Chapter IV – Multiculturalism as a Basis for Republicanism

Republicanism as an intellectual movement in multicultural Australia
October 14 1991. © Jessica Stewart 1991 & 1995.


Australia shares her head of state, the Queen of England, with Britain. She is a foreigner who pays no taxes into Australian revenue and visits Australia rarely. Republicanism is a compelling argument for many Australians without a British ancestry and this chapter examines the premises of these arguments. Although questions of nationalism, belonging, and identification appear emotive rather than logical this chapter will establish that there is an argument for the rationality of republicanism, and the irrationality of maintaining the present system which is based on little more than tradition, the status quo and Australian inertia. In 1964 Donald Horne said that “there is no basis of power or performance or reason in the monarchy”95. The policy of multiculturalism was a small step toward recognising Anglo-Saxon dominance and there are sound reasons why it should motivate Australia towards a republic. The Prime Minister in his Bicentennial speech puts the multicultural argument for republicanism well (if accidentally): “Our very diversity is an ever growing source of the richness, vitality, and strength of our community….In Australia there is no hierarchy of descent; there must be no privilege of origin.”96 This chapter will focus on the implications of Anglo dominance, the contradictions of multiculturalism within a constitutional monarchy, and the rationality of an Australian republic which will more truly reflect this society. The concept of ‘nation’ explores what a republic could mean in multicultural Australia with links to Britain finally severed. The notion that republicanism may in fact be another misplaced ideology is raised.

To begin, it is necessary to again examine some of the background. There is remarkable ambiguity about Australia’s position in the world regarding her relationship with Britain. The heavy weight of colonialism is evident. Australians were recognised as British citizens until 1949; only after the census of 1959 were they ‘officially’ permitted to call themselves ‘Australian'; there was no independent Australian passport until 1973, as citizens travelled on British passports, and ‘God Save the Queen’ was the national anthem until 1984. There is still no official flag free of the Union Jack.97 Rigid British superiority is expressed in a ‘them and us’ approach which implies that only Anglo-Saxons are ‘real’ Australians. This is most obvious when citizens who are not White Anglo-Saxon Protestant, are still called Chinese, Greeks or Italians instead of Australian. “The British see themselves as custodians of the Australian ethos with a right to ask others just who or what they were.”98 This is a highly divisive practice causing racist tensions which originate not with the incoming migrants but with Australians already here, notably Anglo-Saxons. The maintenance of references to a British heritage in our Constitution, Parliaments and citizenship oath is an integral part of the divisiveness because instead of being a symbol of unity and nationhood it reflects the convict stigma, our cultural cringe and lack of identity. As stated eaelier, a large proportion of Australians do not even know the Australian constitution exists. Justice Pincus, a Federal Court Judge, republican and constitutional reformer believes there is too heavy a price being paid for present arrangements: “Having so much of people’s loyalty invested in a distant country is a luxury we cannot afford. We badly need a much greater sense of national cohesion.”99

This perpetuation of ‘our’ British history is inherently contradictory for reasons other than the myriad of cultures within Australia’s population. From the 1930s onwards, both socially and politically, Australia was moving rapidly away from Britain and towards America. Donald Horne likens this to growing away from one’s parent and seeking new patterns of identity. Australians responded favourably to the American image of freedom, equality, affluence and the pursuit of happiness and respected American “material success and expertise.”100 Richard White writes that an Australia independent of Britain was in America’s economic interests, wooing industry and raw materials away from old Empire loyalties. Americans played a large part in the development of a nationalist Australian intelligentsia which furthered ideas of Australia’s maturity. White specifically mentions one American writer, C. Hartley Gratton who lived in Australia for two years in the 1930s. He exhorted intellectuals “to take a more decisive role in forming public opinion” and to criticise “the ‘crown colony psychology’ of Australians”.101 The intellectual affiliation with the United States precipitated the mass transferral of allegiance which occurred during the Second World War when the Americans saved Australia from the Japanese after the fall of Singapore. The Vietnam War and “All the way with L.B.J.” in the mid-1960s revealed that what began as encouraging an Australian intelligentsia, resulted in America taking the place of Great Britain.

