Immigration and Multiculturalism:
Issues in Australian Society and Schools

Lindsay J. Parry

Australia is an immigrant society of great diversity whose people come from more than one hundred different ethnic and cultural groups. However, recognition of this multicultural background was slow in coming and is now the subject of intense political debate. This article examines the relationship between immigration and multiculturalism in Austalian society. It begins with a brief historical background that includes the official establishment of multicultural policy during the 1970s. It examines how the teaching of immigration and multiculturalism is constructed in the school curriculumís Key Learning Area of Studies of Society and Environment (SOSE).1 And, it probes the nature of the current debate over immigration policy and multiculturalismóin essence, a debate over the nature of Australian society itself.

Immigration and Multiculturalism in Society

Australiaís first known inhabitants, the Aborigines, arrived in the north from Asia between 50,000ó75,000 years ago, and formed a population of approximately 1.5 million by 1788.2 In that year, the British established a penal colony at Sydney Cove that grew to some 160,000 convicts by about the time of the gold rush in 1851. In pursuit of gold and jobs, Australiaís first ìofficialî immigrants arrived in increasing numbersómany from Britain, Germany, and China, others from New Zealand, Poland, the United States of America, Hungary, and the nations of Scandinavia.3

A century lateróin the decades following the Second World WaróAustralia instituted one of the largest immigration programs in the world. It attracted large numbers of people from Greece and Italy, who helped to provide a low-skilled migrant workforce for Australiaís postwar economy. Since the Vietnam War, Australiaís immigration program has shifted its attention from southern Europe to Asiaóspecifically, to the recruitment of technologically-skilled migrant workers and Asian business entrepreneurs from Taiwan and Hong Kong to meet the needs of post-industrial Australian capitalism.

By 1996, the population of Australia reached almost 18 million. Just under a quarter of the population is comprised of immigrants, of whom 56% are of European origin and 22% of Asian origin. Almost 1 in 20 people in Australia in 1996 was born in an Asian country.4 These Census figures reveal significant trends in the ethnic and cultural composition of the Australian population, and point to profound social and cultural transformations within Australian society.

The arrival of the new immigrants has produced many contradictions. While the population has become more ethnically and culturally diverse, Australiaís form of government and sense of national identity remain largely monocultural and rooted in British history and tradition.5 It is an English-speaking democracy whose socio-political institutions have been transformed only superficially to reflect a more diverse population. In contrast to the United States, Australia has been reluctant to leave the British Commonwealth, and only now are republicanism and constitutional reform being debated as distinct possibilities for Australia in the early years of the new millennium.

One of the most compelling explanations of the current state of affairs is provided by Philip Drew in The Coast Dwellers, which offers a radical reappraisal of Australian identity and its philosophical underpinnings.6 Drew characterizes Australia as a nation of ìcoast watchersî whose art, literature, architecture, and popular media are influenced profoundly by ideas and people from abroad. ìAustralians are not by nature introspective,î he writes. ìWe look outwards to gain a sense of who and where we are.î7 As an immigrant society, Drew adds, we look outwards positively and in recent years have ìoriented our lives towards the great world beyond Australia, to Asia, Europe, and North America. These countries constitute the national prospect. They fill the national vision.î8

This vision could take many forms. Some believe that further social and cultural transformations are required for Australia to become a truly multicultural society.9 Fitzgerald thinks that Australia needs to become more Asianized in order to remain a prosperous and influential nation within the Asia-Pacific region.10

Others are less sure about Australiaís place in the Asia-Pacific region, and about how the nationís growing ethnic and cultural diversity should be encapsulatedóif at allóin public policy and the national identity. They may be highly critical of current immigration and seek to curtail it in an effort to maintain the standard of living in a society that is recovering slowly from economic recession and a decade of trade deficits.

Some look for solace under the protective veil of the White Australia Policy, which was enacted in the Immigration Restriction Act of 1901. This policy, borne out of fear of the ìyellow perilî descending from Asia, restricted immigration to those who could pass a dictation test in a European language. It was not until 1973 that the White Australia Policy ended with the bipartisan adoption of an official policy of ìmulticulturalism.î

Multiculturalism ushered in a whole new era for Australian society. It compelled Australians to reexamine the foundations of their social life and public policy, and called into question the idea of the national identity as based exclusively on an Anglo-Celtic past. Adopted as ìa state strategy for managing difference,î11 the policy of multiculturalism is helping to empower those immigrant groups admitted to the country since World War II. But, despite official policy, the pressures on immigrants to assimilate remain great.

