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National identity and diversity

Back to first principles

MULTICULTURALISM AND NATIONAL identity are widely viewed as unlikely bedfellows. It is easy to see why. Multiculturalism emphasises group difference and diversity; national identity stresses commonality and unity. Multiculturalism is concerned with the rights of minorities; national identity is typically an interest of the dominant majority. Thus, a common refrain is that multiculturalism fractures national identity, undermines the mutual trust and sense of solidarity needed for citizens to support collective measures (such as welfare programs), and causes resentment among the cultural majority by routinely ignoring their interests in favour of minority claims. There is an element of truth to the ‘fractures national identity’ charge, if only because multiculturalism policies mean that the governing institutions must serve all citizens and not only those of the cultural majority. The ‘undermines trust and solidarity’ claim has been rigorously investigated and found to be baseless,[i] while ‘causes resentment’ is palpably true among some members of the cultural majority. Such resentment has featured in the backlash against multiculturalism in recent times, particularly in Europe, but also in the two pioneering multiculturalist democracies, Canada and Australia.

Much has been written on these aspects both against and in defence of multiculturalism. I wish instead to disentangle some strands regarding national identity and multiculturalism, in order to see how these might otherwise be woven together.


THERE ARE THREE key domains to a national identity: governmental, public and cultural. Each has distinctive features, and each capture something of what people mean when they discuss national identity.

The governmental domain refers to a national government’s articulated program, priorities and vision for the nation. A national identity here is expressed by what a particular government does or, for that matter, does not do. This sense of a national identity is well caught by Bhikhu Parekh’s critical assessment of Margaret Thatcher’s prime ministership of the UK:

The Thatcherite view…was deeply rooted in imperial consciousness, relied heavily on religion, fed the aggressive individualist impulse, felt deeply uncomfortable with Britain’s cultural diversity, was too English in its orientation to understand the desire for autonomy of the three nations, and too heavily Atlantic to appreciate Britain’s European roots.[ii]

Prime ministers and governments come and go, and their expression of the nation’s identity tends to come and go with them. Paul Keating was fond of saying ‘change the government, and you change the country’. Americans and others are currently feeling the force of this aphorism with the arrival of the Trump administration. In this sense, a government changes the national identity literally by definition. Yet, as consequential as a government’s activity may be, the governmental domain of a national identity rarely travels ‘all the way down’ to fundamentally reshape the broader national culture and identity. For one thing, democratic governments are not normally around long enough for that to be possible. The governmental domain of a national identity is typically the easiest to ‘read’ and to characterise. However, it is also the least durable domain of such an identity.

Another expression of national identity is inscribed in a society’s public institutions. There is a trivial sense in which this applies: one might speak of a ‘national identity’ much as one speaks of a ‘national broadcaster’ or a ‘national railway’. But the public domain of a national identity also expresses something deeper and more enduring about the character of the nation. Public institutions, on the whole, tend to outlive governments. The symbolic public expression of national identity tends to be historical and cultural – the flag, national anthem, state insignia and public holidays being the most obvious examples. Of course, the national language/s convey a cultural imprint and something of the local history. Other examples of the public institutionalisation of national identity include how the separation of church and state is enacted; the particular prayers that might be recited at the opening of parliamentary sittings; the nation’s history as taught in schools; and the kinds of test items included in citizenship tests.

Citizenship test items are particularly pertinent as, in liberal democracies, public statements of a national identity are mainly presented in terms of political values and the rights and obligations of citizenship. There is an inherent logic why this is so.

Liberalism’s foundational commitments to individual liberty and equality mean that the state is not only barred from intruding into the interior life of its citizens – what they believe and value – but is also limited in prescribing how their citizens should live and in discriminating on that basis. The foundational political values thus tend to assume the mantle of the nation’s defining values. And so democratic political leaders instinctively revert to lists of civic values and political institutions when pressed to define the core values of their nation. Thus, in 2006, Gordon Brown defined ‘Britishness’ as consisting in the shared values of ‘liberty for all, responsibility by all, and fairness to all’.[iii] And in 2017, Malcolm Turnbull described ‘uniquely Australian’ values as freedom, equality of men and women, the rule of law, democracy, and ‘a fair go’.[iv]

The third key domain of a national identity can be broadly defined as cultural. This dimension informs the governmental and public domains, but runs deeper and extends more widely than them. Omitting the word ‘national’ and simply referring, for example, to ‘Australian identity’ or Australian-ness perhaps better captures this sense of national identity, as it relates more to national character and goes to people’s habits, inclinations, mores, outlook, and emotional and instinctive responses. Those immersed in a national culture typically find it difficult to isolate and characterise aspects of their national–cultural identity. Yet they are aspects instantly noticed by visitors.

