Jasmine Ali argues the left should defend multiculturalism against racist attacks from the right

In February 2011, Julia Gillard and Immigration Minister Chris Bowen turned 180 degrees to reaffirm Labor’s support for multiculturalism. After Howard and the Liberals attempted to abolish the concept, Rudd reinstated the term at a parliamentary secretary level only to have Gillard remove it after taking over the leadership in 2010.

Despite the excruciating twists and turns in the Labor leadership’s attitude on multiculturalism, Labor’s newfound support for it is a welcome shift. Introduced by the Whitlam Labor Government in the early 1970s, multiculturalism marked a significant break from long-standing racist assimilationist attitudes towards immigrants, which demanded they abandon their “inferior” cultural traditions for more “superior” Australian culture and values.

Today multiculturalism is under attack from the right in Europe and Australia. European leaders such as Angela Merkel, Nicholas Sarkozy and David Cameron have said multiculturalism has “failed” and immigrants (usually Muslims) must do more to integrate and assimilate. It is alarming that the anti-Semitic charge directed against Jews in the 1930s, that they “self-segregate”, is now made against Muslim immigrants in Europe, during the most severe economic crisis since the Great Depression.

Liberal Party leaders in Australia have also declared their opposition to multiculturalism, continuing a 30 year-long conservative backlash against multiculturalism in Australia and the attempt to re-establish the assimilationist mentality of the past. Liberal immigration spokesperson, Scott Morrison is an open advocate of integration stating, “I am always reluctant to use the term multiculturalism.”

Recent comments by Liberal citizenship spokesperson Teresa Gambaro revealed the depth of racist paternalism in the ranks of the Liberal Party. Gambaro declared that new migrants coming to Australia to work on 457 visas must be “taught Australian customs” such as “wearing deodorant” and “waiting patiently in queues”.

Against the right-wing backlash, multiculturalism must be defended because underlying the debate about multiculturalism is a fight between anti-racism and racism.

But, importantly, although Labor’s support for multiculturalism is a welcome shift, it is has come with inconsistent policies and contradictory qualifications. Bowen insists that in a dispute between multiculturalism and Australian nationalism, Australian nationalism “wins out, it has to”. Such qualifications only serve to reassert the centrality of the white Australian nationalism that the Howard Government did so much to enshrine.

Conservative racist backlash

The backlash began in the late 1980s, with absurd claims that multiculturalism had “divided Australia” by undermining traditional national values, while privileging immigrant minorities.

The first stirrings of conservative anti-multiculturalism were delivered in the writings of conservative historian Professor Geoffrey Blainey in 1984 who dubbed multiculturalism a “new form of colonialism” where Australia was considered the “colony of the world”. In 1998, right-wing journalist Paul Sheehan wrote in Amongst the Barbarians that multiculturalism had created ghettoised enclaves of welfare dependency, violence and drug abuse—specifically naming the suburbs of Cabramatta and Bankstown in Sydney.

The most explicit attack on multiculturalism was spearheaded in the 1990s by One Nation Party leader Pauline Hanson. Multiculturalism, according to Hanson, was a form of reverse racism against white Australians which had created a “bloated ethnic industry” that received, “millions of dollars sloshed between migrant organisations and trade unions”.

The backlash became official state policy with the election of the Howard Liberal government which spent ten years in government trying to extinguish any positive content associated with multiculturalism. Howard abolished the Multicultural Advisory Council and introduced a “Citizenship Test” bill reminiscent of the White Australia dictation tests used in the early twentieth century to hinder non-British immigration.

After the events of September 11, 2001, the concerns of the conservative anti-multiculturalists shifted from “ghettoised ethnic enclaves” to hysteria about Islam and Muslims. Islam was deemed radically incongruent to “Australian values” and touted as a danger to “social cohesion”. Anti-Muslim racism and anti-multiculturalism became the same thing under Howard.

Significantly, the Howard era hammering of Muslims was prosecuted not on the basis of skin colour, but on the basis that certain supposed “values” of Islam threaten the “Australian way of life”. “Culturalist” arguments that demonise on the basis of creed and culture have become the “cutting edge” of the modern racism towards immigrants.

For example, in 2006, Liberal deputy Prime Minister, Peter Costello, railed against what he called “mushy, misguided multiculturalism” and declared that people who had failed to “internalise” Australian values should be stripped of their citizenship and even be “kicked out”. Ameer Ali, President on the Australian Islamic Council, in response to Costello replied, “It looks like they are going back to a White Australia Policy, or they are trying to have multiculturalism minus Muslims”.

The legacy of the Howard years can be seen in the “Challenging Racism Project” report released this year. The report, conducted over 12 years, found that 84 per cent of people had viewed instances of racial prejudice and 48 per cent of Australians harboured anti-Muslim views. The survey also found that 40 per cent believed that, “Australia was weakened by people of different ethnic origins sticking to their old ways”.

