Intellectuals, immigration and multiculturalism
The White Australia Policy
Macleay Press, 2004
Extract from Chapter
Eleven: Multiculturalism and the Sociology of Shame
Sociology is an academic discipline that has had an unhappy history since its founding in France in the nineteenth century. It has never had a consistent methodology and has been racked by competing theories. The grandiosity of much sociological theory has been matched only by its incoherence. Although the subject has been taught at Australian universities for more than fifty years, its practitioners have shown little concern about describing the country to itself and far more interest in denouncing it for its failings. This is especially true in race relations. For the past twenty years most sociologists of race have approached the topic with their minds already made up: Australia is so hopelessly racist it is a basket case. Indeed, in 1992 one of the most influential academic books on race relations co-authored by Stephen Castles, Mary Kalantzis, Bill Cope and Michael Morrissey, declared the very adjective ‘Australian' to be a racist term. They reasoned that using the term ‘Australian' to describe the people who inhabit this continent lumped them all under the one category and failed to acknowledge how distinctive were their many cultures. The term ‘Australian' failed to defer to this diversity, ergo it was racist. In 1993, one of the prescribed textbooks for most first year university sociology courses, Social Sciences in Australia: An Introduction by Chilla Bulbeck, declared the phrase ‘host society' to be a racist expression. Although she found difficulty avoiding the term herself, Bulbeck warned off others from doing the same because it implied ‘a false sense of unity in the host society and conveys a sense of incomers as alien'.
Yet in the very midst of all this ideological dressing-down, the Melbourne sociologist Katharine Betts rescued the reputation of her discipline by taking up the same issue to write one of the most illuminating analyses of Australian society ever made. In a book initially published in 1988 called Ideology and Immigration , she demonstrated how race, immigration policy and the concept of multiculturalism had combined to produce a set of ideas that had caused a new and fundamental division with Australian society. She showed this ideology had created a ‘great divide' between the intellectual class and the majority of the population. Intellectuals, who mostly worked for universities and the public service, had endorsed a set of values that won the ear of the then Labor government and the news media. They established a terminology that soon became the only publicly acceptable discourse on the topic. Although they professed their motives were social justice and political progress, the same intellectuals held an overt contempt for the majority of Australians, who they thought remained mired in materialism and shrouded in xenophobia. Betts argued that the cultural outlook of these intellectuals was so different to mainstream Australia that they constituted a ‘new class'. Her thesis was subsequently publicised by a number of conservative media commentators and its accuracy was even grudgingly admitted by some on the left. Her analysis was proven accurate when the despised majority took their revenge in the 1996 election by subjecting Paul Keating to the greatest electoral defeat of any Prime Minister since Federation. Subsequent political developments foreshadowed in principle by Betts' thesis were the short-lived career of Pauline Hanson's One Nation political party, the far more enduring capture by the Liberal Party of much of the former constituency of the Labor Party, and four successive election victories by the man most despised by leftist intellectuals, the conservative Prime Minister John Howard. A considerably expanded version of Betts' book was published in 1999 with the more evocative title The Great Divide. 
Betts adopted the historian John Hirst's distinction between ‘soft' and ‘hard' multiculturalism. Soft multiculturalism refers to the demographic fact that the Australian population now has diverse origins and recommends we act with tolerance towards migrants. Hard multiculturalism holds that ethnic groups in Australia should form their own communities, maintain their own distinctive cultural beliefs, languages and customs, and that government should support them to do all this. Hard multiculturalism encourages immigrants to withhold loyalties and affiliations to Australia . It fosters dual citizenship and even pays some migrants welfare pensions if they return to their home countries permanently. But rather than respecting the integrity of Australian culture as equally worthy in its own right, hard multiculturalism is quite inconsistent in its hostility to almost everything Australian. All cultures are equal but one culture is less equal than others. While soft multiculturalism enjoys widespread public support, survey research has consistently shown hard multiculturalism produces a great divergence of opinion between the less educated and university graduates. By the 1990s, three-fifths of university-educated Australians favoured hard multiculturalism, while only one quarter of non-university-educated people agreed. Moreover, graduates are far more likely to support hard multiculturalism than migrants themselves, who side more with Australians of their own education level. ‘Attitudes to multiculturalism do not divide the majority of immigrants from the majority of the Australian-born,' Betts argues, ‘they divide the new class from the rest, irrespective of birthplace.' 
