Multiculturalism in Australia has flourished over the years and brought many positive contributions to its society. But the road to achieving an appreciation of multiculturalism is still a challenge.
According to the Australian Bureau of Statistics (ABS), 26 per cent of the Australian population was born overseas and 20 per cent of Australians have at least one parent born overseas (please note these statistics are based on the number of people who provided this information). We have 400 or more languages spoken at home and over 100 religions are practised by Australians (these statistics were supplied to me by the ABS). The top ten countries of birth for the overseas born population are the United Kingdom, New Zealand, China (not including Hong Kong and Taiwan), India, Italy, Vietnam, Philippines, South Africa, Malaysia and Germany.
Early migrants originated mostly from England and Ireland and other European countries such as Germany. During the Gold Rush era in the 1850s, many migrants from around the world came seeking fortunes. The Chinese were among the first non-European migrants to arrive in Australia. Some Chinese migrants settled in Australia and formed societies, becoming a new community in Australia. In 1901, the states of Australia voted to form the Federation of Australia. At that time, Australia was surging with nationalism, the Australian government aimed to preserve an Anglo-centric society and culture and thus the Federal Parliament passed the Immigration Restriction Act 1901 or known as the “White Australia Policy”. The act sought to “place certain restrictions on immigration and… for the removal… of prohibited immigrants”. White Australia Policy officially ended in 1976 under the Goth Whitlam Government.
A large wave of migration surged after the Second World War when Europeans from countries such as Italy, Greece, Poland, Germany, Turkey, and the Netherlands migrated to Australia to start a new life. In 1949, many Chinese fled China when the Communist government took power.
Migratory shift turned to Asia in the 1970s, 1980s and 1990s. Many Vietnamese left Vietnam after the war, while a large wave of Cambodians escaped Pol Pot’s murderous Khmer Rouge regime. When East Timor declared independence in 1975, Indonesian troops invaded East Timor and captured the capital city Dili. This prompted many East Timorese to flee. Migration from the Balkans rose during the Yugoslav Wars and Chinese migration surged again after the Tiananmen Square Incident and post 1997 when Hong Kong was transferred back to China. Other migrants came from The Philippines, Malaysia, Singapore, Thailand, India and Sri Lanka.
Recently, Australia has been receiving a new wave of migrants from areas such as Afghanistan, Iraq, Iran, Burma and countries from the Horn of Africa. These are our new and emerging communities, most of them escaped from war, famine and persecution.
Multiculturalism has made many significant changes in Australian society. It has contributed to the local and national economy by contributing heavily to the restaurant and tourism industries, involvement in politics and government, and by sharing their culture, traditions and food with the Australian population. Many members from multicultural communities participate in community work and take leadership roles, promoting multiculturalism and facilitating cross-cultural understanding between their community and the wider community. Moreover, Australia has many community and not-for-profit organisations dedicated to supporting migrant communities.
Multiculturalism is strongly encouraged in Australia. Each year, Canberra hosts the National Multicultural Festival. A national day called Harmony Day celebrates Australian diversity, and an annual activity called Refugee Week celebrates and recognises the positive impact refugees have made to Australian society. The government has developed initiatives such as the Australian Multicultural Council to encourage multicultural community members to participate in government policy consultation.
Despite these initiatives, multiculturalism is not always welcomed. A recent report completed by the University of Western Sydney surveyed 12,512 people from around Australia and revealed that almost half of them have negative views towards Muslims. This negativity was also directed at Asians (23.8%), Indigenous Australians (27.9%), Africans (27%) and Jewish people (23.3%) (results from the article can be read here, and details of the survey through here). Racial tensions have led to instances of violence, such as the attacks on Indian international students and the infamous 2005 Cronulla Riots. Approximately 5000 Australians, mostly of Anglo and Celtic background, gathered to fight for Australian pride and “reclaim their beaches” after two Middle Eastern youths assaulted a Cronulla life guard. People with a Middle-Eastern background or appearance were also targeted.
Multiculturalism has made Australian society more vibrant, unique and has enabled us to learn and appreciate different cultures, languages, and beliefs, while becoming friends with people from different backgrounds. However, we are still a long way from achieving social harmony because there are still cultural barriers and discrimination that exist between mainstream Australian society and multicultural communities. Misunderstanding and ignorance are still prevalent in our society because we do not attempt to learn and understand different cultures in an open-minded and objective manner.
Photo Credit: Johnny Jet