As with America, Australia is a nation of immigrants. When the first convicts came in 1788 they could forsee little more than serving their penal sentences in a far away gaol. There were twenty one different cultures aboard the First Fleet102, founding what was to become a country with one of the most ethnically diverse populations in the world. Mary Kalantzis has examined the two hundred years of European settlement in Australia in four fifty-year periods, a study which indicates the increasing British dominance. In the first quarter the population was predominantly Aboriginal but by the second fifty years the transported convicts from England, Ireland and Wales had overtaken the indigenous people. In the third quarter most were Australian-born but with an ascendency of the British Anglo-Saxons. In the last quarter from which we have just emerged there is a great diversity of cultures which clearly marks the end of Australia “for the white man”103 and should lead the way to a new era of tolerance and respect. However Australia’s ‘desired’ perception of itself seen, for example, through certain beer advertisements on television, is drawn almost exclusively from the third fifty years and reflects the dominance of British culture. Today, over half of all Australians are from a non-English speaking background and one in five was born overseas but rarely are their images reflected in popular culture. Their identity in modern Australia is denied.

The “National Agenda for a Multicultural Australia” released in July 1989 describes multiculturalism as simply a ” term which describes the cultural and ethnic diversity of contemporary Australia.”104 There are three dimensions of government policy within multiculturalism: the right of all Australians to express and share their individual cultural heritage, notably religion and language; the right of all Australians to equality of treatment and opportunity; and the necessity to utilise the skills and talents of all Australians. Kalantzis states that, “Multiculturalism is a particular value which says you won’t discriminate against anybody because they come from a different background, you must be tolerant. It is a value with very defined limits about what it will allow…It is not about allowing all cultural practices to co-exist with each other” which is what many people believe.105 Castles et al consider that it is based on “a construction of community through a celebration…of differences which are then subsumed into an ingrained community of national cohesion.”106

Nationalism is intrinsic to the search for identity. It is described as the “organisation of human groups into large, centrally educated, culturally homogeneous units….As a political movement [it] has sought two things: independence and national unity.”107 Assimilation of the plurality of cultures into a more British culture was to achieve these two platforms because mass immigration worked against traditional ideas of national unity. Policy makers wanted to show Britain that Australia had distinct characteristics which could harness an expanding and diverse population. Castles et al postulate, however, that new forms of communal identity emerged in the late industrialism of traditional first world countries. The new principles of the Green Revolution, women as a force in waged labour and mass culture were intrinsic to the development of these modern identities. “It becomes less and less possible and necessary to identify and maintain a singular national ‘folk'; and…old forms of racism prove themselves less able to mobilise populations.”108 Australia’s adherence to this form of traditional nationalism was, in this view, anachronistic from the beginning.

Australia has a long history of trying to define its national ideology. It “grew up as part of the British Empire….On the other side of the world from its ‘mother country’ and sitting on the edge of Asia, the maintenance of Britishness put a strain on the resourcefulness and imagination.”109 The policy of multiculturalism grew out of the ‘Australian Way of Life’. Propagated in the post-war years this image of Australia depicted the ‘typical Australian’ with his (sic) quarter acre block in the suburbs, nuclear family and Holden. It meant high standards of living in an advanced, industrial market society. The realisation slowly dawned that the large numbers of non-British Euopeans entering Australia under Calwell’s ‘populate or perish’ immigration program made this impossible . Assimilation was the answer and all migrants were criticised if they failed to adopt the Way of Life.

Australia had one of the biggest immigration programs in the world in these years and the policy of assimilation was introduced to foster and protect the faltering Australian Way of Life. Kalantzis says that assimilation was aimed at the mainstream Australian population more than the incoming migrants which helped sell the idea of large-scale immigration. Australians had to be told the migrants would be ‘just like them.’ Migrants conformed to Anglo traditions and were eventually accepted as (just) Australians. Assimilation exemplifies the way Anglo Australians have seen themselves as the hosts to ‘their’ country and all newer migrants as their guests, a practice backed up by the Australian political system which retains the British monarch as head of state. Many white Australians see Western culture as the only right one, as somehow ‘God given’ which links with Britain perpetuate. There is a racist belief among sectors of the Anglo-Saxon population that a diversity of cultures is obstructing the developing Australian identity which they believe is white British. National Action, a neo-nazi, white supremacist organisation is one such group.110 White ‘British’ Australians who insist on maintaining a British heritage are creating and perpetuating divisions in society.