The cultural dimension is the hardest and slowest dimension of a national identity to change. The one government intervention that can have a decisive impact on the broader national culture and identity is immigration policy. But this is only because a national culture and identity (at this level) are the ongoing product of the myriad interactions among citizens, and so will ultimately reflect the composition of the population. Robin Cook, when he was British Foreign Secretary, nailed this point with his famous observation that ‘chicken tikka masala is now a true British national dish’.[v] The catch-cry of cultural conservatives in Australia that ‘people come here to join us, not to change us’ is wishful thinking. People joining us from all corners of the globe have changed us and will continue to do so. In his missives on immigration and Australian culture and identity, Andrew Bolt is right at least on that point. He is wrong on everything else. For all the angst here and in Europe about refugees and immigrants, their impact on a national culture is usually a gradual process. Cultural change becomes apparent over many years, if not generations.

In any case, a culture cannot be hermetically sealed off and preserved without it ossifying. The French discovered this the hard way in the postwar decades in their effort to censor ‘Franglais’, the increasing usage of English words in French language. They realised it couldn’t be done, short of extinguishing the very liberty that the Republic proclaims. Franglais arose through English’s global influence and not because France admitted English-speaking immigrants. Nostalgia for bygone eras is understandable, be they of the white picket fence, uniform neighbourhoods or fish and chips wrapped in newspaper. But new cultural injections – inexorable in a globalised world connected by telecommunications, the internet, mass travel and entertainment – energise and transform cultures. None of this means there is no ‘us’ anymore (as Bolt alleges), only that the ‘us’ is dynamic.

It is often claimed that a national cultural identity is created and changed through dialogue, debate and intellectual creativity. Such elements doubtless play a part. A poet, painter, novelist or musician may inject a phrase, painting, story or song that presents a new vista on the national experience, much as Londoners noticed the fog only after Dickens wrote about it. And where would the English language be without Shakespeare and the other greats? But the forging of a national culture and identity is not always so cerebral or discursive. It often occurs quietly and unselfconsciously through mundane daily social interaction. Australia’s Anglo culture took hits when coffee overtook tea and wine overtook beer as the preferred hot and cold drinks, respectively, in the 2000s. Neither shift was precipitated by a public debate or the intervention of intellectuals. Rather, these changes occurred imperceptibly over the preceding decades through the decisions of countless individuals in the wake of the country’s immigration intake and of globalisation.


IGNORING THE DIFFERENCE between the governmental, public and cultural domains of a national identity creates trouble. Cultural conservatives routinely make this mistake. They endeavor to legislate a national cultural identity at the cost of its dynamic complexity and integrity. The result is a ridiculous caricature in which particular features of the culture are wrenched from the whole. Witness John Howard’s futile quest to have ‘mateship’ inscribed in the preamble to the Australian constitution in the 1999 referendum on a republic.

On the other hand, many progressives err in supposing that civic or political values are all that matter in liberal democracies. They reject the idea of a national cultural identity as obsolete or dangerous. Calling it the ‘universalist paradox’, the German sociologist Christian Joppke makes much of the point that even where residual national–cultural distinctiveness exists or is imagined, a country’s commitment to liberal democratic values precludes politically naming or enforcing such features.[vi] For Joppke, this development spells the triumph of liberal democracy and the ‘denationalisation’ of citizenship and society.

Joppke overstates the case. As noted, the public domain of liberal democracies tends to include some symbolic and institutional representation of a particular national culture through the flag, holidays, language and so on. In his book Is Multiculturalism Dead? (Polity Press, 2017), Joppke dismisses the residual political expression of a national culture as the ‘same tired examples of public holidays, official language, and so on’ that even liberal universalists like him accept as politically necessary. Although the examples may be limited in a liberal democracy, the political expression of a national culture extends well beyond public holidays and national languages. It may also include such things as the structure of the working day and week, the scheduling of public events, dress codes, permissible initiation and burial practices, and the teaching of the nation’s history.

A national cultural identity also operates more implicitly on the governmental and public domains. States prioritise and interpret liberal democratic values in ways that reflect their national histories and traditions (as Joppke acknowledges). The US, for example, emphasises liberty above all else. France emphasises equality and republican fraternity. Britain and Australia each emphasise liberty and equality, with Britain rather more energetic on liberty and Australia more on equality. And so on. Political values also tend to be culturally inflected. Liberty and equality are often equated with how the cultural majority lives, works and plays. So, for example, freedom is being able to wear miniskirts and next to nothing but not Islamic clothing that covers the head or face.

