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Australia's Questionable Multiculturalism

Is Australia truly multicultural? Under the guise of celebrating diversity, Tiffany Fong uncovers the truth to Australia’s attitude to - wards multiculturalism.

Australia has a complex and paradoxical re - lationship with multiculturalism and buried racism. Our rich and diverse history has always included the story of immigrants and refugees who were vital to Australia’s nation-building, yet these stories are often buried by tales of the British.

The rich diversity and multiculturalism in Australia has been paraded since the 1970s, celebrating the range of cultures who have built a home in this country. However, Australia continues to struggle with racism and bigotry, conveniently ignoring issues with racism or reacting defensively to them. Australia’s tension between multiculturalism and racism is evident within various government policies and media narratives ingrained within the national psyche.

As pointed out in a speech delivered by Dr Tim Soutphommasane, Australia’s former Race Discrimination Commissioner, “In a multicultural country, common identity isn’t defined in ethnic or racial terms”. It seems that as various ethnicities assimilate into the Australian identity, Australian society forgets that except for our First Nations peoples, everyone in this country was an immigrant at one point.

Various tensions exist within Australia’s migration policies, as well as its treatment of people of colour. Australia has been publicly shamed by the United Nations for its horrifying treatment of refugees, yet our refugee resettlement program is incredibly successful. Or, we could talk about how 84 percent of respondents to The Scanlon Foundation’s survey agreed that “multiculturalism has been good for Australia”, and 71 per cent believed that “accepting immigrants from many different countries make Australia stronger.” Yet many of the respondents reported having negative views towards people from Africa, Asia and the Middle East, and oppose the government providing assistance to ethnic minorities to maintain their customs and tra - ditions.

In other words, Australia would like to reap all the benefits of multiculturalism without grappling with the messiness, vibrancy, and liveliness it brings with it.

In 2017, Dr Southphommasane criticised a Bill to “Strengthen the Requirements for Australian Citizenship”, where applicants would be required to reach an International English Learning Standard (IELTS) of Level 6. He noted that, “Many Australian-born citizens would not possess a written or spoken command of English equivalent to this standard” - a damning comment about both the Bill and Australia’s education system, highlighting the hypocrisy of the requirement. Since 2016, the number of people who use a language other than English at home has increased by nearly 800 000 people.

According to 2011 figures from the Australian Bureau of Statistics, while migrants contribute an estimated fiscal benefit of over $10 billion in their first ten years of settlement, countless barriers still exist. It is well known that recent migrants often face hurdles finding their first jobs despite being qualified or even overqualified for the positions they are applying for. Many of these difficulties arw due to a lack of Australian work experience or references, language difficulties, lacking a local network, or having their skills and qualifications not recognised according to the Australian Human Rights Commission.

The recent COVID-19 lockdowns brought many of Australia’s racist attitudes to the forefront. Donald Trump’s reference to COVID-19 as the ‘Chinese Virus’ not only sparked Asian hate in America, but globally.

Following the pandemic, the Stanton Foundation found that 47 per cent of respondents held negative views towards Chinese Australians, while Asian Australians also reported that 39 per cent of them experienced heightened discrimination increased during the pandemic.

While racism can simmer in society’s undercurrent, individuals who experience it often have a hard time making a complaint about it. When comments are made under a person’s breath or out in public, often it is easier to swallow the discomfort than make a scene. Even when complaints are made to employers, corporations, government or officers, an apology may be made but there are no long-term reparations or policy changes to address the root of the issue. A PR response to address the wrongdoing, but ultimately one that demonstrates that it really isn’t that big of a deal.

In an interview with the ABC, David Le stated that, “No matter the life I may be able to forge in culturally-diverse Sydney, it is improbable that I will ever be seen as an equal in this country.” Racism affects a broad range of people, from Indigenous communities, refugees, temporary migrant workers, people who speak a language other than English as their first language or temporary visa holders and migrants that have been here for over 20 years.

Yet racism does not only affect those who moved to Australia. Indigenous Australians have faced oppression and racism ever since the First Fleet landed. From the removal of Indigenous children the government agencies and church missions until 1969, forced assimilation, and the false declaration of terra nullius racist and oppressive policies have had an undeniable and ongoing impact on Indigenous people as institutional racism continues to trickle down to individuals. In 2020, the Australian government acknowledged that Indigenous people continue to face entrenched disadvantages due to institutional racism in areas such as the healthcare, education and the justice system.

Further barriers exist when attempting to address institutional and systemic racism that may be a culmination of little things that are not felt by a single individual, but by a community as a collective. The Australian Human Rights Commission has noted that racist attacks are significantly under-reported due to barriers in accessing justice but also the lack of concrete change it is likely to result in. In March 2022, the Diversity Council report found that 43 per cent of non-White Austra - lian employees commonly experience racism at work, but only 18 per cent of White work - ers reported racism as a problem. The huge gap reveals the glaring disparity regarding the lived experience of racism and perceived experience of racism.

In the 2021 Census, 48.2 per cent of Australians have a parent born overseas and 27.6 per cent of the population was born overseas as well. While the rich multicultural community Australia has is undeniable, the overall global trend in western political climates and uptick of individuals experiencing and reporting racism does indicate a growing problem. When intolerance and xenophobia is expressed and shrouded in far-right nationalist rhetoric that is increasingly threatening and violent, placing whole communities at risk.

As our world becomes increasingly globalised and various people from various cultures begin to settle into and call Australia home, it is important to have open and honest conversations about cultural differences and address racism head on.


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