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Multiculturalism in Australia: A melting pot or a salad bowl?

This is hardly the time to extol the virtues of multiculturalism, a time when there is turmoil covering most of Europe, involving hundreds of thousands of displaced people looking for asylum, feeding a groundswell of discontent which has culminated in riots in several capital cities.

It is only by recognising our basic instincts and by a positive effort, overcoming them, that we may survive in a changing world
- Maurice Cauchi

And yet, we find countries like Australia and Canada where multiculturalism has not only survived but is considered to be the only way forward. At worst, one can apply to multiculturalism what Winston Churchill said about the concept of democracy; namely, that it is the worst form of government except for all the others.

At a recent gala dinner organised by the Premier of Victoria and the Victorian Multicultural Commission, over 1,300 guests representing the 130 ethnic communities in this state gathered to hear speeches and be regaled by performances by various ethnic groups.

One thing both the Premier and the Leader of the Opposition were adamantly agreed on, and that is that multiculturalism is here to stay, something that has to be celebrated, enhancing as it does the richness of the nation through the various contributions that people from various backgrounds bring with them.

So what makes Australian multiculturalism so different from that espoused and maligned in Europe and US?

Australia also passed through a stage where preservation of natio­nal purity was indeed a major priority. The infamous ‘white Australia policy’ which espoused the values of ‘white’ migrants from the northern climes, and looked down on those with a varying shade of dark skin, was accepted dogma for a long time and was banished only in the 1970s.

Since that time, Australia has stood firm in the resolve to ensure there is a constant mix of nations, encouraging an active migration programme that is considered essential for the development of the nation.

This is perhaps one essential difference: whereas in both Ca­nada and Australia there were vast open spaces and an increasing need for workers to fill the factories and work the farms, there was not a similar need in Europe, where most migrants were taken in for political rather than economic reasons.

A second essential difference is the concept of a melting-pot as opposed to that of a salad bowl. The former term refers to the expectation that newcomers should imbibe the habits of the natives and become assimilated in the shortest period of time possible. This policy was particularly obvious in the US, where it is still official policy.

On the other hand, the salad-bowl concept emphasises the fact that the individual elements within society may remain identifiable and still make a comprehensive whole. It appreciates the major problems associated with integrating within the host community, a process which is always hard, involves a lot of sacrifices, invariably takes a considerable amount of time, and is never completely finished within one generation.

It accepts the fact that migrants have their own habits and values and these have to be somehow squared with those of the land that hosts them. It appreciates the fact that you cannot suddenly detach an individual from his or her upbringing, history, and every aspect that has been built into one’s persona, and expect them to function normally as if that process of devaluation has never happened.

Multiculturalism encourages maintenance of one’s own culture while helping the newcomers to overcome the multiple difficulties involved in settlement, including setting up language classes and the provision of ethno-specific services.

There are, of course, limits to multiculturalism, but within these limits, every effort should be made by governments to ensure that the process of transition should be as seamless as possible.

This involves assistance, not antagonism. It is an unfortunate fact that racism is a fundamental trait of human nature. We may feel superior to the newcomers, or frightened by them, or in other ways feel we should not keep too close a company with them.

We devise ways of protecting ourselves from any possible contamination, erecting fences, physical or sociological, to defend our perceived rights.

Deep down, we all suffer from such fears. It is only by recognising our basic instincts and by a positive effort, overcoming them, that we may survive in a changing world.

The proof of the pudding is in the eating. It is patently obvious that ethnic unrest has been far less prevalent in places like Australia and Canada where multiculturalism is the accepted policy, compared with places where this is not the case.

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