One of the leading critics of multiculturalism is Pauline Hanson, Federal Independent Member for Oxley, whose views on Aboriginal rights, immigration policies, and cultural diversity have been widely reported at home and abroad. In her Maiden Speech to Parliament in December 1996, Hanson claimed that Australia is ìin danger of being swamped by Asiansî and ìheaded for civil war.î ìBetween 1984 and 1995,î she continued, ì40% of all migrants coming into this country were of Asian origin. They have their own culture and religion, form ghettos and do not assimilate.î12

Ironically, Hansonís repeated calls for ìOne Nationî have the potential to divide Australian society in a way that could eclipse the ruptures experienced during Australiaís involvement in the Vietnam War. The launching of One Nation party meetings across Australia has led to much dissent within local communities, as they are generally accompanied by demonstrationsóusually peaceful but sometimes violent. The movement also has the potential to separate Australia from its region, if Asian and other international communities perceive Australia once more as a bigoted and racist society.

As of yet, few concessions have been made to those who want to restrict immigration on racial, cultural, or religious grounds, allegedly for the sake of harmony and social cohesion. But Prime Minister John Howard was slow to denounce the racist policies of Pauline Hanson in a systematic manner, either in Parliament or in the broader community.

In his much-awaited response in May 1997, Howard did contradict Hansonís claim that ìAustralia is in danger of being swamped by Asians.î13 Census figures released in 1997 confirm that most Australians come from the United Kingdom, New Zealand, Italy, Vietnam, Greece, China, and Germany. Furthermore, the Asian population grew only marginally, from 2.2% to 2.5%, from 1991 to 1995 in Hansonís home state of Queensland, and from 4.1% to 4.8% at the national level during the same five-year period.

The Prime Minister has reinforced the vision of Australia as a ìtolerant, open and harmonious society,î14 and called for the rewriting of Australian history to reflect the ìpositivesî rather than the ìnegativesî of our past. However, there is a danger that the politically-motivated rewriting of Australiaís past may result in the acceptance of inaccurate and distorted historical interpretations. The Federal government has announced a shake-up in multicultural policy and indirectly questioned the contributions of diverse cultural values to Australiaís national identity. Howard has suggested that Australians should not engage in ìa frantic and constant search for a new and different identity.î15 Says Howard, ìWe should not allow ourselves to lapse into a perceptional seminar about our identityóthere is a very definable Australian character and Australian identity.î16

Although the direction of future policy is uncertain, there is a suggestion that ìmainstreamingî (which resembles the pre-1971 assimilationist policies of former governments), rather than a multicultural policy supporting ethnic and cultural diversity, may now be seen as a political imperative for Australian society. Indeed, it could be interpreted that Mr. Howard and his conservative political colleagues equate Australian character and its national identity with the value systems of a bygone era. Such a policy shift could downplay the significant and continuing contributions being made by immigrants to Australiaís ìcoastalî society.

Immigration and Multiculturalism in the Schools

In reviewing the effects of Hansonism on Australian society, Phillip Adams in The Retreat From Tolerance implores Australians not to let Hanson become ìold news.î ìLet us hope,î writes Adams, ìthat intolerance doesnít become just another social atrocity that we decide to live with. Let us hope that this issue isnít over, that this is a story with legs.î17

Taking this analogy further, let us hope that this ìstory with legsî is examined explicitly in Australian SOSE classrooms. To see whether this is indeed the case, we need to address two questions: (1) How are the features, benefits, and criticisms of immigration and multiculturalism in Australia dealt with in the SOSE curriculum at both national and state levels? And, are the SOSE curriculum statements and teaching materials inclusive of immigrant and multicultural perspectives?

It is difficult to respond to these questions definitively given the differences that exist across state educational systems in Australia. But the adoption of multicultural perspectives in national SOSE curriculum statements in 1994 goes some way toward ensuring that the teaching of immigration and multiculturalism take place in Australian classrooms. These statements were prepared collaboratively by curriculum workers and teachers across all eight Australian states and territories, and have been adopted in principle by most educational systems.

