a multicultural History of Australia

Making multicultural Australia

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Commentary on: Conservative multiculturalism »

Prof Andrew Jakubowicz.

Text Commentary

Prime Minister Fraser’s initiatives

1975 - A new PM picks up the challenge of multiculturalism with a series of new measures

The poster In Limbo by Adelaide artist Demeter Tsounis illustrates the dilemma of migrants everywhere - caught between cultures. As the Whitlam era gave way to the Fraser years, there were fears that progress on migrants’ rights and services, to make the transition easier, might stall. But in fact the Fraser government continued the work begun by its predecessor - though with mixed reviews.

Whitlam’s term ended in November 1975, following his government’s still controversial dismissal by then Governor-General Sir John Kerr.

In the subsequent election, the Liberal-National Country Party Coalition swept to power. What could have become a crisis for the emerging consciousness of Australia as a multicultural society, did not, largely because of Prime Minister Malcolm Fraser’s personal commitment to translating multiculturalism into government policy. This dimension of Fraser’s political philosophy, unexpected at the time, was given its policy form through a series of initiatives articulated and managed by his adviser, Petro Georgiou.

A number of key initiatives taken by the Fraser Government shaped multicultural policy into the '80s and still echo today. Walter Lippmann commented on these early changes, noting:

MacKellar (the new Immigration Minister) came out with a policy that sounded good. It appeared to be continuing the trends Al Grassby had initiated with a slightly different emphasis. But basically it was good.

It was a degree of return to the patronage mentality; the dismantling of the migrant workers' rights. They still had welfare rights. They were going to preserve them but in the end they didn't. It was basically a return to the traditional Department of Immigration attitude of the past: we tell migrants what to do.

It appeared that they wanted to dismantle community-based organisations, but they had grown too far to be dismantled too.

Critics of the Fraser initiatives argue that while on the surface they appeared to advantage ethnic groups, in fact they promoted the notions of cultural pluralism while ignoring the structural inequalities which maintained a large ethnic underclass. This was partly achieved, the critics argue, by advancing an ethnic middle class which was favoured because it was more amenable to control.

Nonetheless, the practical initiatives of the Fraser era were considerable. They began with the re-creation of the Department of Immigration, now with an added component of Ethnic Affairs. The new Department of Immigration and Ethnic Affairs was reassigned the functions which had been transferred away three years before. A system of advisory councils was introduced: in 1976 the Australian Population and Immigration Council and the Australian Ethnic Affairs Council (AEAC) and in 1979 the Australian Refugee Advisory Council. In 1981 all three were merged into the Australian Council on Population and Ethnic Affairs (ACPEA), which advised the minister on all aspects of the portfolio. One of the first reports of the AEAC, under the chairmanship of Professor Jerzy Zubrzycki, recommended that three key principles be adopted as the foundation of a multicultural society: social cohesion, cultural identity and equality of opportunity and access. A fourth - equal responsibility for, commitment to and participation in society - was added by the ACPEA in 1982.

A major initiative under Fraser was the 1978 report of the Review of Migrant Programs and Services, chaired by Melbourne barrister Frank Galbally QC and including experienced ethnic welfare and community workers. The Galbally Committee was appointed in 1977 and its report advised a number of specific actions which were acted upon in following years.

Recommendations of the Galbally inquiry included consolidating and extending existing services such as the Grant-in-Aid scheme, the Adult Migrant Education Program and the Bilingual Information Officer program, and the establishment of Migrant Resource Centres. A number of other specialist agencies were created by the Fraser Government including the Australian Institute of Multicultural Affairs (AIMA), the Special Broadcasting Service (SBS), the Multicultural Education Program and the English as a Second Language (ESL) program. In 1981 AIMA reviewed the implementation of the Galbally Report and endorsed its recommendations, retaining its criticisms for the limitations of the bureaucratic implementation of the Galbally program.

Conservative Melbourne academic Colin Rubenstein (in 1993, during a speech "What is Wrong with Multiculturalism?") spoke positively of Fraser's contribution to the development of Australian ideas about multiculturalism during his time as Prime Minister. He quoted Fraser's philosophy as arguing for:

diversity as a quality to be actively embraced, a source of social wealth and dynamism, and (it) encourages groups to be open and interact, so that all Australians may learn and benefit from each others' heritages. Multiculturalism is about diversity, not division. It is about direction, not isolation. It is about cultural and ethnic differences set within a framework of shared fundamental values, which enables them to coexist on a complementary, rather than competitive basis. It involves respect for the law and for our democratic institutions and processes. Insisting upon a core area of common values is no threat to multiculturalism but its guarantee. For it provides the minimal conditions on which the well-being of all is secured. Not least, multiculturalism is about equality of opportunity for the members of all groups to participate in and benefit from Australia's social, economic and political life. This concern with equality of opportunity is dictated by both morality and hard-nosed realism. I'm talking about basic human rights. No society can long retain a commitment and involvement of groups that are denied these rights.

Further reference:
Castles, Stephen (et al) Mistaken identity: multiculturalism and the demise of nationalism in Australia, 3rd ed, Sydney, Pluto Press, 1992.

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.