Advance Australia's Culture

Advance Australian Culture Influencing a shift in assumptions and attitudes about the need for greater diversity and how it can improve growth opportunities within Australia and across Asian nations

Shaping a new Aussie exceptionalism

Saturday, May 04, 2013

Julianne Schultz AM FAHA, Non-executive Director, Australian Broadcasting Corporation, Chair Australian, Film Television and Radio School and Editor of Griffith REVIEW, tells it how it is! Julianne is visionary and minces no words when it comes to Australian culture, which is no doubt why she was appointed Chair of the Arts Minister's reference group for National Cultural Policy. Her opinion is below:

Shaping a new Aussie exceptionalism

Sydney is a city at its glorious best in autumn. The warmth is still in the air, the humidity has retreated, the waterways sparkle and the light draws out the colours of the bush that is present in almost every suburb.

The romantic view

On days like this tens of thousands of Sydneysiders (and those from the North Shore) take to the parks and pathways to enjoy their city. There they are with family and friends, chatting, strolling, picnicking, throwing balls, and riding bikes and scooters. But listen as you pass them – what language was that? Chinese, Russian, French, German, Hindi, Dutch, Thai, Vietnamese, Indonesian – or where is that accent from in the UK, America or Pacific?

On the glorious days of autumn, the tracks and pathways through Sydney’s natural beauty are alive with people, many of them speaking their mother tongue. It is a wonderful celebration of humanity and diversity – the sort that marks Sydney as a global city.

The reality

In the abstract we understand this. Politicians like to brag about the diversity of contemporary Australia and it is something to be proud of. The country’s population has more than doubled in half a century, harmoniously and easily, thanks in large measure to a rising tide of affluence that has lifted most Australians in its swell.

We have become accustomed to the ease of this, as though it is something to do with us, a new Aussie exceptionalism. It has made us lazy and has caused us to stop paying attention to both the richness of this cultural diversity, and what needs to be done to make it even better, more resilient, inclusive and distinctive.

The interviewees Pamela spoke to were much less forthcoming about cultural diversity than gender diversity. What assumptions lie at the base of our sense of self that makes this okay?

It is a tricky area, one that was chilled by the misrepresentations about the real, pragmatic and beneficial nature of Australian multiculturalism and left to languish. Rather than stepping on this territory, which has been distorted by the tiresome political correctness argument, we seem to have preferred to do little. We act as though new arrivals would effortlessly find their way, learn about this country and its history, find pathways to success and belonging for themselves and their families, and add to the common good.

Many will succeed. Others will struggle at considerable personal cost and a not inconsiderable cost to the broader society. Providing pathways for this process of nation building needs to be a more active project if the opportunities of cultural diversity are to be realised, economically and socially.

The opportunity

Australia has for so long thought of itself as a country of immigrants that the scale of this project has been forgotten. Just under 30 per cent of Australians were born in another country, and a further 20 per cent have a parent born elsewhere.

By any comparison this is significant. The United States and Canada, the other great settler societies, have an overseas-born population of less than 20 per cent and Britain, long the destination for people from abroad, has about 10 per cent foreign-born.

With nearly one-third of its population born overseas, Australia is in a different space, and one that requires more active stewardship. As a nation we need to identify the underlying causes of our attitude that makes it okay not to seek to build a culturally diverse society. What makes us so complacent about this? How long can we ignore the criticisms that this country is not as welcoming as we would like to think it is?

We need to make changes that will signal ‘cultural diversity is important’. For example, we need to seriously explore:

  • less burdensome steps to recognising the qualifications of those educated elsewhere
  • encouraging organisations to actively review the mix of employees, in terms of culture as well as gender and ask the question, 'Is this representative of Australia today?'
  • pathways to secure employment for overseas students
  • ways of tapping the knowledge and expertise that lie hidden and underutilised in the households of those who have chosen to come here
  • new ways to keep telling the stories about this country and its people from millennia past to the present.

All too often public discussion chases notions of blaming foreigners, a perspective that makes no sense in a settler society such as Australia, where people overwhelmingly accept the need for migration and the benefits it brings.

The culture change

Now is the time to be bold – not just opening the door to new people who want to make their lives here, but making a metaphorical cake, inviting them to the table and having a chat with a mind open to how the richness they bring can enrich their lives and benefit us all.

When we are able to do that, we can say that our values have shifted. Then we can proudly say we value cultural diversity – but not before.

Author: Julianne Schultz AM FAHA, Editor Griffith REVIEW, Sydney, AUSTRALIA



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