Multiculturalism and Conservatism

I am overjoyed that the government has not just allowed to speak the word “Multiculturalism” but is now celebrating Australia’s successful experience with it rather than sitting in silence as a disgruntled minority complain. Its not justt a feature of Australia I enjoy, but something I think vindicates other features I enjoy.

But I am very puzzled as to how this is becoming a partisan issue (if it hasn’t already become one), and not just given that the movements in migration policy, both into and out of the White Australia interregnum can’t historically be tied to either party. I’m also confused on philosophical grounds.

Take this quote today from Chris Bowen.

It is counter-intuitive to assume that the majority of migrants want to change Australia. Allegations of migrants wanting to come here to convert the populace and turn it into a replica of their homelands ignore the truth: people come to Australia because, to them, Australia represents something better.

The last thing they want is Australia to change, to become less free, to become less democratic, to become less equal.

I agree with this sentiment, but I also see it as quite philosophically conservative. If conservatism is about supporting the values in one’s society and believing in their strength and worth, it’s only natural to think that the worth of those values should draw other people in. In the marketplace of ideas they should be attracting buyers, and net migration suggests that many more people are buying than selling.

It’s not exactly a new idea. Have a look at this quote.

Fears that Australian values are being eroded by alien newcomers betray a surprising lack of confidence in the gravitational pull of the core culture. It’s important to remember that in these times, unlike the convict era, every newcomer has, in effect, voted for Australia. For us, being Australian is an accident of birth or parentage. For them, being Australian is an act of conscious choice. That’s why the placards displayed at Cronulla last Christmas, “We grew here, you flew here”, suggesting that only the native born could be fair-dinkum Aussies, were so wrong-headed.1

Or this one

…it makes very little sense to alienate large numbers of people who are Australian citizens and who are adapting to Australian society in their own way and at their own pace. Disparaging the religious symbols of Muslim Australians is at odds with our own best traditions. Why should Muslims turn out to be resistant to the gravitational pull of the Australian way of life when no one else has? 2

They’re both saying pretty much the same thing as Bowen, but the they’re from someone with perfect conservative bona fides. There’s a picture over the fold.

Tony Abbott, embracing an Australian of duck origin (swiped from

This just makes the current poison coming out of the Coalition all the more distressing. I am resigned to the fact that there was a racist part of the country, and was also resigned to the fact that they had gathered as a constituency within one of the two main political parties. But I had always been heartened by the fact that there was someone, not just within that party but deep within the right wing of that party making the case for multiculturalism, tolerance and understanding – and doing it quite eloquently. I liked the idea that support for one of my favourite features of my country had seeped (to varying extents) throughout the political spectrum. I particularly liked the fact that it justified current policy by past successes

But now that advocate has divorced himself from the one thing I thought he was doing well. He may still have the beliefs he gave in 2006 inside, but by saying nothing and excusing the ugliness coming from in his party, from the Morrisons and Bernadis and Humphries and Mirabellas, this means nothing. We are who we pretend to be, so we should be careful who we pretend to be 3.

The conservative philosophical logic behind what he said then (and what Bowen says now) still makes sense though. I hope that there are enough people in the Liberal party with the strength to support their own convictions. Perhaps sheer political arithmetic will come to the rescue. One of the unsung virtues of the state Liberal party under O’Farrell has been the quiet from what has been one of the most ugly state branches, and a desire to expand the range of candidates and appeal to seats once dismissed as too ethnic in the South and West. It makes sense not to alienate huge numbers of otherwise winnable voter on a poisonous platform (and struggle to win Sydney seats outside a North Shore ghetto). If success brings influence, maybe this can seep back into the federal branch.

Because it would be a tragedy if this became completely partisan, and views on it determined by party affiliation.

Three postscripts .

1-One hypothesis as to why it became a partisan issue may be because migrant groups created social networks that were useful for branch stacking. Labor branch stacking was more advanced earlier, so apparatchiks pursued these communities more vigourously, and they ended up disproportionately in the Labor camp – including the Vietnamese who Whitlam feared would, as anticommunists, naturally vote tory. By enemy of my enemy logic, their opponents simply drifted into the other party despite racism being equally welcome in both parties for most of the country’s history.

2 regards this comment made in parliament by Abbott regarding “labor sources” on Simon Crean’s preselection woes.

“He’s lost the Vietnamese branches as well as the Cambodian branches and I couldn’t help but think are there any Australians left in the so-called Australian Labor 4 today.”

At the time, in light of what else he was saying at the time, I thought he was mocking the fact the sources were identifying people by their ethnicity – the point being they should all be called Australian, not that they were not. I still hope that is what he meant.

3- Consider the joke about him having put these ideas in writing made.


