a multicultural History of Australia

Making multicultural Australia

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Commentary on: A national multicultural agenda for all Australians »

Prof Andrew Jakubowicz.

Text Commentary

Charting the future...

1989 - Adoption of a national agenda which aims to change some public perceptions of multiculturalism

Prime Minister Bob Hawke introduced the National Agenda for a Multicultural Australia in 1989, trying to leave behind his government’s sometimes mixed signals on multiculturalism.

After the traumas of the 1986 Budget, the Labor Party had gone into the 1987 Election somewhat chastened and with a clearer sense of direction in relation to multiculturalism. But this sense of direction was somewhat confused by the debates around the FitzGerald inquiry into immigration.

Following the 1987 Election and in the wake of FitzGerald, the Government created a National Advisory Council on Multiculturalism and charged it with undertaking national consultations to prepare the National Agenda. The Council was supported by the Office of Multicultural Affairs whose first head, Dr Peter Shergold, played a key role in building the principles upon which it was to be constructed.

Prime Minister Bob Hawke launched the National Agenda for a Multicultural Australia in July 1989. It identified the three elements of multicultural policy as:

  • cultural identity
  • social justice
  • economic efficiency.

It was the third point which Dr Shergold says was the strategic and tactical element which ensured the Agenda was “sold” to Cabinet and finally to the people. The National Agenda also identified the limits of multiculturalism:

  • the necessity for an overriding commitment to Australia, (echoing FitzGerald);
  • all Australians were expected to accept basics like the rule of law and English as the national language; and
  • for everyone to recognise the responsibilities and obligations of a multicultural society (in particular the willingness to accept others' rights to have their own values and beliefs), as well as any rights or benefits.

The key development was the insistence that multiculturalism was not just a policy for migrants (a problem identified by the FitzGerald report as a key matter of public perception) but that its principles applied “equally to all Australians, whether Aboriginal, Anglo-Celtic or non-English speaking background; and whether they were born in Australia or overseas”.

The National Agenda outlined eight goals, and spelled out government policy on participation, basic rights, social justice, human resources, language and communication, community relations and working towards a “better Australia”. The policy included a package of programs which even its supporters recognised went little further than restoring the cuts of 1986. But in enshrining the “benefits” of a multicultural Australia in terms of the productive diversity of its citizens over the “costs” of giving those citizens access and equity, it won bipartisan public acceptance and remained the basis for public policy during the life of the Labor Government (until 1996).

Further reference:
Castles, Stephen (et al) Mistaken identity: multiculturalism and the demise of nationalism in Australia, 3rd ed, Sydney, Pluto Press, 1992.

Lack, John and Templeton, Jacqueline Bold experiment: a documentary history of Australian immigration since 1945, Melbourne, Oxford University Press, 1995.

Theophanous, Andrew Understanding Multiculturalism and Australian Identity, Melbourne, Elikia Books, 1995.