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History of multiculturalism in Australia

Australia’s approach to multicultural policy embraces our shared values and cultural traditions and recognises that Australia’s multicultural character gives us a competitive edge in an increasingly globalised world. The approach articulates the rights and responsibilities that are fundamental to living in Australia and supports the rights of all to celebrate, practise and maintain their cultural traditions within the law and free from discrimination. It also aims to strengthen social cohesion through promoting belonging, respecting diversity and fostering engagement with Australian values, identity and citizenship, within the framework of Australian law.

Parliamentary statement on racial tolerance

In October 1996, the government formally reaffirmed its commitment to racial respect. The Prime Minister moved a statement on racial tolerance in the Australian Parliament's House of Representatives.

The statement read:

'That this House:

  • reaffirms its commitment to the right of all Australians to enjoy equal rights and be treated with equal respect regardless of race, colour, creed or origin
  • reaffirms its commitment to maintaining an immigration policy wholly non-discriminatory on grounds of race, colour creed or origin
  • reaffirms its commitment to the process of reconciliation with Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people, in the context of redressing their profound social and economic disadvantage
  • reaffirms its commitment to maintain Australia as a culturally diverse, tolerant and open society, united by an overriding commitment to our nation, and its democratic institutions and values
  • denounces racial intolerance in any form as incompatible with the kind of society we are and want to be.'

The statement was supported by the Opposition Leader and carried unanimously.


Australia's approach to immigration from federation until the latter part of the 20th century, in effect, excluded non-European immigration. The 'White Australia' policy as it was commonly described was progressively dismantled by the Australian Government after World War II.

The prevailing attitude to migrant settlement up until this time was based on the expectation of assimilation—that is, that migrants should shed their cultures and languages and rapidly become indistinguishable from the host population.

From the mid-1960s until 1973, when the final vestiges of the 'White Australia' policy were removed, policies started to examine assumptions about assimilation. They recognised that large numbers of migrants, especially those whose first language was not English, experienced hardships as they settled in Australia, and required more direct assistance.

They also recognised the importance of ethnic organisations in helping with migrant settlement.

Expenditure on migrant assistance and welfare increased in the early 1970s in response to these needs.

For more information see:
Fact Sheet 8 - Abolition of the ‘White Australia' policy


By 1973, the term 'multiculturalism' had been introduced and migrant groups were forming state and national associations to maintain their cultures, and promote the survival of their languages and heritages within mainstream institutions.

Professor Jerzy Zubrzycki pursued multiculturalism as a social policy while chair of the Social Patterns Committee of the Immigration Advisory Council to the Whitlam Labor Government.

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