ODVV interview: The gains of multiculturalism in Australia are worth defending

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Publish Date : 05/18/2020 23:58
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ODVV interview: The gains of multiculturalism...
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Islamophobia is a serious concern in Australia, as throughout the global West. Western governments, Australia included, have not seen Islamophobia as a pressing problem, and have often denied it and indeed practiced it.

Multiculturalism is in a troubled state in many democracies worldwide. According to its leaders, however, Australia stands out as an exception. The former Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull once referred to Australia as “most successful multicultural country in the world.” Scanlon Foundation’s 2017 Mapping Social Cohesion Report found 85 percent of Australians believe multiculturalism is good for their country. The other striking finding by the foundation was that only 3 percent of Australians strongly disagreed that the mingling of different backgrounds improved life in their neighborhood.


Anti-immigrant and xenophobic rhetoric still echoes throughout the national media the same way it holds much ground in the United States and many European states; however, most Australians welcome multiculturalism, and the International Monetary Fund estimates that Australia’s ongoing migration schemes “will add between 0.5-1 percentage points to annual GDP growth” during the 2020-2050 timespan.


Starting in 1901, which is the year Australia declared independence from the United Kingdom, the government put in place the White Australia Policy, aimed at prohibiting people of non-European ethnic origins from immigrating to Australia. Formally known as the Immigration Restriction Act of 1901, the legislation, considered discriminatory by many historians and scholars, was in effect an overt and subtle government-sanctioned policy of racism, and began to be dismantled between 1949 and 1973.


Today, Australia’s population is consisted of people from more than 190 countries and 300 different ancestries. Embracing multiculturalism functioned as a springboard for Australia to become a leading global economic powerhouse. Racism and religious intolerance are realities of the multicultural Australia, and despite government efforts to stamp out discrimination, daily life entails certain challenges for the non-white, immigrant minority of the country of 25 million. Since 1986, Australia has had a dedicated federal Race Discrimination Commissioner, overseeing the enforcement of anti-discrimination legislation in the country.


Scott Poynting is an adjunct professor in the Centre for Islamic Studies and Civilization at Charles Sturt University in Australia. He has published extensively on Islamophobia. He is co-author of “Bin Laden in the Suburbs: Criminalising the Arab Other,” and co-editor of “Global Islamophobia: Muslims and Moral Panic in the West” and of “Media, Crime and Racism.”


In an interview with Organization for Defending Victims of Violence, Prof. Poynting responded to some questions about the depiction of minorities in the Australian media, the surge of anti-Muslim attitudes and discrimination against the aboriginal people in the Oceanic country and the immigration policies of the Australian government. The transcript has been lightly edited for clarity.


Q: A 2019 study by the All Together Now’s Media Monitoring Project found that racism is a systemic issue in the Australian media, and that more than half of race-related opinion pieces in the newspapers portrayed Australia’s minorities in a negative light. Why do you think the media are inclined to run content that involve racist language or themes? Are there effective regulatory measures in place to ensure media don’t widen the racial gaps?
A: The commercial media do this because it sells. In a sense, they help create their own market for this by fomenting moral panic, by blaming the other for contemporary crises, by engaging in or even instigating populist campaigns. The Australian media are not unique in this regard. A cursory look at the British media, especially the tabloids, over the decade up to Brexit, will show the same sort of pattern. Politicians, and especially leading ones of both major parties, get drawn into this process. In doing so, they abandon their responsibility to lead and to educate, in search of electoral popularity that can be mustered by powerful media. Australia’s largest-circulation tabloid newspapers, and its only major national paper, are all owned by Murdoch’s News Corporation. They closely reflect the Murdoch line, which very much supports neo-liberalism, the US-led alliance, and associated notions of civilizational clashes and purported western superiority. In the absence of much alternative, people tend to accept simplistic, ready-made “solutions” to social problems, which express longstanding racist ideologies, thus reinforcing popular prejudices and “folk” understandings.


