Feature Article - Multicultural Tasmania - 100 years
Contributed by Hilary Lovibond Johnston, University of Tasmania
The concept of ‘culture’ in the sense of ‘multicultural’ may best be understood as describing shared systems of meanings, the myriad different elements of our lives that enable us as human beings to communicate with each other and to take part in society. A person may simultaneously be part of more than one culture, and the cultures with which he or she identifies will probably change over time. Used in this sense, ‘culture’ may be applied to groups within the community which are defined or delimited in different ways: Ferals or Goths may be considered cultures (often they are referred to as ‘sub-cultures’), while members of the deaf community who communicate in the sign language Auslan are also a recognisable cultural group.
Perhaps the most readily identifiable cultures within the Tasmanian community, however, are the Aboriginal community and the different ethnic communities represented in the State. It is to describe the participation of the members of these communities within the wider society that the term multiculturalism is most commonly used. To quote the office of Multicultural Affairs, ‘In a descriptive sense multicultural is simply a term which describes the cultural and ethnic diversity of contemporary Australia. We are, and will remain, a multicultural society.’
At the level of public policy, multiculturalism is a dynamic concept which has changed over time. Recently, the National Multicultural Advisory Council presented a report which advocates the retention of the term with the qualifying prefix ‘Australian’ and recommends a new definition. The underlying concept, however, remains the same. Today, multiculturalism is at a policy level accompanied by the concepts of cultural diversity and to a lesser extent, productive diversity (both terms which in a descriptive sense are very close to the meaning of multiculturalism cited above). We can therefore, with equal validity, describe Tasmanian society as multicultural or as culturally diverse.
While the ethnic composition of Tasmania’s population has shifted over time, as rates of migration from particular countries have increased and decreased, and community members have moved interstate or overseas, its diversity has increased markedly in the last 100 years. Multiculturalism, however, is about more than diversity. A truly multicultural society is one in which the principles of social justice ensure that people are treated equitably regardless of their national or ethnic origin, religion, language or gender, and in which divergent cultural identities can be maintained and celebrated, within an overarching framework of commitment to common values. Seen in this context, multiculturalism is enormously significant for those people who have migrated to Australia and settled in this State, as well as for the wider Tasmanian society.
Prior to the introduction of a policy of multiculturalism at a national level in the mid-1970s, Tasmania like the rest of Australia, espoused the view that migrants should, and indeed inevitably would, assimilate to the ‘Australian way of life’, which was understood as essentially British in its origins and aspirations. This expectation, which dominated the experience of non-British migrants in the years before the Second World War, was formalised from 1947 with the introduction of a settlement policy of assimilation aimed at ensuring the rapid absorption of all migrants into the dominant culture. Assimilation gave way to integration in the 1960s. However, little real change occurred. It was still generally believed that migrants would eventually shed their differences and ‘become Australian’.
The significance of multiculturalism lies in its acknowledgment of and support for the retention of distinctive cultural elements, and its recognition of the fact that the wider society can embrace difference. Multiculturalism has brought with it an awareness of the special needs of some migrant groups, and an understanding that the provision of services such as Adult Migrant English and the funding of ethnic community workers benefit society as a whole.
Today, Tasmania has a wide range of services for migrants, including two Migrant Resource Centres, Adult Migrant English Services in four cities, English as a Second Language tuition for children at school, a counselling centre for survivors of torture and trauma, and interpreting and translating services.
Government organisations have Migrant Liaison Officers and provide information materials in community languages, while private sector business operators increasingly recognise the value of employing people from diverse cultural backgrounds. Numerous ethnic-specific organisations also exist within the State, catering for the particular needs of members of that ethnic group or community. As we approach the end of the century, these things are an integral part of Tasmanian life.
Multiculturalism has brought much to Tasmania. While its impact is often reckoned in terms of food, music and dance, multiculturalism is about much more than this. By constantly highlighting differences and reducing culture to these few tangible elements, this view of multiculturalism can result in individuals being defined by differences.
Multicultural Tasmania is a society in which all cultures are part of the mixture, not just those labelled ‘ethnic’ or ‘other’; multiculturalism includes the Tasmanian-born and the migrant from England or New Zealand together with people who identify as members of particular ethnic groups.
The many cultures represented in Tasmania have shared the meanings and values of their cultural backgrounds across all spheres of social interaction, broadening the definition of ‘Tasmanian’ and helping the State to take its place in the global community.