More generally, the law and public institutions of a society will perforce reflect something of the spirit and character of the people who established them. Whether it is the organisation of public life, the education and health systems, or where the limits of toleration are drawn, no two democracies practice their common values identically. Finally, simply dwelling on civic and political values misses the place and force of a national culture beyond the governmental and public spheres.

National identity in its deepest sense of national character and most pervasive sense of a national culture remains vital and shapes the life of the polity and of society. It shouldn’t be denied, disparaged or eviscerated by reducing it to political values. The mistake is in thinking that it must be defined. This isn’t the case. A bit like a career, a national cultural identity is something that people look back upon rather than plan for. It is always a work in progress. It unfolds and changes, driven by everyday human interaction. And it is not the business of government or politicians to complete the definition of what it means to be Australian.

To their credit, most of our politicians are reluctant to wade into issues of national cultural identity. One suspects that this springs less from a denial of its existence than from a well-founded sense of their lack of authority to pronounce upon it. When Chris Bowen delivered his speech as immigration minister on the ‘genius of Australian multiculturalism’ in 2011, he did so without once mentioning national identity. Two years later, in an Australia Day address in London, then shadow immigration minister Scott Morrison discussed Australian national identity at length.[vii] But it was to point out that ‘as Australians, our nationalism is divorced from ethnicity, race and religion’ and how ‘we exchange and adapt the old for the new, bringing what’s best, leaving the rest and embracing over time a new national identity’.

It is genuinely remarkable how philosophically open our mainstream parties now are to a dynamic and evolving national identity, the occasional cultural nationalist (such as John Howard and Tony Abbott) notwithstanding. Of course, the philosophical openness and long-term view are not always upheld in practice here and now. Which brings us to multiculturalism.


AS A PUBLIC policy, multiculturalism emerged in liberal democratic contexts. For most of the countries that adopted it in the latter twentieth century, multiculturalism aimed to better realise liberal values and democratic citizenship. State institutions and laws were no longer to be the exclusive preserve of the dominant cultural majority. Rights and opportunities were to be made available to all citizens. A good deal of multiculturalism policy thus relates to anti-discrimination measures, albeit by broadening the traditional focus on direct and invidious forms (for example: ‘Jews not admitted’) to include indirect discrimination: that is, institutions and practices that unintentionally but disproportionately disadvantage members of particular groups.

One compelling rationale for multiculturalism mimics Winston Churchill’s defence of democracy: namely, the alternatives are even worse. In the absence of something like multiculturalism, either ‘people of difference’ – racially, culturally, religiously – will need to be excluded at the door via a discriminatory admission policy in order to preserve the integrity of liberal democratic institutions inside a country, or else liberty and equality will mainly be the preserve of members of the dominant culture and minority members who culturally assimilate. For Western nations that consider liberal democratic values to be an integral part of their cultural inheritance, either alternative would seriously compromise their sense of themselves. Canada and Australia each tried the ‘racial exclusion’ and ‘assimilate or suffer’ options during the twentieth century before deciding on a policy of state multiculturalism as the superior course.

Central to multiculturalism is a quest for inclusion. Adopting multiculturalism policy marks a change in national identity in the governmental domain by virtue of being adopted, and in the public domain by virtue of opening up public institutions to a diverse citizenry. Some analysts suggest that multiculturalism policy also transforms the broader national culture and identity.[viii] This wider effect is, I think, lumpier and less certain. A comparison of the Canadian and Australian cases is instructive.

While the mode of federal Canadian multiculturalism is liberal democratic, its raison d’être was to redefine Canadian national identity across the board. In 1971, Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau sought to placate an assertive Quebec by proclaiming that Canada had ‘no official culture’ and ‘nor does any ethnic group take precedence over any other’.[ix] Multiculturalism’s strategic job was to make bilingualism and biculturalism more palatable and thereby keep the Canadian state intact.

Australia’s multiculturalism has always been narrower and less ambitious than Canada’s. The initial focus was on settling and integrating recent immigrants. But even its development never extended beyond better realising the principles of individual liberty, equality and toleration. Days after David Cameron, then British prime minister, contrasted multiculturalism with ‘muscular liberalism’ in early 2011, Chris Bowen dismissed the relevance of Cameron’s concern because Australian multiculturalism has always been based on firm liberal-democratic values.[x] There are no group rights as such under the policy or reserved seats in parliament for Indigenous groups (unlike in New Zealand). Nor, unlike the Canadian model, has it emphasised minority cultural maintenance. To be sure, Australian multiculturalism repudiates the racist White Australia policy (although the latter was unravelling long before the multicultural era). It also rejects requiring immigrants to culturally assimilate. However, unlike Canada, there was no plan to renounce the country’s British heritage, established institutions or cultural ethos. At most there was – and is – an expectation that Australian culture and identity will naturally change over time with the changing composition of the population.

