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The Success of Australia’s Multiculturalism

Race Race Discrimination



Speech to the Sydney Institute, 9 March 2016

Check against delivery


Multiculturalism is a reality of Australian society. We live it everyday: in our cities and suburbs, in our schools and workplaces, on our buses and trains. In all these places, Australians mix with those from different backgrounds.

For the most part, we are comfortable with this reality. Surveys have shown that public acceptance of multiculturalism has been consistently high. The 2015 Mapping Social Cohesion survey, for example, found that 86 per cent of Australians agree that multiculturalism has been good for the country. This level of agreement has been constant for the past three years.[1]

Yet such acceptance of multiculturalism is accompanied by debate. For many self-declared friends of multiculturalism, this can sometimes be a source of concern. It shouldn’t be. It is important that we have civil debates about matters of race, culture and identity.

In any debate, though, it is important that we recognise some of the distinctive characteristics of the Australian multiculturalism. Our experience has been different from those in other parts of the world. While it is true that multiculturalism is in a troubled state in many liberal democracies, it is not the case for Australia. Ours is a success story, not a failure. But it is a success that demands our vigilance.

The criteria of success

Debates about multiculturalism often track events overseas. During the past decade, something of a consensus in Europe has emerged. Governments in Germany, France, Britain and the Netherlands have sounded a retreat from a policy of multiculturalism.

Some commentators have argued a similar retreat should occur here. Critics of multiculturalism believe it may promote more division than unity – that it may prevent groups from being integrated into a common national culture and identity.

These reflect legitimate concerns. Cultural diversity cannot be welcomed without some limits. Public policy should aim to bring people into a national community, rather than prevent them from doing so.

In the European context, there are clear indications that many immigrant groups are not integrating into national communities as they should. It is manifest through experiences such as the residential segregation of ethnic groups, the acquisition of language, the educational and employment of those from migrant backgrounds.

If Australian multiculturalism were to be considered a failure, we should see such signs of trouble. The evidence, however, doesn’t appear to suggest this is the case.

On social cohesion, even multiculturalism’s critics would readily concede the social miracle of Australia’s twentieth and twenty-first century migration history. In the most recent Scanlon Foundation survey on social cohesion, there was evidence of a large measure of social cohesion – including at the level of neighbourhoods. Only 2 per cent of people strongly disagreed that people of different backgrounds get on well together in their local area. Only 3 per cent strongly disagreed that the mix of different backgrounds improved life in their local area.[2]

On educational attainment, studies from the OECD clearly demonstrate that the children of immigrants in Australia attain better average results than the children of native-born Australians.[3] Such performance is mirrored in economic participation. Skilled migrants have a higher labour market participation rate than the overall population; their median annual earnings are also higher.[4]

On civic integration, an estimated 80 percent of immigrants with more than 10 years of residence have chosen to take up Australian citizenship.[5] It’s not a case of immigrants remaining foreigners. Those who do arrive here clearly want to become full members of the Australian nation.

On all these counts – social cohesion, educational attainment, economic participation, civic integration – Australia’s multicultural society has been a success. Unfortunately, this is missed by some commentators who turn to Europe and draw the wrong conclusions for our country. It is akin to finding a design flaw in an Audi or Peugeot and concluding that a Holden will have the same flaw.

Explaining success

Australia’s multicultural success has been predicated on Australian society accepting immigration as a nation-building project. In many countries, immigration occurred without planning. But that wasn’t the case here. A well-ordered immigration program has ensured public acceptance of cultural diversity; it has underpinned the cultural generosity of Australian society.

Another reason is that we have had a very particular model of multiculturalism. There are important differences between what Europeans have called multiculturalism and what we in Australia have called multiculturalism – especially in the realm of policy.[6]

Here, multiculturalism as policy emerged in the 1970s. It replaced the initial policy approach of assimilation that was adopted towards mass immigration from Europe in the immediate post-Second World War years. In the very simplest of terms, multiculturalism means there is public endorsement and recognition of cultural diversity. It means a national community defines its national identity not in ethnic or racial terms, but in terms that can include immigrants. It means a national community accepts that its common identity may evolve to reflect its composition.

What has been called multiculturalism in France and Germany does not accord with the policy of multiculturalism in Australia.

The French approach, for example, is better described as a republican or assimilationist one. In France, if there are to be expressions of cultural difference, they are to be confined to the private sphere – they have no place in public. This explains French bans on the wearing of religious symbols in public places such as schools, or the wearing of face coverings such as the burqa in public. There is nothing that can be described as multicultural about such bans.

The German approach, meanwhile, has been shaped by the guest worker model of immigration it adopted in the post-war years. While Germany accepted immigrants into the labour market, it did not for a long time welcome them as fellow members. Immigrants were tolerated as guest workers who were expected to return home once their work was done. It wasn’t until 2000 that German nationality law was changed to allow those born in the country to parents without native ancestry to claim German citizenship.

