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This chapter looks at the way Australia's immigration policy changed from one based on the idea of assimilation - that Australians would accept the idea of foreigners coming here as long as they covered up their 'foreignness' by becoming as much like mainstream Australians as possible - to one that embraced notions of multiculturalism.

External factors

There were a number of factors, both external and internal, that generated this change. Externally there were, post-World War II, new ideas around the world about the nature of race. These may well have come about due to the new awareness of what racism could do when put into practice by groups such as the Nazi Party. Notions of racial superiority were now regarded with greater suspicion, making it difficult for Australia to defend its White Australia policy.

Internal factors

Internally the criticisms were being echoed by church groups and others. Some of these groups had become vocal against the White Australia policy during the 1950s but in the 1960s they were joined by a larger force consisting of academics, university students, journalists, ethnic community leaders and social workers who worked in migrant settlement services.

As discussed in other chapters, small steps towards dismantling the White Australia policy and its attendant assimilationism were made throughout this time, including the dropping of the dictation test for prospective immigrants in 1958 and the extension of the skilled migrant program to include non-Europeans in 1966. These steps, along with the Colombo Plan which allowed Asian students to study in Australia, saw small numbers of Asians and other non-Europeans settle in Australia throughout the late 1960s and early 1970s.

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These changes may have made the existing regime less rigid, but they did not throw it out altogether. True change required abolishing race-based references in official policy and acknowledging the right of non-British cultures (including language, religion and other cultural practices) to exist in Australia.
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One of the first steps in this direction came at the annual convention of the Australian Labor Party (ALP) in 1965. After much heated debate it officially dropped references to White Australia in its immigration policy document. However, the document stopped well short of advocating a multicultural society.

The introduction of multiculturalism

In 1968 an academic, Jerzy Zubrzycki, gave a paper at a citizenship conference. Zubrzycki was part of the movement mentioned above that had been pressuring the government from within Australia about its policies. They had become a movement consisting of various groups concerned about the welfare of migrants and the old-world attitudes of Australia. In his speech he voiced the concerns and hopes of this movement and put forward their ideas for what he called 'cultural pluralism'. Cultural pluralism challenged the idea of assimilation and suggested instead that Australia's cultural groups maintain their ethnic traditions but share Australian identity and the institutions of democratic society.

While not well received at first, these ideas went on to influence government policy. The movement became known as the 'multicultural' movement after Canada adopted what it called a 'multicultural society' (meaning, in their case, English and French) in 1971. Members of the multicultural movement got on to immigration department advisory committees where they were able to put their ideas forward in reports to government.

Al Grassby, the Immigration Minister in the Whitlam government that was elected in 1972, was open to these ideas, as was Prime Minister Gough Whitlam. In 1973 the government officially ended the White Australia policy by dropping all references to race in its immigration policy. Immigrants were now to be chosen on merit and eligibility for various categories rather than on the basis of race, colour or religion.

Activists for multiculturalism also lobbied opposition immigration spokesman Malcolm Fraser in the lead-up to the 1974 election. Fraser was sympathetic and pressured the Liberal Party to include these ideas in their own policies. The following year the Racial Discrimination Act 1975 (Cth), introduced by the Whitlam government, made it illegal for people to discriminate in an official capacity on the basis of race.

Throughout the next two decades multiculturalism became the subject of many groups, reports and activities. Prime Minister Bob Hawke set up an Office of Multicultural Affairs during the early 1980s to formulate multicultural policy. By this stage there were programmes in place that provided settlement services for migrants and funding for migrant lobby groups. There were also other initiatives such as multicultural radio stations. Around 20 per cent of Australia's population by that stage were people who had been born overseas.

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These changes happened relatively quickly and were a dramatic turnaround from the attitudes that had existed in the first half of the century. However they happened with little public disquiet. By the early 1990s multiculturalism as a policy was supported by both major political parties.

There has been some criticism that Australian governments have only put multiculturalism into practice with regard to settlement services for migrants rather than really trying to make Australia a place that embraces all cultures. Beyond mainstream Australia's consumption of food from other cultures, some say there is little awareness amongst them of the customs of the ethnic groups that live in their midst. The hostility towards non-Europeans that became evident during the mid 1990s may have proven these critics right.

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1. What were becoming more important in the post-war environment?

Strong immigration programs.

Ideas such as multiculturalism.

Economic and strategic relationships.

Ex-colonies such as some African countries.


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