Multiculturalism policy then and now: How things have changed since 2011

Then-Prime Minister Julia Gillard with then-shadow communications minister Malcolm Turnbull in the House of Representatives in 2012. Source: AAP

The last time the Australian government released a policy statement on multiculturalism Julia Gillard was Prime Minister, the iPhone 4 was the latest gadget and 'The King’s Speech' was the Oscars favourite.

Mark Zuckerberg had been named Time Magazine’s Person of the Year and Donald Trump was hosting season 11 of 'The Celebrity Apprentice'. Since February 2011 a lot has changed in the world and so has Australia’s multiculturalism policy and debate.   

Today's multiculturalism policy statement from the Turnbull Government’s marks a significant change from the 2011 statement. Global terrorism threats, integration and national security feature in the latest report, while in 2011 the focus was largely on social inclusion and equality.

When the last multiculturalism policy statement was released, Julia Gillard was about to release her carbon tax policy and later in the year Peter Slipper would resign from the Liberal party to take up the position of speaker in the House of Representatives.

Then-Immigration Minister Chris Bowen released the multiculturalism statement with a call for Australians to reject the exclusion of the Muslim community.

"To cast all Islamic migrants or all members of any religious group as somehow unworthy of their place in our national community, however, tars the many with the extremist views of the very few and does an injustice to all," Mr Bowen said in a speech to Sydney Institute to coincide with the policy.


In 2011 all Australian troops were out of the war in Iraq and the last US forces were preparing their full withdrawal by the end of the year. Now they are back, with around 5,000 US and several hundred Australian soldiers in Iraq to fight the Islamic State militant group.

In the last half-decade the global political debate has also shifted with the rise of nationalism and populism in Europe and the United States. Across Europe nationalist political parties who were largely irrelevant in 2011 have became influential in shaping the political debate in the UK, The Netherlands, Italy, France, Hungary and Austria.

Closer to home, Pauline Hanson was preparing to make a bid for the New South Wales Legislative Assembly in February 2011, which would fail as she captured only 2 per cent of the vote. Today, Pauline Hanson’s One Nation party holds four cross-bench seats in the Australian Senate and the latest Newspoll shows her support at 10 per cent nationally.

Assistant Minister for Multicultural Affairs Zed Seselja on the use of "integration" in multiculturalism report:


Race Discrimination Commissioner Tim Soutphommasane told SBS News the government’s statement on multiculturalism is a valuable affirmation of the success of multiculturalism in Australia.  

“While there is strong acceptance of multiculturalism, there is always a need to ensure that we maintain our social cohesion and harmony," Dr Soutphommasane said. "Our debates about culture, identity and immigration must never undermine our national unity."

He also said Australian society had to continue to combat racism and intolerance and that laws such as the Racial Discrimination Act were essential.

Globally, the world has seen a migration crisis, driven by the on-going conflicts in Syria and Iraq. There were 42.5 million people forcibly displaced worldwide in 2011, according to the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees. Today there 65.3 million people displaced - the highest number of people ever on record.

Syrian children
The UN says 2016 was the worst year for Syrian children with more than 652 killed.

Australia's refugee and asylum seeker policy has also shifted. In 2011 the offshore detention centers on Nauru and Manus Island were closed. More than 6,600 asylum seekers and refugees were in detention onshore in Australia.

Throughout the year of 2011 almost 70 boats carrying asylum seekers would arrive in Australian waters, with 4,500 people on board. The Gillard Government was in the midst of negotiating a 'people swap' deal with Malaysia, which would later be struck down by the High Court.

Today there are also questions about what will happen to asylum seekers in detention with the deal to send refugees to the US facing an uncertain future. There are 1,800 asylum seekers in immigration detention, the majority of them offshore. The average time they spend in detention is higher than it was for those in 2011.

The make up of skilled and permanent migration to Australia has also changed.

In 2010-11, 167,000 people permanently migrated to Australia, with China the largest source country, followed closely by the United Kingdom. In the 2015-16, 190,000 people permanently migrated and the largest group came from India.

The number of Indian citizens coming through Australia’s permanent migration program has almost doubled from 21,000 to 40,000 last year.

Turnbull: We are an immigration nation



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