Assimilation reinforced the sense of homogeneity and perceived superiority of the Anglophone population. The last years of the 1980s witnessed the rise of the New Right with Geoffrey Blainey as a leading spokesman on immigration issues. Their stand was against high levels of Asian immigration and for a return to assimilation, “partly reminiscent of the glories of English colonial ideology.” The New Right embraced what it perceived to be true Englishness in its characterization of Australian society.111

Richard White says that because assimilation was never really defined it became a formula for “expressing a general prejudice against outsiders and a distaste for non-conformity.”112 Trying to cling to the British identity was no longer an option either: “that ideology could not survive the fundamental changes resulting from the crumbling of the British Empire, the post-war immigration programme, and increasing vocal claims by Aboriginal groups.”113

Equally to blame for racist cleavages in society is the mistaken belief that from colonisation Australia has been homogeneous (“a society predominantly of one national or ethnic background”114). According to Al Grassby, Minister for Immigration in the Whitlam Government, Australia has never been homogeneous. In 1984 the population consisted of one hundred and forty different ethnic backgrounds speaking ninety languages in addition to the three hundred Aboriginal dialects. Melbourne was the third largest Greek-speaking city in the world.115 The ‘fraudulent’ policy of assimilation supported the Australian myth that ‘we are all the same’. Grassby describes how a fictitious sense of unity was attempted by the Department of Immigration in the 1950s. They stated that ninety five percent of the Australian population were ‘British'; at that time twenty-five percent were Irish in birth or origin, more than fifteen percent were non-British European, American and Asian, and Aborigines were not counted at all. The Department of Immigration figure was calculated by including everyone born in Australia, naturalised citizens, and those who came from any one of thirty-three countries of the British Commonwealth of Nations.

The obsession with inculcating a sense of homogeneity fed discrimination and divisiveness. The fact that the length of time to become an Australian citizen depended on skin colour, ethnic background and previous nationality was one of the worst examples of this institutionalised racism. The claim by some organisations and sectors of the population that Asia-oriented immigration programs are ‘anti-English’ contributes to the belief that Australia is British.116 Donald Horne says “those Australians who still define Australia by its Britishness might be seen as the ethnic problem: they are in effect the principal enemies of the policies of cultural diversity.”117 The recent Liberal Party publication, Australians Speak, is an example of this preoccupation. Participants spoke out about the sense of fragmentation, “cultural ghettoism” and lack of unified nationhood. Gerard Henderson criticises this search for social cohesion which breeds intolerance and racism: “Successful democratic governments are those which manage conflict and diversity skilfully. There is little sense in calling for social unity because, in reality, it can never be achieved.”118 He comments on the “intellectual vacuity” of exhortations such as this and the failed Call to Australia campaign forty years ago which cannot recognise Australia without WASP-tinted spectacles.

Mistaken Identity rejects the search for an Australian identity. The Bicentennial celebration, a prime example of how such an attempt “was yet another indication of how the concept of the nation has become ideological and exclusionary, failing to embrace most of the population”. It neglected an opportunity for genuine reform, reflecting Anglo dominance and maintenance of the status quo. As an intellectual construction, ‘nation’ is devised around the “presumed existence of a race, culture, or language; around the origin of that entity, and around some unique…national destiny.”119

The general characteristics of nationalism are intensity of feeling when nationhood is achieved through short, easily identifiable historical trauma, for example the War of Independence in the United States. Nationalism can be strengthened by the reference to mythology and ancient history, indicating legitimation through the passage of time; also by religion or legends which describe a compelling destiny of the race120. Such options for nationalism are not available for most Australians (only the Aboriginal population can claim these) but neither is the British heritage and culture described above in which a Head of State is shared with Britain. The authors of Mistaken Identity believe that we do not need a new ideology of nationhood and must transcend the desire for one. “Our aim must be community without nation.”121 However, republicanism is interpreted as a new ideology by Franka Arena, a founding member of the Australian Republican Movement and she contests the claim that nationalism is not needed. Abstract terms she says cannot always convey what is often unconsciously felt.

