On MULTICULTURALISM, Its Progress & Challenges

A Contribution to the Multicultural Community Council of NSW – By Dr Andrew Theophanous

As explained in my book, Understanding Multiculturalism and Australian Identity, I set out 6 points relating to Multiculturalism:

“(i) the civil and political rights of the Western liberal democratic model;

(ii) the commitment to a comprehensive concept of social justice based on social rights. Modern Australian society, with its everyday notions of a ‘fair go’, equality, and our admiration for a classless society, continues to develop this social justice tradition…. this version of Multiculturalism should be linked to an extension of this spirit of egalitarianism and Social Justice, which was found in a more limited form in earlier Australia. If we can show the interconnection between Multiculturalism and a clearly defined comprehensive concept of social justice, we shall have the basis for a further understanding of Australian identity and a vision of where we can go in the future as an enlightened, yet unified nation”.

The contribution which Multiculturalism makes to social cohesion in Australia thus incorporates elements of traditional culture as well as important new principles. Former Prime Minister Keating recognised this in his address to the Global Cultural Diversity Conference held in Sydney: he describes the heart of Multiculturalism as:

           “(iii) Multiculturalism as the major response to the diversity that exists in Australian society. It is a policy for managing the consequences of that diversity in the interests of all. This entails a policy which guarantees rights and imposes responsibilities. The rights include those of cultural identity – the right to express and share individual cultural heritage, including language and religion. The right to Social Justice – the right of every Australian to equality of treatment and opportunity, regardless of race, ethnicity, religion, language, gender or place of birth.

     (iv) Multiculturalism as also requiring a commitment to certain responsibilities which can be summarised as follows: that the first loyalty of all Australians must be to Australia, to its interests and its future; that all Australians must accept the basic principles of Australian society, including the Constitution and the rule of law, parliamentary democracy, freedom of speech and religion, English as the national language, equality of the sexes and the right of every Australian to express his or her views and values.

           (v)  Multiculturalism as the essential balance in the diversity of cultures equation: it is the promotion of individual and collective cultural rights and expression, on the one hand; and on the other, the promotion of common national interests and values. And success depends on demonstrating that each side of the equation serves the other.[i]

(vi) Another major feature of Multiculturalism is the respect for comprehensive HUMAN RIGHTS, beyond civil rights. It is this which provides the normative foundation for the United Nations Universal Declaration of Human Rights. THE UN Declaration is fundamental not only to Multiculturalism, but to democracy itself. The concept of universal human rights has been incorporated in many of the laws and regulations adopted in Australia. These relate to the policy of and philosophy of Multiculturalism. However, there continues to be a need for the parliament to adopt an Australian Bill of Rights.”

Many of these positive ideas on Multiculturalism are developed in my book Understanding Multiculturalism and Australian identity. Here are two reviews of my book from prominent Multiculturalism academics:

“In this book, Andrew Theophanous addresses the ‘big picture’ issues of culture, nation, identity and the public sphere. His sights range from a broad, philosophical inquiry into the nature of civic pluralism to the detailed logistics of the politics Multiculturalism in Australia… thoroughly researched data, reasoned analysis and a philosophically informed vision of the realm of citizenship.”

Professor Mary Kalantzis, formerly James Cook University and now at the University of Chicago USA.

“There is no other definitive book on Australian multiculturalism. Andrew Theophanous has filled this gap with his polemical, but thoroughly scholarly work which I commend”.

 Dr James Jupp, Australian National University

For a number of years, this book was used as a text in some Australian Universities. Academia. Edu. refers to many references to this book by modern scholars to this day. You can find more information in my website www.andrewtheophanous.com


In my book , I refer to philosophical arguments which explain the key features of Multiculturalism. A major source here is the work of Charles Taylor, who produces arguments that a modern nation must be Multicultural.  Taylor in his book, The Politics of Recognition does not accept the view that a single cultural form achieves a national identity. Rather, on his view, a real national identity in a modern nation should be the consequence of a ‘fusion’ of various cultural principles and beliefs. Underpinning this ‘fusion’ is the fundamental belief that: There are other cultures, and we have to live together more and more, both on a world scale and commingled in each individual society.1

It follows, according to Taylor, that a true national identity in culturally diverse societies must be based on equal respect for the worth of diverse cultures. Taylor argues that this is achieved through a “fusion of cultures”. This phenomenon has been called ‘integration’ in the context of Australian Multiculturalism. Supporting this view, Taylor mentions that most of these different cultures in societies like Australia have a longstanding presence in human history. They all “articulated their sense of the good, the holy, the admirable – are almost certain to have something that deserves our admiration and respect, even if it is accompanied by much that we have to abhor and reject.”

In my book, I argue that for Taylor to sustain this theory of the ‘fusion of cultures’,  e relies on certain fundamental  principles of Social Justice and international human rights  – which I have mentioned above  and which need to  be independently philosophically justified.


One issue that now arises is: “How can policies promoting Multiculturalism diversity embrace

indigenous culture and assist in the process of reconciliation?” 

Clearly, the experiences of this country’s Indigenous people differ in many aspects from the experiences of recently arrived people from non-English speaking backgrounds.  I would argue, however, that Indigenous and migrant Australians share a number of key goals and can work together in a common political agenda. This point is explored in the consideration of general Multiculturalism issues in this paper. However, the general issue is a matter that I have explored in another published paper.

