Welcome to what? A note on immigration, multiculturalism and ‘Australian values’

Update 19 March 2018: proposal by Minister Dutton to bring white South African farmers to Australia is linked by Jon Piccini in The Conversation to a historic Australian whiteness trope.

Update 19 October 2017: the Government’s proposed citizenship changes fail to pass the Senate.

Update 28 June 2017: release of the 2016 Census results raises interesting questions about the discrepancy between claimed ‘Australian values’ and our ethnic diversity.

Update 26 June 2017: piece on the alleged links between national security and a commitment by recent arrivals to ‘Australian values’.

Update 14 June 2017: another flurry as the prime minister speaks in Parliament, Bill Shorten has concerns, Minister Dutton wedges, and Misty Adoniou asks whether even long-term residents could pass the test. Hansard (lots of references from Turnbull and Shorten to ‘values’).

Update 18 May 2017: David Stephens on fighting for values.

Update 25 April 2017: more on Pearls and Irritations from Peter Hughes, former deputy secretary of the Immigration Department.

Update 23 April 2017: Greg Jericho in Guardian Australia. Jericho quotes the prime minister:

“What we will, the answer is yes, but the discussion paper that Peter’s department has released is going to engage public discussion on this, as indeed Phil Ruddock and Connie Fierravanti-Wells’ work did a little while ago, and that’s been a valuable part of that too, but I think it is a, I think we understand, you know, Australians have an enormous reservoir of good sense, and we know that our values of mutual respect, equality of men and women, democracy, freedom, rule of law, those values, a fair go, they are fundamental Australian values.”

The discussion paper from the Department of Immigration and Border Protection.

Update 21 April 2017: PM Turnbull interviewed by Leigh Sales. Barnaby Joyce stream of consciousness starting with Judeao-Christian principles and moving on to Clean Up Australia Day. Commentary by Michelle Grattan. Explainer by Alex Reilly. Says Grattan:

The “values” message from the citizenship changes is much bolder and cruder [than tidying up the 457 scheme]. It is also potentially alarming, because it exploits people’s suspicions of “outsiders” and could provoke division rather than inclusion in our multicultural society.

Kristina Keneally says ‘Turnbull and Dutton are appealing to nativist, xenophobic and racist attitudes for base political purposes’.

Update 20 April 2017: Australian values to be emphasised in revamped citizenship test.

Fairfax report: At present, citizenship applicants sit a 20-question test and must correctly answer at least 75 per cent. The quiz asks factual multiple-choice questions about Anzac Day, Australia’s system of government and the colours of the Aboriginal flag.

The new quiz will not dump these questions, but “values-based” questions will be added to assess would-be citizens’ understanding of and commitment to “Australian values”.


Prime Minister Turnbull’s remarks this week about the changes to the 457 visa scheme had lots of references to something called ‘Australian values’, as commentator Michelle Grattan noted in The Conversation:

Whatever the arguments for the changes governing foreign skilled workers announced by Malcolm Turnbull, make no mistake – this is about an embattled government wanting to send a strong political message. One clue was Turnbull’s reference to placing first not just Australian jobs, but “Australian values”. He made mention of “Australian values” both in his Facebook video and his news conference, when announcing the replacement of the 457 visa. In this context, “Australian values” is itself a value-laden term. (Emphasis added.)

In his interview with Ross Greenwood on 2GB, the prime minister said this:

At the end of the day, look, migration, Ross, we are a migration nation. We’re the most successful multicultural society in the world. We are proud of our migration record, our migration system but it has got to serve our national interest. And the fundamental requirement that we have, and every other country has is to protect our own citizens. Our Australians for Australian jobs. (Emphasis added.)

The next morning, Mr Turnbull said this to Kim Landers on AM:

Well certainly there will be more opportunities for Australians to get jobs. The reality is that we have to make sure that Australian jobs are for Australians first and foremost. This is about putting Australians first, Australian jobs first, Australian values first. (Emphasis added.)

And again, a few minutes later, at an ACCI breakfast, there was a long, rambling description of the nature of Australia, as the prime minister saw it:

We are an immigration nation. We are the most successful multicultural society in the world … [I]n the midst of this extraordinary diversity we have maintained our Australian values of freedom, democracy and the rule of law and a unique sense of fairness alongside a spirit of enterprise …

And in a world of conflict, we are a harmonious mixture of races, cultures and faiths, where mutual respect has made our differences a strength, not a weakness. Our Australian values have united us … Australia must continue to attract people who will embrace our values and positively contribute – regardless of their nationality or religious beliefs …

We have secured our borders. We are reforming migration. We are putting Australians and Australian jobs and Australian values and Australia’s national interest first.

Australian values have survived, it seems, the arrival of immigrants from 200 countries, keeping us united even as new waves of immigrants arrive. Immigrants, in their turn, obligingly subscribe to our values, they embrace them.

David Marr’s recent Quarterly Essay, The White Queen: One Nation and the Politics of Race, includes a number of statistics from the Monash University Scanlon Foundation surveys of attitudes to multiculturalism and related matters. This quote from the survey coordinator, Professor Andrew Markus, is key: ‘Eighty-five per cent think multiculturalism is a good thing … But the underlying thing is that, nonetheless, multiculturalism for most people is about integration.’

If the prime minister is right, integration involves embracing Australian values – freedom, democracy and the rule of law, fairness, enterprise. These values are, of course, not uniquely Australian but commonplace in Western liberal democracies. Is there then something else in the Australian values mix that is perhaps less admirable? Then there is the inherent contradiction between, on one hand, an acceptance of multiculturalism – the presence of people and cultures (and values) from many countries – and, on the other, a desire for integration around something labelled ‘Australian values’.

Gwenda Tavan brings out something of this contradiction in her chapter in The Honest History Book, recently published by NewSouth. The chapter is called ‘From those who’ve come across the seas: Immigration and multiculturalism’ and in it Dr Tavan writes about our failure ‘to close the gap between our multicultural reality and the narratives we have so far used to define ourselves’. There is a reluctance among some of us to recognise that ‘Australia has been fundamentally changed by its immigration experiences’.

Successive generations of politicians and community and business leaders have paid lip-service [says Dr Tavan] 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…

Dr Tavan uses the term ‘Anglo-nativism’ to encapsulate the central spirit of the national community. Is Anglo-nativism the other ingredient lurking beneath the prime minister’s generic Western liberal set of values? David Marr put it another way in his description of Pauline Hanson: ‘Hanson is what she’s always been: a white woman speaking for old white Australia’. As Michelle Grattan said, ‘”Australian values” is itself a value-laden term’.

The Honest History Book also includes chapters by Stuart Macintyre and Carmen Lawrence on the gap between the supposed Australian value of egalitarianism (‘fairness’ in the prime minister’s version) and modern unequal realities, and by Larissa Behrendt on the need for all Australians to see Indigenous history and culture as integral to our history.

David Stephens

19 April 2017 updated


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