Opinion: A culturally diverse society does not make a successful multicultural country

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Restoring faith in our democracy is key to future social cohesion, says the executive director of the Australian Multicultural Foundation.

Research into social cohesion is critical in helping us understand the barriers that can create misunderstanding between people. It teaches us about people’s levels of acceptance and social participation. In particular, long-running studies such as the Scanlon Foundation’s Mapping Social Cohesion research allow us to monitor community attitudes over time, and identify simmering concerns that – if left unaddressed – have the potential to boil over into major issues.

More than just academic insights, these studies are a vital investment in the future harmony of Australia. 

The latest Mapping Social Cohesion Report paints a picture of an Australia that – for the last decade – has not shied away from embracing its rich multicultural make up. 

For ten years, our majority support for immigration has barely moved – in 2017, 56% think our current immigration intake is either about right, or too low, and it was similar (53%) in 2007.

A large majority (85%) in 2017 also agree with the proposition that multiculturalism has been good for Australia. Such resounding support for multiculturalism is not new either  – it has been a consistent finding of the Scanlon surveys since the question was first asked in 2013.

But in the same period that we’ve seen unwavering commitment to multiculturalism and cultural diversity, some worrying – and seemingly contradictory – findings have emerged too. 

Discrimination on the basis of race, ethnic origin or religion, has more than doubled over the last ten years (from 9% in 2007 to 20% in 2017). 

Institutional trust and faith in the workings of Australian democracy have also fallen significantly across multiple indicators – for example, those trusting the federal government ‘to do the right thing for the Australian people most of the time’ dropped from 39% in 2007 to just 29% in 2017. 

This faltering faith in our democratic system is particularly interesting because it seems almost fundamentally at odds with our unwavering support for multiculturalism.

Both multiculturalism and democracy are defined by a commitment to the laws of the land, equal rights before the law, and belief in freedom of religion, freedom of speech and freedom of association. The success of Australia’s multiculturalism simply would not have been possible without our democracy. 

Simply having a culturally diverse society is not enough to constitute a successful multicultural country. History tells us that good, thoughtful policy and strong political leadership is paramount to fostering and maintaining social cohesion. It also tells us that policy in this area is most effective when accompanied by leadership and champions for multiculturalism across all sectors of society. 

We’ve seen in recent years that discourse on diversity from a small minority of voices in politics can capitalise on fears, myths and misunderstanding, and undermine the invaluable contributions of our diverse society. This messaging can have a trickle-down effect. 

Fears about diversity and immigration might be driven by a number of things – economic issues, concerns over resources, or simply a fear of the unknown - but it is important not to ignore these sentiments. 

While we can take some comfort in our unwavering support for multiculturalism, our weakening trust in government and the workings of Australian democracy is emerging as one of those simmering issues that we, as a society, must work together to address.

Perhaps we could all be doing more too, to walk the walk when it comes to multiculturalism, with indicators like the rise in discrimination suggesting a gap in understanding about what the concept of multiculturalism actually entails.

Multiculturalism isn’t just about enjoying a late-night kebab, or laughing with Natalie Tran, or cheering when Bachar Houli kicks a goal. It is all those things, but it is so much more as well. 

Multiculturalism means accepting the nuance of our many accents and the differences in our experiences – whether that means celebrating the rich history of Australia’s First Nations People or welcoming newly arrived communities. 

It means understanding that, yes, sometimes the call to prayer can be a little loud; that you’ll always struggle to find parking when families are celebrating Greek Easter; and that immigration is just the beginning of a longer journey for all of those who have been given a second chance at a new life in Australia.

While we are all characterised by individual cultural differences and certainly possess differing points of view, such differences should not be used as the basis of misconstrued notions of an “us versus them” mentality. Rather, leaders – both at the top levels of government, and in local communities – must work together to remind people that our diversity of views and our differences of culture have been the cornerstone of many of Australia’s shared achievements throughout history. 

In order to continue to strengthen our cohesion and ensure its longevity, it is up to all of us to promote shared understanding and respect for differences through education, leadership and advocacy. And it's up to all of us to facilitate and participate in open, respectful conversations that empathetically address emerging concerns in communities.  

Importantly, studies like the Mapping Social Cohesion surveys show us that Australia’s social cohesion successes of years past should not be taken for granted, and maintaining and strengthening cohesion in the future is the responsibility of all of us. 

Dr Hass Dellal AO is Executive Director of the Australian Multicultural Foundation. 

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