Thirty years ago, we were warned that Australia was fracturing into a nation of tribes. We were warned that multiculturalism and immigration were undermining the Australian national identity.

The warning came in a speech delivered by the historian Geoffrey Blainey. It was a significant intervention. Professor Blainey was – and remains – one of Australia’s eminent historians. His speech would spark a national debate. It would be the first major public challenge to Australian multiculturalism.

Since then, there have been few periods when there hasn’t been debate about multiculturalism. Diversity’s critics have been perennially noisy. But for the most part Australians have come to accept and embrace cultural diversity. It is something that is a part of our daily lives. Far from controversial, it is a natural presence – there in our homes, schools and neighbourhoods; there in our shops, offices and workplaces.

Back in 1984, faced with dire predictions of national discord, not everyone would have been confident that multicultural Australia would succeed. Yet there is no better way to describe our reality. Modern Australia is a success story of multiculturalism.

Gone are the days when people felt awkward about the word multicultural. Few these days are splitting hairs about the difference between a multiethnic Australia and a multicultural Australia. We have grown more comfortable in our own skin, whatever that colour may be. And more relaxed about there being more than one way that you can be Australian. We have, if you like, become rather relaxed and comfortable about Australian multiculturalism.

 

Vigilance

For all of our multicultural success, we must remain vigilant of bigotry and racism. Racial discrimination remains – in many forms.

One concerns the reporting and commentary about Australia’s Muslim and Arab communities, in light of armed conflicts in Iraq and Syria.

In recent weeks, Australians – of all faiths and backgrounds – have been seriously concerned by reports that Australian citizens are fighting as militants in Iraq and Syria. If you were to read the letters pages of our newspapers, tune into talkback radio, or scan the comments sections of news websites, you would be mistaken for thinking there were no “moderate” Muslim-Australians prepared to repudiate domestic extremism or acts of violent barbarism.

This is, of course, far from the truth. While there are very serious issues with “homegrown terrorism”, we should not be casting aspersions on Muslim and Arab Australian communities at large. Not when so many of its leaders and members have unequivocally condemned terrorism. Not when even the Director-General of ASIO David Irvine has commended Muslim community leaders for the positive role they have played in countering domestic radicalism. We should not be judging entire communities, whose members are law-abiding citizens, on the basis of a very small minority of extremists.

We have had front-page headlines that Australia is engaged in a 100-year war against Islam. Just this week, we saw one newspaper with a two-page spread about the suburb of Lakemba titled, “Inside Sydney’s Muslim Land”, where the stand-first declared that the correspondent had spent 24 hours in a place “where a pervasive monoculture has erased the traditional Aussie way of life”.

This is not the kind of language one would expect. Not in a country that, according to all evidence, is very relaxed and comfortable about its multiculturalism. The tone aside, such language is not even accurate.

 

Racial Discrimination Act

The conversation about Muslim Australians has been muddied by one thing. Two weeks ago, Prime Minister Tony Abbott announced that the Federal Government would not proceed with its proposed changes to the Racial Discrimination Act. According to the Prime Minister, he was making a “leadership call” to abandon a repeal of section 18C of the Act. The announcement coincided with a move by the Government to toughen national security laws to combat homegrown terrorism.

It was the right leadership call by the Prime Minister. There was no good reason for weakening legal protections against racial vilification. It was a welcome move by the Federal Government to listen to the concerns expressed by Australian communities about the likely impact of its proposed changes.

As I have made clear during the past year, any dilution of the Racial Discrimination Act risks sending a dangerous social signal. It risks encouraging people to believe that they could abuse others on racial grounds with impunity. The risk is that people may believe they can offend, insult or humiliate others because of their race but claim the absolute defence of free speech.

However, it was unfortunate that the abandonment of changes to the Racial Discrimination Act was announced in a particular way. We were told it was necessary for bolstered counter-terror measures. Yet, as far as I am aware, there was never a suggestion, from any community, that retaining racial vilification laws was necessary for fighting domestic extremism.

Let us be clear, as well, about which attributes are covered by the Racial Discrimination Act. The Act’s provisions on racial vilification cover conduct that relates to race, colour, ethnicity or national origin. It does not cover the attribute of religion. To suggest that a decision not to repeal section 18C was motivated by special concern about Muslim Australians misses one basic fact: the law doesn’t specifically protect religion. Under federal statute, it is unlawful to vilify someone on racial grounds, but this doesn’t extend to religious vilification.

It is understandable, then, that many Muslim Australians, and also Arab Australians, would have felt bitter sweetness about the RDA announcement. This hasn’t eased during the past fortnight. There has been sustained talk about the need for a commitment to a so-called Team Australia. I have heard from many Muslim and Arab Australians a serious concern that their communities are being singled out. That they are having their national loyalty unfairly questioned.

 

Why multiculturalism works

There has been much debate about the meaning of the phrase Team Australia. Just earlier this week the Prime Minister reiterated that “everyone has got to be on Team Australia”. And that, “everyone has got to put this country, its interests, its values and its people first, and you don’t migrate to this country unless you want to join our team”.

For those who have migrated here, however, there is rarely any question about loyalty to Australia. Making the decision to start a new life in another country is not one that is taken lightly. There is no more powerful aspiration than to be a citizen. It is the case that within ten years of arriving, more than 80 per cent of immigrants take out Australian citizenship. It is an act solemnised by a pledge whenever someone naturalises as a citizen: “I pledge my loyalty to Australia and its people, whose democratic beliefs I share, whose rights and liberties I respect, and whose laws I will uphold and obey.”

In those four clauses we have writ the contract of citizenship in this country. This contract is central to the success of Australian multiculturalism.

Contrary to its critics, Australian multiculturalism has never sanctioned a form of cultural relativism. Yes, everyone should have a freedom to express their cultural identity and heritage. But as with all freedoms, this isn’t absolute. It is also accompanied by duties. There must be a commitment to liberal democratic values – to parliamentary democracy, to the rule of law, to equality of the sexes, to freedom of speech.

What we have, in other words, is a robust form of multiculturalism. One which has its foundations in our liberal democracy. One which has never shied away from rejecting cultural beliefs and practices that are inconsistent with civic values. Yet one where diversity is entirely compatible with patriotism. In a multicultural Australia, we have a love of country that is founded not on race or ancestry, but on citizenship.

Which brings me back to the idea of “Team Australia”. If “Team Australia” is simply shorthand for an Australian liberal democratic community, for a community of equal citizens, I don’t think any of us would have an issue with it. Signing up to this is already part of the contract of multicultural citizenship. All of us are already signed up. We are all proud to be Australians.

But if “Team Australia” is meant to suggest something else, we are entitled to ask for an explanation. Manufacturing patriotism can sometimes do more to divide than to unite. Genuine civic pride comes from within; it is not something that others can command us to display.

Our debate is never strictly, of course, about concepts. Much of it also has to do with tone. The tone of leadership matters. And it has been a strength of our multicultural experience that political and civic leaders have understood the importance of ensuring that all Australians, regardless of their faith or cultural background, can feel that they can indeed belong to the family of the nation.

 

*(Short edited version of the speech at the 14th Annual Symposium of the Community Relations Commission for a Multicultural NSW on 20 August 2014 at Novotel Hotel, Parramatta)

 

Read the full speech on our website www.amust.com.au