a multicultural History of Australia

Making multicultural Australia

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Commentary on: The Labor Party in power »

Prof Andrew Jakubowicz.

Text Commentary

Building a new equality?

1972 - 1975 - New attitude to migrant policies: moving away from assimilation to cultural pluralism


The ALP in government sought to implement its reform agenda. Key figures in the Party included from left of picture: Gough Whitlam, the Prime Minister; Bob Hawke, President of the Australian Council of Trade Unions and President of the Party; Clyde Cameron, Minister for Labour and later Immigration (after Al Grassby’s defeat in the 1974 election); and Lionel Murphy, Attorney-General and later High Court judge.

Also crucial was the role of Al Grassby. Within its first year, the Whitlam Government achieved a number of vital breakthroughs in the treatment of migrants and settled ethnic groups, generated by the new Immigration Minister. Grassby was a former state politician from a heavily Italian area of New South Wales - the Riverina. His long involvement with ethnic communities provided them with an avenue to have their interests recognised by government. Across portfolios, initiatives were taken which would become the basis for the structure of services and programs for the next quarter century.

The Australian Citizenship Act of 1973 enshrined the principle of equal treatment for all migrants, finally removing the last remaining elements of White Australia and the 1901 Immigration Restriction Act view of the world. The government also recognised the increasing international movement of people throughout their lives, acknowledging the desire of many elderly immigrants and those disabled while in Australia, to return for a time or until the end of their lives to their countries of origin. Decisions were taken to allow "portable" pensions which could be paid in any country, and reciprocal agreements were established with thirteen countries to cover a range of social security payments.

Family reunion was given priority in the selection of migrants, and the period of residency before an immigrant could become a citizen was made equal for all. Migrant Task Forces involving local ethnic community representatives were set up around the country to advise on migrant post-settlement needs, and at the national level a Community Relations Committee of the Immigration Advisory Council was established to enquire into discrimination against migrants. At the community level, the first Telephone Interpreter Service was established in twenty languages and migrant education centres opened in major cities. By the end of 1973 Minister Grassby was able to announce that $10 million had been found to promote migrant services.

Theorists and activists like ANU sociologist Jerzy Zubrzycki (already influential with the Liberal government in the late 1960s), La Trobe sociologist Jean Martin (author of the groundbreaking book The Migrant Presence) and Melbourne community leader Walter Lippmann, all of whom had for some years been pushing for a social model of cultural pluralism rather than assimilation or integration, had a chance with the Whitlam government to affect public policy.

In 1973 Grassby gave a speech which was to be described later as the first "official exposition of policy for promoting a multicultural Australia". Ethnic groups would be "permitted to create their own commercial life and preserve their cultural heritage indefinitely while taking part in the general life of the nation." His concept was expressed as the "family of the nation" and two committees of the Immigration Advisory Council were established to lay the philosophical foundations for the new policy - the Committee on Social Patterns chaired by Zubrzycki and the Committee on Community Relations chaired by Lippmann. The first committee's research was able to demonstrate the deficiencies of a system which did not support its migrants once they settled. It urged recognition of qualifications, training schemes, migrant welfare systems and a range of other structural approaches to deal with ethnic pluralism. The second committee dealt with the social aspects of cultural pluralism which, it said, should be accepted as a basic fact of Australian life. But concerns over zero population growth issues and the recession of the early 70s led the Labor Government to put the brakes on immigration numbers; it liberalised the type of immigration but severely controlled its quantity. Settler targets were cut from 140,000 in 1971 to 110,000 in 1972 and continued downward to a low of 50,000 in 1975.

In May 1974 Al Grassby lost his seat in Parliament in the general election, partly as a result of a racist campaign against him. Soon after, responding in part to an argument about the importance of "mainstreaming" ethnic affairs advanced by people such as Lippmann, Whitlam dismantled the Department of Immigration, shifting its services to other departments. This was designed to shake up the entrenched conservatism of officers in the Department who were fixed on keeping up numbers of settlers rather than concerned about their welfare on arrival. It was intended to "mainstream" ethnic affairs issues, for example by moving the Migrant Services Unit to the Department of Social Security. But the move worried some ethnic community leaders who felt that their issues would get marginalised, and that they would lose the expertise and power of a government department dedicated to these concerns. They met in Melbourne in July 1974 to discuss the developments; at this meeting the Ethnic Communities' Council of Victoria was established.

Further reference:
Martin, Jean The Migrant Presence: Australian responses, 1947-1977 - research report for the National Population Inquiry, Sydney, George Allen and Unwin Australia, 1978.

Jakubowicz, Andrew; Morrissey, Michael; and Palser, Joanne Ethnicity, class and social policy in Australia, SWRC reports and proceedings, no 46, Sydney, Social Welfare Research Centre - University of New South Wales, 1984.