Australian History

AUSTRALIAN HISTORY: Harmony Week: How Australia became a multicultural nation on Earth


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#AceHistoryDesk – It’s often said that Australia is the most successful multicultural country on Earth…….He was] basically saying … cultural diversity is a reality in Australia and it’s something to be celebrated not feared.


It’s a positive,” she tells ABC RN’s Rear Vision.

But we didn’t get here by accident.

Thirty per cent of Australians were born overseas and since the arrival of the first Europeans, the country has taken in an estimated 10 million migrants.

Australia’s history is filled with attempts to shape and reshape policies and attitudes towards cultural diversity and immigration – being both welcoming and unwelcoming to those beyond our shores.

White Australia to multiculturalism

The White Australia Policy, formally the Immigration Restriction Act, was introduced in 1901 as a response to anxieties over Chinese arrivals through the gold rush of the 19th century.

It gave British migrants preference over others wishing to move here and had widespread community support.


After World War II, however, the White Australia Policy was gradually dismantled.

At the same time as thousands of refugees arrived in Australia, the government was searching for ways to address a severe worker shortage.

“Populate or perish” became the catchcry of a massive recruitment campaign which saw about 2 million immigrants arrive between 1945 and 1965.

“We are all migrants of either today, yesterday or the day before. Australia is a migrant country, it will always be so,” federal immigration minister Al Grassby told the ABC in 1973.

LaTrobe University’s associate politics professor Gwenda Tavan describes that as a significant moment in our history.

She says the 1970s were focused on policies and programs to help new arrivals integrate into society.

“From 1945 well into the 1970s many of the immigrants that were coming … were low skilled, and it was pretty soon evident that if you were of a non-English speaking background and you were low-skilled you were more likely to suffer social inequality,” she says.

‘The change had gone too far’?

Under Malcolm Fraser’s prime ministership between 1975 to 1983, more than 50,000 Vietnamese refugees were settled in Australia and a series of institutions were created to cater to the country’s increasingly diverse community, including the Special Broadcasting Service (SBS).

“What had been fairly ad-hoc, quasi-community radio stations were professionalised and it became a full-on professional communications strategy,” UTS sociology professor Andrew Jakubowicz says.Former immigration minister Ian MacPhee visits 3EA, an SBS station, in 1979.(Supplied: National Archives of Australia: A12111, 2/1979/25A/4)none

Andrew Markus from Monash University’s School of International, Historical and Philosophical Studies says these moves generated backlash.

The feeling gave rise to the so-called culture wars of the 1980s, when the influences of Thatcherism in the UK and the US Reagan administration reached Australia.

“It produced a reaction, that the change had gone too far … that there had been too much of a concession made,” he says.

“One of their targets was multiculturalism, and what was argued was that multiculturalism … instead of unifying Australia … was actually dividing Australia and embedding differences,” Professor Markus says.

In 1988, the FitzGerald Report on Immigration Policy found some Australians were concerned that the Labor Party was using multicultural policies to bolster their voter numbers.

“Labor had historically been able to establish closer links with ethnic communities,” Dr Tavan says.Former Prime Minister Bob Hawke at a citizenship ceremony in South Australia in 1985.(Supplied: National Archives of Australia: A12111, 3/1985/12B/7)none

“What we get in response is the Hawke government’s National Agenda for a Multicultural Australia … which moved away from an emphasis on migrant needs and migrant rights to cultural expression, to this idea of multiculturalism as something that all Australians have access to.”

‘For all of us, not just for some’

When John Howard became prime minister in 1996, one of his first moves was to remove multicultural funding from the budget.

His election campaign had included the slogan “for all of us, not just for some” and was accompanied by hard-line policies on asylum seeker arrivals.John Howard served as Australia’s prime minister from 1996 to 2007.(Reuters: Mark Baker)none

In the same year, Pauline Hanson appeared onto the political scene, and her ideas changed the tone of public discourse.

“There was a lot of media about Asian street gangs, drugs, those sorts of things … it definitely turned a sufficient number of people fearful of change,” Professor Markus says.Protesters from the ‘No Pride in Hate’ group march in Melbourne.(Getty Images: Darrian Traynor)none

Dr Tavan says today and beyond, Australia continually needs to grapple with the issue of new settlers.

“The work of a society and culture is never done … These conversations about how we integrate people and how we reconcile past, present and future are still very important.”

Harmony Week

On March 21, Australia celebrated Harmony Day, instead of observing the United Nations’ International Day for the Elimination of Racial Discrimination. It’s a celebration of the ways in which ethnic and cultural diversity has enriched the nation, and forms part of an entire week with the same aim: Harmony Week.

Since its introduction in 1999, Harmony Day has become a fixture on the national calendar, with school and community events held across the country.

But some critics of the rebrand, which came into being under the Howard government, argue it was part of a broader plan to change the narrative about multiculturalism in Australia.

“Howard felt that the … critique of Australian racism and discrimination had been too negative. He felt that what Australians wanted to do was celebrate achievements rather than look at the more negative aspects of their past,” Dr Tavan says.

UTS social and political sciences associate professor Christina Ho says: “If you think about those two [days], one is about eliminating racism. It’s action-oriented. The other one is a feel-good concept and there’s nothing wrong with that, but it does take the focus in a different direction.”

“Sometimes in that kind of setting it’s actually difficult to talk about racism, because racism is such a downer,” she says.

“These things are difficult to raise when the setting is â€” we’re all celebrating together.”


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