Multicultural challenge Down Under

February 22, 2007|By Herbert London

In 1966, Australia's trade with Japan exceeded its trade with the United States and with Britain. At that moment, it became increasing difficult for Australia to maintain the exclusionary "White Australia" policy.

That, of course, didn't stop Australian officials from trying. In fact, the Japanese at first were considered "Caucasian" under immigration provisions. But that stance was obviously unsustainable. Gradually and incrementally, the policy was revised to treat Asians as equals with Europeans.

However, the liberalized immigration policy did not address the domestic condition of new immigrants. Was it desirable to have them integrated into Australian life? If so, how was this to be achieved? Or did it make more sense to have the immigrants relate to the larger culture through a form of modest separation - what can be described as cultural pluralism?

For decades, Australia countenanced the latter position, celebrating the cultural diversity of its immigrant population. However, it is now clear that this celebration has turned into questioning and criticism. In some cases, physical separation has led to divisions in matters of national loyalty and adherence to national laws. As a consequence, the government is moving from British-style multiculturalism to a policy of integration.

Although it may seem trivial, Australia has changed the name of its Department of Immigration and Multicultural Affairs to the Department of Immigration and Citizenship. This move is one manifestation of an intense debate about what it means to be Australian, as rising nationalism is fueled by worries that the nation is being torn apart by competing immigrant value systems.

Several incidents in which local Islamic groups have pledged loyalty to Shariah instead of the Australian Constitution may be the catalyst for this national debate. Prime Minister John Howard has often voiced his displeasure with multiculturalism, but now he is acting to tighten requirements for attaining citizenship, including extending the waiting period and promoting a written test for new citizens.

Malcolm Turnbull, erstwhile parliamentary secretary in Mr. Howard's center-right Liberal Party, gave voice to this policy shift by noting, "There was a time in the 1990s when I feared that multiculturalism was heading to a stage where the concept of Australia would cease to exist. So concerned were we about our ethnic or cultural backgrounds, we would forget what we were today, and Australia would be seen less as a nation than as just a place where people lived but did not call home."

The newly assertive voices on this matter are saying Australia is a liberal, democratic, English-speaking society, and it is up to new arrivals to adjust to this reality. About 25 percent of Australians were born outside the country, more than in any other nation except Israel. The debate is addressing the question of how far Australia should modify its identity in order to accommodate new arrivals.

In December 2005, a mob of white Australian youths, incensed by what they considered the harassment of women by Lebanese youths gathered on a Sydney beach, went on a rampage, beating anyone with a Middle Eastern appearance. This riot left a scar on the nation that is still visible.

Muslim residents contend that the policy shift is a form of discrimination that suggests that if you aren't white, you are "less equal." But Prime Minister Howard has addressed this concern squarely: "You can't have a nation with a federation of cultures. You can have a nation where a whole variety of cultures constantly influence and mold and change and blend in with the mainstream. The core culture of this nation is very clear; we are an offshoot of Western civilization."

Mr. Howard knows what he believes and believes what he knows. Moreover, he is unafraid to speak his mind, as he showed recently in condemning Sen. Barack Obama's misguided call for a timeline to deploy troops from Iraq.

In a Western environment where the force of political correctness prevails, it is difficult to assert the superiority of Australian culture. To do so invites opprobrium from the multiculturalists. But no amount of criticism can change reality.

Mr. Howard and Australia deserve congratulations for doing what is appropriate and right. If only we had a John Howard in the United States.

Herbert London is president of Hudson Institute and professor emeritus of New York University. He is the author of "Decade of Denial." His e-mail is herb@hudson.org.

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