The Canadian and Australian experiments with multiculturalism bookend the conundrum that liberal multiculturalism faces regarding national culture and identity. On the one hand, presenting multiculturalism itself as a new national cultural identity, à la Canada, is fool’s gold. Simply offering up a mosaic of different cultural identities and traditions and being proud about it does not make a national identity in the national–cultural sense. As the Canadian experience shows, it actually requires repudiating a national identity. Repudiating but not eliminating, as the elevation of the mosaic simply masks the force of the dominant culture still operating beneath the official rhetoric. On the other hand, merely extending liberal democratic rights, per the Australian model, is also unlikely to realise the inclusive thrust of multiculturalism. As important as they are, equal liberties and opportunities do not necessarily bring social acceptance. This is the predicament of Muslims in Western societies today, insofar as they have even secured equal rights and opportunities. All formal, liberal-rights-based versions of multiculturalism are subject to this limitation.

If ‘multiculturalism as national identity’ and liberal rights approaches both fall short of fulfilling multiculturalism’s inclusionary thrust, is there another option? There is, through promoting the value of belonging.


NATIONAL IDENTITY AND belongingness intersect but are not identical. It is possible to be a born, bred and life-long domiciled national whose identity is not an issue and yet still feel cut off from the national community. It is also possible to feel valued and that one belongs to a national community in the absence of a corresponding national identity, at least initially. Such a posture is harder to maintain over time, which is why a sense of belonging has positive ramifications for national identity.

Belongingness is integral to the liberal tradition. It is encapsulated by the third of the tricolor values after liberty and equality: fraternity. A more contemporary and less sexist way of putting the same idea is ‘solidarity’, ‘inclusion’ or ‘belonging’. Belongingness is closely linked to recognition. According to the most celebrated account of political recognition, modern individuals and groups express their authenticity through their inherited or chosen identities. Thus, failing to recognise or misrecognising these identities causes the individuals and groups concerned psychological and social harm. Charles Taylor, the chief advocate of this ‘recognition’ argument, had principally in mind his native Quebec’s wish to preserve its Francophone language and culture, and the political arrangements needed to serve those objectives.[xi] The relevance of the argument to Indigenous Australians’ quest for recognition hardly needs to be stated.

The trouble is that the recognition argument could be invoked by all manner of identity groups. It justifies too much. Virtually every ‘authentic’ identity claim, whether of an individual or a group, that does not involve harm or violate fundamental rights has a prima facie case for political recognition. No liberal democracy has the resources to be able to satisfy these interminable claims. Little wonder, then, that the politics of recognition engenders such ridicule and fierce resistance in some quarters. However, a second difficulty with the argument may resolve the first problem. This is because the posited causal link between non- or misrecognition and psychological and social harm is at best patchy: particular groups may experience forms of nonrecognition without suffering any serious psychological or social deficit. The task, then, is to identify those groups and cases where non- or misrecognition is likely to cause harm and those where it is unlikely to do so.

Belongingness complements recognition in not being so squarely focused on political and institutional accommodation. Especially important is public rhetoric and the tone and tenor in which minorities are addressed and spoken about. Too many Australian politicians and political commentators still speak to and about minorities condescendingly. It is totally counterproductive to the quest for social cohesion. A sense of belonging can be enhanced with little more than a bit of thoughtfulness and consideration. It does not require huge public investment or resources.

Symbolism and gestures also resonate deeply and should not be dismissed as hollow tokenism. When US President John F Kennedy visited West Berlin in June 1963 and delivered a supportive speech in the shadow of the Berlin Wall, he uttered three sentences in German. His German audience responded rapturously. No one in the audience expected Kennedy to deliver his speech in German; all, however, appreciated his gesture of speaking some German. He had made an effort to engage with the cultural landscape he had momentarily entered. Gestures matter in intercultural relations just as they do in interpersonal relations.

As prime minister, Malcolm Turnbull was a master at this kind of symbolic recognition. When addressing particular communities, he’d typically say a few sentences or phrases in the community language. Yet the same insight and skill seemed to elude his government, like so many other Australian governments. Take, for example, his government’s heavy-handed attempt to reform the racial hatred provisions of the Racial Discrimination Act 1975 (Cth). Wherever one stands on the efficacy of those protections, it took extraordinary insensitivity for his government to announce its intention to limit them on Harmony Day (in 2017), a day dedicated to combating racism and promoting social cohesion, and which marks the United Nations International Day for the Elimination of Racial Discrimination. Or worse, take the Turnbull government’s quick and crushing dismissal of the Uluru Statement from the Heart and all the symbolic meaning packed into that punch.