2 (I read this in a database, but the relevant quote can be found here)


See also Abbott, Tony. The Australian 5 28 Feb 2006: pp. 13.

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  5. Canberra, A.C.T[]

About Richard Tsukamasa Green

Richard Tsukamasa Green is an economist. Public employment means he can't post on policy much anymore. Also found at @RHTGreen on twitter.
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13 years ago

“Allegations of migrants wanting to come here to convert the populace and turn it into a replica of their homelands ignore the truth:”..RG:”I agree with this sentiment”

I don’t — I’m happy for various migrant groups to bring the best of their homelands to Australia, whether that be simple physical stuff (e.g., good coffee) or non-physical stuff (e.g., a hard work ethic), and I would hope that many Australians want to improve the place as well. I also don’t see the problem with stuff that isn’t simple to a put a goodness value on — If it’s within the law and it doesn’t create social problems apart from to those that just want to dislike anything (e.g., the people who complain when they don’t speak English to each other), I don’t see the problem.

“Labor branch stacking was more advanced earlier”

I wonder what the real data on this is? People always say this advantages Labor, but there are now places that should be stacked the other way — John Howard’s old seat Bennelong, for example, is full of rich East Asians that are more conservative than the general population. If you can’t convince these people to vote Liberal, you won’t convince anyone.

13 years ago

I think you are deeply confused. You seem to think that the Liberal National Coalition is Conservative.

Don’t forget that Howard never really trusted “those asians” and was happy to accommodate One Nation for as long as it lasted.

The LNP see electoral advantage in this, that’s their sole interest. Pandering to bigotry appears to be electorally successful.

Andrew Bartlett
13 years ago

“He may still have the beliefs he gave in 2006 inside, but by saying nothing and excusing the ugliness coming from in his party, from the Morrisons and Bernadis and Humphries and Mirabellas, this means nothing.”

Don’t forget Kevin Andrews regular public forays into vilifying and discriminating against Muslims (consistent since at least his time as Immigration Minister – who knows how many non-public decisions he made that were influenced by this)

“We are who we pretend to be, so we should be careful who we pretend to be.” That’s a great quote – I must reuse it.

13 years ago

Multiculturalism is a con and was always so. It looked good for politicians and admittedly some bureaucrats that made a career out of it, but Australia’s policies never attempted to be multicultural in the real sense.

We had superficial ‘feel good’ stuff such as food and pretty dances as festival and we all congratulated ourselves that we were so multicultural. But when anyone tried to truly introduce any cultural factor that did not conform with the white Australian mainstream was slapped down very quickly.

derrida derider
derrida derider
13 years ago

Ooh -I recognised an allusion from my teenage reading years:
We are who we pretend to be, so we should be careful who we pretend to be is from Mother Night, by Kurt vonnegut – its an insight that is in fact central to the plot.

But yes, this post is spot on and reminds me however annoyed I get at the government they are not in fact indistinguishable from the opposition, and that meme coming from the left – “there’s no difference beteen Bush and Gore”, or “there’s no difference between Gillard and Abbott”, is dangerous and deluded.

derrida derider
derrida derider
13 years ago

Whoops – I see now you actually linked to the quote. Still, I’m glad my aging memeory is still capable of retaining things.

13 years ago

“But when anyone tried to truly introduce any cultural factor that did not conform with the white Australian mainstream was slapped down very quickly.”

That’s a bit odd being from someone called Guido. Ever noticed how Melbourne is a better to place to live than anywhere else in Aus for many things, especially cultural things, and ever wondered why? Notice how people don’t seem as angry as Sydney? Do you think that all of those cultural norms that the Euro-guys brought over that we don’t even think about now were well accepted at the time?

I think part of the problem with defining what multiculturalism has done to places is that people are looking for particular things that they can see, since these are easy to explain and quantify. But part of it is surely an overall influence on the way people think and behave. For example, if all the Euro-guys didn’t come over, do you think we would be sitting around in cafes, going to the cinema, living in open-plan houses, being as relaxed etc. as much as we do or are now? I think it’s had a huge effect — if no-one had come over, we’d probably still be trying to live and be like Brits do and are.

13 years ago

My initial reaction to Howard’s handling of One Nation echoed wilful’s above.

Then I lived in France at the same time as Le Pen reached 15% of the vote and Jorg Haider was elected in Austria, and Pym Fortuyn was making a substantial impact in Holland.

My take-away from that was these were the countries in which the lefty-wilful reaction to Hanson had prevailed, and the result was that there was a large segment of the population willing to endorse extremely unpleasant policies on the basis that they didn’t feel that any other part of the political spectrum cared about them, their fears or even their hopes.

