Tim Soutphommasane asks in his new radio mini-series has multiculturalism made us a better country—or brought out the worst in us?
Soutphommasane almost gives the game away from the very beginning, with the depiction of Cabramatta as a modern “multicultural success story”. While I share these sentiments, this is by no means a universal position. You only need to read the editorial pages of major metropolitan newspapers or peek into the darker corners of Twitter to see how contested these concepts are within the Australian population.
There is much to admire in Mongrel Nation. Airing last Sunday, the first episode carefully unpacks the history of Australian multiculturalism. As someone who firmly believes Australia’s post-war immigration program is the greatest policy achievement in our history, this is welcome. Despite a concerted campaign by bureaucrats and politicians on promoting the Australian immigration story, I do not believe it is a story well known. Over one in four Australians were born overseas while nearly one in two has at least one parent born overseas. These factoids pepper political speeches yet fail to make their way into public consciousness.
Above all else, the scale of post-war immigration is something to behold. 200,000 additional arrivals between 1945 and 1950 and an additional 1 million people every decade until 1990. Gwenda Taven, a historian at La Trobe University, describes this as a ‘national reconstruction’. Indeed it is. While Australian immigration growth has averaged about 150,000 since 2000, as a proportion of the total population, modern averages pail in comparison to the post-war period. Arthur Calwell is not an ALP hero in the realm of Ben Chiefly or Bob Hawke, yet he is the father of Australian immigration. His is a complicated legacy. His wish for a growing, assimilated and most of all, homogenous immigrant population was ‘paradoxical’ according to Taven. A policy destined to fail, homogeneity made way for Asia through the symbols of Whitlam and the actions of Fraser. Soutphommasane gives this history space to breathe, thankfully unwilling to portion it up into bite sized pieces.
Another positive of the first episode is the promotion of public debate and the central role this played for the relationship between immigration policy and Australian society. This cannot be highlighted enough. Highlighting archival recording of John Howard and Bob Hawke demonstrates that this was a real public debate, with two genuine ideological positions. One cannot help but think Soutphommasane is pointing the finger at current politicians with this emphasis. Together with the argument that immigration policy receives the blame for social dysfunction and a soft labour market, as argued by Rebecca Huntley, this forms an implicit critique that immigration policy is well understood in Australia but open to exploitation for overtly political gain. I hope this conversation about how politicians engage with social opinion expands over the coming weeks as no policy demonstrates these difficulties better than immigration.
There are bits that made me scratch my head. David Malouf argues that Australia was a multicultural society from white settlement because of the presence of ‘7-8 jews’ and a very small number of black englishmen. To say this is puzzling is an understatement given the importance of the White Australia Policy in the period of Federation. Later, Soutphommasane claims that John Howard appropriated One Nation supporters for his own. For me, this is a more complex story. One Nation’s best ever result was in the 1998 Queensland election, claiming over 22 per cent of the vote. Yet over the next decade these votes disappeared while Queensland labor marched on to multiple election victories. This is not to ignore the shift of the Liberal Party from an organisation where Phillip Ruddock crossed the floor to support Asian immigration to an organisation where he was vilified for wearing an Amnesty badge. The nuances of this debate run far and wide and this specific example shows how Australian immigration policy is not beholden to strict bifurcation of ‘left’ and ‘right’.
However these minor quibbles should at best be seen as footnotes. Mongrel Nation is a series for 21st century Australia. Past achievements have been immense yet there are small signals all may not be well with Australian attitudes to multiculturalism. Andrew Markus’ work on social cohesion shows growing gaps between the attitudes of recent migrants and 3rd generation Australians to immigration and multiculturalism [disclosure: I work for an organisation that is chaired by the major private contributor to Markus’ work]. These gaps are greatest at the local community level, predominantly in areas of higher immigration such as Dandenong and Bankstown. Nothing showcases this uncertainty more than the clips of Alan Jones during the Cronulla riots. Describing Lebanese-Australians as ‘thugs’ and hoping they ‘return to their lairs’, Jones is the most visible proponent of an angry anti-multiculturalism in Australia. This underbelly is described as a ‘menacing patriotism’. My favourite musician puts it more bluntly. Kanye West says of America that “racism still alive they just be concealing it“. In Australia, at least in recent months, it seems we aren’t even able to do that.
Hopefully Mongrel Nation will help craft a contemporary public understanding of Australian multiculturalism and what this means for immigration policy in the future. Judging by the first episode, we’re in for a treat.