a multicultural History of Australia

Making multicultural Australia

Search the complete site: ... Sitemap » ... Links to other sites »


Commentary on: FitzGerald Immigration Policy Review, 1988 »

Prof Andrew Jakubowicz.

Text Commentary

Arguing about commitment to Australia...

1988 - A review of immigration with a new focus on economics and questions on multiculturalism

While official policy, reflected in this Office of Multicultural Affairs poster, emphasised “the fact that Australians come from many different backgrounds but are all members of our multicultural society”, there was new controversy brewing.

As ethnic rights activist Alan Matheson has said about issues around multiculturalism, “if anyone is to suggest there’s no debate here… they’ve been asleep for two decades!” After the Jupp report, the next in a series of such reviews was actually into immigration but it had the effect of focusing again on the “ethnic mix” in Australia and the policies of immigration and multiculturalism. Academic and former diplomat Dr Stephen FitzGerald was asked in 1987 to chair the Committee to Advise on Australian Immigration Policies (CAAIP) which was to report in March, 1988. The report of the FitzGerald committee, Immigration, A Commitment to Australia, generated significant controversy.

It argued for increased migration, but with a tighter economic focus, emphasising employment skills, youth, and English language skills over unbridled family reunion strategies. But it also asked questions about the public understanding and acceptance of the idea of multiculturalism, while endorsing, albeit reluctantly in the eyes of some observers, the policy itself. In consultations with communities and individuals around Australia, the Committee picked up on an increasing resentment at what some parts of the public thought that multiculturalism meant - special preference to migrants in gaining services, and an emphasis on the continuation of separateness and divisions between groups. The old assimilationist sentiments were still out there, and the Committee identified those concerns in its report.

Dr FitzGerald has said that one major flaw of the report was in its terms of reference: it was not asked to look into population policy. “Immigration is not a tap you can just turn on and turn off when you think we’ve got a recession or it’s not politically popular,” he said. But the main opponents to Dr FitzGerald’s report were not so much concerned with the particulars of immigration reform as with FitzGerald’s perceived attack on multiculturalism. “The idea that multiculturalism may have run its course was deeply offensive to vested interests of the kind which represented in my view the ‘ism’, the dogma…" Dr FitzGerald said.

The Office of Multicultural Affairs (OMA) spearheaded an attack on the FitzGerald report and tried to block a number of its draft recommendations, arguing that they would lead to deepening conflict and undermine the social cohesion for which they claimed concern. The arguments took place in the Cabinet room, where the more conservative elements in the Labor Party - Ministers such as Peter Walsh (Finance) and Robert Ray (Immigration) - supported the full thrust of FitzGerald, against the opposition of the Prime Minister Bob Hawke. Hawke’s view, that multiculturalism was an important and central part of the social contract, prevailed at the time. Labor Caucus Immigration Committee chair Andrew Theophanous was to say of the FitzGerald report, “The positive virtues of multiculturalism... are completely disregarded”.

John Howard was heavily influenced by the FitzGerald position, and was involved in a major controversy in 1988 when he spoke of the need for social cohesion as the basis of the composition of immigration - widely understood at the time as being a code for “stop Asian immigration”.

But the CAAIP report did lead to changes in the immigration policy which included the division of the immigration program into three main streams: family migration, skilled migration and humanitarian migration, immigrants being selected by a points test which valued employability, skills, youth and English language knowledge in all categories except immediate family reunion and refugee intake. As a result of CAAIP a new immigration research body was introduced in 1989 known first as the Bureau of Immigration Research, then as the Bureau of Immigration and Population Research and finally as the Bureau of Immigration, Multicultural and Population Research. The Bureau survived until 1996, when it was closed, according to its last Director, Dr Bill Cope, as part of the 1996 Budget “zeroing multiculturalism” strategy.

When the National Agenda for a Multicultural Australia was released in 1989, it showed the influence of CAAIP’s concerns, showcasing the importance of multiculturalism as an economic priority in Australia’s relations with the outside world. In the longer term, many of the CAAIP recommendations had to await their day - returning as part of the first Coalition Budget in 1996.

Further reference:
Theophanous, Andrew Understanding Multiculturalism and Australian Identity, Melbourne, Elikia Books, 1995.