Howard, by rejecting the (ironically) simplistic ‘us-against-them’ mentality of the younger me or wilful or almost the entire left, convinced 90% of the relevant section of the Australian community that he did listen to them and understand their concerns. In fact he did this well enough that today we have the opposite problem with, Labour having refused to accomodate their hopes and concerns, young lefties vote for a bizarre and radical party called the Greens.

13 years ago

Sorry if the last sentence is OTT!

13 years ago

Until the mid 1960s we had bipartisan racism (the White Australia Policy, the Stolen Generations). From then until 1996 we had bipartisan anti-racism. Then someone started bemoaning multiculturalism and rabbiting on about cultural dieticians and political correctness and saying he sympathised fundamentally with those of us who felt insulted when told we had a racist and bigoted past. It worked. His party garnered all our racists instead of just its fair share. Same party wants to keep them.

13 years ago


having lived and worked in France also, I don’t really think Australia and France are comparable, and I think you are attributing far too much to a left-right debate. France, and many other countries in Europe, for example, took in a whole lot of poorly educated people that didn’t have a super drive to get educated like some minority groups. Not surprisingly, it didn’t work. In addition, the richer people they took in (i.e., the other European groups like the Portuguese) blended in so happily that people actually forgot they took them in, and thus all they remember is bad. This was the basic story throughout rich Europe, whether there were left or right leaning governments. Because of this, the type of racism is also quite different — if you live in France and think who-do-I-racially-hate, you think of the people that live closest to you, and they probably hate you back.

Now compare that to Australia. Australia took in a really big range of people, including many who were better educated than the local population. We also got lots of people who were not especially well educated but tended to be quite hard working (and very good at running small businesses), as well some groups that succeed no matter how poor they are (e.g., most of the Asian groups). Now, as it happens, many of the groups that were successful are probably quite well assimilated (I hear disturbingly ocker accents on many Chinese looking people these days), but they still _look_ different. So you get reminded every day that immigration has actually been quite successful for most groups in Aus, because you see them and realize they are a different group (cf. kiwis, who share the same we-forgot-you-came fate as the Europeans in France).

From this you can a see why Hanson failed. Hanson failed because in Australia, unlike Europe, a lot of racism is just plain ignorance, not because you are going to have problems with your different race next door neighbor. Thus you can say all the silly things you want, but most people in the big cities (and some smaller ones too) arn’t going to believe you, because it’s just not the experience they have — Your Greek neighbor is probably more likely to give you free tomatoes than grief (mine was, anyway), and your Chinese neighbor is probably your local dentist (mine is). This is also why One Nation was most successful in areas where there are almost no non-white immigrants (and the Euro groups are most successful in areas where there are many immigrants)– because it is easier to perpetuate stereotypes there since there is almost nothing to challenge them.


[…] This post was mentioned on Twitter by Matthew Lee and ** Tamara **, Greg Jericho. Greg Jericho said: good post on Club Troppo on the multicultural debate – gives it some nice context – […]

13 years ago

Perhaps. I don’t really think Australia compares to France in the way you suggest any more than you do.

To be frank I don’t think racism is anything to do with it, really. I think it coincides, and much more so in France, but it is not the predominant cause. It is ultimately all about feeling that you belong or not. And whether in France or here, there is a similar certain chunk of the population who feel like the world in which their politicians operate and which their politicians talk about is not theirs.

They are afraid for the jobs, if even they still have one, they are distressed to realise that their kids’ lives will be nothing like the ones they remember, and they see much more bad than good in the maelstrom surrounding them.

‘Asians’ or ‘bougnoules’ are just a manifestation of this change. And someone has to listen to these people and do something for them because if they don’t, like in France the socialist/communist Chirac-Mitterand elite never did, and here Paul Keating certainly never convinced them that he did, then they will vote for someone who does.

13 years ago

I would have to say even if there’s element of truth to Patrick’s suggestion that Howard’s approach was at least partly responsible for keeping extreme Hansonism in check, it would take some convincing for me to feel it was the only effective way to do so, as the arguably far more likely outcome was making intolerance and mistreatment of recent migrants to be seen as more ‘acceptable’ among certain sections of the public.

murph the surf.
murph the surf.
13 years ago

I need a bit of help to understand what is going on here.
Is this a political experiment to test the possibility a small but significant group of people might vote Liberal ( if the campaign to destabilise the Gillard government succeeds in forcing an election ) because of this performance?
The thinking involved in developing this plan is repugnant.
Is this a sort of policy that the Libs will carry on with and implement or will the actual policy just slightly modify the civil services current actions?
Some of the Liberal politicans statements are so crudely thought out – ignorant and inflammatory all at once.
Into this opportunity strides the spokesman of the Labor party and at what looks like a product launch outlines the stand to be taken.
Is this response a reflection of an new policy direction? Or is this the message that has to be got out so the pollsters can work ther magic?
Too much noise and confusing substance.