Multiculturalism in Australia is today reflected by the multicultural composition of its people, its immigration policies, its prohibition on discrimination, equality before the law of all persons, as well as various cultural policies which promote diversity, such as the formation of the Special Broadcasting Service.
According to the 2011 census, 26% of the population were born overseas and a further 20% had at least one parent born overseas. Aboriginal Australians make up approximately 2.5% of the population. Australia's diverse migrant communities have brought with them food, lifestyle and cultural practices, which have been absorbed into mainstream Australian culture.
He was the last leader of ALP and Liberal parties to support it.
Historian Geoffrey Blainey achieved mainstream recognition as a critic of multiculturalism when he wrote that multiculturalism threatened to transform Australia into a "cluster of tribes". In his 1984 book All for Australia, Blainey criticized multiculturalism for tending to emphasise the rights of ethnic minorities at the expense of the majority population and for being "anti-British", despite the British being the largest group to have migrated to Australia. According to Blainey, such policies created divisions and threatened national cohesion. He argued that "the evidence is clear that many multicultural societies have failed and that the human cost of the failure has been high" and warned that "we should think very carefully about the perils of converting Australia into a giant multicultural laboratory for the assumed benefit of the peoples of the world."
In one of his numerous criticisms of multiculturalism, Blainey wrote:
For the millions of Australians who have no other nation to fall back upon, multiculturalism is almost an insult. It is divisive. It threatens social cohesion. It could, in the long-term, also endanger Australia's military security because it sets up enclaves which in a crisis could appeal to their own homelands for help.
Blainey remained a persistent critic of multiculturalism into the 1990s, denouncing multiculturalism as "morally, intellectually and economically ... a sham."
Historian John Hirst argued that while multiculturalism might serve the needs of ethnic politics and the demands of certain ethnic groups for government funding for the promotion of their separate ethnic identity, it is a perilous concept on which to found national policy. Hirst identified contradictory statements by political leaders that suggested the term was a nonsense concept. These included the policies of Prime Minister Bob Hawke, a proponent of multiculturalism while at the same time promoting a citizenship campaign and stressing the common elements of our culture, and anti-multiculturalism statements by Prime Minister Howard, who aroused the ire of multiculturalists who thought that he was suggesting closing down Italian restaurants and prohibiting the speaking of the Italian language when he proposed no such thing.
According to Hirst, multiculturalism denies the existence of a host Australian culture:
Insofar as multiculturalism makes what it calls 'Anglo-Celts' the equivalent of Italians and Turks, it denies the very notion of a host. [Multiculturalists assert] we are all immigrants of many cultures, contributing to a multicultural society. This may serve the needs of ethnic politics. As a serious historical or sociological analysis it is nonsense. To found policy on it may be perilous.
Critics have argued that multiculturalism was introduced as official policy in Australia without public support or consultation. According to academic Mark Lopez: "Multiculturalism was developed by a small number of academics, social workers and activists, initially located on the fringe of the political arena of immigration, settlement and welfare. The authors responsible for versions of the ideology were also principal actors in the struggle to advance their beliefs and make them government policy". Lopez asserts that through "core groups and activists' sympathisers and contacts ... multiculturalism became government policy ... because the multiculturalists and their supporters were able to influence the ideological content of the Minister's sources of policy ... Contemporary public opinion polls implied ... in the general population, a widespread resentment, or a lack of interest, of the kinds of ideas advanced by multiculturalists. ... The original constituency for multiculturalism was small; popular opinion was an obstacle, not an asset, for the multiculturalists." Furthermore, according to Lopez: "Multiculturalism was not simply picked up and appreciated and implemented by policy makers, government and the major political parties ... [I]n every episode that resulted in the progress of multiculturalism, the effectiveness of the political lobbyists was a decisive factor. ... [Multiculturalism was] tirelessly promoted and manoeuvered forward". However, the above argument have been contested by others, who note that "Government sponsored conferences were in fact held at least once a year from 1950 to discuss immigration issues and to provide information for both government and the Australian public".
Critics associated with the Centre for Population and Urban Research at Monash University have argued that both Right and Left factions in the Australian Labor Party have adopted a multicultural stance for the purposes of increasing their support within the party. A manifestation of this embrace of multiculturalism has been the creation of ethnic branches within the Labor Party and ethnic branch stacking.
Following the upsurge of support for the One Nation Party in 1996, Lebanese-born Australian anthropologist Ghassan Hage published a critique in 1997 of Australian multiculturalism in the book White Nation. Drawing on theoretical frameworks from Whiteness studies, Jacques Lacan and Pierre Bourdieu, Hage examined a range of everyday discourses that implicated both anti-multiculturalists and pro-multiculturalists alike.
In exploring the discourse of multiculturalism others have argued that the threat to social cohesion and national identity have been overstated. For instance, Ramakrishan (2013) argues that the "largely European" cultural traditions of the population have been maintained despite greater ethnic diversity. Others have asserted that the emphasis on notions such as 'Identity, citizenship, social cohesion and integration' serves more as a catchphrase rather than pragmatic attempts to address the given issues. Kerkyasharian (2008) argues:
Of course, most of the debate over multiculturalism has nothing to do with actual government policies or laws on cultural diversity. Detractors have no viable policy alternative, other than the imposition of a nebulous set of 'Australian values'. When pressed to define these values, they will usually cite some broad principles, such as fairness, equality and so on. All well and good – because multiculturalism stands for these same principles.