Race debate

Multiculturalism is back in the news and with the debate now focused on the Opposition’s position on multiculturalism, questions are being raised about whether xenophobia is a deep part of the Australian psyche evolved from an island nation. But is it fair to generalise?

A recent survey done by the University of Western Sydney found that New South Wales has the highest racial tension, with anti-Muslim attitudes in Sydney’s central west corridor becoming a big battleground in the last Federal election. Anti-Muslim sentiment there was running as high as 61 per cent.

According to the researchers, Victoria is a pretty tolerant place by comparison, but maybe they should have talked to some of the Indian students who were bashed in Melbourne.  

Indeed, we seem to be very ambivalent about the issue, and those mixed views run right through the community. According to the research, most Australians polled (86.8 per cent) agreed ''a society made up of different cultures'' was a good thing. But that was overshadowed by the findings that four out of 10 Australians have misgivings about racial and cultural minorities ''fitting in'' to society.

The survey also recorded high levels of perceived racial discrimination in the workplace, the housing market, and instances of verbal abuse.

This was happening most often in areas with many ethnic groups. “More than one in 10 of those polled identified themselves as ''prejudiced against other cultures''. Also, nearly half the population or 41.4 per cent of Australians believe that Muslims, Aboriginals, Asians or Jews ''don't fit into Australian society''.

Broken down by cultural groups, 48.6 per cent of those polled reported anti-Muslim sentiment, while more than one in four - 27.9 per cent - expressed anti-Aboriginal sentiments, 23.8 per cent had anti-Asian attitudes, and 23.3 per cent expressed anti-Semitic views.

Anti-British, Italian and Christian sentiments are recorded across Australia at less than 10 per cent.” Indeed, a survey of 4000 Victorians found that while 90 per cent of supported cultural diversity, 86 per cent said that racial prejudice is prevalent in Australia. Furthermore, there as a statistic showing a much higher incidence of racism experienced in the workplace as reported by Indian and Sri Lankans.

All these are alarming statistics and many seem to forget that the first white Australians themselves were boat people. White Australia is essentially a nation of migrants. As some words doing the round of the Internet now say: “Your car is Japanese. Your Vodka is Russian. Your pizza is Italian. Your kebab is Turkish. Your democracy is Greek. Your coffee is Brazilian. Your movies are American. Your tea is Tamil. Your shirt is Indian. Your oil is Saudi Arabian. Your electronics are Chinese. Your numbers Arabic, your letters Latin. And you complain that your neighbour is an immigrant?”

Add to that the treatment of Australia’s first inhabitants with the growing number of Aboriginal people now behind bars and having 11 years less life than non-indigenous Australians, half with a disability or long term health condition, and an unemployment rate three times higher with only one in five finishing Year 12.  

Prime Minister Julia Gillard has told Aboriginals to take more responsibility for improving their notoriously poor living standard, a pretty tough stand when you consider that governments have actually created the cycle of dependence. Can you really expect Aboriginals to simply break free - especially when all the senior managers are white?

All this is at odds with claims by Immigration Minister Chris Bowen that Australia’s model of multiculturalism is the world’s best. With figures like that, he can’t be right. It also suggests that Opposition immigration spokesman Scott Morrison has plenty of material to capitalise on if he wants to exploit the electorate’s concern about multiculturalism.

Indeed, it’s become a political issue with shadow parliamentary secretary Corey Bernardi attacking Islam and the “increasing indulgence of people who are pursuing an ideology and a values system that is at complete odds with Western society and with Western culture''. This has played into the hands of the Labor Party with Prime Minister Julia Gillard calling on Tony Abbott to send Morrison and Bernardi to the political Siberia of the backbench. Similarly, independent Andrew Wilkie has told Abbott to sack them. It won’t happen and besides, it’s not necessarily a view shared right across the Liberal Party. Malcolm Turnbull has defended multiculturalism and Australia’s attitude to migrants and Liberal backbencher Judi Moylan has shown extraordinary courage slamming the Coalition’s asylum seeker policy.

Indeed, what’s happening in Australia right now reflects a trend going on around the world. The issue has come up in Britain, German chancellor Angela Merkel has declared multiculturalism to be a total failure, Swiss voters have approved a ban on the construction of new minarets on mosques, and French authorities have issued a prohibition on burqas and other full body robes worn by some Muslim women while introducing mandatory courses for all immigrants on “French values,” women’s rights and an overview of the national history.

Similarly in the US, there are some states that want to ban Sharia law. How many Americans actually know what Sharia law does? And how does that fit in with US First Amendment which prohibits anyone making laws impeding the exercise of religion and upholds freedom of speech?

All this does leave me wondering how much is linked to the global economic crisis. History has taught us that when times are hard, people turn tribal.

What’s your view about the racism here in Australia? Is multiculturalism working or do you think it’s in retreat?