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Dr Devaki Monani,
Charles Darwin University, Australia

Multiculturism and Social Work in Australia: 2020 and Beyond

In 1978, Prime Minister Malcolm Fraser brought to fruition the notion of multiculturalism in Australia with a view to end a racist white Australia policy. The policy was formerly designed by Al Grassby during the Labor period in the early 70s.

Fraser set the ground rules in a most difficult situation where people would be admitted based on need – not based on creed. That was a sterling breakthrough in a period which was just after the end of the White Australia policy. Fraser was approached by several people to try and bring out more refugees. One of them, Robert Manne, went to see Fraser and said we’d really like you to bring a couple of thousand people in under some sort of orderly scheme. Fraser basically said that we’re going to bring in 10,000 per year; we’re going to do this on a regional basis; we’re going to get everyone co-operating and even though a few years ago we were shooting at each other, we must get the Vietnamese government onside. Malcolm Fraser was clearly the instigator of what became the Galbally report on post-settlement services for immigrants and their families. That’s the blueprint that we live with today: it hasbeen amended and modified a bit, but that framework – which was again incredibly innovative – has shaped our capacity to respond to migration. It has made Australia’s settlement process probably the most successful one in the world.
(Jakubowicz, quote as cited in Millmow et al, 2015, The Conversation)

Malcolm Fraser will always be remembered as the Prime Minister who became the champion of Australian Multiculturalism.

At a recent Deepavali festival in Canberra the current Prime Minister of Australia, Scott Morrison, likened ‘Multiculturalism in Australia to Garam Masala’2. He suggested that when any spice is consumed on its own it is ‘rubbish’, however when one blends them all together, the ‘wow factor’ emerges (SBS, 2019). This simplified version of Australian multiculturalism has unfortunately been detrimental to developing ‘just’ social policy for a group of people who now seem to be part of the inevitable future of a Multicultural Australian society. It is typical of what Watkins and Noble (2019, pp.302) deem as ‘Lazy Multiculturalism’, an approach that is often reflected in the adoption of Multicultural day celebrations in Australian schools. The authors grapple with the attitudes of the teachers and principals in Australian schools and their lack of ‘intellectual labour’ surrounding the complexity of a multicultural society. In their study, Watkins and Noble (2019) found that most stakeholders superficially addressed the underlying assumptions about race and cultural diversity. In Australia today, we are a long away from the impending vision of Australian multiculturalism as crafted by those early proponents such as Fraser and his political colleagues.

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Image: Australia Day 2015 by Campbelltown City Council, CC BY 2.0, campbell city council, cropped

One of the frustrations of political and scholarly analysis of Multiculturalism in contemporary Australia is that ‘food’ seems to the center of the discourse. What actually needs to occur is a sustained dialogue around how we build on the strengths of these emerging diverse communities and how can we work closely in developing policies that have a lasting impact on the current and future generation of multicultural communities. Unfortunately, against this backdrop, the need to build policy and practice competencies thinking and working with multicultural communities in Australia has not been fully embedded in social work academia, education or practice (Monani, 2018).

Majority of the social work competencies are centered around developing skills in a ‘cross-cultural’ context. As Australia embraces multiculturalism, the complexities of the communities at risk are not fully understood. These are also not thoroughly captured in social work research in Australia. For example, The Good Shepherd Youth and Family services commissioned a scoping study on Sudanese Refugees in the Yarra and Brimbank regions of Melbourne (Benhadya, 2010), the in-depth study highlighted several difficult and challenging case studies. For the purpose of this article, a young boy named Tahir’s case study is highlighted, Tahir was eventually removed from his parents and placed in foster care after disclosing that he was experiencing abuse at home. This led to severe family breakdown and trauma experienced by Tahir’s refugee parents who did not seem to comprehend rules around punishment and parenting in Australia. Tahir found foster placements challenging, his placements were changed rapidly, leading to Tahir experiencing considerable trauma and a nervous breakdown (Benhadya, 2010, p.33). This is not a unique case, children and families of immigrant backgrounds in places such as Norway also experience similar conundrums around parenting and removal of children (Monani, 2015). It is interesting to note that no formal evaluation on the outcomes of refugee children in Australian foster care has been undertaken from a social work perspective.

A quick literature review search using key words such as ‘refugee children’ and ‘foster care’ in Australia reveals one key publication by Barrie and Mendes (2011) on unaccompanied asylum-seeking children in and leaving the out of home care system, this publication mainly highlighted a literature review that compared the outcomes between Australia and the UK. Another significant study focuses on the Australian child welfare system through a feminist lens to eexamine the experience of African mothers (Ramsay, 2016). Whilst it is beyond the scope of this article to comment on the existing research evidence, what is intended to shed light here is the lack of funding geared towards social work research critically examining the experience of children and families of multicultural backgrounds. Service user voices were effectively absent in the research.