This great divide began in the 1970s when a set of ideas emerged about immigration, race and the nature of Australian suburbia. These ideas were both moral principles and symbols of social status. They served the new class as markers of cultural identity. ‘If a taken-for-granted assumption develops that only crude, ethnocentric, narrow-minded, selfish people are critical of immigration,' Betts writes, ‘to refrain from such criticism (or to express approval of immigration) is an easy way of demonstrating that one is not infected by such disabilities and, indeed, belongs to quite a different category of person.'  The record of survey opinion and other data shows, she says, that during the 1970s, 1980s and 1990s, disproportionate numbers of the intelligentsia were either pro-immigration or opposed to those who were critical of immigration.
The 1960s was a decade of university expansion, with a number of new institutions established plus a substantial growth in enrolments at the old sandstones. The ensuing social mobility produced a first-generation professional middle class whose members sought ways of distinguishing their new position from their own largely lower-middle-class and working-class origins. Betts says that at the time they had two cultural options: the Anglophile norms of established wealth, with its big houses, gardens, wine and golf clubs, and the locally-produced culture of the lower orders, with its suburban quarter-acre blocks, poker machines, beer and football. Employed on salaries, they could not hope to emulate the rich, and suburbia was what they were desperately trying to escape. So they took a third option and developed a culture of their own. It meant moving back to the inner city districts that their parents' generation had regarded as slums to be abandoned, buying and gentrifying their then cheap nineteenth century houses, and switching their allegiance from British to European culture. They constituted the market for art-house films and European literature. They also travelled a lot, less than earlier generations to England and more to France , Italy and Greece . They ate at ethnic restaurants and switched from beer to wine. Betts points out that films from the 1960s like Zorba the Greek established the idea of the ‘marvellous ethnic' and of continentals who really knew how to live the full life, untrammelled by narrow Anglo-Saxon inhibitions. ‘Traditional southern-European society is in fact tightly bound by values of honour, female chastity and family authority,' Betts writes, ‘but cultural tourists will always find the foreigner they imagine, and the idea of the “marvellous ethnic” agreed with liberal values of internationalism and tolerance.' 
Support for cultural diversity and a tolerant cosmopolitanism established new criteria for social prestige that could be distinguished from that of the old Anglophile establishment. More importantly, these values were radically different from those of the outer suburbs from where most of the new professionals had come. Their main object of intellectual hostility, Betts writes, was not old wealth, with its tweeds, lawns, rock gardens and careful accents.
The attack was concentrated on the Australian mass, and its materialism, racism, sexism, and insularity. This was the stratum from which most of the new class had emerged and, if their claims to a new social identity were to be successful, the break must be definitive. 
The Vietnam War of the 1960s and 70s was reconceptualised by this social movement. In 1966, when characterised as a war to defend liberal democracy in South Vietnam against the encroachments of international communism, it had produced a landslide victory for Harold Holt and the Liberal Party. By the 1970s, the new generation had redefined the war as a struggle for freedom by an ancient and gentle Asian people against the imperialism of the American military-industrial complex. His promise to withdraw Australian troops from Vietnam paved Gough Whitlam's and the Labor Party's path to victory in 1972. By moving quickly and publicly to end the last vestiges of the White Australia Policy, the Whitlam administration cemented anti-racism and a rejection of old Australian values as central components of the new ideology. Opposition to both the Vietnam War and White Australia forged the links between the new identity and support for immigration. ‘For some activists,' Betts writes, ‘parochial Australians and their cherished way of life came to be seen as the problem common to all these causes, and immigration diversity as the universal solution. Racism provided the key.' Their assumption was that old or parochial Australians had supported White Australia and the Vietnam War because of their racist beliefs. The same fault, combined with the inane materialism of their outer suburban lives, purportedly prejudiced them against immigrants. ‘An active celebration of diversity, and further immigration might cure them but, even if it did not, these policies would make it clear that the new class would not tolerate parochial sentiments and that they would make the most of every opportunity to confront them.'  Any politicians who might have doubts about the policy, especially those from the Labor Party trying to retain their old constituency, were isolated and ridiculed by a supportive news media, and identified either with old men from another era, like Bruce Ruxton and Arthur Tunstall, or with extremist fringe groups. Aspiring members of this in-group soon realised that correct views on race and the composition of the migrant intake were essential badges of entry. To question immigration was to step outside the circle of acceptability. In 1972, the foreign correspondent Bruce Grant returned to find ‘an air of unreality' surrounding the whole question. ‘The governing elite pre-empted the issue and made ordinary Australians feel that to be racially intolerant was to be unfashionable, even unpatriotic.' 
