As Australia prepares to welcome 12,000 Syrian refugees, we should look clearly and dispassionately at why multiculturalism in Australia has been a success and what we can do to ensure it remains one.
The fact of the matter is, the arrangement we term multiculturalism in Australia is not the arrangement it describes in other countries. Here we lean to integration – sometimes even assimilation – while Europe leans to separatism. Astoundingly, Australians appear unaware of the very material way in which our successful Australian ‘multiculturalism’ differs from the failing European model.
In 1998, Bassam Tibi, proposed in his book, Europa ohne Identität, Die Krise der multikulturellen Gesellschaft, that Europe should adopt a clear leitkultur, or lead culture, based on western values. By western values, he meant human rights, secularism, civil society; the fruits of the Enlightenment. In Germany, where his book was first published, this notion was pilloried and became associated with nationalism and anti-immigration sentiment. His ideas were rejected out of hand in Germany and the book never made it into English translation.
But the model Tibi describes is what Australians call multiculturalism. The Department of Immigration is clear that ‘multicultural policies require all Australians to accept the basic structures and principles of Australian society’. That is, to coexist within the leitkultur.
Australia’s leitkultur is envied around the world. We are peaceful, tolerant and democratic. We are also comparatively egalitarian. Our values, and the prosperous and free society which they have engendered, are the reason why new immigrants continue to seek us out. Immigrants are also often the first to voice concern when they feel their chosen countries are being overly lax in accepting new immigrants, especially from their own cultures of origin. They fear that what they have left behind will follow them to the better place they have arrived at. Tibi is himself a Syrian-born immigrant to Germany, and one of many immigrant intellectuals there who have publicly expressed their despair over Angela Merkel’s open-door policy.
Even while celebrating our diversity and harmony, many Australians repudiate assimilation and chip away at the pillars on which our version of multiculturalism is built. In his book Don’t Go Back to Where You Came From, Race Commissioner Tim Soutphommasane argued against all the evidence that Europe’s multiculturalism has failed due to an assimilationist approach. The Greens go further and have laid out a step by step program for dismantling the successful Australian model. They, like Gillian Triggs, believe that social cohesion can be legislated for.
So why does what we call multiculturalism work? Selection for skills and character is generally considered key to the success of Australian multiculturalism. In his 2010 book, Germany Abolishing Itself, German politician Thilo Sarrazin proposes that a delay on immigrants accessing social security also has a key role to play. Australia’s rules around access to social security are more generous than those of some other countries, for instance the USA. Nonetheless, there is a two year minimum wait before a new immigrant can receive social security from the Australian government. Contrast this with Germany, where, Sarrazin says, ‘immigrants to Germany are provided for – regardless of their own capacity or willingness to work’. In the USA, Sarrazin argues, where it takes five years to qualify for benefits, 77 per cent of immigrants feel that they are ‘comfortable’ or ‘part of the community’ in under five years of arriving, with only 5 per cent saying they’ve never felt at home; by contrast, 58 per cent of immigrants of Turkish descent in Germany say that they don’t feel welcome and 78 per cent said they don’t feel that the Chancellor is their leader.
In Australia, migrants have a higher than average rate of employment, as they are selected to meet skills shortages. Family reunion visas, which operate as a loophole and/or shortcut in many European countries, take a long time to obtain for Australia and can be costly, if the visa applicant is expected to be ‘non-contributory’.
If the narrative of perfect selection is a little too tidy to ring true, the sheer volume of bureaucratic paperwork required to obtain the right to work here might itself offer a clue to Australia’s success. Only highly motivated applicants will endure the entire process, and as the truism goes, we value most highly that which we work hardest for.
Finally, there’s the question of behavioural adaptation to the community. Expectations on immigrants are in general high here, as the Australian government can and does revoke the visas of non-citizen immigrants and recently made a great show of doing so. In Germany, expectations were set lower until just a few months ago. Before the New Year sex attacks in Cologne, the law in Germany was that legal immigrants could not be deported unless they were sentenced to a crime carrying a sentence of greater than three years. Combined with Germany’s sentencing doctrine which prefers non-custodial remediation over incarceration, the bar for deportation was very high and hence the bar for behaviour was set low.
Germany, in rejecting the leitkultur concept, has suffered. The deliberate choice not to assimilate the Turkish guest workers brought in to rebuild Germany after WWII is a case study in the failure of separatist multiculturalism which has created a culture- and welfare-trap which the descendants of the guest workers are still trapped in. In Australia, second and third generation immigrants are generally integrated and the most successful are more or less assimilated.
As a wealthy, safe country, we have a responsibility to both humanitarian and economic refugees. Paramount to meeting this responsibility is preserving the leitkultur which offers protection against persecution, tolerance and the opportunity of prosperity. The better we do on this front, the more refugees of all kinds we will be able to offer safe haven and opportunity in a prosperous Australia.
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Parnell Palme McGuinness is Director of Thought Broker twitter: @parnellpalme
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