In the Case for an Australian Academy of Social work and Social Welfare, social work academic (Healy, 2017) highlighted the extent to which Social Work is effectively excluded from the ‘Fellowship of a Learned Academy’, that she describes is a core measure of esteem in research building in Australia. Healy (2017) further notes that social work is also excluded from the Academy of Social Sciences Australia (ASSA). ASSA, however, recognises accounting and law, education, Psychology and Sociology. The latter disciplines of Psychology and Sociology heavily engage with the discourses around multiculturalism, including critical research on cyber racism and community resilience (Jakubowicz et al., 2017). These disciplines also encourage the publication of research that highlight the voices of participants from multicultural backgrounds. Here, it is critical to reflect on Healy’s (2017, p.1) argument that social work could improve its empirical research evidence by including service user perspectives as opposed to practitioner voices and engage in statistical research. However, for the purpose of this article, the author would like to argue that along this spectrum social work could also explore synergies in research with the broader fields in child, youth and family studies, and health and ageing, and mental health that intersect with the needs of multicultural communities. Within social work academia in Australia, considerable rigour exists in the area of research concerning Indigenous communities (Briskman, 2007) and refugees (Briskman, 2017). However, Australia has about sixteen different migration visa categories and new arrival immigrant communities representing those visa categories. To date, limited attention has been given to experiences of social exclusion or trauma among non-refugee immigrant groups. For instance, exploitation on farms of female workers from Korea, Taiwan, China, Philippines, India’, could be a potential social work research topic.

Here, it is important to highlight that the author of this article has had the opportunity to co-author a report for the Academy of Social Sciences Australia on International Students and Human Rights in Australia (Jakubowicz and Monani, 2010; Jakubowicz and Monani, 2015); published in the legal field on India and gendercide (Monani and QC Gerry, 2017), and also engage in research with Business and management discipline scholars on Immigrants in Australian agriculture (Collins, Krivokapic-skoko and Monani, 2015). The underlying themes examined in these exemplars intersect with issues related to ‘multicultural’ communities in Australia. The author brought her social work skills within a multidisciplinary team.

In the majority, social work curriculum in Australia at best engages with scholarly work produced by Ife (2012) on Human Rights and Social Work; Dominelli ‘Anti-racist Practice’ (2017). Ife (2012) and Dominelli (2017) provide case studies on overcoming oppression and racism, however, the generalisability of the findings do not particularly examine the complexities of working with multicultural communities. Racism in their research is addressed through the lens of developing inclusive practices, rather than offering models that strengthen relationships and enhance mutual trust between multicultural communities and ‘white’ social workers.

Social work is a white profession in Australia. Perhaps, social work could benefit from the scholarly work of the ‘Guru’ of Australian multiculturalism Andrew Jakubowicz’s seminal work on Australian multiculturalism (1989;2002). Jakubwowicz’s (2002) critical reflection on ‘White Noise: Australia’s struggle with Multiculturalism, he reminds scholars of multiculturalism about the extent to which ‘white’ plays a central part in the historic mythology of Australia. The remnants of this legacy are evident in the staffing and curriculum of the social work schools in the oldest universities in Australia.

Afterword: Personal reflection

Social work curriculum needs to embed compulsory viewing of immigrant stories narrated in the ‘Once upon a time in Cabramatta’ (2012) and ‘Once upon a time in Punchowl’ (2014) these were developed based on the advice offered by Professor Andrew Jakubowicz. The films are mostly powerful for social workers viewing as it depicts counter-transference of trauma from parents to second generation, in this case it is the Vietnamese community of Cabrmatta and the impact on their families, challenges that emerge from these traumatic situations such as drug addiction and youth crime. Thus, the documentary has all of the intersectional analysis that need to form a prerequisite for social work students interested in working with multicultural communities (Jakubowicz, 2016, p.145 as cited in Monani, 2018, p.94).

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Once Upon a Time in Cabramatta is a three-part Australian documentary SBS television series about how the Vietnamese community in Cabramatta overcame the odds and found their place in multicultural Australia.