In Canberra in the 1960s, a small group of sociologists and social policy researchers had decided that migrants from non-English speaking backgrounds were not doing as well as they should. No immigrant political identities had emerged within the major political parties and migrants seemed to be disproportionately represented on the lowest rungs of the socio-economic ladder. Even though this was an outcome to be expected, indeed inevitable, for the early stages of any large-scale program of immigration to another society, it was defined as a social problem. A research industry, funded by both governments and universities, soon emerged to confirm immigrants' status as victims. Although their findings were usually loaded and migrants to Australia actually progressed better than they did in most countries, they took the field unchallenged.  The group, whose activities have been analysed in another landmark work of Australian social science, The Origins of Multiculturalism in Australian Politics by Mark Lopez, decided that the then official policy of assimilation was the cause of the ‘problem' they had uncovered.  Their initial response was soft multiculturalism, with its call for tolerance and respect of the migrants' origins. But in the climate of opinion in the radical Sixties, the analysis soon found that it was not merely the attitude of Australians that was the problem but the very structure of the host society. The academic Marxists who emerged to join this burgeoning movement predictably found Australia was exploiting its migrants and that their position would not improve without structural change. They helped shift the conceptualisation of the issue from assimilation, the idea that the migrants should change to fit Australia , to multiculturalism, the notion that Australia should change to fit the migrants. Hard multiculturalism was born.
Structural change, of course, was very difficult to engineer, even for the Whitlam and Fraser governments of the 1970s, which provided generous funding for a raft of new government programs. Attitudinal change was much easier. From the premise that migrant problems stemmed from the low self-esteem they suffered in a society that was prejudiced against cultural difference, multiculturalism launched a number of government programs, the most expensive of which was the broadcasting network SBS. On the other side of the coin, the Australian-born had to be made to see the damage they were doing and to correct their words and deeds accordingly. Much of the academic work that this book has criticised had its origins in this program of cultural engineering. Any academic with a project to change the ideas of Australians about an aspect of race or migration found research grants readily available. Book publishers, film makers and various other cultural producers found government departments willing to subsidise them and their output. Multiculturalism became a white collar industry of substance.
The biggest problem for the government when it embarked on this great project was to find migrants to support it. Mark Lopez's examination of the policy found that multiculturalism was originally developed and advanced in the name of ethnic groups, not by them: ‘in the formation of multiculturalism, ethnic minorities had a minor role; despite the fact that some individuals of ethnic background and some ethnic organisations were on occasion involved'. Its real instigators were a handful of Canberra academics and Melbourne welfare advocates.  Betts points out that, apart from the ethnic activists employed to foster multiculturalism, most migrants have had a low level of interest in the topic. Survey research conducted by the multicultural industry itself show that only one-third of first generation migrants from non-English speaking backgrounds think of themselves as belonging to an ethnic group, and only ten per cent belong to an organisation with an ethnic affiliation. Betts concludes:
Many ethnic Australians are, of course, proud of their cultural origins. But this does not mean that they organise their lives in Australia around these origins or that they have a commitment to a pan-ethnic pluralism. Multiculturalism was created by a small number of Australian intellectuals. Migrants themselves were often indifferent or opposed but it is clear that, once launched, it was a runaway success with many other members of the Australian intelligentsia. 