In my view, multicultural policies implemented at all levels of Australian society have been a fundamental and demonstrated factor in the building of the Australian nation. This has arisen through the concrete adoption of the philosophy of Multiculturalism by  a number of Australian Federal Governments and state governments. We now have a situation in which the multicultural model that we have been offering to the world has impacted globally, especially on Western nations.

Notwithstanding the positive features of Multiculturalism as a policy and philosophy, there have been many attacks on it. The major attack comes from those who claim that Multiculturalism is a threat to a socially cohesive society.  I now wish to address these arguments.


The argument relating to social cohesion has been used to attack Multiculturalism, especially after the election of the Liberal-National Federal Governments in Australia, and the rise of Pauline Hanson as a political phenomenon.  There are four aspects to this attack which I shall now refer to:

  1. During these conservative periods there was a dramatic rise in attacks on multiculturalism, on the immigration program and on Aboriginal reconciliation by a number of conservative groups, several of them racist.
  2. The weak response by Prime Ministers Abbott and Morrison to these attacks, combined with a series of cutbacks in the policy of multicultural affairs, can be interpreted as concessions to the anti-immigration, anti-multicultural, anti-aboriginal and anti-Asian sentiments – as originated by extreme right wing movements.
  3.   The abolition of the Office of Multicultural Affairs by the Howard Government was followed by and the downgrading of multicultural programs. These attacks on Multiculturalism have come at a time when Australians have increasingly raised doubts about their place in the world and their own socio-cultural identity, especially in the context of greater economic and technological crises at a global level.
  4. Multiculturalism should have been used as a philosophy to assist in the resolution of these issues.  Instead, it has been the central target in the attack by conservatives who have made the claim that social cohesion and unity are threatened by multicultural philosophy and practice.  Most ethnic organisations in Australia do not accept this proposition.

In response consider the following arguments in favour of Multiculturalism:

  • The most fundamental criticism raised against Multiculturalism has been from those who have claimed that it is in contradiction with Australian national identity. Such critics see Multiculturalism as a philosophy which is in direct opposition to social solidarity and to those elements of Australian social life which contribute to our sense of nationhood and even our identity.

I believe that these critics are mistaken. What I shall attempt to show is that Multiculturalism, properly understood, is a philosophy which is indispensable in a society like ours if we are to have any genuine sense of our Australian identity and of our future. Far from Multiculturalism being in conflict with the traditions of our national identity, I maintain­ that (properly understood) it has, as its essential feature, a comprehensive concept of Social Justice and human rights. In my book Understanding Multiculturalism, I present many arguments that demonstrate that this same concept of Social Justice has also been a positive element in Australian history and tradition and identity, long before the develop­ment of Australia as a multicultural nation. I state in my book: Thus, to properly understand Australian identity and especially where it is heading, I shall take up the challenge of bringing together the great Australian tradition of social justice with the ideals of a multicultural society. I shall seek to show that the synthesis of these two traditions can be achieved at the social, political and philosophical level.”

(2) As a number of commentators and historians have indicated, establishing what the Australian identity was, even prior to the mass immigration beginning in 1945, is not an easy matter.  Besides the prominence of the English language and Anglo-Celtic culture, there has been a second important strand in the earlier Australian identity, that of egalitarianism and Social Justice. In many ways this element of Australian identity was a rejection of key aspects of British society, such as class, and all the trappings of British class structure.  There is no doubt that this egalitarianism drew on developments throughout Europe, such as the French Revolution and European philosophical traditions.

(3) This egalitarian strand in the Australian identity has been part of Australian history for more than one hundred and fifty years. Thus, reflecting on Australian history, Ronald Mendelsohn states that ‘there emerged a rough, aggressive, but fleeting feeling of patriotism on the one hand, and on the other, an assertion that all men were equal and had equal rights, that privilege and prejudice were to be left behind in the old countries, and that everyone had the right to a chance in life’.[ii] In the late Nineteenth and early Twentieth centuries, Australian society was a trail-blazer in the implementation of the ideas of fairness and equality of opportunity. We were among the first countries to extend the right to vote to women; to adopt the minimum basic wage; to introduce reasonable unemployment benefits and to provide services in health, education and welfare to all citizens.

(4) This is not to deny that there was a negative side to this egalitarianism which compromised the concept of Social Justice: this included t­he rejection of other cultures and other traditions.  This point has been supported by many arguments made by Elaine Thompson in her book Fair Enough: Egalitarianism in Australia. The ideal that they sought at that time, according to Thompson, was ‘a white Anglo-Egalitarian democracy’.[iii] This exclusion of other cultures was reinforced by the emphasis on the British aspect of Australian identity. This led to the adoption of the “white Australia” immigration policy.

  • Nevertheless, there is clear evidence that Multiculturalism in Australia does not, and has not, threatened the British-based democratic institutions or the centrality of English as the national language of Australia, and no sensible multicultural philosophy would do so, given our historical traditions.


In 1989, the Social Justice dimension was incorporated into the policy of multiculturalism, with the adoption by the Federal Government of the National Agenda for a Multicultural Australia.[iv] To what extent have governments and other organisations in Australia succeeded in the implementation of the basic dimensions of Multiculturalism as set out in the National Agenda for a Multicultural Australia which was adopted by the Hawke/Keating governments? How much has been achieved and what else is there left to do? Clearly the actions of conservative Federal Governments have undermined key aspects of multiculturalism, as set out in the National Agenda. This has included the following:

1.  The undermining of the Social Justice dimension of Multiculturalism through the diminution of the Access and Equity program and the failure to put into place much needed additional actions and policies in that program.