Belongingness is not a standalone value; it needs to supplement and be supported by its traditional stablemates, liberty and equality, and their institutionalisation. Its importance lies in it being able to address the issues of social marginalisation and acceptance rather more directly and widely than can the other two values. Where liberty and equality are about formal rights and standing, and check the cultural majority from overreaching, belonging is about being accepted and feeling welcome. Indeed, belongingness should inform how we interpret and apply the principles of liberty and equality. In this way, all three values work to bind citizens to the polity and society and are vital to national integration in a multicultural democracy like Australia. They are the three legs upon which the coming together of Indigenous Australians, Anglo-Australians and immigrant Australians depend.

Herein lies the great shame and missed opportunity of Australia’s current multicultural policy, Multicultural Australia: United, Strong, Successful, introduced by the Turnbull government in March 2017.[xii] As a guiding principle in its own right, inclusion had long been overlooked in Australian multicultural-policy thinking and practice. The Turnbull policy, for all its brevity, states the importance of ‘inclusion’, ‘inclusiveness’ or ‘a sense of belonging’ no less than eleven times. In this respect, the current policy’s approach is a long overdue corrective. The shame is not only that the government struggled to understand or uphold its own principle of inclusion; it is also that the policy retires the dedicated principles of cultural liberty and respect, and access and equity that have always been integral to Australian multiculturalism. Instead of the government, society and individuals sharing the responsibility of adjusting to a culturally diverse population, as previously, the policy places all the onus of cultural adjustment on individuals and, especially, migrants. The government commits only to encouraging their economic and social participation, not to making Australian institutions more accommodating of cultural diversity. In this respect, the latest multicultural policy undoes what had already been achieved. Although the missing leg of belonging has been added, the other two vital legs have been kicked away.

The missed opportunity is Australia having a multicultural policy that fully serves national integration by finally honouring all three values – the liberty, equality and inclusion of all Australians.



[i] Kymlicka, W & Banting, K eds., 2007, Multiculturalism and the Welfare State, Oxford University Press, Oxford.

[ii] Parekh, B 2007, ‘Being British’, The Political Quarterly, vol. 78, no. 1, p. 35.

[iii] Brown, G 2006, Who do We Want to Be? The Future of Britishness. Keynote Speech, Fabian conference on The Future of Britishness, London, 14 January.

[iv] Koziol, M 2017, ‘“I don’t think your heart’s in it, Leigh”: Malcolm Turnbull defends “uniquely Australian” values’, The Sydney Morning Herald, 21 April: https://www.smh.com.au/politics/federal/i-dont-think-your-hearts-in-it-leigh-malcolm-turnbull-defends-uniquely-australian-values-20170420-gvp2hy.html

[v] Cook, R 2001, ‘Robin Cook’s chicken tikka masala speech’, The Guardian, 20 April: https://www.theguardian.com/world/2001/apr/19/race.britishidentity

[vi] Joppke, C 2010, Citizenship and Immigration, Polity Press, Cambridge.

[vii] Morrison S 2013, ‘Australia, the land of our adoption’, address to the Menzies Centre for Australian Studies, King’s College, London, 24 January: http://australianpolitics.com/2013/01/24/scott-morrison-australia-land-of-our-adoption.html

[viii] For example, V Uberoi, 2008, ‘Do policies of multiculturalism change national identities?’, The Political Quarterly, vol. 79, no. 3, pp. 404–17.

[ix] Trudeau P 1971, Speech to the House of Commons. 8 October: http://www.canadahistory.com/sections/documents/Primeministers/trudeau/docs-onmulticulturalism.htm

[x] Bowen, C 17 February 2011, ‘The genius of Australian multiculturalism’, address to the Sydney Institute.

[xi] Taylor, C 1992 ‘The politics of recognition’, in Gutmann, A ed., Multiculturalism and ‘The Politics of Recognition’: An Essay, Princeton University Press, Princeton.

[xii] Australian Government 2017, Multicultural Australia: United, Strong, Successful. Canberra: https://www.homeaffairs.gov.au/LifeinAustralia/Documents/MulticulturalAffairs/english-multicultural-statement.pdf

From Griffith Review Edition 61: Who We Are © Copyright Griffith University & the author.

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