The major non-commercial countervailing force is the national broadcaster the Australian Broadcasting Corporation, which is nominally independent, though reliant on government funding. This is constantly under attack by rightwing interests, especially in the Murdoch media. Thus they are limited in their counter-hegemonic capacity, their ability to challenge the dominant and received wisdoms. There is very little in the way of regulating the media to mitigate racism. Unless there is blatant incitement of racial hatred or the like, then attempts to prevent racism in the media are strongly opposed by powerful interests as political correctness or as infringements on freedom of the media and of expression more generally.


Q: Australia is believed to be the only country in the world mandating immigration detention for all “unlawful” arrivals. In the recent years, the immigration policies of Australia were significantly toughened, meaning that it maintains one of the strictest punitive policies on forced immigration in the world. Why is Australia cracking down on immigration?
A: We need to distinguish between immigration policies and asylum policies. I don’t think immigration policies as such have changed all that much in recent years. Australia still has a sizeable immigration intake, which is formally non-discriminatory – the notorious “White Australia” policy having been progressively abandoned in the late 1960s and the 1970s. Facility in English, level of education, profession, age, and other criteria are officially used in selection of immigrants. This is driven by economic needs.


What has been toughened, of course, since the 1990s, is the entry of asylum seekers by sea. There is bipartisan party-political support for the tough measures, especially since they proved so popular for the Howard government in the 2001 election. This was not pre-ordained; it was cynically and opportunistically manipulated by the Howard government. Indeed, in the wake of the wars in Indo-China, in the 1970s the conservative Fraser government took a humane response to “boat people” asylum seekers – it helped, of course, that many were anti-communist. This was despite some racist backlash at that time, in which Howard became implicated, incidentally. After 2001, the policies to deter boat people – while we should remember that mandatory detention was first introduced by a Labor government in the late 1990s – were reinforced by War on Terror suspicions and Clash of Civilizations ideology, given that many asylum seekers from that period were coming from Afghanistan and Iraq. The numbers of asylum seekers arriving in Australia are tiny in comparison to the overall immigration, and even at the times of the panics over maritime arrivals, were tiny compared to refugee flows globally – for obvious geographic reasons. It is all about ideology – and much of that racializing ideology.


Q: The proponents of Australia’s immigration policies say the Australian society has willingly embraced multiculturalism and that major Australian cities have achieved a high degree of migrant integration, such as Sydney, in which 42 percent of urban residents were born overseas. Is Australia a welcoming country for immigrants?
A: This first proposition is true of Australia from the early 1970s under the Whitlam Labor government, with multiculturalism actually expanded under the subsequent Fraser conservative coalition government. A highly diverse population, culturally and linguistically, was a reality since the immense post-WWII immigration program. White Australia had been abandoned, and assimilation policies were widely recognized as unrealistic and unfair. There was some resistance, but multiculturalism had support from the preponderance of the population and from both the main political parties. It worked, and it was compatible with Australian cultures of egalitarianism and fairness. In terms of provision for the needs of immigrants, and accommodation of their culture and language, Australia was one of the most welcoming of nations, up there almost with Canada, on whose multiculturalism Australia’s was modeled.


All of this is notwithstanding the realities of the ongoing legacies of imperialism and white colonialism and western ethnocentrism. Racism remained widespread in Australia throughout the period of official and popular multiculturalism. The bipartisan support for multiculturalism broke down in the late 1990s, with the advent of rightwing racist populism into parliamentary politics [marked by] the election of Pauline Hanson and the founding of the One Nation party, then its increasing accommodation and adoption by the Howard government. Its electoral effectiveness, as a small, but possibly determinant force, led to Labor governments also giving respectability and voice to some rightwing populist notions, including notions that minority culture immigrants had been receiving special privileges under multiculturalism.


