The Integration Challenge: Maintaining successful Australian multiculturalism

HON ALAN TUDGE MP Minister for Citizenship and Multicultural Affairs

The Integration Challenge: Maintaining successful Australian multiculturalism

Speech to the Menzies Research Centre

Sydney, 7 March 2018

The Prime Minister is surely right when he states that Australia is the most successful multicultural country in the world.

More people from more countries have come here to start a new life than almost any other nation and we have generally been able to maintain strong social cohesion in the process.

But it is more than this.  We have incorporated different cultural elements into our own while maintaining our distinct Australian identity.

This is the great Australian multicultural achievement that I want to discuss today.  It is different to multiculturalism in other nations.  I want to take you through the evidence to support the claim of our success and what has underpinned it.

But I also wish to issue a note of caution: successful Australian multiculturalism is not God-given and cannot be taken for granted.  Indeed, there is emerging evidence that we are not integrating as well as what we have done in the past.  Moreover, there are external factors that weren't present even a decade ago that make integration more challenging.  

We want newly arrived migrants to succeed and make the most of the opportunities of this great nation - just as previous generations have done. Importantly, we also want to maintain our success as a cohesive society.  To ensure this ongoing success, we need to increase our efforts and place higher expectations upon new arrivals, emphasising the fact that with rights comes responsibilities.

Australian multiculturalism

Australian multiculturalism is different to what is termed “multiculturalism” in other nations (particularly European ones) due to our strong emphasis on integration.

You will hear me use this word a lot, because I believe it is key to our success.

Integration means that a person who comes here shares our values, engages in the community and has full rights to government services. In exchange they must obey the law, participate and uphold democratic principles and support other Australians. They make friends at work and in their neighbourhood and hopefully join or start sporting or other community clubs.

These things are the glue to building trust between all Australian citizens and consequently help foster social cohesion. When a person comes to Australia, they pay taxes to a collective pool (to fund things like welfare and healthcare) that is used to support those who need it in tough times.  A person who has integrated into the broad Australian community has joined the Australian family and is willing to contribute to it as much as benefit from it.

Under Australian integrated multiculturalism, there is shared responsibility. The existing population has the responsibility to have open arms to newcomers, and the newly arrived migrant has responsibilities to do their best to participate fully in our society.

This model of integrated multiculturalism is different to an “assimilationist” model or a “separatist” model. 

Assimilation is the idea that we must all be identical, and abandon our cultural and religious heritage. We don’t expect or want that in Australia. Where there are conflicts in cultural behaviours, Australian law and values must prevail, but otherwise we welcome the diversity that people can bring from being born elsewhere.

For example, it is hard to imagine a modern Australia without the cuisine, the music, the colours, and the vibrancy that others have brought, which has helped create our rich, cosmopolitan way of life.

On the other hand, a separatist model of multiculturalism, while being the opposite to assimilation, is when people bring their entire practices, languages and cultures and plant them into the new land, with little desire to share or mix in with their local community. They live side by side, rather than merged with the existing population.

While not the stated policy intent of Europe, the impact of their policies has been precisely this in some places.  The then British Prime Minister, David Cameron, for example declared that:

“Under the doctrine of state multiculturalism, we have encouraged different cultures to live separate lives, apart from each other and apart from the mainstream...We’ve even tolerated these segregated communities behaving in ways that run completely counter to our values.”

Author, Douglas Murray, writes that this separatism is resulting in the “slow death of Europe” as groups effectively colonise parts of it and erode the values that made Europe so prosperous, free and (consequently) attractive to migrants.

The successful Australian model is one of integration; not assimilation and not separatism.  We need to jealously guard our successful model and introduce new measures to ensure it continues, as I will outline later.

How do we know we have been successful at integrating people?

There is no one measure, but consider at least a few key ones.

The most important measure of integration, in my view, is employment. When people have a job, they are contributing to society and have an immediate network of people that they interact with.

With the exception of the humanitarian intake (which I will address later), new migrants to Australia tend to get employed rapidly and have high skilled jobs.  A 2015 OECD Report found that we had the third lowest rate of overseas-born unemployment of all 34 OECD countries surveyed. There is almost no difference between the unemployment rates of Australia’s migrants versus those born here, whereas across the OECD, migrants had an unemployment rate that was 2.6 percentage points higher than non-migrants.

