A cloud looms over the rainbow

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The Independent Online
BRISBANE - As a word and a project 'multicultural' is powerful in Australia, more so than in the United States. Also, it has a different underlying meaning.

In the US the word is most often heard in academia, as one of the shibboleths of the politically correct. In the world of practical politics, its principal beneficiaries have been black women, who have won advantages from its vogue both in the politics of the feminist movement, and in national electoral politics.

In Australia by contrast, the word stands for a definite political project, which has been pursued with considerable resolution by the Australian Labour Party for more than a generation, and is by now accepted with resignation by the other parties, to the accompaniment of bitter but ineffectual grumbling from the far right.

Paradoxically, the thrust of Australian multiculturalism is in the direction of ethnic fusion and a more securely conjoined Australian nation. To insist on monolingualism, and on the degree of cultural absorption that goes with it, would have marginalised the large Italian, Greek, Vietnamese and Chinese communities that now make up so large a part of the population of the great Australian cities. In Australia cultural minorities have been encouraged to continue to speak their own languages, to whatever extent they themselves want. In Melbourne last week, I walked from a street where everybody was speaking English to one in which everybody was speaking Greek, and just beyond that, it was all Chinese. Yet it all felt securely part of Melbourne. There was never for a moment any touch of the Bonfire of the Vanities sensation, of having strayed into the wrong part of town.

Too much should not be made of that, as we shall see. Still, on the whole, modern Australia has a firm grip on a good idea: that respect for cultural diversity, in its circumstances, is the best basis for political unity and nation-building. Market forces will see to it that everyone who grows up in Australia learns Australian English, whatever they choose to speak at home.

Some powerful external forces have been at work. The Second World War in the Pacific weakened ties with Britain. The Vietnam war, and America's abandonment of the South Vietnamese, checked what was up to then a growing tendency to rely on the United States. An Australia increasingly conscious of the need to conciliate its regional neighbours, could no longer afford to trail the coat of 'White Australia', as it had been accustomed to do as late as the end of the Sixties.

But other, more intimate, forces have been at work. One of these has been a major change in the religious balance within the 'white Australian' population. Catholics, who were 22.6 per cent of the population in the 1933 census were 34.7 per cent by 1987. Yet this substantial shift did not lead to the emergence of a more powerful Catholic bloc in Australian politics, but a more powerful English-speaking bloc.

The new Catholics were mostly Italians, and the religious bond between these and the Irish proved much less strong than the linguistic and cultural bond between the Irish and the British, whether Catholic or Protestant. About 10 years ago, under the impact of the Italian influx, the old term 'Anglo- Saxon' as a description of the dominant body of Australians, began to fade from use. 'Anglo-Celtic' is now firmly established in its place, covering essentially the same grouping as represented in America by 'Anglos'.

In cultural terms, the remarkable manifestation of ecumenism that is represented by the emergence of 'the Anglo Celts' favours the multicultural agenda. In political terms, it tends to favour, for the present, the continuing hegemony of the native- speakers of Australian-English. That category will inevitably broaden to include the children of the bilingual. The Anglo-Celts accept that this must come, but are not particularly anxious to expedite the transition.

Most varieties of Australians are benefiting from the multicultural agenda. Those who have benefited least are also those who are the subject of the greatest quantity of multicultural discourse: the Aboriginal peoples. A great deal of money has been spent on them in the past 25 years, and their juridical status has improved, but the the statistics remain obstinately terrible. Mick Dobson, an Aboriginal Social Justice Commissioner, in an article published this year, writes: 'We are the only peoples who would be justified in anticipating that our babies would die at birth at a rate four to five times greater than other young Australians and our children would die in infancy three times more frequently . . . . 'Only our children are under care and control orders at 10 times the rate that would be expected for their proportion of the overall population. Only our people have the status of being 26 times more likely to be in custody than other Australians.'

All, or almost all, these problems are alcohol-related, but the forms of alcohol abuse are related to the impact of white society on a radically different culture, as also with the native Americans. The multiculturalists are full of goodwill towards the Aboriginals, but their agenda may have come too late to save most of these.

Those who are disposed to be impatient, as I sometimes am, with the affectations of some multiculturalists, might do well to look back at how things were, before multiculturalism was heard of, in the days of the assumptions that doomed the Aboriginals. In a treatise published in 1888 on The Aborigines of Australia I found the following:

'The almost general unacquaintance (of Europeans) with their language, their (Aboriginals') inability to enter into anything like a metaphysical conversation . . . have tended to render mythological opinions of the aboriginal a matter of more than ordinary doubt and obscurity.'

Those who could not understand the language of the Aboriginals could none the less define authoritatively what they must be unable to talk about . . . There was no breaking through that barrier. The results are haunting Australia today. (Photograph omitted)