Q: Are you particularly concerned about the rise of Islamophobia in Australia? The 15 March 2019 terror attacks in Christchurch, New Zealand were carried out by an Australian white supremacist. Australian Security and Intelligence Organization director general Mike Burgess warned after the tragedy that some right-wing extremists have been inspired by the events in New Zealand. Is the government taking the threat of Islamophobia seriously?
A: Islamophobia is a serious concern in Australia, as throughout the global West. It has been so since about 1990, with an upsurge at the time if the 1990-1 US-led war against Iraq. Since 9/11, of course, it has become endemic. Western governments, Australia included, have not seen Islamophobia as a pressing problem, and have often denied it and indeed practiced it. In recent years, rightwing anti-Muslim and anti-immigrant extremism has been viewed as a problem, recognized in official rhetoric, but largely ignored. Since the Christchurch atrocity especially, there has been some belated attention to white supremacist terrorists, but Islamophobia is tolerated in the mainstream, and the connections between mainstream and extreme are routinely denied.


Q: A survey Australian National University and Western Sydney University conducted in 2019 revealed that 40% of students in years five to nine from non-Anglo or European backgrounds, including close to 20% of students from Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander background have experienced racial discrimination from their peers at school. Is discrimination in education a serious issue in Australia that hasn’t been tackled?
A: I am not familiar with the methodology of that project, but the findings that you recount do not surprise me. It would be important to disaggregate the different cultural backgrounds, and also to get an idea of how these young people perceive and experience this racial discrimination. What sort of things count here? Those whom colleagues and I have interviewed over the years have recognized the numerous little everyday racisms, but tend to dismiss these. Events that are more significant or have an impact on their lives are rarer. What does surprise me is that the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander figure, given the social realities to which you refer, is so low. There may be different thresholds of perception, or what’s seen as worth mentioning, operating here. You really should ask Professor Dunn and his colleagues about this research.

Discrimination remains a major issue in Australian education, as indeed in Australian society more broadly. Well-meaning initiatives in schools aimed at promoting harmony and celebrating diversity have tended, over the decades, to be superficial and ineffectual.


Q: What are the factors underpinning the prejudices and inequalities faced by Australia’s Indigenous communities? The life expectancy of Aboriginal and Torres Trait Islander people is about ten years lower than the other Australians. There is a 11% unemployment gap between the Indigenous and non-Indigenous Australians. Studies show the Indigenous school students perform remarkably poorly as compared to non-Indigenous students. What are your thoughts?
A: White-settler colonialism, to sum these factors up. Indigenous people are the most discriminated against group in the Australian population, by a long way. In addition to the social indicators that you mentioned, of health, unemployment and education, we could add income and wealth inequality, housing inequality, and discrimination in the criminal justice system – levels of imprisonment, for instance. The historical expropriation or theft of land by the colonizers, destruction of way of life and cultural genocide are perpetuated in the denial of humanity of the first peoples of this land, and the denial and rationalization of these processes. There are some important recognitions and cultural changes taking place, long struggled for by Indigenous people and their movements. Land rights would be the foremost. Yet these have yet to make much impact on the measures of social inequality that you list.


Q: According to a 2018 report by the Australian Human Rights Commission, of the 2,490 most senior posts in Australian state and federal governments, 95% are retained by white people. Why isn’t Australia’s cultural and racial diversity reflected in its national and political leadership? Do you consider Australia’s experience with multiculturalism a success story or a failure?
A: Australia’s cultural and ethnic diversity is not reflected in its national and political leadership because it is a highly unequal society. There are very effective mechanisms of exclusion which are difficult to pin down and prove in individual instances, and yet individual discrimination is the main form that is addressed in policy and in public consciousness, no matter how obvious the patterns of unequal representation. This is also the case for women’s lack of representation and denial of power at these levels. There is progressive change, but it is slow and always resisted.

Australia’s multiculturalism was highly successful from the early 70 to late 90s, in terms of opening up access and extending equity to cultural and linguistic minorities. It was also, however, an effective strategy for managing diversity and did little to overturn arguably – sustaining – fundamental inequalities. It was a result of struggle against cultural exclusion and assimilation, and the gains made in this struggle are worth defending and extending. It is not a magic formula against racism.


By: Kourosh Ziabari

“ ODVV interview: The gains of multiculturalism in Australia are worth defending ”