Minister rejects recent attacks in Europe on multiculturalism amid anti-Muslim sentiment
By Jonathan Pearlman
SYDNEY: The Australian government has pledged to curb racism and strive for a multicultural Australia, amid concerns about anti-Muslim sentiment.
Rejecting recent attacks by European leaders on multiculturalism, Australian Immigration Minister Chris Bowen recommitted the government to the policy, saying it was essential to ensure that immigrants were integrated into society and not just treated as 'guest workers'.
'Australia's diverse immigration programme has been to the benefit of both migrants and ourselves,' he said in a speech at The Sydney Institute.
'It is an indelible and irrevocable part of who we are... If people do not feel part of society, this can lead to alienation and, ultimately, social disunity.'
As part of its latest efforts, the government is reviving a portfolio of multiculturalism, to be overseen by a parliamentary secretary, and will launch a nationwide anti-racism campaign.
Mr Bowen used his speech on Wednesday night to address directly the thorny issue of anti-Muslim racism, which flared anew this week after the opposition stepped up its campaign against asylum seekers and pushed for curbs on Muslim immigration.
Mr Scott Morrison, the opposition immigration spokesman, on Thursday brushed aside numerous reports that he had called on the shadow Cabinet to take advantage of community concerns about Muslim migrants and their inability to integrate.
Faced with calls for his resignation, Mr Morrison did not deny the specific allegation, saying only that he could not comment on what was said in the shadow Cabinet room and that such 'gossip... does not reflect my views'.
But Mr Ikebal Patel, chairman of the Australian Federation of Islamic Councils, has demanded a clarification of the matter.
Separately, Liberal Senator Gary Humphries angered the Muslim community when he tabled a petition on behalf of three Sydney residents last week, calling for a 10-year moratorium on Muslim immigration.
Australia's population of 22 million has been bolstered by successive waves of immigration from Europe, Asia and the Middle East. As many as 300,000 immigrants arrive each year and about a quarter of the current population were born overseas.
Australia has an uneasy relationship with its Muslim community, particularly after the Sept 11, 2001 terrorist attacks on the United States. Dozens of Muslim men have been jailed in Australia under anti-terrorism laws.
The friction has also led to violence, as happened during the Cronulla riots in Sydney in 2005, when mobs of whites attacked Lebanese Australians in a bid to 'reclaim the beach'.
In his speech, Mr Bowen insisted that Muslim immigrants were welcome and that the vast majority of Australia's roughly 350,000 Muslims were not trying to 'change Australia' or impose syariah law.
He conceded that it was 'inevitable' that Muslim immigration would be questioned amid 'concern about terrorism inspired by extremist Islam'.
But he added: 'To cast all Islamic migrants or all members of any religious group as somehow unworthy of their place in our national community, however, tars the many with the extremist views of the very few and does an injustice to all.'
Successive Australian governments have grappled with efforts to integrate immigrants. In the mid-1970s, the Whitlam government adopted a policy of multiculturalism to try to promote integration. This followed the formal abandonment of the 'White Australia' policy, which had restricted non-white immigrants.
But the term multiculturalism was dropped in the 1990s by Prime Minister John Howard, who believed it did not assist integration and promoted a 'federation' of separate cultures.
The current Prime Minister, Ms Julia Gillard, also appeared to be backing away from the term when she dropped the multiculturalism portfolio from her new Cabinet last year. Her predecessor, Mr Kevin Rudd, had reintroduced the portfolio.
But the Gillard government this week revived the concept amid an increasingly shrill - and sometimes racist - debate over the treatment of asylum seekers.
Many of the asylum seekers are from Iraq and Afghanistan - and the refugee issue has often overlapped with debates over the integration of Australia's Muslims.
Mr Morrison this week criticised the government for paying for 22 asylum seekers to fly from a detention centre in Christmas Island to the funerals of loved ones who drowned while trying to reach the island in December. He later admitted his criticism lacked compassion and 'was insensitive and inappropriate'.
As part of the revival of multiculturalism, the government will also form a new 10-person independent body, the Australian Multicultural Council, to advise on ways to help immigrants overcome language and cultural barriers.
Mr Bowen on Wednesday distanced Australia from recent statements on the failure of multiculturalism by British Prime Minister David Cameron, French President Nicolas Sarkozy and German Chancellor Angela Merkel, saying the debates in Europe were 'of limited value'.
'We are not a guest-worker society,' he said. 'Rather, people who share respect for our democratic beliefs, laws and rights are welcome to join us as full partners with equal rights.'