a multicultural History of Australia

Making multicultural Australia

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Commentary on: Victoria discovers multiculturalism »

Prof Andrew Jakubowicz.

Text Commentary

(Audio file available at a later date)

The Whitlam federal Labor Government, elected in 1972, changed Australia’s immigration and citizenship policies, finally ending discrimination on the basis of race, colour or nationality. The government’s approach to migrant settlement also shifted from one aimed at integration of other cultures into the dominant Anglo-Celtic culture to one which supported multiculturalism.

Victorian academics, unionists and ethnic community leaders were at the forefront in developing multicultural policies and initiatives in the 1970s, as were institutions like the Ecumenical Migration Centre (EMC) and the Centre for Urban Research and Action (CURA). They were also a driving force in ensuring that the policies translated into meaningful practice – in the workplace, in schools and in the community. Their efforts led to greater recognition by unions and employers about the special needs of migrant workers, a wider acceptance of the right to interpreter services and the teaching of community languages.

The conservative Fraser federal government, elected in 1975, formally endorsed multiculturalism as a government policy and established a range of institutions to support it. Malcolm Fraser and fellow Victorians, Petro Georgiou and Frank Galbally played the key role in embedding multiculturalism in federal policy through the report on Post Arrival Services for Migrants which recommended the establishment of Migrant Resource Centres (MRCs) and the Special Broadcasting Service (SBS).

At the state level, upon its election in 1982, the Cain Labor government actively sought to implement multicultural policies at the state level in Victoria, commissioning the major Access & Equity report and establishing the Ethnic Affairs Commission to oversee the implementation of multicultural policies in practice – in the workplace, in education and in the community. It developed a range of educational support programs, including more intensive English language support, a Migrant Education resource centre, support for community language schools, and the incorporation of ethnic community languages into the curricula of local schools.

As well as forming their own political organisations and participating in the Ethnic Communities’ Council established in 1974, people of diverse ethnic background also began to join established political parties and to play a role at all levels in mainstream politics. The Victorian Labor Party was unique in establishing ethnic branches.

In the 1970s, Victoria became home to refugees fleeing conflicts in Asia, the Middle East and Africa, including Lebanon, Ethiopia, Vietnam and Cambodia. These were countries from which Australia had not previously taken migrants in significant numbers, but the refugee communities were soon expanded through family reunion programs supported by the federal government.

In 1984, Melbourne Professor Geoffrey Blainey sparked public debate with his call to limit Asian migration, arguing that it was diminishing the Australia’s traditional character. Blainey’s position was highly controversial and led to bitter disputes, effectively ending the bipartisan support for multiculturalism at the national level that had survived for at least a decade.

While Blainey was not successful in his pressure to reduce Asian immigration, his negative views about multiculturalism became part of the conservative mainstream in national politics and remain part of the debate about cultural diversity policy and immigration. Asian immigration was not seriously affected, and Asian immigrants have proved to be very valuable contributors to Australia’s prosperity. Blainey’s home state, Victoria became and remains the standard bearer for multicultural policies on a firm bipartisan footing.