More shockingly, Howard’s legacy of anti-multiculturalism is to be seen in the actions of confessed far-right Norwegian mass-murderer Anders Behring Breivik. Breivik’s anti-multiculturalism and anti-Islam manifesto explicitly quotes John Howard, Peter Costello, Catholic Cardinal George Pell and conservative writer and historian Keith Windschuttle.

Imperialism and “white outpost” in Asia

Racist attitudes of assimilation and integration adopted by successive Australian governments have their roots in the foundations of the Australian state. British settlement brought with it the racist justifications for both the brutal dispossession of the Indigenous population and the establishment of an exclusive white British colony in Asia.

The closeness to Asia of the under-populated northern areas of Australia stoked fears amongst the emerging Australian ruling class of possible rival Chinese colonisation.

With federation came the White Australia policy (Immigration Restriction Act) of 1901 which enshrined the determination of the Australia’s rulers to maintain Australia as a white outpost. The White Australian Policy became an inseparable element of Australian governments’ attitudes to migration.

The policy successfully limited Asian immigration and settlement. Between 1901 and 1933, the Asian population of Australia dropped from about 1.25 per cent to 0.30 per cent and then to 0.21 per cent in 1947.

However, following the Second World War, the White Australia policy was applied less rigorously—not because of an enlightened shift by the post-war Labor government, but because of the needs of developing Australian capitalism. The war itself drove a “populate or perish” mentality in the government and expanding manufacturing industries required greater amounts of labour.

But the government was unable to fill its migration quota with suitably “white” British or northern European settlers. So, Labor Immigration Minister Arthur Calwell shifted policy to allow entry to southern Europeans.

By 1958 the infamous dictation tests were abandoned. Then, following a review of the non-European policy in March 1966, the government eased restrictions on immigration of non-Europeans, announcing that applications for migration would be accepted from well-qualified non-Europeans on the basis of “their suitability as settlers, their ability to integrate readily and their possession of qualifications positively useful to Australia”.

Between 1966 and 1970, non-European migration quadrupled, literally changing the complexion of the Australian population. It was the beginning of the end of White Australia as an official policy.

However, an increasingly contradictory situation emerged as migrants on the one hand were central to growing manufacturing industries but on the other hand, were still regarded as inferior and suffered discrimination.

By the 1970s immigrants began to voice their own demands more consciously and effectively. Migrant and other activists pushed for rights on many fronts—the right to work, the right to learn English but also to have information available in community languages, the right to cultural maintenance, the right to social security and housing, and the right to move from the margins of society to the mainstream.

The 11-week 1973 Ford Broadmeadows strike in Victoria was a key example of the heightened industrial militancy of a radical migrant workforce on the margins of Australian capitalism demanding their rights.

In 1973, the Whitlam Labor government officially ended White Australia and gave its support to multiculturalism by appointing as new Immigration Minister Italian-born Al Grassby.

Official multiculturalism and migrant organisations

The 1970s marked a highpoint in political consciousness amongst immigrants resulting in the establishment of community councils, welfare rights and other organisations to push for greater change.

Prior to the 1970s government agencies managing immigration followed official policy and were mouthpieces for assimilationist and paternalistic attitudes towards immigrants. Organisations such as the Good Neighbour Councils (GNCs), funded by the government for over 30 years, were focused on assimilating migrant communities. As Jim Calomeris, a NSW Greek community activist told a 1976 conference, the GNCs, “had not been designed to advance ethnic impact, but to obstruct it”.

Grassroots organisations began to challenge the idea that migrants fundamentally needed help to integrate; and migrants began to organise themselves to combat discrimination and demand their rights. The Ethnic Communities Council movement, which replaced the government GNCs was established in Melbourne in 1974, comprising entirely ethnic organisations. It was formed specifically to give migrants a voice, to oppose the “assimilation approach” and advocate for ethnic community demands.

The migrant workers’ conferences held in Melbourne in 1973 and 1974 also began the slow process of asserting migrant demands and influence in the unions. The ACTU finally recognised this in 1981 by holding an official conference, setting up a migrant workers’ committee and appointing an ethnic liaison officer.

As a result of growing pressure, the Fraser government accelerated official multiculturalism. The 1978 Galbally report recommended increasing migrant support programs.

With European immigration declining from the late 1960s, Galbally placed greater emphasis on settlement services, suggesting improvements to ethnic schools, English language tuition and translation services, better communication and information, Migrant Resource Centres, a research policy unit, and the extension of ethnic radio and television.

But as multiculturalism became more establishment policy attempts were made to gut it of its overt political dimensions. Restrictions and actual cuts to funding helped stifle any emphasis on demanding migrant rights in favour of promoting a watered-down cultural tokenism.