One of the stated aims of SOSE is to promote an understanding of ìthe pasts of both Australia and of other societies, the nature of cultures, including those of Aborigines and Torres Strait Islanders and immigrants to Australia.î18 In exploring these perspectives, students are expected to develop an understanding of:

n Australiaís cultural and linguistic diversity, both past and present

n the achievements of individuals and groups of various ethnic and cultural backgrounds and their contribution to Australiaís social, cultural and economic development

n the history of migration to Australia recognizing that people of many cultures have come together as one nation

n the views of groups of differing linguistic and ethnic backgrounds in order to develop an awareness of and pride in Australiaís multicultural society

n the ways in which some people and some groups experience or practice racism and discrimination, and ways to counter discrimination

n how social and institutional structures could be improved in the interests of social justice

n the influence of other societies and cultures on Australian peoples, cultures, beliefs, and practices

n points of view underlying debates about current social issues in Australia.19

These understandings are embodied in specific learning outcomes currently being developed at national and state levels throughout Australia. Perhaps the most significant of these is a federally- funded curriculum development project entitled ìDiscovering Democracy: Civics and Citizenship Education for Australian Schools,î whose materials will be distributed free to both government and non-government schools throughout Australia.20

In an earlier edition of Social Education, Murray Print declared his enthusiasm for the ìrevitalizedî citizenship movement being launched in Australia, of which Discovering Democracy is a part.21 One appealing aspect of the ìnewî civics for him is that ìit seeks to involve all groups living in Australia, including indigenous and ethnically diverse peoples, in living together in a harmonious manner.î22 Among Discovering Democracyís specific learning outcomes is to ìevaluate aspects of Australian democracy from a range of perspectives including women and indigenous people.î23 Although the perspectives of immigrants are clearly overlooked in this statement, they are portrayed in one of the proposed curriculum units on the Australian Nation intended for use in the middle secondary school (see Figure 1).

Similarly, immigrant and multicultural perspectives are taken up in the new SOSE Syllabus-in-Development (Years 1-10) for the state of Queensland. This syllabus is currently undergoing trial in elementary and secondary schools, and may be changed as a result of consultation. In the trial document, learning experiences dealing with immigrant and multicultural perspectives are developed for use in year 5 of elementary school under the major conceptual strand of Time, Continuity and Change (see Figure 2).

These and other efforts ensure that alternative perspectives relating to race and ethnicity are being voiced in the discussion of historical events. ìIn [such] instances,î says A. Kyle, ìrecognition is made of the new stories and the opportunity is there to introduce inclusive rather than exclusive versions of the Australian past.î24 But these immigrant and multicultural perspectives have not gone unchallenged in recent critiques of past and contemporary Australian society. For instance, historian John Hirst (Chair, Civics Education Group) questions the validity of such perspectives given that ìexponents of multiculturalism are now developing an absurdist history of Australia.î25 In his view:

This is how it runs. Once upon a time there was a small inward-looking, intolerant, racist Anglo-Celtic nation. It began to take immigrants from Europe and then Asia....The nation turned into a diverse, open tolerant society. The new immigrants created the tolerance.26

In seeking to reassert the fundamentals of Australiaís Anglo-Celtic past, Hirst and other historians look to the traditional links between history and civics education. For, as Hirst states emphatically:

[C]itizenship education could also be a means of reasserting the Anglo-Celtic past in that it could teach the common elements of our culture; the English language, parliamentary democracy, the rule of law, tolerance, the fair-goóall of course Anglo-Celtic....Policy makers who push the migrant cause...have no knowledge or respect for old Australia.27

Hirstís position could be interpreted as limiting and assimilationist. In contrast, Kyle and others argue for the extension of alternative perspectives in teaching Australian history. For them, a shift to the simplistic trappings of ìcrude nationalism,î underpinned exclusively by Anglo-Celtic constructions of social reality, is untenable given the democratic and culturally pluralistic society of Australia today. Says Kyle: ìThis is the old orthodoxy yet again.î28


1. Studies of Society and Environment (SOSE) is one of eight Key Learning Areas which have been developed collaboratively by curriculum workers and teachers in an attempt to produce a national curriculum for years 1-10 across all Australian states and territories. SOSE incorporates the traditional curriculum areas of social studies, history, geography and the social sciences, and is arranged by conceptual and process strands. However, significant similarities and differences occur in the Key Learning Area of SOSE across Australia as each State and Territory retains responsibility for the design, development and dissemination of syllabus and related curriculum materials within their respective school systems.

2. Henry Reynolds, ìThe Breaking of the Great Australian Silence: Aborigines in Australian Historiography 1955-1983,î Paper presented as The Trevor Reese Memorial Lecture, Australian Studies Center, University of London, 1984.

3. National Population Enquiry, Population and Australia: Recent Demographic Trends and their Implications (Canberra: AGPS Supplementary Report, Parliamentary Paper No. 195/1978).

4. M. Stekletee, ìOur Changing Face,î The Australian (July 16, 1997): 9.

5. A. Jamrozik, C. Boland, and R. Urquhart, Social Change and Cultural Transformation in Australia (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1995).