2.  The virtual destruction of the cultural identity dimension by the closure of the Office of Multicultural Affairs and the continuing cuts at both federal and state government levels, to programs intended to support maintenance of cultural diversity.

In relation to the issue of Social Justice, notice that in the National Agenda, Social Justice is defined as follows: the right of all Australians to equality of treatment and opportunity, and the removal of barriers of race, ethnicity, culture, religion, language, gender or place of birth.

Nevertheless, critics of Australian Multiculturalism raise the question: just what concept of Social Justice is valid when we speak of multiculturalism?  While this may be a valid question, I believe that we can achieve a consensus in Australia as to the meaning of this concept of Social Justice. In my book Understanding Social Justice: An Australian Perspective, I seek to establish a generally accepted concept of Social Justice in terms of four key elements:

1.  The provision of a basic income for all people (usually through a process of redistribu­tion)

2.  The provision of universal social rights in employment, education, health and housing

3.  The provision of access and equity by all government services, irrespective of one’s race, culture, gender or disability

4.  The provision of special services for the most disadvantaged in our community.[v]

These elements, I believe, are implied in the Australian egalitarian tradition and the principles of the ‘fair go’, as applied to socio-economic life.

Notwithstanding the arguments above, some academics argue that it is possible to develop a theory of multiculturalism, without any commitment to a substantial concept of Social Justice. ­Their argument here is that unity in cultural diversity is achieved when individuals and groups have the freedom to express themselves through the languages and practices associated with their own culture. It is this freedom that allows individuals to identify with a particular cultural grouping and thereby maintain a specific cultural identity. Hence, the basis for unity according to this view is simply the traditional, classical liberal principles, such as freedom of speech and expression. Of course, acceptance of these basic liberal freedoms is essential for a successful multicultural society because they provide the foundation of the right of all people to live according to diverse cultural and religious forms.  However, this is not at all sufficient for a full-blooded concept of multiculturalism. Respect for the above human rights involved in Social Justice is fundamental.

This approach presents us with a theoretical and practical challenge; I believe that it is possible to develop a general argument in support of the view that Multiculturalism and a single concept of social justice are compatible; and that it is possible to find elements of such a basic concept of social justice in the great diversity of cultural traditions.

It is in fact possible to argue that these principles of Social Justice are of critical importance to any democratic society. According to American social philosopher John Rawls it is possible to find an ‘overlapping consensus’ between the apparently incompatible doctrines of the different cultures and traditions in a democratic, multicultural society. In my book, I discuss  a number of arguments supporting Rawls’ support for the ideas of social Justice and Human Rights  to develop the  concept of the  “overlapping consensus of Cultures” and thus to explain further the idea of Multiculturalism. Similarly, the theorist Jurgen Habermas argues that certain ideas of respect for persons and Social Justice are necessary for any genuine and discourse that is possible within such a democratic society, even when that society contains diverse cultural traditions.

Multiculturalism can also be strongly defended because it is plausible to argue that there are universal features of human existence as proposed in certain theories of philosophical anthropology which give us reason to believe that we can find this common concept of Social Justice. Anthropologists have shown that all human cultures are concerned to develop concepts and values which will allow them to come to grips with the fundamental dilemmas facing human beings. In particular, there is good evidence to support the view of the universal recognition of the frailty of human existence and of the fact that we all suffer and confront the fact of death. Brian Turner’s theory which draws on this philosophical anthropology to develop a universal theory of human rights, is seen as promising in this context.[vi]

At this point, I note that these positive arguments for Multiculturalism have been challenged by scholars who provide several misrepresentations of the nature of Multiculturalism and issue many attacks against it. One such author Cameron McKenzie who asserts: “Despite receiving hundreds of millions of dollars each year, the multicultural lobby has been unable to show even one economic benefit for Australia. Australia’s poorly run immigration program is clearly contrary to the interests of all Australians. While English language training should be retained, the policy of Multiculturalism should be abandoned immediately”.

However, his claims that multicultural programs are extremely costly for the Australian community is not backed up at all by the facts about spending by governments in ethnic services or to the ethnic communities. This is only a very small proportion of the national budget. Furthermore, spending on Ethnic programs has been reduced over the last 20 years by various governments.

The economic benefits (productivity, trade, tourism, foreign relations) have now been well shown by people like Prof Lucy Taksa and by Prof Jock Collins whose huge amount of research has been on Australian immigration, ethnic crime, immigrant entrepreneurship, immigrant youth, ethnic precincts and tourism, multiculturalism, the Cronulla Beach Riots and the social use of ethnic heritage and the built environment. Prof Collins is the author or co-author of nine books, on this and associated topics.

Profesor Collins was responsible for work on the specific impact of refugees on the economy. His major research established that :

•           Refugees and migrants created more than 100 new businesses across a wide range of industries within three years of arriving in Sydney. Another 174 clients were, with appropriate resources and support, in the pipeline to establish businesses.

•           Participating refugee and migrant entrepreneurs contributed an estimated $1.5 million annually to the federal government in welfare savings and additional tax receipts.

•           The research, and its successful implementation, helped stimulate other policy initiatives related to refugee entrepreneurship. For example, it inspired the Canadian Government to establish a similar program for refugee and immigrant entrepreneurs in Vancouver, BC. The UTS Business School and Professor Collins have also entered into a new research partnership under a philanthropic gift from the Eden Foundation to continue the Ignite program in Sydney for a further three years.

