Essay topics: Advantages and disadvantages of multicultural society

Bhikhu Parekh is an internationally renowned political theorist

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Kukathas in his book Multicultural Citizens (Centre for Independent Studies, 1993) cites Ward's portrait and then Jonathan King's opposing assessment that Australians are "lazy, arrogant, racist, urban money-grabbers who have surrounded themselves with the myth that they are outback heroes". Like many other commentators on the subject, Kukathas notes the "difficulties in trying to tie down any notion of a 'national character'" and moves on.

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ATTEMPTS TO FASHION a new Australian identity on multiculturalism itself fare little better. On the face of it, this approach seems to be a category mistake – that is, it mistakes political and administrative measures that variously allow, accommodate and integrate the realm of diverse identities for an identity itself. Yet, as Benedict Anderson famously observed in Imagined Communities (Verso, 1983), all national identities are constructed and imagined, so why not an identity imagined around multiculturalism? The difficulty is at once semantic and symbolic. The American metaphor of the "melting pot" helps to illustrate what a national identity focused on multiculturalism is up against. The image of the melting pot misdescribes American society where, as Wingo puts it, "the U.S. population is increasingly a collection of distinct subpopulations, with more diversity between ethnic, linguistic, or cultural groups than within those same groups". Yet the fact that the "melting pot" is a myth is irrelevant, says Wingo; what is important is that it offers a powerful symbol of unity that well serves the legitimate interests of American democracy in creating a sense of solidarity.

Some argue that Australians should simply dispense with the idea of a national identity altogether. For example, in their book Mistaken Identity: Multiculturalism and the Demise of Nationalism in Australia (Pluto Press, 1988), Stephen Castles and his associates conclude: "We do not need a new ideology of nationhood ... Our aim must be a community without a nation." Others, like the late Donald Horne, argue that Australian identity should be grounded only in political or civic values, such as tolerance, individual liberty, equality, reciprocity and a commitment to democratic institutions. And still others – Laksiri Jayasuriya and Andrew Theophanous, for example – suggest that Australian identity should be centred rather on the principle and practice of multiculturalism itself. Ironically, this last idea found expression in the National Multicultural Advisory Council's report that prepared the ground for the Howard government's A New Agenda in 1999: "Australian multiculturalism will continue to be a defining feature of our evolving national identity." Former Labor Party leader Mark Latham also picked up on this idea in the 2004 election campaign: "The challenge is to modernise our multicultural policies, to make them relevant to our multicultural identity."

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On the "thick" conception, multiculturalism is considered to be damaging to Australian national identity. Australia is said to have a distinct Anglo-Australian character and identity, which has great capacity to integrate newcomers. Advocates such as John Hirst and Keith Windschuttle point to the fact, for example, that intermarriage rates across ethnic and mainstream Australians are high, increasing with each generation. Welcoming intermarriage in a post "white Australia" era indicates how the prevailing "thick" conception of Australian identity has changed since the days of the "white Australia" policy. Today, "thickness" is claimed not so much in terms of a strict ethnic nationality or a bloodline of ancestry – the "crimson thread of kinship" in Sir Henry Parkes' immortal words of 1890 – but as a cultural heritage open
to all.

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"Thick" conceptions of Australian national identity have the virtue of recognising the deep and abiding influence of Anglo-Australian culture on the institutions and patterns of life in Australia. However, the accounts are problematic in that they tend to do what they accuse Australian multicultural policy of doing – namely, essentialise ethnic group identity and membership, rather than allowing for their internal diversity and dynamism. As John Hirst, historian and chairman of the Commonwealth Government's Civics Education Group (responsible for designing the civics and citizenship program taught in schools), put the accusation in his 2001 Barton Lecture: "Multicultural policy envisaged a world of distinct ethnic groups. This was more and more make-believe." The same claim is made today by the conservative commentators Janet Albrechtsen, Piers Ackerman and Andrew Bolt – albeit, ironically, with the shrill rider that multiculturalism has succeeded in making "distinct ethnic groups" a reality.

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Multiculturalism in Australia was perhaps destined to become embroiled in issues of national identity. The adoption of the policy in the 1970s followed more or less on the heels of the demise of the "white Australia" policy. But the controversy over multiculturalism is also fuelled by a perception that it threatens social cohesion and the political integrity of the state – challenges for which a robust national identity has long been seen as the necessary answer. As the celebrated liberal John Stuart Mill put it in 1859, "Free institutions are next to impossible in a country made up of different nationalities. Among a people without fellow-feeling, especially if they read and speak different languages, the united public opinion, necessary to the working of representative government, cannot exist."