The great majority of people…do not have the luxury [of being able to call themselves citizens of the world]. They are in this country…and they want to belong and belonging means being Australians…having a feeling of nation and having our own symbols. We need nationhood. A community which is made up of 140 different ethnic groups needs a national identity.122

Republicanism “is just us growing up…What does the monarchy have to do with us? We must be ourselves.” A middle path between community and nationhood is described by Kalantzis who believes that social cohesion and a sense of nation without chauvinism or exclusion are possible if we “move towards some common aspects that we agree upon, that enshrines our differences and says ‘that is what it means to be Australian’. If we have that we will have a balance between the pleasure of diversity and the limits of diversity.” National cohesion within diversity is possible if traits that depict ‘the Australian’ move beyond Anglo physical characteristics (blue eyes, blond hair), and typical values such as mateship, are expunged of their racist, sexist elements.123

Peter Consandine and Paul Urban believe that a nationalism which is inclusive of the entire population would be found in a republican Australia. Republicanism and multiculturalism have always walked hand in hand. The British monarchy has alienated “hundreds and thousands of true Australian citizens” because it is perceived very differently by the Anglo-Celtic state culture and ethnic cultures.

In the state culture the monarch as personified by the British monarch, is seen as a non-political, unifying institution…In the ethnic cultures the British monarch in Australia is seen as the symbol of divisiveness; a symbol and mainstay of the privileged establishment.124

To recognise the monarchy from the British perspective only, overtly maintaining domination of British cultural traditions, is thoroughly hypocritical in Australian society and government which claims to support multiculturalism.

The current debate on where Australia is going in terms of recognising the multicultural nature of the society, our geographic position in the world and our hopes for the future will decide the fate of Australia. We will either become an insular, incestuous backwater, looking backwards in time to the colonial and imperial traditions of our past, or we will stand on our own feet, confidant in our strengths and our talents which have been gathered from every corner of the world.125 Paul Urban, who migrated to Australia in 1945 from Hungary, founded the New Australian Republican Party because of his frustration with the political system here and its refusal to utilise or even recognise the talents of migrants. James Jupp echoes his convictions: “The political dilemma of the ethnic is that while he or she may be legally a citizen…his or her access to power is restricted by majority prejudice and the preservation of long-standing elites.”126

There is significant empirical evidence which supports the intellectual arguments above. Opinion polls conducted over the last twenty years have consistently shown higher rates of approval for a republic than for the monarchy from Asian and European migrants. However, recognising the significance of Australia’s diversity to attitudes regarding the monarchy is relatively recent. Before 1973, respondants to these surveys were not asked their country of origin or birthplace. A Morgan Gallup Poll taken in December 1975 showed that of twenty-seven percent of Australians wanting a republic, over eighty percent were born in Europe (outside Britain) or Asia. An Age-Sydney Morning Herald poll a year later revealed that nearly seventy percent of respondants born in Europe (outside Britain) wanted Australia to become an independent republic with its own president. More recent examples bear similar results. In 1984 fifty-seven percent of people born in Europe desired a republic and fifty-five percent favoured a republic in 1988, over the thirty percent who were pro-monarchy. If these figures included Asian respondants as the 1975 poll does, the totals would be considerably higher. In 1991 sixty-one percent of respondants born outside Australia, Great Britain and New Zealand wanted a republic. These figures represent significant numbers of people. In 1986 one in five Australians was born overseas, two thirds outside the United Kingdom.