•           The research led to changes in the approach of government-funded programs that assist enterprise formation. It underpinned the expansion of initiatives to support humanitarian migrants to establish businesses in Australia and sparked new initiatives to support people with a disability who want to be entrepreneurs.         

•           A  cornerstone of the work was Prof Collins’ development of a new ‘social-ecology’ model to support the refugees as they formed their enterprises. The social-ecology approach requires that facilitators understand the cultural landscape within which newly arrived refugees operate, and the ideas, experiences and activities that influence them. In short, the model embeds the journey to entrepreneurship into the fabric of the participant’s everyday life.

Multiculturalism in Australia is an asset to be enhanced, developed and capitalised on, supporting our economic success:

•           increase in productivity both nationally and to individual businesses

•           added value to international trade

•           improved supply of goods and services

•           increased tourism

•           added value to Australia’s international standing

•           added value to Australia’s strategic security

•           quality, sustainability and resilience of the Australian economy

all flow from directly our multicultural society.


Multiculturalism requires active government action to maintain cultural identity, even though there are many groups and organisation in the community who through their activities provide for cultural diversity through active specific functions, programs to maintain languages and cultures and multicultural arts programs. 

The point is that without government support these organisations cannot maintain these activities.  The role of multicultural media is of critical importance here as well.

Without concerted activity to maintain cultural forms, Multiculturalism becomes a dead letter – mere words.  The provision of resources from government to assist these activities and the organisations behind them is critical.  The government is not required to provide everything for them, but it must provide sufficient resources to ensure the continuity of activities. 

There are three aspects of this cultural maintenance that NMAC should emphasis.  These relate to: (i) multicultural education; (ii) multicultural arts; (iii) multicultural media.

From the advent of Multiculturalism as a public policy in the 1970s there has been a continuing debate about the need for multicultural education. The Zubrzycki Report, Multiculturalism for All Australians, released in 1982, especially focused on the role of multicultural education.[vii]

Multicultural education was seen as an important means of winning community support for multiculturalism: ‘Education in its widest sense, for both majority and minority groups, is one of the means of achieving a multicultural Australia in a lasting form.’[viii] These ideals were premised upon a belief that attitudes of prejudice and discrimination could be overcome through educational enlightenment:

           Ignorance breeds suspicion and intolerance. Multicultural education is one of the keys to achieving a society in which cultural differences are understood and appreciated. Curricula should aim to give an understanding of the varied backgrounds of all Australians.[ix]


One key role for Multiculturalism is the reduction of racism. One cannot easily eradicate racism; it requires a long and committed program by governments dedicated to the positive promotion of the multicultural society.  Education both in schools and through the media about the virtues of Multiculturalism is crucial – especially in forming the attitudes of younger generations. Therefore, priority must be given to developing classroom strategies to deal with racism and prejudice.

One way to combat racism is for multicultural education to be expanded so that for provisions is made in mainstream education for the teaching of a broader range of cultures and histories. Furthermore, Multicultural education should promote a broader and deeper view of Australian education and Australian culture, by recognising the diversity of our society.  Both approaches can be used to achieve positive outcomes.

It is important, however, that multicultural education also take into account the needs of children from a migrant background. This point was realised back in 1975 by the School’s Commission Report:

           “Comprehensive planning to meet the needs of migrant children must address itself to the question of their identity and self-esteem. The migrant child needs to be viewed in the context of his family and ethnic group affiliation if his individuality and integrity are to be respected and if his educational experiences are to be directly related to his actual life . . . .The variable interest among adult migrants and their children in maintaining dual cultural identity must also be taken into account in planning. It follows that the multicultural reality of Australian society needs to be reflected in school curricula . . .”[x]

While the aims of multicultural education can be agreed on, it has proven more difficult to translate such policies into practice. Here initiatives by governments are of critical importance. Part of the problem has been that government responsibility for school education is primarily held by the states and territories. Clearly all governments need to show greater commitment focus more on  their roles, if multicultural education is to succeed.    

In the early 1980s there was a prevailing atmosphere of optimism as a series of multicultural education programs were put into place. However, in the 1986 Federal Budget, big cutbacks were made to multicultural education and English as a Second Language (ESL) programs. This created a public uproar and generated a great deal of discussion about the role of education in a multicultural society. The Final Report from AIMA condemned the cuts and insisted that new programs should come forward:

Following the public outcry associated with the 1986 Budget cuts, the Hawke Government committed itself to the introduction of a National Language Policy and proceeded to fund that policy. As part of that process, the National Languages and Literacy Institute of Australia  (NLLIA) was established in 1990. The mandate of the Institute covered languages other than English (LOTE), child ESL and literacy, adult literacy, translating/interpreting and indigenous languages.  Each area contained a focus on research, policy advice, professional development, publications and consultancies.

After three years of operation, the institute was the subject of an independent review by David McCrae, which concluded: ‘The NLLIA is a major landmark in the history of language policy in Australia. One of the most distinctive characteristics of the NLLIA is its breadth of mission, which has no parallel elsewhere in the world’.

Multicultural Education and Language Learning

The concept of multicultural education is incomplete without efforts to study the languages of the diverse cultures within Australian multiculturalism. In this way multicultural studies and community languages can be intertwined. Thus the National Language Policy should ensure that every Australian child has extensive opportunities to learn a second language. In particular, community languages should be taught in schools because most ethnic communities wish to pass on their first language to their children,  and as members of the community, have the right to seek this from the education system. Literacy and fluency in the original languages of their parents greatly assist children in the learning of English and so should be valuable in arresting the trend of English literacy problems experienced by many children of immigrant families.