Further, only eight per cent of Australia’s migrants worked in low-skilled jobs, which is similar to the Australian born population. Youth unemployment amongst the offspring of migrants was also amongst the lowest in the OECD.

Related to this is business creation. According to the Migrant Small Business Report, published by CGU, one in three small businesses in Australia are run by migrants, which is above the 28 per cent of the population they represent.  Eighty three per cent of migrant business owners did not own a business before coming to Australia. Of course, there are many examples of Australian migrants who have built large global businesses.

Levels of education are another indicator of integration. Australia’s migrants do better than the Australian born population in educational attainment. Almost half of the working age migrant population have a university degree versus just under 30 per cent for the Australian born, and 34 per cent for migrants across OECD countries.

The children of our migrants also outperform the Australian born in educational attainment, and perform well above the OECD average for children of migrants. Migrant parents want to secure success for their children, which in large part is done through education.

Poverty rates of children of migrants is low and home ownership is similar to that of the Australian born population.

This hard data suggests successful integration, but anecdotally we also know that migrants have flourished and reached the highest levels of society; in business, politics and the arts.  This is not migrants merely from Britain, but migrants from Eastern and Southern Europe, Asia and elsewhere. 

We are all beneficiaries of the significant contribution of successive waves of migrants.  It has built modern Australia.

What is particularly remarkable, however, is that Australia’s success at integrating migrants has occurred despite a rate of migration which is much higher than other comparable wealthy nations. Twenty eight per cent of the total Australian population were born overseas, which is the third highest in the OECD (behind Luxembourg and Switzerland). The United States, known as the great melting pot, has around 13 per cent overseas born.

Moreover, the diversity of countries that we now source from is much wider than the migration from, certainly, the first half of the 20th century.

We should be immensely proud of what we have achieved as a nation to date. Australian multiculturalism, rooted in a policy of integration, has been more successful than any other nation.

Emerging challenges

There is, however, no room for complacency.  The challenges to successful integration are perhaps greater than in previous decades, and there are early indicators that we are we not doing as well as we once did.

The challenge is greater today because some diasporas are larger, the migrant intake more diverse, and because technology can foster insularity.

Oxford professor, Paul Collier, points out in his book Exodus: Immigration and Multiculturalism in the 21st Century that the pace of integration of a migrant relates to the number of interactions the migrant has with the existing home grown population. The more interactions, the more rapidly they merge. This, of course, makes intrinsic sense.  A person who sticks solely to their own diaspora, communicates only in their own language, and has very little engagement elsewhere will more slowly develop a shared identity with other Australians than someone who is interacting on a daily basis - through work, school, and the community.

In past decades, despite the initial challenges of settling in a new country, new migrants interacted with the existing population through work, school and elsewhere, because their diasporas were relatively small.  They tended to maintain less regular contact with their country of origin because of the high cost of flights and communications. 

Today, however, diasporas can be larger, making it easier for the new migrant to settle initially, but which may limit their external interactions.  Further, technology means a person can communicate easily and cheaply back to their birth country or within their own diaspora in Australia.  In short, a person can more easily today live within a language and cultural bubble in suburban Australia.

The diversity of our intake can also contribute towards greater integration challenges. A person who can understand and speak English and is experienced with liberal democracy is likely to find it easier to integrate than someone who has little understanding of our values and institutions.

None of these challenges are insurmountable for the success of new migrants or the cohesion of the nation.  We will always have a non-discriminatory migration intake.  But they point to the need to not take our success of past decades for granted.

Moreover, there are early indications that we are not doing as well as we have in the past, pointing to the need to critically examine our policies.

The Scanlon Foundation’s Mapping Social Cohesion Report is the most comprehensive annual assessment of our social cohesion. It uses a combination of community-wide surveys plus rich data from multiple sources.  The report is typically very optimistic and remains so, but the most recent report highlighted concerns about our trajectory.

First, it stated that across a number of its annual questions, there had been an increase of 5 to 10 percentage points (over ten years) in the proportion indicating negative views about immigration generally or experience of discrimination.

Second, it highlighted that there is an increasing geographic concentration of the overseas born population, particularly in Melbourne and Sydney. In Sydney, there are 67 suburbs with more than 50 per cent born overseas. Of these, 28 suburbs have 60 per cent or more born overseas.