6. Philip Drew, The Coast Dwellers: A Radical Reappraisal of Australian Identity (Ringwood: Routledge, 1994).

7. Ibid., 32.

8. Ibid., 33.

9. Jamrozik, et al.

10. Stephen Fitzgerald, Is Australia an Asian Country?óCan Australia Survive an East Asian Future? (Sydney: Allen and Unwin, 1997).

11. M. DeLepervanche, ìFrom Race to Ethnicity,î Australian and New Zealand Journal of Sociology 16 (1980): 24-37.

12. Pauline Hanson, Maiden Speech to the Australian Parliament, Canberra, 10 December 1996.

13. S. Honeysett and J. Walker, ìThe Image of Unity Takes a Beating,î The Australian (July 10, 1997): 1.

14. Ibid., 1.

15. Craig Johnstone, ìEthnic Policy Shake-Up,î The Saturday Mail (January 25, 1997): 25.

16. Ibid., 25.

17. Philip Adams, ìntroductionî in The Retreat from Tolerance: A Snapshot of Australian Society (Sydney: ABC Books, 1997), 7.

18. Australian Education Council, Studies of Society and EnvironmentóA Curriculum Profile for Australian Schools (Canberra: Curriculum Corporation, 1994), 3.

19. Ibid., 5-7.

20. Curriculum Corporation, Introducing the Discovering Democracy School Materials Project (Carlton: Curriculum Corporation, 1997), 12.

21. Murray Print, ìThe New Civics Education: An Integrated Approach for Australian Schools,î Social Education, 60, 7 (1996): 443.

22. Ibid., 444.

23. Curriculum Corporation, 12.

24. A. Kyle, ìWhose Story Is It Anyway: Australian History and Citizenship Educationî in J. Bron and H. Hooghoof, eds., International Trends and Developments in Social Studies (Enschede: Dutch National Institute for Curriculum Development, 1997), 49-58.

25. John Hirst, ìAustraliaís Absurd History,î Quadrant (March 1991): 20-7.

26. Ibid., 20.

27. Ibid., 27.

28. A. Kyle, 8.

29. Curriculum Corporation, 17. These and other curriculum units may be accessed using the Internet address:

30. Queensland School Curriculum Office, Studies of Society and Environment Key Learning Area, Years 1-10 Syllabus-in-Development (Brisbane: QSCO, March 16, 1998), 22.

Lindsay J. Parry teaches social studies curriculum as a member of the Faculty of Education at Griffith University in Brisbane, Australia.

Figure 1

Who Is the Nation? What Sort of Nation? (A Curriculum Unit on the Australian Nation, ìDiscovering Democracy Projectî) 71

Level Statement

The student can analyze trends that characterize Australiaís civil society by understanding changes brought about by population, economic and welfare policies, and by changes to the status of indigenous Australians. The student is also asked to identify and justify what kind of country we want to be and the economic and social implications of different possibilities.

Core Learning Outcomes

Students can reflect upon and identify changes in Australia brought about by:

> The White Australian Policy of 1901 and ìassimilationî policies

> The transition to multicultural Australia

> Changes to civic status of Indigenous Australians

> Changes brought about by immigration throughout Australian history and today: economic, cultural and policy dimensions

> Twentieth century immigration

> Multiculturalism, what it represents and criticism of it

> Values of equality, respecting difference and the meaning of pluralism

> Whether Australia is an Asian nation and our links to the Asian region, to Britain and the United States.

Figure 2

Time, Continuity and Change (Proposed SOSE Syllabus-in-Development for Queensland) 71

Level Statement

Students understand the causes and effects of particular developments in Australiaís history and can identify the impact of periods of colonization and migration on various Australian populations.

Students understand that there are different perspectives about places and events and can identify obvious strengths and weaknesses in the perspectives held by individuals and groups by reference to evidence.

Core Learning Outcomes

Students can reflect upon and identify the major causes and effects of specific Australian developments, including exploration, invasion, colonization, immigration, settlement and environmental change, by applying the values of social justice, peace, democratic process and ecological and economic sustainability.

Students can investigate by distinguishing between primary and secondary sources and evaluating obvious strengths and weaknesses, including bias, to reveal the basic development of their community, region and nation, including the contributions and achievements of Aborigines, Torres Strait Islanders, women and migrants.

Extension Learning Outcomes

Students can research family ancestors to determine cultural, political and social reasons for their life experiences.

Students can provide interpretations of attitudes of different groups of people in the past concerning a particular social or environmental development.