Ah, Australia Day. For all its problematic origins as a national holiday, it has evolved its own traditions and rituals. The backyard barbecue. The firework displays. The ceremonial blast of the dog whistle by conservative politicians.

This year, Scott Morrison did the honours in a speech at the Menzies Centre for Australian Studies in London late last week. As The Australian reports, Morrison used the occasion to outline his vision of a “post-multiculturalism” approach that a Coalition government will use to “restore some balance by ensuring that we are more focused on what we have in common rather than how different we all are”.

It will achieve this end by a return to such features of the Howard era as recognition of (drumroll) “the supremacy of Australian values, the primacy of the English-language, respect for existing institutions and adherence to the rule of law”. A multicultural recognition of diversity apparently poses a threat to all these common goods.

Like his counterparts in Europe and North America, Morrison eschews “colour racism” in favour of “cultural racism”. Ethnic, racial and religious diversity are more than acceptable in contemporary Australia. Problems arise, however, with the emergence of “self-imposed cultural withdrawal” and disaffection with multiculturalism in “specific areas of high ethnic concentration”. (Did I hear the words “western suburbs of Sydney”? Or was that just the dog whistle again?)

Morrison doesn’t spell out which aspects of “diversity” would be considered acceptable under a more balanced post-multicultural regime, but I’m guessing he subscribes to the consensus view that multiculturalism has had a beneficial effect on the Australian diet. (Sharia tribunals? No thanks. Homous and baklava? More, please.) Even those most ardent racists participate in the multiculturalism of consumption.

But while enjoying our pizza and laksa, we need to “send a message” that such tolerance “is not a licence for cultural practices that are offensive to the cultural values and laws of Australia and that our respect for diversity does not licence: the primacy of the English language”.

As a debating point, the importance of English-language skills to the process of settling in Australia is a non-issue. Resources that governments are willing to allocate to allow recent migrants to access English language classes. There is ample evidence illustrating both a strong desire by migrants to acquire English language skills and their frustration at the barriers to achieving this: inadequate class hours, lack of access to childcare, competing demands of the settlement process such as dealing with Centrelink and housing authorities. In the United Kingdom, David Cameron’s government is using “the primacy of the English language” as a barrier to migration, as new migrants entering on spousal visas required to take an English language competence test prior to migration.

There is a non-racist critique to be made of multiculturalism. To take just one example: as a policy it has not well served this nation’s Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people. There is also a lively and sometimes heated conversation under way both here and overseas about the displacement of multiculturalism by the concept of cosmopolitanism. But asserting “the supremacy of Australian values” (one small step away from labelling some people and values as “unAustralian”) shuts down such conversations in favour of an anti-racist defence of multiculturalism.

I find it difficult, then, to take Morrison’s “Happy Australia Day” conclusion in the spirit in which it’s intended.

Or perhaps I’m taking it in exactly the spirit in which it’s intended.

Peter Fray

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