In some respects, there is nothing new about newly arrived migrants concentrating in particular suburbs, but the Scanlon Foundation Report shows that this is getting more pronounced. And with a greater concentration, there is less likelihood of interactions with the established community. And therefore, slower integration.

This is particularly the case where the concentration of overseas born in particular suburbs is aligned with a considerable absence of English being spoken or understood.  For example, in the Melbourne Local Government Area of Greater Dandenong, of the population of 152,000, 61.7 per cent were born overseas with almost 17 per cent speaking no English or “not well”.

Further, the evidence suggests that English capability of new arrivals in general has deteriorated. The 2016 Census, for example, shows that 24 per cent of the people who arrived between January and August 2016 reported that they did not speak English well or at all.  This compared with 18 and 19 per cent respectively in the 2006 and 2011 Census.

Poorer English means that the prospect of getting a good job is diminished. Professor Peter McDonald from Melbourne University states that after 18 months of arrival, migrants who spoke English very well were 3.7 times more likely to be employed compared with those whose English was poor.

As well as diminishing the opportunity for the new migrant, a general deterioration in English is bad for social cohesion.  Collier notes that a common language is highly convenient for a society to operate and it underpins a common politics.  This is particularly the case in Australia when we have compulsory voting.  Moreover, he notes that a common language makes people more willing to support the provision of public goods such as universal healthcare or welfare.

The final concern that the Scanlon Foundation Report highlighted is the relatively high level of negative feeling towards Muslims, which it notes is in part “fed by the reality – and the heightened perception – of radical rejectionism of Australia’s secular democratic values and institutions within segments of the Muslim population.”

Of course, compared to even a decade ago, the security challenges are heightened by the very small minority who choose radical Islamism rather than liberal democracy.

Domestic community harmony, based on integration, is indeed an important part of our national security.

In discussing the emerging challenges of integration, and before suggesting proposals for change, it is necessary to discuss the challenges associated with our humanitarian intake.

This will always be the most difficult cohort to integrate, but unless we do it well, our society will be diminished and the support for our refugee program will weaken.

The Centre for Policy Development in its recent “Settling Better” report states that “there is overwhelming evidence that employment provides the bedrock for successful integration”.  I could not agree more, but on this basis, there is room for improvement.  According to their report, only 17 per cent of our humanitarian migrants are in paid work after being in Australia for 18 months. 

This is not good enough.  I know from my work in my previous portfolio of Human Services and from my work in Indigenous issues, that the longer a person is on welfare, the harder it is to get employment.  Long-term welfare dependence is debilitating for anyone, be they a refugee, long term Australian citizen or anyone else.

Our goal should be that people arrive here and immediately have a place to work.  For some this will be exceptionally difficult, but the attributes of our humanitarian intake suggest that we can do better. According to the Building a New Life in Australia study, on arrival in Australia, 13 per cent of humanitarian entrants have a university degree and 19 per cent have completed 12 or more years of schooling.  Almost 70 per cent of men speak at least some English and 26 per cent speak English well or very well.

We should explore whether more can be done before new migrants actually arrive in Australia, such as English language training.  English language is again one of the keys: the Centre for Policy Development found that humanitarian migrants with good English were 70 per cent more likely to have a job after 18 months than those with poor English.

African leaders in Melbourne suggest to me that better engagement and greater employment opportunities would also make a difference to some of the crime and social issues emerging within the South Sudanese community.

Steps to encourage greater integration

The challenges outlined above are real and we must be alert to them, but they are not insurmountable.

They indicate, however, that we need to re-examine our policies to ensure that they give the new migrant the best chance of succeeding, as previous generations have done.

Professor Collier notes that in the absence of policies to the contrary, immigrants tend to cluster.  In the absence of expectations about English language, people may stick to their mother tongue and intersect only with their diaspora.

Our current policies do not address the challenges outlined above. In fact, there are very few formal requirements that encourage integration, adoption of Australian values, and English proficiency.

For example, consider the typical path of a person coming in under the family stream of the migration program or a spouse of a skilled visa holder. This represents approximately two thirds of the permanent migration program.

