a multicultural History of Australia

Making multicultural Australia

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Commentary on: Queensland’s emerging diversity »

Prof Andrew Jakubowicz.

Text Commentary

The 1970s were a time of dramatic change in Australian society. White Australia had been abandoned by governments of both conservative and Labor perspective, and policy changes following Australia’s experience with the Colombo plan meant that permanent Asian immigration would begin. The first significant arrivals were planeloads of refugees from South Vietnam in 1975, government officials or well-placed business people who had managed to escape before the fall of Saigon. In the wake of this vanguard, tens of thousands of refugees arrived– some by boats to Western Australia, some from camps in Thailand and Malaysia. Other refugees followed – from Cambodia and Laos, and later from many of the world’s trouble spots. Soon the positive commitment of Australian governments to resettling refugees under the UN Convention on Refugees saw the arrival of people from South America, the Middle East, Fiji, Timor, China, the Balkans, Afghanistan, and Africa.

As well as the emergency responses to cataclysmic events of displacement, a sustained flow of family reunion immigrants contributed to the establishment of community cohesion. New institutions were set up – such as the Ethnic Communities Council of Queensland (1978) and the state Department of Ethnic Affairs (later the Bureau) in 1988. Ethnic communities came together to create radio 4EB under a public broadcasting licence in 1979, while cross-ethnic arts and cultural development groups emerged in the 1980s and 1990s.

Through the 1980s governments at both state and federal levels had to deal with the reality of this diversity. There were times of overt conflict, such as that in 1985 after comments about the dangers of Asian immigration were widely publicised. Multicultural policies were not well-understood and many people felt that the rate of change was simply too rapid. Others, meanwhile, argued for a more open, diverse and tolerant society.