Furthermore, research has shown that bilingualism has cognitive advantages, that there is no detriment to learning the original language and that school-age children can acquire interpersonal communicative skills very well in a second language. 

Problems with Community Language Teaching

Generally, it is much better to have community languages taught within the school that children attend for their general education.  However, the provision of community languages and multicultural studies is still not generally available in many state and full-time non-government schools in Australia. Indeed, it is usually on the initiative of local teachers and parents rather than on government provision. Parents who want their children to learn their native language, history and culture are mostly forced to send their children to ‘special’ schools at considerable financial cost.

Many of these part-time ethnic schools do a commendable job under difficult circumstances. Indeed, they are essential to promote cultural maintenance especially for many of the smaller ethnic communities. Nevertheless, there are some problematic factors with children attending special ethnic schools. These include: children not of that ethnic background do not attend the school; the extra time required can be very burdensome (and even excessive for small children, especially if the total hours involved are going to be sufficient to enable worthwhile progress in the language to occur) problems with the educational qualifications of some teachers involved in these Saturday and early evening schools.

In my view, until all children enter secondary school with a background of community language study in primary school, secondary schools will have to continue to provide community languages at beginner’s level.  The task of community language teaching must be taken seriously, and this entails a thorough preparation of teachers. Community language courses for teachers should be available in a variety of institutions. Community language courses should be made available to trainee teachers as part of their preparation for work in a multicultural, multilingual classroom.


One of the most important issues in promoting Multiculturalism in Australia is for people of migrant background to have access to English language teaching. Indeed, a number of reports have shown that English as a Second Language teaching is critical in securing migrants’ participation in society.  The Campbell Report warned that ESL must be seen as an integral part of the educational curriculum of society, and not just ‘a temporary appendage . . . ready to be lopped off in certain circumstances’. Part of the problem has been that, for many years in Australia, ESL teaching has been as characterised by a shortage of adequately trained teachers and a lack of resource materials and diagnostic tools, and a shortage of suitable places to conduct such courses. [xi]

Furthermore, it is necessary to consider the selection of secondary teachers who might have a special responsibility for multicultural studies. Such teachers would need an understanding of the ethnic diversity that they are likely to encounter in their classrooms. Special courses to assist trainee teachers in this awareness will therefore be necessary. Once in the classroom, teachers need to be aware of the complexity of multicultural education issues which I have referred to above.

As Joseph Lo Bianco has pointed out, there has only been partial success in achieving the goals of multicultural education.  As he explains:

“Multiculturalism is yet to succeed in developing a set of goals, a discourse and related programs which could place it at the mainstream of education. Had it been able to anticipate and incorporate the national need for responding to cultural studies/languages which are important…and Aboriginal studies as a unique and ancient interpretation of our continent, important not only for reasons of social justice but for self-knowledge too, it could have become the organising conceptual framework for cultural and linguistic learning generally. There is still this potential”.[xii]


One of the key aspects of the Australian synthesis of Multiculturalism and Social Justice has been the development of the Access and Equity strategy.     This strategy emphasizes that people’s life chances should not be adversely affected by their ethnicity, race, religion, language, or place of birth.  Conformity to a particular cultural stereotype should not be the price demanded in return for equal treatment by governments and public servants involving denial of the right to participate fully in society.

To provide those benefits, the policy of Multiculturalism requires ‘special’ actions such as, the provision of interpreters so that migrants can gain adequate medical attention; the establishment of nursing homes for the aged, in which the language and culture of their youth is understood, and the availability of community centres, wherein groups of elderly people from ethnic communities can socialise. The aim is to provide people from non-English speaking backgrounds with equal access to culturally appropriate programs and services to which, as Australians, they are entitled.

During the Hawke/Keating years, the aim of the Federal Government’s Access and Equity program was to devise a package of programs and services that will provide the most effective way of meeting the needs of all Australians. As a general principle, this has meant maximising the sensitivity of general agencies – both statutory and non-government – thereby allowing the access of people of all backgrounds to appropriate services.

The Access and Equity policy understands that Programs and services directed towards the general community are sometimes limited in scope and specificity, and in those cases, special and ethnic-specific services have a continuing role to play. The Australian Institute of Multicultural Affairs (AIMA), in discussing this issue in 1986, believed that special services should be retained where they can offer a service significantly better than, or different from, that available through a general program. Furthermore, AIMA pointed out that there may be a case for having specialised institutions as a means of securing the most effective and efficient provision of programs and services. As AIMA said then:

           “The persistence of disadvantage is a critical issue for future policy development. Its potential to cause heightened tensions and worsening community relations may increase to the extent that effective multicultural policies can no longer be put in place.[xiii]

           In recognition of the importance of the Access and Equity policy, between April and July 1994, as Parliamentary Secretary (Assistant Minister) to Prime Minister Paul Keating, I conducted a series of 18 Access and Equity community consultations around Australia, in all capital cities and six regional centres. During this period, I consulted widely with over 1,000 representatives from non-English speaking background and Indigenous organisations, ethnic communities and agencies, as well as community organisations that work with non-English speaking background and Indigenous people.