Australia has taken a different path. Unlike French republicanism, Australian multiculturalism has not confined cultural differences to the private realm; Australian society openly celebrates cultural diversity. Just consider last month’s public celebration of Lunar New Year. That kind of open, public endorsement of diversity wouldn’t be contemplated in French republican society. If anything, it would likely be regarded as fundamentally threatening to the civic order.

And unlike the German approach, Australia has extended the hand of civic friendship to immigrants. Those who arrive on Australian shores as migrants aren’t expected to remain mere guests. Rather, they are expected and encouraged to become fellow citizens of equal standing in society.

Australia’s multiculturalism is based on a compact of citizenship. Cultural differences are to be embraced, but only when they are consistent with living in an Australian democracy.

This bargain is embodied in the pledge an immigrant takes when they naturalise as an Australian citizen: ‘I pledge my loyalty to Australia and its people, whose democratic beliefs I share, whose rights and liberties I respect, and whose laws I will uphold and obey.’ In those four clauses we have writ the contract of citizenship in this country.

Contrary to its critics, Australian multiculturalism has never sanctioned a form of cultural relativism. Any right to express one’s cultural identity and heritage has been accompanied by responsibilities. There must be a commitment to liberal democratic values – to parliamentary democracy, to the rule of law, to equality of the sexes, to freedom of speech.[7]

In other words, Australian multiculturalism has always been an exercise in nation-building. It has always aimed to strengthen Australian national identity, not to supersede it. It has always been robust and muscular; it has always been committed to liberal democracy. As Assistant Minister for Multicultural Affairs Craig Laundy has recently said, ‘our success as one of the most culturally diverse and socially cohesive nations in the world is firmly grounded in our adherence to the values which underpin Australian society’.[8]

Civic multiculturalism and the Racial Discrimination Act

Let me turn to two challenges in sustaining Australia’s multicultural success.

First, the civic and non-partisan character of multiculturalism must be defended. If the Australian public has a broad acceptance of multiculturalism, as the evidence suggests, then it is because our model has avoided political sectarianism. Australian multiculturalism enjoys – and rightly enjoys – political endorsement from all the major political parties.

Too often, however, there is missing a measured view of multicultural policy. Some on the progressive side of political debate see only rights, but not responsibilities. Some on the conservative side of political debate see only a recipe for cultural difference and not also one for political unity.

Yet, in one respect, Australian multiculturalism has an emphatic conservative spirit.

It is something that is explicit about the sacrosanct nature of our parliamentary democracy and our rule of law. It says that while we should accept cultural diversity, we must also affirm and protect our liberal democratic institutions. It says that we should endorse values of civility and respect. These are not radical ideas, but deeply conservative ones.

A second challenge concerns the legal architecture of multiculturalism – namely, the Racial Discrimination Act. An official multiculturalism would mean little were it not supported by laws that guarantee equal opportunity in public life. Over the last forty years, the Racial Discrimination Act has done this, and it is important that it continues to do so.[9]

But in much recent debate about the Act, there continues to be widespread misunderstanding about its provisions – especially section 18C, which makes it unlawful to offend, insult, humiliate or intimidate someone because of their race. There continues to be commentary, which suggests that section 18C stifles free speech by capturing conduct that is merely offensive. Some recent commentary has also questioned section 18C’s constitutionality.

Such commentary is misguided. Since it was introduced in 1995, section 18C has been found by the courts only to apply when it causes serious and profound effects involving race; it does not cover acts which cause mere trivial slights or harms. And it remains rare for complaints about racial discrimination to reach the courts. For example, in 2014-15, the Australian Human Rights Commission finalised 405 complaints about racial discrimination. Less than 3 per cent of finalised complaints in 2014-15 end up in court. The majority of complaints under the Act are successfully conciliated (in 2014-15, 67 per cent of complaints where there was a conciliation).[10]

As for the constitutionality of section 18C – to be more precise, the constitutionality of Part IIA of the Act – the body of case law to date suggests the law is settled on the issue. The Federal Court, in the case of Jones v Scully, has held that section 18C reflects a domestic implementation of Australia’s international legal obligations as a signatory to the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination.[11] The reasoning of Justice Hely in that case has been followed in all subsequent cases where the issue of constitutionality has been raised. Part IIA of the Act, as Justice Hely put it, ‘is reasonably appropriate and adapted to serve the legitimate end of eliminating racial discrimination’ and does not unnecessarily or unreasonably impair the freedom of political communication that is protected by the Constitution.[12]

Understanding how section 18C works requires attention to section 18D of the Act, which explicitly protects freedom of speech. This section protects anything that is done reasonably and in good faith that is artistic work or fair reporting and comment on matters of public interest. Among many critics of the Act, and among those calling for its review, there is a puzzling ignorance of this section of the legislation.

