Multiculturalism statement stresses diversity, ‘fair go’ and equality but reality is different

Update 21 March 2017: Andrew Jakubowicz in The Conversation comments on the statement. Neroli Colvin and John Tons in New Matilda.

The Prime Minister and two of his ministers have released the government’s multiculturalism statement Multicultural Australia: United, Strong, Successful. Among other matters, the eight-page statement praises Australian diversity and commits the nation to equality of men and women, equality before the law, and equality of opportunity. See also: ABC report; media release.

In his foreword to the statement, the Prime Minister says ‘equality of opportunity – a “fair go”‘ is one of the attributes that defines Australia. ‘At a time of growing global tensions and rising uncertainty, Australia remains a steadfast example of a harmonious, egalitarian and enterprising nation, embracing its diversity.’ The statement itself commences, ‘Australia is the most successful multicultural society in the world’, and goes on, ‘We value our diversity and embrace mutual respect, inclusion, fairness, and compassion’.

The Honest History Book, now becoming available in shops and online, includes five chapters that are relevant to the claims in the government statement about diversity and equality.

Gwenda Tavan of La Trobe University, in her chapter, ‘From those who’ve come across the seas: Immigration and multiculturalism’, says this: ‘Successive generations of politicians and community and business leaders have paid lip-service to the important contribution of immigration to the development of the Australian nation-state while simultaneously reminding us that the best marker of immigrants’ success is their capacity to become invisible, through absorption into the national community.’ (There are 16 references in the multicultural statement to ‘values’, ‘shared values’, and ‘Australian values’. Does value-sharing promote invisibility?)

Carmen Lawrence of the University of Western Australia, former WA premier and federal minister, has a chapter called ‘”Fair go” nation? Egalitarian myth and reality in Australia’, in which she provides evidence that Australian reality (for example, the shares of income and wealth held by proportions of the population) does not match our egalitarian rhetoric, and that even our rhetoric is shared by many other countries around the world. ‘Are we really the nation of a “fair go”‘, asks Lawrence, ‘or are we kidding ourselves? In reality, it seems that our comforting and comfortable egalitarian myth, passed down to us in stories of brothers in the bush and mates in the trenches, is blinding us to the growing divide in our society and the need to do something about it.’

Larissa Behrendt, Eualeyai-Kamillaroi woman and of the University of Technology, Sydney (chapter titled ‘Settlement or invasion? The coloniser’s quandary’) argues that the questions of Indigenous disadvantage and inequality in Australia will never be properly addressed until all Australians properly confront ‘the invasion moment’ of 1788. (This needs to go beyond ritual invocations, like that in the Prime Minister’s foreword of ‘our First Australians, the oldest continuing human culture on earth, who have cared for this country for more than 50,000 years’.)

Stuart Macintyre of the University of Melbourne has a chapter headed ‘Bust and boom: What economic lessons has Australia learned?’) ‘Surveys show’, he says, ‘that Australians feel uncomfortable with increased inequality, but few of the beneficiaries of our generous treatment of capital gains and large superannuation benefits show willingness to give up their advantages’.

Finally, Peter Stanley of UNSW Canberra (‘Australian heroes: Some military mates are more equal than others’) contrasts Australian egalitarian ideals with the adulation accorded Victoria Cross winners and celebrity general Sir John Monash.

20 March 2017 updated

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