The endurance of symbolic links to Britain and the consequent British ‘identity’ (which remains despite its removal from government policy) has resulted in a number of paradoxes and incongruities. Not the least of these is the fact that the British nation, from which our identity supposedly originated, does not really exist. The British nation state “uneasily embraces four…principal ethnic groups.”127 When the British are seen in terms of their different ethnic groups or, which would amount to the same thing, when ‘ethnics’ are thought of as equally ‘Australian’ British dominance and self-importance in culture, society and in politics will be greatly diminished. This is emphasised also by Al Grassby who quite accurately maintains that ‘we are all ethnics’.

The constitution is viewed as directly inconsistent to modern Australian society. The Aboriginal poet Kath Walker says that it “should be stripped down and thrown out” to allow for the development of a genuinely multicultural version. People must be educated in how to genuinely respect Australia as multicultural in which Anglo-Saxons form just one group among many. “We could not get to step one until we become a republic. We are still dominated and retarded by British thought. We are a multicultural people but we don’t have a multicultural society.”128 A thorough restructuring of the constitution is needed. Colin Howard says that as Australia takes complete responsibility for her own affairs the connection with the Crown might have sentimental value for certain sectors of the population but certainly no other. For those who do not share a British cultural background (more than half of all Australians are from a non-English speaking background129) even the sentimentality is meaningless. Many migrants come from republics and it is “hardly to be expected that they will be favourably impressed with arguments for the retention of the monarchical connection on the ground of past history and natural ties.”130

Nationalism is an intellectual construction which changes through a country’s history, reflecting its self-image, its ambitions and fears. Throughout the post-war immigration program, Australia’s adoption of traditional nationalism based on a ‘purity of race’ was inherently paradoxical. The vast inflow of people who were turning Australia into the world’s most ethnically diverse country were hidden under the ideological umbrella of assimilation and homogeneity, defined in terms of ‘our’ British origins. The purpose was to provide “a mental bulwark against communism, against change, against cultual diversity.”131 Republicanism fits easily with a new ideolgy of nation, multiculturalism, which is breaking down Anglo dominance and embracing diversity. However, it is prevented from asserting itself as legitimately powerful by a political system which fosters divisions. It is a system largely irrelevent to the so-called “ethnic” sectors of the population.

(Next Chapter)

One thought on “Chapter IV – Multiculturalism as a Basis for Republicanism”

  1. Australia, like the UK, is a de facto republic. Ask yourself, where’s the power? With the Queen of Australia, Scotland, England & Wales? Really. Like the Commonwealth, the Queen is a throwback. The real business of governance is carved up between the political parties under the umbrella of ‘constitutional monarchy’. Australia, like the UK, should grow up and recognize itself for what it is.

    But please don’t confuse distractions like Republicanism and the Queen with insidious multiculturalism. Multiculturalism doesn’t work. It’s easy for monolingual Anglo-Saxon whites to confuse multiculturalism with diversity of race and color, but although related, they are not the same thing. For example, take Brazil. Brazil arguably has the most miscegenated population in the world; all the three races of man are represented: African, Asian and European. Yet, Brazilians are surprisingly singular in their identity as Brazilians, sharing many, many things in common. Immigrants to Brazil are expected to become Brazilian, to incorporate ‘Brazilianess’ and within a generation most are completely assimilated. True, the Japanese and Arabs have maintained their identity, but they are small minorities.

    But Australia is not Brazil and never will be. Portuguese and British colonization took very different paths. Why should Australians be ashamed of their British past? On the contrary, why shouldn’t Australians cherish their past, their British origins? Whilst I accept that the world has changed, immigrants to Australia should be expected to become Australians and fit into the native cultural environment. If an immigrant doesn’t want to become Australian or – at the very least – accept the cultural status quo, then he/she shouldn’t immigrate.

    The UK is slowly coming to terms with the fact that the imposition of multiculturalism has been and will continue to be, a deceitful experiment. Deceitful for all parties involved, both the ‘native’ British and the incoming immigrants. Worse off of all are the sons and daughters of those immigrants, who have grown up believing themselves to be de facto British, when in fact they are little more than de jure British. Growing resentment is replacing hope. Whilst Australia would wish to break with silly British institutions, wouldn’t it be wise to avoid the worst excesses of the UK’s multicultural experiment as well?

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