Max Walden

Why Australia will never be Europe

Multiculturalism, Max Walden explains, is the main wall that separates Australia from the European Union.

 

Last week, Dutch far-right MP Geert Wilders visited been in Australia as the guest of honour at the launch of a new anti-Islamic party, the Australian Liberty Alliance. At an event in a secret location in Perth on Tuesday, Wilders stated that the belief all cultures are equal is the “biggest disease in Europe today,” urging Australia to close its borders to “those kinds of immigrants” – namely Muslims.

He warned that Australia should abandon multiculturalism or risk becoming like the European Union.

Unsurprisingly, Mr Wilders’ extreme rhetoric relies upon on a misunderstanding of Australia and the EU’s respective forms of “multiculturalism.” Australia was the second nation to adopt a state-endorsed policy of multiculturalism in 1973, following Canada who had done so two years earlier. The European Union, uniformly, has not.

EU member states have individual forms of multiculturalism, many of which have been eroded in recent decades.

For example, France introduced its concept of “cultural exception” by tariff policy in 1993, highlighting a perceived need to “protect” European culture from foreign goods or culture flooding its market. European politicians have been increasingly open in their criticisms of migration, with German chancellor Angela Merkel declaring in 2010 that multiculturalism in Germany had “utterly failed.”

Since high-profile murders of anti-immigration figures in the early 2000s, strident rejection of multiculturalism and anti-Islam rhetoric has been increasingly commonplace in Dutch public discourse. Wilders has played an important role in popularising this new political language. The Netherlands has increasingly made its immigration and integration laws more stringent, pushing for a “fierce form of assimilation.”

This is not the case in Australia. Net overseas migration is at an historical peak, with almost half a million people arriving between 2012 and 2014. Australians born overseas are at the highest rate since the Gold Rush 120 years ago. Hundreds of thousands of these are Muslims. One of the top ten countries of birth for migrant populations is Muslim-majority Malaysia.

Significant communities have also come from Lebanon, Iraq and Afghanistan.

In 2011, the Dutch Home Affairs Minister Piet Hein Donner asserted that the Government would “distance itself from the relativism contained in the model of a multicultural society.” Following the “Aliens Decree” of 2000, a major overhaul of immigration policy in 2013 further tightened conditions for family reunification, criminalised illegal residence and strengthened national security measures against foreign residents. Ironically, the Netherlands is home to only 1.69 percent of the total non-EU nationals living there, compared with 20 percent in Germany, 17.8 percent in Italy, 12.4 percent in the UK and 13.8 percent in France.

Non-EU nationals account for only 1.9 percent of its total population: again, insignificant when compared to virtually every other Western European country, including 5.95 percent in Greece, 4.84 percent in Germany, 5.72 percent in Italy and 5.8 percent in Spain.

Most recently, the Dutch Government has announced its decision to cut off food and shelter for people “failing to qualify” as refugees. They will be granted “a few weeks” of shelter at “bed, bath and bread” shelters, before being deported if they do not choose to return from where they have fled. This raises questions about the Netherlands breaching nonrefoulement: the principle whereby signatories of the United Nations Refugee Convention cannot legally return asylum seekers to their country of origin.

Given the recent history of immigration policy in the Netherlands, it hardly seems to fit the definition of multiculturalism at all.

In his speech on Tuesday, Wilders stated that “Human beings are equal. Cultures are not.” This phrase has been plucked directly from a speech by Ayaan Hirsi Ali, a high-profile Dutch critic of Islam and female circumcision. Being from a Somali background and raised in Saudi Arabia before seeking asylum in the Netherlands, Ali is taken as the voice of authenticity in labelling Islam the “enemy.” As the beneficiary of the Netherlands’ asylum program and previously open multicultural policy, Ali has ironically joined the anti-Islamic, anti-immigration lobby that has gained momentum since September 11.

Australia has no home-grown Wilders or Ali. Pauline Hanson and the ALA are too extreme to wield any genuine influence over this country’s obstinately centrist politics.

Multiculturalism lives on.

The policy of multiculturalism has simply made Australia a richer place both economically and culturally. When introduced in the 1970s, both sides of politics understood the major long-term benefits for Australia of adopting such an ideology. They still do.

Wilders is right about something: We could well become like Europe if we are not careful. Australia’s history of organised far-right movements is negligible compared to Europe and the UK. We can prevent becoming “like them” by speaking out against racism and Islamophobia, not by abolishing multiculturalism.

 

Max Walden

Max is a researcher and social justice advocate who has worked in the education and community sectors in Australia and Southeast Asia. He is interested in the promotion of the human rights of vulnerable groups, particularly asylum seekers and refugees.

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