Integrate or perish say Howard and Rudd

February 2, 2007

The Labor and Liberal parties have been falling over each other in their rush to rub out the final vestiges of multiculturalism. In December, newly elected Labor leader Kevin Rudd renamed immigration spokesperson Tony Burke's portfolio "immigration, integration and citizenship". In his January 23 cabinet reshuffle, PM John Howard caught up, changing the name of the Department of Immigration and Multicultural Affairs to the Department of Immigration and Citizenship.

While claiming in January 23 Sydney Daily Telegraph that the name change from Department of Immigration and Multicultural Affairs to the Department of Immigration and Citizenship was "not designed to kick multiculturalism", it did come after a year of ideological attacks on the concept.

Leading the charge for "Australian values" and a tightened citizenship test was former parliamentary secretary for immigration Andrew Robb. On November 27, in the plenary address to the Transformations Conference in Canberra, Robb said: "Some Australians worry that progressively the term multicultural has been transformed by some interest groups into a philosophy, a philosophy which puts allegiances to original culture ahead of national loyalty, a philosophy which fosters separate development, a federation of ethnic cultures, not one community.

"Advocating the equality of cultures, or a community of separate cultures, fosters a rights mentality, rather than a responsibilities mentality. It is divisive. It works against quick and effective integration."

On January 26, NSW opposition leader Peter Debnam addressed a citizenship ceremony in Sutherland Shire — close to the site of the December 2005 Cronulla riot — where he emphasised the need for "practical multiculturalism". Debnam said that he wanted to "reclaim multiculturalism for mainstream Australians who believe that it should be a policy for inclusion, not exclusion".

According to Debnam, "The politically correct and extreme agenda for multiculturalism in Australia poses a very serious threat to the openness and inclusive nature of our society". In a thinly veiled attack on the Muslim community Debnam declared: "By allowing communities within our society to overtly differentiate themselves … and fail to embrace a common Australia, we light the fuse to more conflicts in the future."

Replacing multiculturalism is the new buzzword — "integration". While not clearly defined, it is bound up with calls to adopt "Australian values", criticism of communities that fail to "integrate" into the wider Australian community, and warnings that the alternative to integration is disintegration.

According to Scott Poynting, associate professor of the School of Humanities and Languages at the University of Western Sydney, Howard has always disliked the term, multiculturalism.

As Poynting told Green Left Weekly: "The neo-conservative attack on multiculturalism as 'political correctness', an ideology imported from the United States, was supported by Howard in the 1996 federal election. Since then, he has been reluctant to use the 'm' word. One of his first acts was to abolish the Office of Multicultural Affairs in the PM's department. This latest deletion is really just a further formalisation of this policy direction."

The Howard government's push for integration doesn't mean smoothing the path for new migrants to settle into a diverse and accepting society. Rather, it is intended as a threat.

Migrants must sign on to "Australian values" (read: Australian nationalism) and integrate into mainstream political consensus leaving their old (often radical, or anti-imperialist) political ideas behind. Failure to do so will deem them suspect which, in the current climate, could leave them open to accusations of supporting terrorism or terrorists.

Rather than genuinely encouraging democratic social cohesion, including by providing free English classes on the job and ongoing assistance with health, housing and education, the Howard government's appeal for "integration" is designed to silence or marginalise migrant communities that do not toe the line.

There are similarities to the failed "assimilation" policy that governed treatment of Indigenous Australians through the 1950s and 1960s.

Howard's claim that he is not opposed to multiculturalism ring hollow when he wants to rob the policy of any political dimension. Multiculturalism was never about wearing colourful national costume and sampling exotic cuisine on festive days.

"Of course multiculturalism should be 'a policy for inclusion, not exclusion', as Debnam insists he means", Poynting said. "And it was, from its inception. It was other things as well, of course, including a means of social control.

"To the extent that multiculturalism also entailed 'a federation of ethnic cultures', as Andrew Robb puts it, this was instituted as a means of limiting resources to immigrant communities and of keeping them in line. This sort of multiculturalism was put in place by the Fraser [Liberal] government, and has been manipulated by both major parties", Poynting commented.

The focus on "integration" has bipartisan support. Labor's Tony Burke explained Labor's thinking behind the change to the Victorian Fabian Society on December 22 this way: "Integration is the way to make a multicultural society work". He went on to try to assuage any concerns by saying: "I don't want anyone to think this word being in my portfolio is an attempt to take Howard from the right … It's not working as well as it should and … Labor will get integration back into the mix."

The Howard government's attacks on multiculturalism are not, as claimed, designed to create a more inclusive society. The aim is to increase the marginalisation of certain communities, namely Muslim and those of Middle Eastern backgrounds, and to scapegoat them for social problems. It's also an attempt to weld a xenophobic, nationalist, flag-waving, cross-class unity against them, something, it's hoped will distract white workers from the pain of Work Choices and re-elect Howard for another term.

The meaningless mantra of "integration" and the chastisement of communities that supposedly "cocoon" themselves from the "mainstream" are central to maintaining a divide-and-rule atmosphere in the run-up to the federal election.

As the former Liberal PM Malcolm Fraser warned last year: "There are already suggestions that this next election will be a 'Muslim election', as a while ago it was the Tampa election."

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