Since 2015, the author is lecturing within the discipline of social work in Australia. The subjects she mainly teaches are Ethics, Rights and Social Justice and Social Policy. There is a growing interest in studying social work in Australia by international bi-lingual students from Nepal, Nigeria, Kenya, Brazil, Philippines and India. It is critical to map their contributions to the practice of social work during the next decade. Majority of the social work practitioners in Alice Springs, Northern Territory are from India. Australian Government population growth policy is focused on regional and rural settlement of migrants. This means that as a profession we may want to develop significant foresight about the potential issues and challenges experienced by these aspiring social workers from multicultural backgrounds.


Barrie, L., & Mendes, P. (2011). The experiences of unaccompanied asylum-seeking children in and leaving the out-of-home care system in the UK and Australia: A critical review of the literature. International social work, 54(4), 485-503.
Benhadya, G.E (2010)Sudanese Scoping Project: The needs of Sudanese refugee children, youth and families in the cities of Yarra and Brimbank, The Good Shepherd, Social Policy Unit. goodshep.org
Briskman, L., & Latham, S. (2017). Refugees, Islamophobia, and Ayaan Hirsi Ali: challenging social work co-option. Affilia, 32(1), 108- 111.
Briskman, L. (2007). Social work with Indigenous communities. The Federation Press.
Collins, J., Krivokapic-Skoko, B., & Monani, D. (2016). New immigrants improving productivity in Australian agriculture. Canberra, Australia: Rural Industries Research and Development Corporation.
Dominelli, L. (2017). Anti-racist social work. Macmillan International Higher Education.
Healy, K.(2018) The Case for an Australian Academy of Social Work and Social Welfare, Australian Social Work, 71:1, 1-5, DOI: 10.1080/0312407X.2017.1397180 Ife, J. (2012). Human rights and social work: Towards rights-based practice. Cambridge University Press.
Jakubowicz, A., Dunn, K., Mason, G., Paradies, Y., Bliuc, A. M., Bahfen, N., & Connelly, K. (2017). Cyber Racism and Community Resilience. Springer: Cham, Switzerland.
Jakubowicz, A. H. (2016). Once upon a Time in... ethnocratic Australia: migration, refugees, diversity and contested discourses of inclusion. Cosmopolitan Civil Societies: An Interdisciplinary Journal.
Jakubowicz, A., & Monani, D. (2015). Mapping progress: Human rights and international students in Australia. Cosmopolitan Civil Societies: An Interdisciplinary Journal, 7(3), 61-80.
Jakubowicz, A., & Monani, D. (2010). International student futures in Australia: A human rights perspective on moving forward to real action. Canberra: Academy of the Social Sciences in Australia.
Jakubowicz, A. (2002). White noise: Australia’s struggle with multiculturalism. Working through whiteness: International perspectives, 107-125.
Jakubowicz, A. (1989). Social justice and the politics of multiculturalism in Australia. Social Justice, 16(3 (37), 69-86.
Millmow, A., Jakubowicz, A., Boxall, A. M., Penington, D., Forsyth, H., Mendelssohn, J.& Ville, S. (2015). Malcolm Fraser’s life and legacy: experts respond. the Conversation, Accessed on 11/11/2019
Monani, D. (2018). At Cross roads: White Social Work in Australia and the discourse on Australian multiculturalism. Cosmopolitan Civil Societies: an Interdisciplinary Journal, 10(2), 87.
Monani, D., & QC, F. Gerry. (2017). Death and the Dowry System: India’s Women and Female Children at Global Risk of Gendercide Over Money. Issues in Legal Scholarship, 15(1), 1-13.
Monani, D. (2015). Who saved the Bhattacharya kids?: The role of Indian media in revoking the decision of the Norwegian child welfare services. Developing Practice: The Child, Youth and Family Work Journal, (43), 42.
Ramsay, G. (2016). Black mothers, bad mothers: African refugee women and the governing of ‘Good’Citizens through the Australian child welfare system. Australian Feminist Studies, 31(89), 319-335.
SBS (2019) Scott Morrison says multicultural Australia is like a 'fragrant garam masala'. Accessed on 8th November 2019.
Watkins, M., & Noble, G. (2019). Lazy multiculturalism: cultural essentialism and the persistence of the Multicultural Day in Australian schools. Ethnography and Education, 14(3), 295-310.
2 Garam Masala is a spice used in Indian cooking. Here, the author is reminded of The Prime Minister’s reference to multiculturalism as a form of ‘Lazy multiculturalism’, particularly having significant synergies with views presented by Watkins, M., & Noble, G. (2019). in ‘Lazy multiculturalism’: cultural essentialism and the persistence of the Multicultural Day in Australian schools. Ethnography and Education, 14(3), 295-310.