When they arrive, they have no English language requirement placed upon them. They must sign an Australian Values Statement but there is no assessment as to whether they demonstrate their commitment to these values through their actions while in Australia.  After they become a permanent resident, it is almost a formality to become a citizen once a year has expired and a citizenship test is passed.  This test is the only time that English is assessed at all. And they can repeatedly fail the citizenship test an unlimited number of times.

On a practical level, this relative lack of policy has not mattered in earlier decades. New migrants have flourished despite the absence of formal requirements for integration. 

But given the challenges outlined above and the emerging deteriorating trends, it is time to strengthen our policies in order to lift the aspirations placed upon new migrants from new and emerging communities who want to make Australia their home.

There are at least five elements that we believe can meet these emerging challenges and underpin continued successful Australian multiculturalism in the decades ahead.

The first is to place greater emphasis on the learning of English. As is outlined above, the extent of English proficiency has deteriorated.  We would like to see stronger English language requirements for permanent residency and citizenship.  This should be assessed through a separate test, in addition to the written citizenship test.  The current citizenship test, while in English, only assesses reading comprehension; and not the speaking, listening or writing of English. All are important. Ultimately, this is beneficial to the newly arrived migrant, who, let’s not forget has taken huge risks in coming to a new country, with the aspiration of succeeding in their new life.

We can and do support people to learn English if their language skills are poor, but to reduce barriers to successful integration and give the newly arrived migrant the best chance of success, they must possess a level of English proficiency.

The second element is to actively encourage new arrivals to take positive steps to integrate.  In most cases, a migrant is here for several years on a short-term visa before they become permanent residents and citizens.  This provides an opportunity to assess their commitment to wanting to integrate with our society.  The requirements would be made clear up front when a person enters the country. It need not be onerous by ordinary standards, but could include participation in the labour market, sending children to school and participating in community groups. 

Third, there needs to be a greater emphasis on articulating and assessing a newly arrived migrant's commitment to Australian values, such as freedom of religion, equality of sexes, and the rule of law.  We presently do character assessments, and we have a values statement that must be signed for most visas and citizenship applications.  But there is an opportunity to have a stronger values statement which a person agrees to upon entry to the country and is assessed against before gaining full access to Australia's rights and privileges.

Fourth, from a security perspective, we would like to be able to assess people better before gaining access to permanent residency and citizenship. Every person is assessed before coming into the country, but obviously our data is richer when they are in the country.

Finally, we need to stop talking our country down – be it on Australia Day, in schools, or in our public discourse. Rather we need to talk about and think about our nation and community as a place that people will want to integrate into.

Douglas Murray’s analysis is that we have an unusual “vogue for self-blame”. He says that if we are constantly talking ourselves down when other nations are not, then “the impression may eventually be instilled, in Australian children as much as anywhere else, that Australia is the country with more to apologise for.”

We must always be honest about our history and learn from it; we must be honest about our present challenges. But Australia is an incredible success story on almost every dimension. It is a place where we welcome people from around the world; where new migrants have become leaders in all aspects of society; where women and men are equal; where freedom of speech and religion is central. These values and attributes are worth celebrating and worth being part of.

Many of these elements were the subject of national consultation and contained in the Citizenship Bill that was presented to the parliament in 2017.  We are keen to engage further on these, before again discussing these concepts with the parliament.


Australian multiculturalism is based on placing the migrant in the center of society, not on the fringes.  We want all Australians, regardless of where they have come from to make the most of the opportunities this great nation has to offer and we want their children to also have the same opportunities. 

For this to continue to occur, we need both the commitment of Australians to continue to welcome new arrivals and the commitment of newly arrived migrants to integrate into our community.

The Left focuses almost exclusively on the concept of "inclusion".  Inclusion is fundamental but it implies that all the responsibility is on the host population to "include" newcomers. 

But to become a fully functioning integrated society, newly arrived migrants also need to take positive steps. There is an onus on all of us. 

The fastest way to integrate is to learn English and get a job. The best place to integrate is in the workplace.

We have been so successful as a nation to date, but this does not guarantee future success.  Rather, we need to work hard at integration by stamping out any remnants of racism, but also by setting higher expectations upon those who want to call Australia home. With rights come responsibilities. Ultimately this will ensure that the migrant has the best opportunity to succeed and it is essential for the ongoing success of our multicultural nation.


Copyright 2007