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The future of multiculturalism


Recent events in Europe have called into question the future of multiculturalism as a policy approach in increasingly diverse societies. In Australia, public debate in relation to migrants has, more recently, been focused on issues relating to population growth and asylum seekers but there have been calls for a greater articulation of the Government’s approach to multiculturalism and the issues faced by marginalised groups in the community. A new Parliamentary Library Research Paper examines the history of multiculturalism in Australia and offers context to debates in Australia and overseas.

The situation in Europe

Multiculturalism has recently been described as an utter failure by the German Chancellor, Angela Merkel. Chancellor Merkel argued that the 'multikulti' ideal of foreign workers and German-born citizens living side-by-side had not being achieved and that migrants needed to do more to integrate. Similar issues with migrant populations are now a persistent and common concern across Western Europe.

A number of high profile public officials had, prior to Merkel’s recent speech, claimed that migrants from Turkey and other Arab countries had not integrated into German society. A book by a board member of Germany’s central bank argued that most of the cultural and economic problems in the country were concentrated in groups of immigrants from Muslim countries. However, in the speech to the Christian Democratic Union party in which she declared multiculturalism to have failed, Merkel did not criticise Muslims and referred to previous comments by the German President that 'Islam belongs in Germany'.

Other events in Europe have also raised questions over the success of multiculturalism as a policy in dealing with large movements of people from within and outside Europe and in building social cohesion amongst the diverse populations of European states. Recent events symptomatic of this include the Swedish election in September which saw the nationalist Swedish Democrats enter parliament for the first time, winning 20 seats, after a campaign in which the party argued that migrants, particularly Muslims, are failing to integrate into Swedish society and are a burden on the welfare state. The Dutch election in June saw the right-wing Freedom Party more than double its seats after a campaign based primarily on an anti-Islam stance while the party’s leader, Geert Wilders, is now on trial for alleged discrimination and incitement of hatred against Muslims. Following the highly publicised expulsion of hundreds of Roma people from France in August, the lower-house of the French National Assembly has approved a Bill which extends powers to denaturalise foreign-born citizens for committing certain crimes. The Bill also includes measures to make it easier to expel foreigners considered a burden on the welfare system.

The situation in Australia

In Australia, recent debate at the national level in relation to migrants has focused more on issues relating to population growth and to asylum seekers rather than social cohesion and multiculturalism. Significant legislation and policies aimed at promoting inclusiveness and embracing the diversity of the population continue to be developed at the state, territory and local level in Australia, suggesting a support for multiculturalism at odds with the negative trend occurring overseas. However, in terms of a national approach, the Labor Government has yet to articulate and promote a new multicultural policy despite calls from the advisory body on multicultural issues that it established.

Australia has long recognised itself as an immigrant-receiving country and has a long history of debate over ethno-cultural diversity and the integration of migrants. While issues similar to those being discussed in Europe have been a feature of the debate in Australia, the policy context and responses by governments have been markedly different.

New publication

A new Research Paper from the Parliamentary Library, Multiculturalism: a review of Australian policy statements and recent debates in Australia and overseas, by Elsa Koleth, examines the development of Australia's multicultural policies within the context of domestic and international debate on issues such as integration, social cohesion and immigration. The Research Paper's analysis of this debate allows Merkel's comments to be understood within the context of an ongoing backlash against what are perceived to be failed integration policies and growing concern with the compatibility of certain forms of Islam and the secular (though historically Christian) democracies of Western Europe.

In her paper, Koleth finds that while a concern for social cohesion has also been a key feature of Australia's approach to multiculturalism, Australian policy has developed beyond programs to assist migrant settlement and integration. Multiculturalism has become 'a pillar of Australia's nation building narratives'. A question exists now as to the relevance of these narratives and whether they can be expanded to encompass an increasingly diverse society, multiple ideas of identity and differing senses of belonging. For policy makers in Australia, Koleth identifies new challenges resulting from changes in the migrant intake and from marginalised groups in the community, especially African migrants, Muslims, refugees and asylum seekers.

The paper emphasises the role played by public discourse in shaping the way multiculturalism is viewed as a concept and as a policy. While Europe engages in a debate bound by notions of national identity versus diversity driven by the perception of migrants as a burden, and by heated arguments as to the place of religious expression within secular democracies, Australia is well placed to renew its own discourse on pluralism and diversity within very different parameters. Koleth's paper offers an understanding of how the parameters of the debate have been set in the past and of the necessity to reinvigorate public engagement with this discourse.

(Image of Angela Merkel by א (Aleph) http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.5/ sourced from Wikimedia Commons http://commons.wikimedia.org/)