The courts have interpreted this provision broadly. There have been numerous instances where acts causing racial offence have been found to enjoy the exemption of section 18D. Consider the case of Bropho v HREOC, where cartoons lampooning the return of the head of Yagan. (Yagan was a Noongar warrior shot dead in 1833 and whose preserved head was displayed in a British museum.) Despite the racial offence taken by Noongar Aboriginal communities in Western Australia, the cartoons in the West Australian newspaper were found by the Federal Court to have enjoyed the protection of section 18D, being deemed to constitute fair comment.[13]

If we are to endorse Australian multiculturalism, we should give it expression through the law. The law acts, among other things, to express our values as a society. The Racial Discrimination Act continues to be an important statement about Australian society’s commitment to civility and respect.

Civility and respect are, as I noted earlier, values that transcend political divides. Again, we see in Australian multiculturalism and the Racial Discrimination Act, a spirit that could be described as conservative. Conservatives, after all, have never shied from prescribing for society – as Edmund Burke did in his Reflections on the Revolution in France – the right kinds of ‘sentiments, manners and moral opinions’.[14]

Community harmony and extremism

I would like to conclude by focusing attention on a third, and most urgent, challenge. That’s the challenge of extremism. As illustrated by a number of examples during the past two years, there are elements present in our society intent on pursuing violent extremism, using religious justifications. These elements have no place in Australian multiculturalism.

We must take care, however, not to judge entire communities by the actions of an extremist few; we must not allow stereotypes and prejudices to take hold. Last year, I conducted around the country consultations with communities about their experience of racism. It was commonly reported by representatives of Muslim and Arab communities that public debates about terrorism were spilling over into disharmony within communities.[15] This is corroborated by research from Western Sydney University, which found that Muslims experience a level of discrimination three times higher than the national average.[16]

This warrants our attention. Saying that some communities may be susceptible to experiences of racial or religious vilification doesn’t amount to encouraging a sense of victim mentality (as some commentators have suggested). We must be prepared to speak out against prejudice where it exists. Not speaking out can make it easier for extremists to seduce alienated youths with their messages of violence.

Indeed, if we are to expect Muslim communities to repudiate extremism perpetrated in the name of Islam, our society must be prepared to repudiate extremism that targets Muslim communities. It has been concerning to see present in many anti-Muslim protest rallies agitators aligned with far-right-wing nationalist organisations.

Such groups may not confine their energies to one community. During the past two years, for example, we have seen numerous instances of vile anti-Semitic bigotry, which appear to be linked with far-right organised groups. The alarming rise of far-right politics in the US and Europe further highlights how liberal tolerance is being challenged by extreme nationalism.

There are, then, numerous challenges for Australian multiculturalism. It is a reminder that while it has been a success, we cannot be complacent. But, as I said at the outset, civil debate about multiculturalism is always to be welcomed. I thank the Sydney Institute for facilitating such a debate this evening.


[1] A Markus (2015), Mapping Social Cohesion National Report 2015, Scanlon Foundation and Monash University, Melbourne, p 41.

[2] Ibid [1] p 59.

[3] OECD (2012), Education at a Glance 2012: OECD Indicators, OECD Publishing, p 92. Available online: (last accessed 8 March 2016).

[4] Department of Immigration and Border Protection (2014), Australia’s Migration Trends 2013-14, Commonwealth of Australia, Canberra, p 118.

[5] D Smith, J Wykes, S Jayarajah and T Fabijanic (2010) ‘Citizenship in Australia’, Paper for OECD Seminar on Naturalisation and the Socio-Economic Integration of Immigrants and their Children, Department of Immigration and Citizenship, Canberra, p 8. Available online: (last accessed 8 March 2016).

[6] For more detailed discussion, see T Soutphommasane (2012), Don’t Go Back To Where You Came From: Why Multiculturalism Works, NewSouth Publishing, Sydney.

[7] See, e.g., Australian Government (2011), The People of Australia – Australia’s Multicultural Policy, Commonwealth of Australia, Canberra.

[8] C Laundy (2016), ‘Cultural diversity is one of our strengths’, The Australian, 1 March 2016.

[9] I have offered a more detailed treatment of this in T Soutphommasane (2015), I’m Not Racist But... 40 Years of the Racial Discrimination Act, NewSouth Publishing, Sydney.

[10] Australian Human Rights Commission, (2015), Annual Report 2014-2015, Australian Human Rights Commission, Sydney. p 144.

[11] Jones v Scully [2002] FCA 1080 (at paragraphs 239-240).

[12] Ibid [11].

[13] Bropho v Human Rights & Equal Opportunity Commission [2004] FCAFC 16.

[14] E Burke ([1790] 1980), ‘Reflections on the Revolution in France’, The Harvard Classics, ed. Eliot, C. Grolier Enterprise Corp, Connecticut, p 217.

[15] Australian Human Rights Commission (2015), Freedom from Discrimination: Report on the 40th anniversary of the Racial Discrimination Act, Australian Human Rights Commission, Sydney.

[16] K Dunn, R Atie et al. (2015), The resilience and ordinariness of Australian Muslims: Attitudes and experiences of Muslims Report, Western Sydney University, Sydney, p 27.

Dr Tim Soutphommasane, Race Discrimination Commissioner