The consultations showed that the Government had considerable challenges ahead and that, while gains had been made, much more action was needed in certain key areas. As a result of these consultations, the Labor Government drew up an Agenda for Future Action in the implementation of Access and Equity, which was announced at the FECCA Conference in December 1994. In the Agenda for Future Action, the Labor Government acknowledged that there needed to be more emphasis on the programs in health, human services, legal and employment areas.

Clearly, for Multiculturalism to be meaningful, it must realise the potential of its Social justice dimension. Achievements of the goals of Access and Equity are critical here. It is not enough to talk in general terms about equality of rights; there must be real outcomes for people as Professor Jayasuriya states:

Equality is not a matter of the formal recognition of rights alone, but also one of enforcing them: and thereby achieving the equity inherent in rights. Disadvantaged and powerless groups such as ethnic minorities need to be able to exercise their civil rights in order to create the conditions which would enable them to claim their entitlement to ‘social rights’ such as education and health services… It is in this sense that strengthening political citizenship through full and effective participation is a necessary condition for the struggle for ‘social rights’.[xiv]


In any society, artists communicate their own views of the world based on experiences drawn largely from their own cultural background. Such creative expression is an integral part of culture. It is also often through the arts that people become aware of cultures other than their own for the first time.  Expression through the arts can be said, therefore, to provide the most visible, and very often most accessible feature of the diversity of cultures in Australian Multiculturalism. Of course, a true definition of culture goes beyond the visual and aesthetic to include all the historical, traditional, social, economic and political foundations that have gone into its creation and development. 

In a multicultural society, communication and expression through the Arts provides other cultures with the chance to become aware of, and to appreciate, the diversity of cultures. This communication and expression helps to create a sense of identity within the nation. By doing this, different cultures can cross-fertilise each other.

In achieving these aims, it is necessary to avoid marginalisation of artists from minority cultural groups because their form of artistic expression is not considered to fit in with a narrow perception of what constitutes ‘good art’ in Australia. Since non-indigenous settlement began, the world of the arts has until recently been dominated by an Anglo-Celtic tradition of aesthetics.  As we move towards creating a truly multicultural society, we – as a nation – will be compelled to redefine what should be considered excellent within the artistic world.  It should not be something static but, in response to the continuing change in the population and its artistic expression, be evolving constantly so as to be able to recognise artistic excellence from a truly multicultural perspective. Here we need to combat negative images of what is and is not considered worthy. This is a challenge to  our society in that it involves the ability to appreciate other cultures and how they express artistically the intrinsic elements that have helped form them. 

The government acts as a patron of the Arts through funding projects and providing support to recognised talent; but it needs also to ensure accessibility of the Arts funding to the multicultural communities. Hence governments must approach this issue of Arts funding from a multicultural perspective. 

In Australia, as Kalantzis and Cope have noted, there has been some progress here. They observed that:  ‘there has been growth in funding for NESB artists; and there has been an extension and improvement in outcomes.”

Perhaps one of the greatest changes in the public perception of Multiculturalism in the Arts is the change in the attitude towards the creative expression of Australia’s Indigenous peoples – most notably in the appreciation of painting in all mediums, but also towards their music, dance, theatre and other modes of expression.  This awareness needs to be accompanied by education so that all non-Indigenous Australians can come to appreciate the rich religious and mythological background that is expressed inherently in the creative outlet of our indigenous peoples. However, there is still more to be done.

Fourmile in her article, ‘Aboriginal arts in relation to multiculturalism’, states that: “The vast store of wisdom and knowledge of human affairs and the natural world accumulated over more than 40,000 years of continuous occupation of this continent still remains unrespected, unacknowledged and unwanted by the majority of Australians”.[xv] 

Hence, the challenge is that all groups in a multicultural society must extend appreciation to other art forms and judge them on the basis of a more universal concept of excellence, not one derived mainly from their own narrow tradition, whatever that may be – Indigenous, English, Greek, Italian, Chinese, etc.

A deeper appreciation of the philosophy and meaning of Multiculturalism and of the universal principles that underlie it, including the common appreciation that we have of ourselves as human beings, facing the same dilemmas of human existence, can point to a universal concept of artistic excellence. All this can  lead to new forms of Art in Australia, as Gunew notes:

           “ . . . one of the exciting new elements in the diasporic experience at the heart of Multiculturalism is the idea that something quite new develops as a result of transplanting to a new context and interacting with new groups.  It can generate a new hybridised cross-cultural art” .[xvi]

It should be noted here that in October 1994, Prime Minister Keating released Creative Nation, a major statement about the future of Australian arts, which included the Government’s commitment to a charter of ‘Cultural Rights’ that guarantees all Australians the right to an education that develops individual creativity and appreciation of the creativity of others;” “the right to community participation in cultural and intellectual life”.


Ever since the birth of Multiculturalism in Australia, there has been a significant debate about the role of the ethnic media in relation to Australia’s cultural diversity.  Firstly, it was recognized that there was a need for policies and programs which  highlighted the need for specific media outlets to deal with the needs of particular ethnic communities and cultural groups, as well as the promotion of multicultural programs and the general concept of a multicultural society. Secondly, there was some recognition of the need to ensure that the so-called ‘mainstream’ media reflect the increasingly multicultural nature of Australian society in their programming.

