a multicultural History of Australia

Making multicultural Australia

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Commentary on: The new Labor Agenda »

Prof Andrew Jakubowicz.

Text Commentary

Changing the way we were...

1983 - A new Labor government brings an era of mixed results and questions for multiculturalism

When the Hawke Labor Government was elected in March 1983, it inherited a legacy of more than ten years of attention to multiculturalism as a description of Australian society and as a prescription for a government’s approach to its people. As the photo shows, Prime Minister Bob Hawke (at a FECCA dinner in the mid '80s) was keen to demonstrate a continued focus on cultural diversity and the acceptance of the ideas of multiculturalism. But as multicultural consultant Vassiliki Nihas has put it, multiculturalism is "not just about a fair go, but about a fair share… not just about access to resources but about a share of resources".

The Labor government was to face a series of contradictory approaches to the whole issue of multiculturalism throughout its thirteen years in office (1983-1996). The conservative agenda of the Fraser years had produced significant progress in social programs, yet critics within the Labor Party were arguing for a more radical program that would open up institutions more widely to members of ethnic communities, and ensure more equity.

The early period under Stewart West - a Wollongong MP from the left of the party - as Immigration and Ethnic Affairs Minister, raised the possibility of new agendas gaining a hearing. Issues affecting immigrant women and working class communities were taken more seriously, as the government wrestled with rising unemployment, increasing social conflict and a divisive debate around Asian immigration. Whereas under the Liberals there had been broad bipartisanship on immigration and settlement, allowing Fraser to minimise the critiques from the right, and ignore those from the left, under Hawke the right was no longer under control.

The first clear initiative, drawing on Victorian and NSW approaches, was to fashion a policy based on Access and Equity. This perspective recognised that government institutions had to "own" the multicultural issue - to ensure that they understood the cultural diversity of their clientele, and provided programs that were meaningful to them. It suggested that there were social justice issues to be addressed - issues of continuing exclusion from life chances, and relegation to second-class status for many immigrant communities.

But from the early Labor days the multicultural project would begin to experience sustained public attack - from conservative academics such as Lachlan Chipman at Wollongong University, Frank Knopfelmacher at Melbourne University (both associated with the conservative Cultural Freedom journal Quadrant), Geoffrey Blainey, historian and author of the well-known Tyranny of Distance, and environmentalist Bob Birrell at Monash University. Inside the Labor Party there was considerable uncertainty about the whole project - some based on wider traditional community racist reactions to new arrivals, some drawing on a populist egalitarianism resentful of what were seen as special benefits, and some affected by left critiques of multiculturalism as a diversion from class issues.

There were key moments then in the Labor period - the AIMA review, the Blainey debate, the 1986 budget decisions (in which a swathe was carved through multicultural programs in every portfolio), the 1988 Jupp review of services and programs (Labor's version of the Galbally review), the 1988 FitzGerald report on population policy which criticised the multicultural policies of the government, the establishment of the Office of Multicultural Affairs and the Bureau of Immigration, Multicultural and Population Research, and the creation of the National Agenda for a Multicultural Australia in 1989. These institutional changes were all controversial, and reflected the deep divisions within the government over directions and policies.

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.

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

Vasta, E and Castles, S (eds) The Teeth are Smiling: the persistence of racism in multicultural Australia, Sydney, Allen and Unwin, 1996.