Skip Ribbon Commands
Skip to main content



Advice on legislation or legal policy issues contained in this paper is provided for use in parliamentary debate and for related parliamentary purposes. This paper is not professional legal opinion.
Briefing Paper No. 09/2007 by Lenny Roth
Cultural diversity in Australia
According to the 2006 Census, over 22 percent of the Australian population were born overseas; and almost 14 percent of the population were born in a non-English speaking country. According to the 2001 census, 18 per cent of the population were born in Australia but had at least one parent who was born overseas. In 2006, almost 16 percent of the population spoke a language other than English at home. About 5 percent of the population were affiliated with the main four non-Christian religions: Buddhism (over 418,000), Islam (over 340,000), Hinduism (over 148,000) and Judaism (over 88,000).

Brief history of federal multiculturalism policy
Until the mid 1960s, the Federal Government adopted a policy of assimilation, which required migrants to shed their cultures and languages and to become indistinguishable from the Anglo-Australian population. In the mid 1960s, the Government adopted a policy known as integration, which did not expect minority cultures to give way totally to the dominant culture but nor did it encourage ongoing cultural diversity. Following the 1978 Galbally report on migrant services, the Government adopted multiculturalism, which recognised the right of migrants to maintain their cultural identities, encouraged and assisted migrants to do so, and promoted equal opportunity and access to services.

Since then, multiculturalism has been official Government policy, as outlined in the 1989 Agenda for Multicultural Australia and the 1999 New Agenda for a Multicultural Australia. In late 2006, the Government decided to abandon the term ‘multiculturalism’ and in January 2007 it changed the name of the Department of Immigration and Multicultural Affairs to the Department of Immigration and Citizenship. The Government has indicated that the policy fundamentals of multiculturalism will remain but that there will be change of emphasis towards a shared national identity based on a core set of values.

Brief history of ethnic affairs policy in NSW
A 1978 report on ethnic affairs by a temporary Ethnic Affairs Commission made over 280 recommendations to advance the full participation of people from ethnic groups in society. The Government endorsed this report and in 1979 it established the Commission as a permanent body with the objectives of encouraging full participation of ethnic groups and promoting “the unity of all ethnic groups in the community as a single society consistently with the recognition of their cultural identities”. In 1983, the Government introduced the Ethnic Affairs Policy Statements (EAPS) program, which required all government agencies to prepare detailed plans aimed at improving their ability to deliver services to a culturally diverse society. According to the Government, NSW was the first State to adopt multiculturalism as participation and equality of opportunity.

In 1993, the Fahey Government introduced the NSW Charter of Principles for a Culturally Diverse Society. After being elected in 1996, the Carr Government released the Ethnic Affairs Action Plan 2000, which outlined the key roles and result areas for Government and contained a new reporting and monitoring framework, including a requirement for the Commission to prepare an annual Ethnic Affairs Report. The Ethnic Affairs Commission Act 1979 was amended to give effect to this reporting and monitoring framework and to give legislative recognition to the principles of cultural diversity outlined in the Charter. In 1999, the Government changed the title of the Ethnic Affairs portfolio to the Citizenship portfolio and it replaced the Ethnic Affairs Commission with a new Community Relations Commission. The new Act restated the principles of cultural diversity as principles of multiculturalism. In 2004, the Government released its Ethnic Affairs Action Plan 2012.

Main criticisms of multiculturalism
The main criticisms of multiculturalism are that:
• It is divisive and threatens social cohesion;
• It denies and denigrates Australian culture;
• It tolerates objectionable practices and behaviour; and
• It costs billions of dollars of public money.
Supporters of multiculturalism reject these criticisms. They argue that it:
• Creates social cohesion by allowing migrants to feel welcome and to participate;
• Does not deny or denigrate Australian culture, which is dynamic not static.
• Has always required migrants to support the law and basic principles of society;
• Does not cost billions of dollars and it yields significant economic dividends.

Recent debate about multiculturalism
There has been much debate about multiculturalism in the wake of terrorist attacks in recent years (in particular the London bombings in July 2005 involving perpetrators who were born in Britain) and in the wake of the December 2005 Cronulla riots. Some commentators called for the policy to be re-assessed or abandoned while others argued that multiculturalism has been a success and that we need more of it not less.

Public opinion on multiculturalism
Public opinion towards multiculturalism is not clear. Goot’s examination of public opinion polls on the subject from 1988 to 1997 found that there was majority support for assimilationist views (i.e that migrants should try to forget their old national customs, adopt the Australian way of life and behave the way the majority of Australians do) but there was also majority support for multiculturalist views (i.e that ethnic groups should not be criticised if they want to mix mostly with themselves, that migrants should be able to become Australians without giving up their own culture, and that multiculturalism promotes fairness and is necessary for a harmonious society). The 1995 and 2003 Australian Surveys of Social Attitudes found majority support for some assimilationist views but did not necessarily indicate a rejection of multiculturalism. A public opinion poll after the Cronulla riots found that 81 per cent supported multiculturalism.