People need to feel at home in Australia
Dr Gerhard Hoffstaedter
First published in The Age on 1 October, 2010.
Victoria likes to portray itself as a beacon when it comes to multicultural policies, especially when compared with the rest of Australia. At this week's Ethnic Communities Council of Victoria state conference on ''Victoria's next cultural diversity model'', there was much celebration of achievements, and soul searching about the future.
Premier John Brumby, as premiers before him, carries the multicultural portfolio to demonstrate how important it is for the political leadership.
Cultural diversity, and this is another oft-quoted statistic, in the state is staggering: just under a quarter of Victorians were born overseas and half the population were either born abroad or had at least one parent born overseas. In Victoria, about 200 languages are spoken and more than 100 religions followed. So how is it we're all different and somehow made to feel the same?
This is the crucial issue. Among the many roles states have, the most important is to maintain the security of a place and safeguard the space we inhabit. The police, immigration and other executive arms of government are charged with this task and, by all accounts, are trying hard to understand the changing social landscape in Victoria.
Multicultural liaison officers and multicultural policies aim to diversify the police force and make policing new (and old) immigrant communities easier and better.
But the state is also charged with making people ''feel at home'' here. This need not be a zero-sum game, where someone feeling at home comes at the expense of others not feeling at home any more. But in politics, zero-sum games make sense, because people can be pitched against each other.
This is what has been happening in Europe, where far-right parties and some conservative centre-right movements have capitalised on people's feelings of insecurity. There is a sense that immigrants have been made ''too welcome'', which has caused ordinary citizens to feel less at home.
European models of multiculturalism that had for a long time set the tone for harmonious and prosperous versions of the multicultural ideal have subsequently come under intense pressure. Many ordinary citizens no longer support immigration, welfare provisions and multicultural policies.
The causes of these shifts have been much debated and there is never just one reason. It is an array of factors, ranging from the September 11, 2001, terrorist attacks in New York and heightened security fears, to rising unemployment with the global financial crisis and increased dissatisfaction among many ordinary Europeans about what they perceive as a constantly rising immigrant stream.
The Netherlands and Sweden had relied too much on government policy and government financial and infrastructure support that made immigrant communities state projects, often divorced from local communities.
Fortunately in Victoria, multiculturalism started as a grassroots movement that made its way up to government and demanded a concerted response. Government has responded, but more needs to be done. The question is, what?
One thing is clear: getting multiculturalism wrong can unsettle whole communities and cause grave insecurities for society. European backlashes against multiculturalism are just the latest in a series of failed attempts by governments to tackle cultural diversity.
In our backyard, Malaysia has struggled since independence with its politicised multiculturalisms that have hitherto kept violence at bay, but has failed to make all Malaysians ''feel at home''.
In Thailand, a protracted civil war of sorts has pitched Malay Muslims in the south against Buddhist Thais, and neither former prime minister Thaksin Shinawatra's solution of paper cranes nor the militarisation of the region have made any progress.
People crave a sense of belonging to the place they inhabit and they should have a right to be part of their local community as equals. An important step is ensuring legal inclusion and equity, but that is only a framework that has to be supported by organic community building.
Community resilience relies on deep and sustainable networks that have been nurtured over a long time, and resources must be made available to diverse communities.
Communities can be inclusive and exclusive, especially ethnic and religious ones. Many examples exist around issues such as gender, sexuality and religiosity that can make ethnic and religious affiliations difficult if not impossible for people. Not everyone from an ethnic background may want to be part of and represented by that community. Thus, nurturing neighbourhood and social groups may be a better tool in creating and maintaining sustainable communities that cut across ethnic and religious lines.