrew blogs and tweets public policy issues, particularly the relationship between the political and bureaucratic levels, citizenship and multiculturalism. His latest book, Policy Arrogance or Innocent Bias, recounts his experience as a senior public servant in this area.

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