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Reflections upon the National Symposium on Multiculturalism at Deakin University

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On July 6th the Centre for Citizenship and Globalisation hosted the National Symposium on Multiculturalism in Australia: from theorising to policy making. The aim of the symposium was to gauge current debates and trends concerning ‘multiculturalism’ in the academic, government and community sectors. There were key themes and concerns both new and longstanding that became apparent from this event. These included a repositioning of our understanding of an “Australian multiculturalism” to include concerns of migration and citizenship, away from the traditional academic and policy tendency to attempt to isolate multicultural and settlement concerns from debates on immigration and population. One of the central factors leading to this was indicated by speakers from across the sectors, that is, the growing category of “temporary” non-citizen residents, largely comprised of international students from predominately Asian countries, for whom permanent residency is a fundamental objective. This problem of a numerically significant transitional and transitory, yet often non-temporary resident who participates in a wide range of capacities in our community, ensures that the distinction between settlement/multicultural and immigration/citizenship concerns are no longer sustainable. This is particularly felt by community and multicultural service providers. Traditional multicultural policy concerns of “access and equity” have focused on “post-settlement” arrivals and have turned a blind eye to assumed temporary and transitory residents in our community. This community, although legally regarded as “temporary”, is according to recent statistics, not temporary at all, but rather a de facto population whose legal status is akin to the German Gastarbeiter. The result is an array of gross inequalities between this "temporary" population and the citizenship population in relation to access issues such as ability to access regulated accommodation and employment as well as healthcare and other social security benefits that are theoretically available but in reality often out of reach. As this population plays an important part in our community as well as a significant demographic percentage of our immigration, settlement issues de facto often precede immigration and citizenship, which is a reversal of the traditional way of thinking. The second major concern raised by the symposium was the need for multiculturalism to reach regional ‘Anglo’ Australia. This concern is nothing new. Since the early days of multiculturalism Zubrzycki emphasised the importance of educating the Australian population to the central aspects of multiculturalism. Without this, both unscrupulous and opportunist politicians and media would propagate a distorted view of the policy resulting in widespread hostility. Zubrzycki became so disconcerted with the negative way multiculturalism was being understood as a result of political pandering to the “migrant vote” combined with media exploitation of xenophobic attitudes that he wanted to drop the term altogether. It is disconcerting that multiculturalism has failed to reach the broader and particularly regional Australia, after so many years. However, Hass Dellal from teh Australian Multicultural Foundation struck a positive not suggesting that there were practices that their organisations have explored that have had a positive impact on redressing this issue. After all Zubrzycki “the father of Multiculturalism in Australia” asserted that “multiculturalism is for all Australians”, and must not be limited to the margins of our society. The third major issue which was raised was the importance of argumentation, engagement and debate at all levels of Australian society. Academic theorists such as Geoff Levey and Gabrielle mentioned that a fundamental aspect of democratic societies are the ‘agonistic’ component, or as the late social researcher of multiculturalism Jerzy Smolicz put it “creative tension”. Such agonistic engagement results in the formulation of new attitudes, practices and mentalities and is fundamental to the character of a pluralist and diverse society. Anita Harris’s work importantly demonstrates that even at the everyday level of interaction, young people from diverse backgrounds, that argument, debate and discussion helps to overcome social pathologies such as tribalistic territorial “turf wars” between ethnic youth groups. Anita showed that engagement through discussion helped to increase understanding and respect between Indigenous and East African youth resulting in decreased tension. This is reminiscent of Karl Popper’s assertion that we must debate and engage with those whose views are radically different, because the price of not engaging and leaving each other to our own superstitions is too great. For Popper, the self-critical attitude that we need to foster in society is one of “I may be wrong and you may be right, however by an effort we may get closer to the truth”. Geoff Levey raised the issue of multicultural competence. That all Australians need a basic understanding of fundamental cultural sensitivities such as the need to take your hat off in church, to put it on in the synagogue and to take your shoes off in the mosque. Mentioned how even universities lack such sensitive. He gave the example of the serving of shellfish at a university event to celebrate Jewish studies. Geoff also argued that Axel Honneth and Charles Taylor were wrong in asserting that non-recognition causes psychological damage and that as a result we need to recognise equally all religious holidays, the so-called ‘Christmas wars’. He argued that for the Jewish and Muslim communities that this was not a fundamental source of angst. That fear of Muslim’s “imposing their values” and stopping Christmas was the result of lingering Islamophobia which multiculturalism needs to work to overcome. However, this does not mean that non-recognition in other areas such as a lack of recognition of historical sensitivities related to genocides as well as recognition of cultural sensitivities related to tradition dress or even dietary traditions such as the example that Geoff himself gave, cannot negatively affect individuals. Ian Woodward talked about the personal ability to form ‘open’ personalities capable of engaging with radically different cultures, norms and practices which is both beneficial to individuals and society. This ‘cosmopolitan’ attitude occurs in a number of way from ‘working class’ cosmopolitanism to more elite forms. This work raises some important issues for the way that ‘open’ personalities need to operate in relation to ‘closed’ groups and how ‘openness’ can be fostered even within a ‘closed’ community setting. These are also fundamental concerns of Popper’s famous work “The Open Society and Its Enemies” (1945) indicating a link between multiculturalism, cosmopolitanism and theories of the open society.

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