The success and failure of multi-culturalism


I’ve been thinking about multiculturalism off and on for the last few years while watching Melbourne change quite dramatically in that time. When I first arrived in the late eighties, the city centre was a pretty white place. Seeing another asian person on the streets outside of chinatown, richmond or springvale was a bit of a thing. These days, the city centre around burke and swanston street seems more like a bustling asian metropolis. There are many times when I feel like I’ve wandered off into an alternate universe where reasonably progressive versions of chinese and indonesian empires colonised Australia a couple of centuries ago.

Anyway, in today’s news Angela Merkel, the chancellor of Germany declared that multiculturalism for Germany was dead. That got me thinking about Australia and this strange new Melbourne I’m finding myself in. Even though I find myself feeling quite disconnected and a bit perplexed by the mobs of younger asian people in the city (who are they? what do they do? how do they think?), I wouldnt say that multiculturalism has been a bad thing for Australia.

So that got me wondering what would make me think that multi-culturalism has failed. And the answer was quite clear. It’s not that multi-culturalism has failed, it’s that there are limits to which it can be applied successfully and these limits are based on the differences between the host country and a particular migrant community.

If the values a particular migrant community brings with it are incompatible with a secular democratic society and that in turn results in a group whose leaders have close to zero participation in government (at whatever level), then that’s a clear sign of failure. I’d add as well that if the practices and values of a particular culture are on a fundamental level, incompatible with western human-rights based ideals, it’ll more likely lead to lower participation.

This is not to say that migrant community values cannot change over time. But if the gap is very great, the chances of change are lower – unless of course, the approach to multi-culturalism takes higher-risk cultural indicators into account and has targeted policies to shift these values.

But then, can that be considered multi-cultural anymore?

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