In other words, the migrants themselves were largely peripheral to this grand scheme. It was a movement instigated by, and primarily in the interests of, those intellectuals who have made their careers out of it ever since. For a long time they encountered little resistance. But, in the long run, they were bound to come up against three great stumbling blocks they had themselves implanted within their undertaking. First, their denigration of the values of the majority of ordinary Australians, and their attempts to shame them into submission, were bound to fail. Eventually, the majority of the population was sure to object to being told they were full of racist antagonism, when they knew from their own experience this was not true. Second, the story told by those historians who went along with this project also had a fatal impediment that was bound to be discovered sooner or later. Their tale of a collectively racist nation implementing ‘master race' policies akin to the Nazis — the alleged ‘messianic pursuit of racial purity' — would inevitably be found wanting by anyone who looked at the primary sources with a sceptical eye. Third, the policy they called cultural pluralism was really a form of ethnic separatism. The ethnics themselves were not interested in it and Australians had long required assimilation as the price of migration. Although it is usually painted today in negative terms, assimilation or integration does not mean the obliteration of ethnic culture. It does not demand absolute conformity nor preclude criticism of alternative lifestyles. But it does mean the multicultural prescription for preserving ethnic cultures intact and abstaining from engagement with the host country is far too dogmatic to ever work.
Hard multiculturalism is a project typical of intellectuals, who have always had a propensity to push the logic of their schemes for social change as far as they can go, irrespective of how they fit with human custom or human nature. What began as an essentially civilised concept derived from the internationalism and tolerance of traditional liberalism has turned into something quite different. The self-inflicted wound that eventually proved its undoing came when it found it could silence detractors by labelling them racists. Thereafter, lacking any effective criticism, the movement shifted from one extreme position to the next until it had become a mirror image of the very intolerance and zealotry it imagined it was combating. Today, the great irony of this whole story is how very closely our modern, multicultural intellectuals, who find the White Australia Policy such an offensive legacy, resemble the intellectual avant-garde who most strongly supported it a century ago. Both of them have endorsed a policy of ethnic separatism. Both have despised the Australian middle classes, the suburbs and the British connection. Both are moral authoritarians who insist everyone else should share their values. Both have used the politics of immigration as a lever to force government support for social change they would not otherwise have been able to achieve. Just as the bohemians of the Bulletin , in their longing for urban escapism, romanticised the bushman of the outback, so the would-be elite of today's new class, in their bid to escape their own suburban origins, have romanticised the marvellous ethnic. Both have misread their culture and misunderstood their history.
1. Stephen Castles, Mary Kalantzis, Bill Cope and Michael Morrissey, Mistaken Identity: Multiculturalism and the Demise of Nationalism in Australia , 3rd edn., Pluto Press, Sydney, 1992, p 171
2. Chilla Bulbeck, Social Sciences in Australia : An Introduction , Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, Sydney , 1993, p 141–2
3. Katherine Betts, The Great Divide: Immigration Politics in Australia , Duffy and Snellgrove, Sydney, 1999. The first version of The Great Divide , titled, Ideology and Immigration , was published by Melbourne University Press in 1988.
4. Betts, The Great Divide , pp 126–7
5. Betts, The Great Divide , p 155
6. Betts, The Great Divide , p 157
7. Betts, The Great Divide , p 158
8. Betts, The Great Divide , p 159
9. cited by Betts, The Great Divide , p 165
10. The 1980 publication by multicultural activist and Labor politician, Andrew Theophanous, Australian Democracy in Crisis: A Radical Approach to Australian Politics , Oxford University Press, Melbourne, which he used as the basis for a string of later publications, drew heavily on my own book, Unemployment , Penguin, 1979, but exaggerated its findings at every opportunity. Although at the time sympathetic to the cause, in 1986 I inadvertently fell foul of the ruling orthodoxy in a paper to a multiculturalism conference in which I showed that children of migrants had a higher rate of university enrolment than children of Australian-born parents. Although I had expected this good news story would be welcomed by the audience, several of the activists present protested that my data must be wrong because ‘everyone knows' how badly migrants have been treated by Australia . Keith Windschuttle, ‘Implications for Education and Training', in Changing Times, Changing Needs , proceedings of conference of Greek Welfare Centre, Italian Association of Assistance and Yugoslav-Australian Association Information and Welfare Centre, January 1986
11. Mark Lopez, The Origins of Multiculturalism in Australian Politics 1945–1975 , Melbourne University Press, Melbourne , 2000
12. Lopez, Origins of Multiculturalism , pp 5–6, 9
13. Betts, The Great Divide , p 178