The major step in the development of multicultural media was the establishment of the Special Broadcasting Service (SBS) in November 1977. The SBS was responsible for initiating multicultural television. The Fraser Government established the Ethnic Television Review Panel, which held a series of community consultations and prepared a report on the establishment of an ethnic television service. That interim report of 1979 defined and outlined the aims, philosophy, objectives, policies and types of programming that would be involved in establishing an ethnic television service. Under the heading of ‘aims and philosophy’ the report stated the following:

        “There was general consensus that ethnic television: would be of value to the community as a whole by promoting tolerance and appreciation of cultural diversity; should assist ethnic groups to maintain and develop their cultural identity; would be of sufficient educational value”.[xvii]

The SBS has gone on to play a very important role in Australian society. The service has been applauded for its innovative news and current affairs programs, and its high-quality foreign films – all of which included English subtitles.

 There have, however, always been strong critics of the SBS. A major drama developed in 1986 over the question of the amalgamation of the SBS with the Australian Broadcasting Corporation. At that time, I presented arguments in Parliament and public forums in favour of the retention of the SBS as an independent, multicultural service. Many people in Australia’s ethnic communities were also concerned and strongly supported the retention of the service. In the final event, the battle was won and the then Government abandoned the proposal to amalgamate the two services.  Since that time, the SBS has remained an independent service – providing many radio and television programs in a diversity of languages.

The now legislated charter of the SBS includes the following goals:  its principal functions must:

(a) contribute to meeting the communications needs of Australia’s multicultural society, including ethnic, Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander communities; and

(b) increase awareness of the contribution of a diversity of cultures to the continuing development of Australian society; and

(c) promote understanding and acceptance of the cultural, linguistic and ethnic diversity of the Australian people; and

(d) contribute to the retention and continuing development of language and other cultural skills;

(e) as far as practicable, inform, educate and entertain Australians in their preferred languages

As incorporated in its charter, the SBS has an important function in ensuring that these goals of a multicultural society are met. Thus, it is true to say that after the SBS began, by showing news from around the globe, SBS has carved out a significant niche for itself as a respected and sophisticated news channel.  SBS has not only enhanced Australians’ understanding of the wider world, but it has also made Australians more aware of the multicultural nature of their own society. The service has produced a number of programs that have brought the customs, beliefs and traditions of many of Australia’s cultural groups to the attention of the broader community. 

The development of Other Ethnic Media

One of the most important developments from the point of view of Multiculturalism in Australia has been the advent of the ethnic press and ethnic radio stations. The development of newspapers and magazines in a wide variety of community languages has achieved a number of goals. It has ensured that people whose knowledge of English is not fluent, are able to gain access to information about Australian society; it has also allowed these communities to keep abreast of events in their original homelands and it has provided information for migrant people about their particular community organisations. The multi-dimensional nature of the ethnic press is explained in a book by Abe Wade Ata and Colin Ryan:

“The ethnic press provides the knowledge for at least minimal integration, be it cultural, social, political or economic.  At the same time, it is a link to the institutions of the ethnic community itself, its clubs, societies and co-operatives – the things which maintain cohesion.  It advertises jobs, housing and shopping facilities.  It may even encourage literature.  It maintains old animosities, or benignly neglects them.  It is lively, multiform, sometimes acrimonious; and it is almost unknown to the host society”.[xviii]

There are now more than 200 ethnic newspapers and periodicals in Australia of which the Department of Immigration and Ethnic Affairs is aware. It is estimated that the total number of readers is around one million. The debate within and among the newspapers of a particular ethnic group can itself be very lively, informative and of a high quality.  Yet, the cultural phenomenon created by the existence of the ethnic press is often ignored by the mainstream media and many social commentators.  This ignorance leads to the common assertion that migrant Australians do not know enough about Australian politics because of their lack of knowledge of English. This assertion is countered by considering the enormous coverage given to Australian politics and current affairs in the ethnic newspapers.

One area that was identified as a shortcoming in many of the communities was the absence of sufficient information about key Government programs and entitlements. This is directly relevant to the issue of Access and Equity. Government departments need to do more to advertise and publicise their programs in the ethnic press. 

Another area that does require further attention is the role of ethnic community radio.  In some states in Australia, this still remains the only form of ethnic radio available to communities. Funding for ethnic community radio has been an issue in the last decade and needs to be further seriously considered, especially in those states where there is no other alternative broadcaster.  The Federation of Ethnic Community Broadcasters has put  a persuasive case for increased funding and more radio air space, so as to meet the growing needs of ethnic community radio.

The failure of the ‘Mainstream’ Media

There has, for several years now, been a recognition among many non-English speaking background and liberal-minded Australians, that the so-called ‘mainstream’ media have failed to reflect the country’s cultural diversity and failed to engage with the philosophy of Multiculturalism.  For example, while ‘mainstream’ news and current affairs programs delight in reporting insignificant political skirmishes and uncovering consumer rorts with hidden cameras, they consistently fail to report events of real importance in the ethnic communities.  Events that do get coverage are typically controversial ones, in which migrant people are negatively and simplistically portrayed.  

In 1991, the Office of Multicultural Affairs commissioned a study to inquire into the representation of migrant people and issues in the Australian media, entitled Multicultural Australia in the Media.  The study confirms that these people are being poorly served by the Australian media.  The report, compiled by Dr Phillip Bell, examined the representation of migrant people in newspapers, commercial and ABC news programs, current affairs programs, popular soap operas, talkback radio and major women’s and men’s magazines.[xix] 

While the report found stereotyping and negativity in the portrayal of migrant people in all these media, its conclusions about television are of particular concern.  Bell concluded that, while ‘television was seldom overtly anti-ethnic, it tended to see ethnicity as a “problem” which was newsworthy to the viewer, who was assumed to be Anglo-Australian’.[xx]  Moreover, he detected an innate bias in the television media against the exploration of issues in any depth.

