Multiculturalism is one of the least useful words in Australian politics.
It owes all its power to ambiguity. It is divisive because it is vague.
Recall that multiculturalism refers not to the policy of letting in migrants and refugees, but to how we deal with them when they get here. Multiculturalism is the opposite of ‘assimilation’, not the opposite of discriminatory immigration settings.
If multiculturalism is a positive program, a deliberate, imposed set of policies and laws, then those policies are few and not easy to pin down.
Interpreters, multiple languages on government documents, and a few scattered cultural grants do not make a policy revolution. A female-only swimming session does not constitute a threat to the Commonwealth.
The political rhetoric about multiculturalism is vastly disproportionate to the number of policies which multiculturalism has apparently inspired.
But if, alternatively, multiculturalism is an ideology, it is an ill-defined and unclear one.
Sure, ideas have consequences. Yet it is hard to see how stating that “every person should be able to maintain his or her culture without prejudice or disadvantage” (in the influential formulation of the 1978 Galbally Report into migrant services) leads to migrant crime, one of the many claimed consequences of multiculturalism. Or how it causes new arrivals to prefer to settle in suburbs near other new arrivals – an entirely reasonable preference, as one person’s ethnic enclave is another’s comfort in numbers.
Attributing the misbehaviour of some young migrants to vague philosophical statements made in bureaucratic documents gives government too much credit. Politicians are just not that influential.
And it is too simple to blame law and order problems on migration levels or ethnicity, rather than under-policing and skewed police priorities.
The basic idea of a liberal democracy is that individuals can live their own lives according to their own preferences under a neutral legal and political framework.
Rights in a liberal democracy are held by individuals, not by groups. Nobody has more or different rights than another by virtue of their cultural origin.
No substantive policy imposed in Australia under the banner of multiculturalism has undermined these basic principles. Sure, there’s been a lot of academic waffle about cultural relativism and the superiority of non-Western thinking, but that waffle has not been translated into law.
Australia has done settlement policy pretty well.
Several European leaders have made recent statements damning multiculturalism, and Australian critics have claimed these statements are just as applicable to our circumstances. They are not.
For one, the European economy is vastly different.
It’s no coincidence that the biggest social problems with multiculturalism occur in European countries with sluggish jobs markets. Or in those countries with extremely generous welfare schemes.
Nothing impedes integration like unemployment.
Other specific policies can exacerbate the natural, well-known, but manageable challenges of mass immigration.
Germany’s Chancellor Angela Merkel said late last year that multiculturalism has failed. But this is in no small part due to the legacy of Germany’s post-war guest worker program, which was so poorly designed as to entrench a disaffected Turkish underclass.
In the 1960s and 1970s, Turkish guest workers were meant to be temporary. The government deliberately encouraged to them live outside German society – they were housed in dormitories near the factories where they worked.
But the two-year rotation for guest workers was extended for another two years, then for four decades. All the while the workers expected to be sent back. One Turkish migrant told Der Speigel last year that “Some of our friends kept their packed suitcases under the bed or on top of a closet for 10 or 15 years, so that they could leave at a moment’s notice.”
No wonder Germany has had integration problems.
We’ve avoided these sorts of policy mistakes. Australia has strict walls around welfare, and a comparatively dynamic labour market.
As has the United States. Last week in the conservative National Review, the law professor Eugene Volokh pointed out that the US was also a successfully “multicultural” nation. Volokh argued that the success of this policy relied on a few basic principles like economic liberty and freedom of speech.
None of this is to deny the tensions when migrants enter countries that value individual liberty and the right to free association.
But it does give us a guide to minimise those tensions. Social integration comes after economic integration. Secure employment helps migrants build roots and communities. Migrants engaged in peaceful commerce feel more connected to their adopted country than those on welfare or unable to find work.
During his exile in England in the early 18th century, Voltaire observed that in the centres of trade, “representatives of all the peoples gathered… There, the Jew, the Muslim, and the Christian deal with each other as if they shared the same religion and give the name “infidel” only to those who go bankrupt.”
Multiculturalism means vastly different things in different countries. Let’s stop obsessing over this useless word, and talk about specifics.