Foreign dance, cuisine, attire, cultural festivals were celebrated and acknowledged as an acceptable part of the migrant experience whilst traditions of anti-colonialism, anti-imperialism and class struggle were part of the baggage migrants were meant to leave behind.

The election of the Howard government in 1996 brought about a qualitative shift in government’s attitude to multiculturalism. In 1999 Howard introduced Harmony Day to deliberately coincide with the UN International Day for Elimination of Racial Discrimination, at the same time as multiculturalism was being gutted as official policy. Harmony Day was institutionalised alongside Howard’s racist vilification of asylum seekers and his tacit approval of Pauline Hanson.

There have always been limits to official government multiculturalism. Along with the fight from below for migrant rights went an official version from above that saw cultural diversity and races as a problem, a threat to social cohesion, that needed to be managed in the interests of Australian capitalism. Migrants could have their own culture as long as they realised that it was subordinate and that, in time (meaning sooner rather than later), they would need to merge and adopt the superior Australian culture (of Gallipoli, Bradman and meat pies).

Today, migrant organisations reflect the contradictory tensions typical of many community organisations—managing the contradiction between government funding and control as part of their semi-incorporation into the state and also the grassroots needs of the migrant constituencies who continue to be subjected to discrimination, exclusion and poverty.

Left anti-multiculturalism

The enthusiastic support for multiculturalism that marked the period of the late 1960s and early 1970s has waned and been replaced in some parts of the left with total dismissal of multiculturalism. This trend sees multiculturalism primarily as a way to re-make a more insidious form of white Australian nationalism and to co-opt migrant communities.

In Europe, Slovenian academic Slavoj Zizek has raised criticisms of “liberal multiculturalists”. He recognises their rejection of populist racism but nonetheless regards them as apologists for the core ideas of exclusive nationalism. Similarly, Sydney academic Ghassan Hage has written a great deal of incisive and hard-hitting commentary on the contradictions of multiculturalism but his book, White Australia, dovetails with Zizek’s criticism of multiculturalism. In White Nation in particular, Hage argues that multiculturalism is the deployment of “a more sophisticated fantasy of White supremacy” and that “White multiculturalism has a vested interest in the promotion of Hansonism”.

However, Hage’s generalisation leads to mistakenly lumping white multiculturalists along with Hanson’s racist followers. But it was Howard’s attack on multiculturalism that paved the way for Hanson not white multiculturalists. By 1990, the Liberal Party’s manifesto advocated “a united Australian nation proud of its distinctive identity and history” promoting a “common Australian identity” as an alternative to multiculturalism. Perhaps presaging the rise of Hansonism, this section of the manifesto was called, “From Many Cultures Toward One Nation.”

As mentioned before, the more multiculturalism becomes official policy, the more governments are concerned to co-opt and subsume any radical anti-racist content. But over-determining multiculturalism as a tool of government ignores its progressive social content established in the fight against racism and traditional assimilation.

The tendency of Hage and Zizek to see multiculturalism as a one-sided project of co-option overlooks its popular anti-racist content. Crucially, this kind of “left” anti-multiculturalism ends up blinding its adherents to the possibilities of the united black and white fightback that is necessary to both successfully fend off the rise of the Liberals and the conservatives’ right-wing agenda and deal with Labor’s tokenism.

Multiculturalism, but

Although Labor has officially resurrected multiculturalism, this is contradicted by its actual practice. Labor’s response to the Liberals’ attack on multiculturalism has come to be known as “Multiculturalism, but…”

In 2006, Tony Burke, then Labor’s Shadow Minister for Immigration told the ABC, “Integration is how you make multicultural society work.”  In 2011, Tanya Plibersek, then Minister for Social Inclusion, raised introducing a Pledge to nation in schools to stress the “unity” element of multicultural Australia.

There is more than a whiff of hypocrisy around Labor’s new found commitment to multiculturalism. Immigration Minister, Chris Bowen, who declared the Gillard government’s commitment to multiculturalism is the same Minister who presides over the detention of asylum seekers. Federal Labor also failed the test when it refused to acknowledge that attacks on Indian students in 2008 were racially motivated.

By stressing the centrality of Australian nationalism and citizenship, Labor’s qualified support for multiculturalism effectively concedes to the Liberals’ anti-multicultural position.

But for migrants themselves and for wider layers of Australian society, multiculturalism has a far more anti-racist and inclusive content forged in part by the struggle for their rights and defending those rights from the likes of Howard, Hanson, and Gillard.

Socialists need to defend multiculturalism from the right’s attack. At the same time we have to fight to imbue multiculturalism, not with a limited vision of official government policy of “tolerance”, but with an unqualified anti-racism. It is not “Australian” values we defend, but the values of struggle and solidarity that we in the saw in the Ford workers strike in 1973, the demonstrations against One Nation, on the picket line for the Baiada poultry strike last year and in the ongoing fight for the rights of asylum seekers and refugees.

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