Phillip Bell’s report went so far as to claim that the mass media in Australia ‘are involved in . . . the ideological reproduction of racism’. He noted that ‘Chinese’, (‘Asian’) people, ‘Italians’, ‘Arabs’ and ‘Muslims’ were most negatively represented. To these we can now add Lebanese and Africans.[xxi]

From where does this lack of representation of migrant people arise?  It seems that media executives are indoctrinated with the following myths: that audiences refuse to watch programs that are not predominantly American, British or narrowly Anglo-Australian and that experimenting with more multicultural programs, will offend their sponsors.

This failure of commercial television to reflect multicultural Australia has a direct impact on the employment possibilities of NESB actors, writers, producers and other creative artists. This point has been publicised by the comedian and television entertainer, Lex Marinos. A report of the National Multicultural Advisory Council, of which Marinos was a member, urged the Commonwealth Government to ‘examine ways of encouraging commercial broadcasters to reflect in all aspects of their programming the realities of our diverse multicultural society’.[xxii]


I begin my conclusion here with a number of practical steps, which need to be put in place if we are to achieve the further development of Multiculturalism.  These are: Firstly, we must ensure that Multiculturalism and the basic rights involved in citizenship are incorporated, as far as possible, into our Constitution and our law. This requires at the minimum for Federal parliament to adopt a Multiculturalism Act. Secondly, we must strengthen the education system to reflect better an understanding of our cultural diversity, our Aboriginal inheritance and our traditions of Social Justice.  Thirdly, we need very significant changes to the media and the arts in Australia, so as to reflect our multicultural society and to portray a truer picture of modern Australia. Fourthly, it is crucial that we continue the process of developing a shared concept of Social Justice and Multiculturalism, both on the international and national level, so as to give more meaning and content to our evolving national unity.

The multicultural experiment in Australia is of great importance in terms of its contribution to an understanding of cultural development throughout the world. If the Australian multicultural experiment fails, it would no longer be able to serve as a model to other societies. The enormous challenge of the modern age throughout the world is to show that different cultures and different peoples can indeed live together, can indeed appreciate and learn from one another’s cultural traditions and can indeed support both the cultural richness of one another and the bonds that unite them as human beings in the pursuit of the common ideals of Social Justice and freedom.

My contribution here is with the following vision for the future of Australia – that it will be a country which has grasped the unique opportunity afforded by the synthesis of our Social Justice traditions and our Multiculturalism ideal, and in this way develop new idea of citizenship for our people.

Finally, I repeat what I have said in several of my writings on Multiculturalism “By adopting a genuine philosophy and practice of Multiculturalism, we can learn from each other…We can accept the role of moderate religious beliefs based on rational debate and the acknowledgement of other people’s point of view.  We can accept that a synthesis of ideas in philosophy, religion and diverse cultural forms can allow us to gain a much greater comprehension of our common frailty and our humanity”.

[i] PM’s Speech (26 April 1995), op. cit.

[ii].   R. Mendelsohn, Fair Go: Welfare Issues in Australia, Penguin, Australia, 1982, p.9.

[iii].   E.Thompson, Fair Enough: Egalitarianism in Australia, UNSW Press, Sydney, 1994, p.37.

[iv]. National Agenda for a Multicultural Australia, 1989, op.cit.

[v]. A. C. Theophanous, Understanding Multiculturalism: An Australian Perspective, Elikia Books, Melbourne, 1994, pp.88-97.

[vi]. B. Turner, ‘Outline of a Theory of Human Rights’, Sociology, Vol.27, No.3, pp.489-512.

[vii]. Multiculturalism for All Australians, op. cit.

[viii]. Ibid., p.18.

[ix]. Ibid., p.18.

[x]. Identity: A Study of the Concept in Education for a Multicultural Australia, EDRC Report No.22, AGPS, Canberra, 1980.

[xi]. Ethnos, August 1986.

[xii]. J. Lo Bianco, ‘A Hard Nosed Multiculturalism: Revitalising Multiculturalism, Vox, No.4, 1990, p. 91.

[xiii]. Australian Institute of Multicultural Affairs: Final Report, op.cit., p.23.

[xiv]. L. Jayasuriya, ‘Citizenship, Democratic Pluralism and Ethnic Minorities in Australia, in R. Nile (ed), Immigration and the Politics of Ethnicity and Race in Australia, Bureau of Immigration and Population Research, Melbourne, 1991, p.35.

[xv]. Ibid., p.77.

[xvi]. S. Gunew, ‘Arts for a multicultural Australia: redefining the culture’ in Gunew and Rivzi (eds), op.cit., p.6.

[xvii]. Interim Report of Public Consultations on the Establishment of an Ethnic television Service, Melbourne, 1979, pp.2-4.

[xviii]. A. Wade Ata and C. Ryan, The Ethnic Press in Australia, Academia Press, Melbourne, 1989, p. 1.

[xix]. Communication Update, no. 89, June 1993, pp. 6-7.

[xx]. Ibid., p. 7.

[xxi].  P. Bell, Multicultural Australia and the Media, Report to the Office of Multicultural Affairs, AGPS, Canberra, 1993, p.4.

[xxii]. Ibid., p.15.