"WHEN I hear the word culture, I reach for my pistol." Whether Hermann Goering or someone else spoke those words is immaterial; the sentiment is clear. I feel the same when I hear the word multicultural. By now the language police will have concluded that I am a rabid racist not fit to mix in polite society. It is the standard epithet hurled at those who question multiculturalism. How has it come to this?
I became involved in politics almost 50 years ago with the prime motivation of fighting racism. However, I am aghast at the way multicultural advocates have taken control of the race debate by denouncing as racist anyone who disagrees with their view of the future of Australian society.
At this point it may be apposite if I detail my family's ethnic mix. It includes Polish and Lithuanian Jews via South Africa, Celts from Scotland and Ireland, a handful of Thais and the very best British bloodstock.
Born in Griffith in 1935, by the time I was five World War II was well under way. At the time Australia was 97.5 per cent Anglo-Celtic and Christian. Those sectarian differences that did exist then were between Catholics and Protestants, many of whom were not far removed from the battles for Irish independence. As a small Jewish boy I wasn't a threat; more of an oddity, really.
I first experienced anti-Semitism when sent to a Sydney boarding school to study for my bar mitzvah. On my first day at school I was involved in three fights with boys who had greeted me with the welcoming words, "You dirty f..king Jew." Hence my lifetime commitment to fight prejudice.
Sure, there were further incidents, often at the most unexpected times, but I remain convinced that Australia is one of the least racist countries.
It is not in the least surprising nonetheless that when Australia, under Ben Chifley, abandoned its practice of only seeking migrants from Britain, and turned to Europe there was some apprehension about how it would work. It was, as we know, a great success. First came the Italians, Poles, Germans, Balts, Dutch and others, followed by those from wherever there was suffering. Millions sought safe haven from wars, oppression, famine or poverty. They came to a country that offered the freedoms they had been denied, provided them with the opportunity to earn a decent living and enabled them to rear a family free from the threat of violence.
Each new wave of migrants followed the same pattern. Arriving with little, they gravitated to areas with cheap accommodation among people who spoke the same language, ate the same food, worshipped at the same church and were familiar with the same culture. Older Australians had doubts about these cultural "ghettoes" but in time they not only got used to them but grew to cherish them. Eventually there was hardly a nationality, religion, race or creed that didn't have its own cultural identity and community in Australia. With a few exceptions the integration was seamless and tensions were rare. Adult immigrants found it hardest to assimilate into the local community. Differences became less obvious with each passing generation. Each group made their contribution towards a new, constantly changing Australian culture.
So why, I hear you ask, do I bridle at the word multiculturalism? We are a multiracial society and a harmonious one. What I object to is the idea promoted by the multicultural lobby that not only should we be a society of a hundred cultures but it is the government's duty, nay obligation, to see that we remain permanently culturally divided. If some groups wish to remain separate from mainstream Australia, then that is their choice, but they should not expect governments to aid and abet those divisions.
Governments have a responsibility to assist new arrivals to settle in by helping them to find work, learn English, obtain housing and, if necessary, provide welfare. They should not help create the society from whence they escaped.
In return, migrants have a responsibility to learn about Australia's history and culture, including indigenous Australia and those of Anglo-Celtic origin, which was the dominant culture for 150 years.
Strangely, it is the Anglo-Celtic culture that is continually denigrated. No culture is perfect but few can match the British tradition of equality before the law, respect for minority views, freedom of speech and association, political and civil rights and above all, democracy. The word that best fits that heritage is "tolerance". Oddly, those most critical of that culture often come from the most oppressive and repulsive regimes, those ruled by feudal monarchies, military and theocratic dictatorships and one-party states.
The idea that all cultures are equally good is arrant nonsense. A glance at Freedom House's annual rankings of freedom will attest to that. Australia ranks among the very best.
To those who believe it is the government's responsibility to re-create the culture from whence they have escaped, I suggest they consider other options. Ours is a multiracial and tolerant society, and our culture should be a gradually evolving one, free from government interference and guidance. Let it remain so.