The recent incidents of racial discrimination are not the first evidence of Australian racial mentality. Several other instances in the past highlight racial hatred of Australians against the overseas communities. For instance, December 2005 riots were a series of racially motivated mob confrontations between the Middle Easterners and the Australians, which originated in and around Cronulla, a beachfront suburb of Sydney, New South Wales. The Cronulla rioters dressed themselves in the Australian flag, fortified themselves with beer, assaulted anyone “of Middle Eastern appearance” and bellowed “Lebs” that they should “get the f-back to Lebanon”. Opinion polls in Australia on Multiculturalism and immigration policy consistently show that approximately 70 per cent of the Australians are against and about 1/4 of them hate Asians.
Around 92 per cent of Australian population are whites, 7 per cent Asian, 1 per cent Aboriginal and others. Indians are the tenth largest immigrant community in Australia. The question arises, is Australia really a multicultural country? In 1901, the Australian Government introduced the Immigration Restriction Act, later called it as a White Australian Policy, which intentionally restricted non-white immigration to Australia from 1901-1973. Over the time, the Liberal Party Government under Robert Menzies compounded this idea, with the fear of Asian expansion and Communism. From 1973 onwards, the White Australia Policy was for all practical purposes defunct, and in 1975 the Australian government passed the Racial Discrimination Act which made racially-biased selection criteria illegal.
The act of separating Aboriginal children from their families and the denial of full citizenship rights to Aboriginal people and Torres Strait Islander people are the most telling examples. Similarly, the White Australia policy aimed to restrict immigration of people from non-European backgrounds.
Multiculturalism as a policy has changed enormously since its formal introduction in Australia. Originally, it was understood by the mainstream population as a need for acceptance that several members of the Australian community originally came from different cultures and still maintains ties with their roots. However, there are also some reverse patterns in this regards because of the election of John Howard’s Liberal-National Coalition government in 1996 was a major watershed for Australian multiculturalism. Howard had long been a critic of multiculturalism, releasing his “One Australia Policy” in the late 1980s which called for a reduction in Asian immigration. Shortly after the new government assumed office, the new independent member Pauline Hanson made her maiden speech in which she was highly critical, said, “a multicultural society can never be strong”.
Opposition to multiculturalism in Australia is focused on the position of Islamic immigrants from Middle Eastern countries. Prior to the September 11 attacks, the main targets of anti-immigration campaigns were immigrants from southern Europe, and later East Asia. In 2006, the Federal Government of Australia proposed to introduce a compulsory citizenship test, which would assess English skills and knowledge of Australian values. The Australian citizenship test first commenced in October 2007 for new citizens between the age group 18 to 60. In January 2007, the Howard Government also removed the word ‘multicultural’ from the name of the Department of Immigration and Multicultural Affairs, changing its name to the Department of Immigration and Citizenship sparked renewed debate over the future of multiculturalism in Australia.
The current example of the Haneef Mohd.’s case and recent controversies related to the Indian cricket team in Australia highlighted the existing mentality that already existed. Haneef Mohammed was maltreated and interrogated because of his religion. While in the Andrew Symonds’ case the Australian media left no stone unturned to make mockery of Hindu God Hanuman, posing Andrew Symonds as Hanuman (The Courier-Mail, January 7, 2008) thereby depicting their lack of respect towards others’ culture and religious sentiments. There remains a doubt regarding the authenticity of Australia claiming itself as a multicultural nation.
Indians have succeeded comparatively well in Australia especially in the field of IT and Medicine. Gujarati traders are contributing to their economy. Indians are playing a significant role in the hospitality and the transport sectors of the Australian economy. A good number of Indian students are enrolled in Australian Universities. The state of Punjab alone sends around five thousand students every year. If Australia wants to justify its claim to a multicultural state, it ought to accommodate different ethnic groups and treat them equally. In my opinion, the Indian Government needs to formulate a comprehensive policy to deal with incidents of racial discrimination globally and in this context it needs to mount diplomatic offensive against Australia like it could discontinue all ties to pressurize Australia to handle the situation. India should mobilise the international community against dastardly acts of racial discrimination in Australia. Australia, on the other hand, should understand that in the present global scenario, multicultural policies are beneficial for the overall development of a nation.
(The writer is Doctoral Scholar, Centre for South, Central, South East Asia and South West Pacific Studies and can be contacted at School of International Studies, Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi-110067.)