Celebrating Harmony Week in Tasmania

March 20 marked the beginning of Harmony Week and to commemorate this celebration of unity and diversity, The Examiner will feature the voices of just some of the many rich cultures that live in our island state, in their own words. 

You will meet people who have arrived recently and decades ago, but they have one thing in common - Tasmania is home.

As part of our Harmony Week coverage, Juma Piri Piri, President of the Sudanese Community Launceston Inc gives us an insight into how Australia became the melting pot it is today, and why it works …

As with all words, it is useful to return to harmony’s roots. Harmony is derived from the Greek harmos and the Latin harmonia: harmos meaning “joint” harmonia meaning “agreement”.

Harmony, in other words, is a process and not merely a result.

This is also true, I believe, of our multicultural harmony in Australia.

That we live in a society of remarkable harmony is indisputable. Our diversity is exceptional.

Home to the world’s oldest continuing cultures, the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander cultures, Australia is also home to people who identify with more than 270 ancestries.

More than 25 per cent of us were born overseas; an additional 20 per cent of us have a parent who was born overseas.

Our modern cultural diversity has been largely generated by the waves of immigration that have arrived on our shores following the end of the Second World War and this continues today.

Our cultural harmony, though, has not been organic.

This is one analysis of Australia’s multicultural success that is off the mark.

To be sure, mass immigration could not have been sustained over the years unless Australians were open and generous towards those who came here: I say this as a migrant that arrived here as refugee from South Sudan, and that was received by Australia with warmth and kindness.

My point, however, is that multicultural success was not inevitable.

In the immediate decades following the Second World War, the official stance towards immigrants was, of course, assimilation.

Those who arrived here as migrants were expected to discard their cultural identity as excess baggage.

Names were Anglicised; native tongues were abandoned. New Australians were expected to become Australian, and simply that Neumenkos would become Newmans; Giuseppes would become Joes. All were to forget about the Old World and their heritage and culture.

IDENTITY: Mr Piri Piri believes multiculturalism makes Australia stronger. Picture: Phillip Biggs

IDENTITY: Mr Piri Piri believes multiculturalism makes Australia stronger. Picture: Phillip Biggs

By the late 1960s, this approach was becoming untenable. The rate at which migrants were returning to Europe was increasing; that is to say, an increasing number of new arrivals believed that it was a mistake to settle in Australia.

Reports such as the Henderson Inquiry into Poverty also pointed to the concentration of social and economic disadvantage in newly arrived migrant communities.

It was against this background of concern that multicultural policy came into being in the early 1970s.

Australian multiculturalism was the response to the shortcomings of assimilation. Gone was the expectation that migrants must obliterate their own cultures in order to become Australian citizens.

Instead, the idea of a multicultural Australia saw diversity as a means of strengthening the nation. As governments in the 1970s began to recognise, it was no longer good enough to “assume that mere permission to settle among us in a boon of such transcendental quality that simply gratitude and silent compliance are the sole duties of those upon whom this benefit is conferred”.

In all spheres of society, “we should no longer expect migrants to settle for the second rate, particularly when so much of what passes for our best is itself second rate by the standards of the countries with which we compare ourselves”.

All this goes to the process behind today’s harmony: one that can be traced to the institution of Australian multicultural policy.

It was only with the formal adoption of multiculturalism that anti-discrimination legislation was introduced at the Commonwealth level in the form of the Racial Discrimination Act of 1975.

This was the legislative expression of racial equality in Australia, writing into our laws that any “discrimination, exclusion, restriction or preference based on race, colour, descent or national or ethnic origin” was unlawful.

Australian multiculturalism was always, from the outset, an exercise in nation-building and an expression of citizenship.

Contrary to what critics of multiculturalism say, it has never meant cultural relativism.

There have always been firm limits to what is permissible in the name of cultural identity or expression.

Any diversity must be consistent with the rule of law, parliamentary democracy, equality, freedom of religion and freedom of speech.

To put it another way, in our policy of multiculturalism there has always been a harmony of rights and responsibilities.

This points to one aspect of harmony that is not always appreciated.

We are speaking not only about cultures and identities existing together, but also values being in harmony. We are speaking about a harmony of culture and citizenship, freedom and friendship.

A harmony of thought and deed, of values and law.