There is something more important for migrants coming to our country than passing an English language test to become new Australians. Indeed, as much as we want them to assimilate into the language and values of their new home, there is something we do not want them to assimilate into.
They should avoid at all costs becoming dependent on welfare. We need better policy responses to new migrants than simply turning them into Australians habituated to passive welfare. It is the worst thing for them and for social cohesion and economic integration within the Australian community.
Migrants from Asia, the Middle East, Africa, eastern Europe and the Pacific usually have no history of welfare dependency. Their work ethic and orientation towards enterprise mean they are hungry for opportunity and will take advantage of the chance to work and strive for better lives.
The cultural ethics they bring with them often underpin strong families and communities. Adopting the tolerance and human rights standards that reflect the norms of modern Australian society is often a necessary challenge for traditional communities, but these strong social and cultural norms are a good foundation.
English psychiatrist and neo-Dickensian observer of the British underclasses Theodore Dalrymple often writes that the problem of the learned helplessness of the white welfare-dependent classes has been augmented by children and grandchildren of migrants who have lost the ethics and strong social mores of the first generation. Following generations have become assimilated into the British welfare-dependent classes, and have gained a sense of entitlement to passive welfare and lost their parents’ hunger for work and enterprise. They start to exhibit the social problems of their native British counterparts.
Eruptions against multiculturalism policy come in cycles, notwithstanding its overall success and strong popular support for it in Australia. Debates about migration and asylum-seekers in our country and worldwide have, for some politicians and constituencies, brought multiculturalism as policy back into controversy.
Nobel prize-winning economist Amartya Sen points out in his 2006 book Identity and Violence the difference is not between monoculturalism and multiculturalism but between multiculturalism and plural monoculturalism. Australia’s success compared with Britain and Europe is that we largely have achieved multiculturalism rather than plural monoculturalism.
Plural monocultures are the cultural ghettos and closed communities that are the antithesis of proper multiculturalism. These monocultural enclaves are bad for national cohesion and social and economic integration. They foment alienation and conflict. They are bad policy. It is what is meant by Londonistan.
Mainstream political parties need to understand Sen’s explanation. The Labor Party and parties of the left such as the Greens, which are strongly supportive of diversity and tolerance, need to understand that if multiculturalism is to continue to succeed as policy, avoiding policies that promote plural monoculturalism is imperative. Our mantra needs to change from unity in diversity to diversity in unity.
The Liberal Party, the Nationals and other parties of the right that harbour anxieties about multiculturalism also need to understand Sen’s point because there is no returning to the monoculturalism of Australia’s past. Populists such as former prime minister Tony Abbott need to understand that it is not multiculturalism that is the problem — indeed it is our triumph — but the danger of plural monocultures.
Failing to accept this distinction in the hope that multiculturalism may become a successful front in the culture wars is a disservice to the nation’s great achievement and rends the national fabric.
Harvard sociologist Robert Putnam, in his 2000 book Bowling Alone,introduced us to the idea of two forms of social capital: bonding and bridging. Bonding social capital binds us to our cultural, linguistic, religious and other close groupings based on the families and communities in which we are born and raised. It is natural and good that we have strong bonding social capital.
However, Putnam also writes about the importance of strong bridging social capital. These are our connections with people and groups outside of tight cultural and religious affiliations. These may be political, social, recreational, artistic and other communities and associations that connect us as individuals to people who otherwise would be strangers if we lived in closed, monocultural communities. Bridging social capital builds social capital outside of our geographic, historical and ethnic confines.
In a 2005 paper I linked Sen’s idea of identity fundamentalism — a product of plural monoculturalism — with Putnam’s idea of bonding and bridging identities. We all have layers of identity within our breasts, related to our history, families, the communities in which we were raised, our ethnicity, religion, politics, geography, and our social and cultural pursuits. Who really thinks our sporting affiliations are trivial?
No one has a single identity. Only identity fundamentalists believe they do. Indigenous people have strong local identities and they also identify with pan-indigenous identities symbolised by the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander flags. But they harbour other identities related to their regions, the codes of football they follow, and so on. With these many layers they share identities with people of Greek, Vietnamese, Scots, Irish and Albanian identities. My Lutheran religion I share with German migrants to the Barossa Valley, and this is a layer of my identity.
Sen warns that identity fundamentalism is the problem. When people focus on only one layer of their identity to the exclusion of all others — usually religion, ethnicity and culture — the multi-layered national fabric is weakened and made vulnerable to tearing. We should heed Sen’s warning.
The point our political parties and leadership need to grasp is we have bonding and bridging identities. Both forms are important. Strong bonding identities without strong bridging identities will not sustain our multicultural ideals. This is the danger of plural monocultures, and where identity fundamentalism is promoted rather than the diversity and tolerance that enables multiple and overlapping identities, problems will grow.
Our national identity is the ultimate bridging identity that pulls together all the layers of our bonds and bridges into a common citizenship. This is the identity that demands from all of us a certain assimilation: assimilation into the terms of our national commitment as Australians. Let me call this our basic assimilation. Tolerance and respect for diversity is not anathema to this basic assimilation but crucial to it. We cannot have respect for diversity without submitting to a basic assimilation. This is the proper meaning of tolerance.
The improper meaning of tolerance is to tolerate identity fundamentalism and the propagation of plural monocultures.
We all keep our cultural, religious and ethnic diversity and we are not expected to surrender to a national monoculture, but we are all welcomed and obliged to accept a basic assimilation in relation to the terms of our national citizenship. For the record, I do not think recognising the rightful place of indigenous Australians within that citizenship is at all inconsistent with our universal citizenship.
Learning the English language is fundamental to this basic assimilation. New Australians should also have the opportunity to learn the ancient mother tongues of this land as part of the heritage that is theirs by adoption.
But let me return to the discussion I started with, about the importance in our migration policies of avoiding inculcating new Australians into the mindset of dependency and the social and economic dead end of passive welfare. If new migrants come with anything, they come with a hunger for opportunity and an alacrity for work and self-reliance. We must stop stripping them of these strengths and instead put them on the pathway to opportunity and enterprise.
Citizenship Minister Alan Tudge, notwithstanding his missteps with the administration of Centrelink’s robocall debt recovery in his former role, is one of the keenest policy thinkers about passive welfare in the federal government. The Turnbull government should charge him with designing an alternative pathway for new Australians that avoids them falling into the passive welfare traps into which so many old Australians — white, indigenous and migrant — are already mired.
There is a crucial need to design an alternative opportunity system for migrants rather than the traditional welfare system. This means welfare reform.
Creating an opportunity system as an alternative to the traditional passive welfare system will do more to strengthen citizenship and avoid the creation of ethnic ghetto monocultures than an English language test will. The travails of Australian youth with African origins can be addressed and, in the future, avoided if they enter a pathway to opportunity rather than a pathway to passive welfare.