New book on Australia's multicultural success | Asia Pacific

New book on Australia's multicultural success

New book on Australia's multicultural success

Updated 23 October 2012, 21:55 AEDT

An expert on multiculturalism says Australia's multicultural policy has been highly successful.

Don't Go Back To Where You Came From, a new book by Dr Tim Soutphommasane, argues that multiculturalism has worked well in Australia because it transformed the nation from a largely homogenised society, to one where two in five Australians were born overseas.

A quarter of Australians have immigrant parents and a fifth of Australians speak a language other than English.

Dr Soutphommasane says this transition to a multi-ethnic, multi-cultural society was made without social rancour or division.

So what is it about Australia, that encourages multiculturalism to flourish?

Presenter: Sen Lam

Speaker: Dr Tim Soutphommasane, author of 'Don't Go Back to Where You Came From', published by NewSouth Books. Dr Soutphommasane is also a lecturer at the National Centre for Australian Studies, Monash University

SOUTPHOMMASANE: I would say that there are a number of ways in which multicultural integration has taken place. So if you compare Australia to countries in Europe, and how they've dealt with their process of integrating immigrants, you see a very dramatic difference. Take Germany, where immigrants were traditionally considered as guest workers, as visitors who're there temporarily and would return home after a number of years. Compare the experience of France, where if you're an immigrant, you're expected to suppress your cultural difference, in favour of your French civic identity.

Australia has had a nation-building approach to multiculturalism. What that means is that immigrants are expected to make a transition to become citizens over time. And Australia within the OECD has one of the highest take-up rates of citizenship. So 80 percent of immigrants who come to Australia, end up becoming citizens within ten years. I think this openness to immigrants becoming citizens really shapes the Australian integration experience, because it means that the national identity can evolve over time, and that you can be Australian in more ways than one. So there's no contradiction in being Chinese-Australian or being Indian-Australian. You can negotiate the various parts of your identity. Immigrants integrate better into a society where they feel they belong. And they feel they belong when they're free to express their cultural identities and heritage. And that's been the real strength of Australian multiculturalism and policy. It's allowed people to express their heritage but yet, be citizens of Australia.

LAM: Do you think there's still an underlying fear of multiculturalism in certain sections of Australia? Do you think perhaps our asylum-seeker policy, for instance, might be slightly different, if people were coming in boats from Britain, or indeed perhaps even New Zealand, than some of these developing countries?

SOUTPHOMMASANE: I think since 2001 and the Tampa incident, and the election of that year, you've had a highly politicised debate around asylum-seekers. That's involved a departure from traditional practice in Australia since the end of the second world war. You've tended to have bipartisan leadership on debates about immigration and an acknowledgement by our political leaders that the stakes with immigration are very high indeed.

How does this bear upon multiculturalism? I think it has a big effect on how multiculturalism fares. Bear in mind that those who arrived in Australia as asylum-seekers - for the most part, have their claims recognised and end up settling in Australia and in due course, become Australian citizens. I don't think it sends the best message possible, for Australia to demonise asylum-seekers when they do arrive. Politicians and the Australian community at large need to recognise that there're bigger things at stake here. If we're not careful about how we handle our debate about asylum-seekers and refugees, we may well be undermining the foundations of Australia's multicultural society - undermining things such as a non-racial, non-discriminatory immigration policy, undermining the remarkable social cohesion that this country has had for over six decades. But it's a challenge, there's no doubt about that.

Quite often we think of the Asian Century as something for Australians to exploit or to take advantage of. There's got to be something more than that, and we have to think about what we can give to the region as well. The Asian region is like other parts of the world, in having to deal with difference, in having to achieve harmony within diversity. Australia in that sense, may well have a cultural export in the Asian Century, that it hasn't appreciated up to this point - and that's the cultural export of nation-building multiculturalism.

LAM: Recently we had an episode in Sydney that many people found quite disturbing - the violent protests against an anti-Islamic video. It brought out the worst in many people - what does that tellyou about the state of multiculturalism in Australia?

SOUTPHOMMASANE: It was a very telling episode, I thought. Many thought that the violent protests in Sydney were a clear indication of multiculturalism's failure. So you had commentators saying that we're now bearing the 'bitter fruits' of multiculturalism. I think what we saw there was the face of extremism, that was not the representative face of Australian multiculturalism.

I think the response of Australia's Muslim communities, underlines just how robust Australia's multiculturalism is. Because you had uniform condemnation of those protests as unacceptable and as extremist by Australia's Muslim community leaders. They cooperated with police and authorities, to ensure that a repeat did not happen. So if there is a lesson from Australian multiculturalism is that you can have a national identity that is the source of unity and commonality. But yet is flexible enough to account for differences and diversity over time.

LAM: But at the moment, that national identity is really, in many ways, quite White, isn't it?

SOUTPHOMMASANE: National identities evolve with time. I think a national identity can be defined in terms of a civic culture. If you look at an Australian national identity, I think there's a particular inflexion to how Australians understand fairness or equality and how that permeates social life in Australia - whether that's calling someone by their first name, or not calling anyone 'sir' or 'madam' or getting into a taxi in the front seat - our levels of informality - I think they're all very powerful vernacular expressions of our sense of fairness and equality. So, for me, a national identity can be defined in those public and civic ways. it doesn't necessarily have to be ethnic or defined in terms of cultural lifestyle.

So for me, you can be Australian, not necessarily love your cricket, or love your barbeques, or love the beach - although, many of us of course, do! it's more important that you sign up to a national tradition, based around a public life and a civic culture. A culture has to evolve. i certainly think there's an opportunity for Australians to reflect on what their tradition and what their identity means. For example, if we were to think of Asian cultures and their sense of reciprocal obligation - that's an opportunity perhaps for Australians to think about the value of mateship.

If you look at Asia's experience at the moment with democracy, and the youthful dynamism of those countries in our region, could that be an opportunity for Australia to reflect on its history as an innovative, democratic community? The current vocabulary of our engagement with Asia is highly-economistic. We think about extracting rent from the region, or maximising our returns. I think we can do more to learn culturally.

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