The influx of Maltese immigrants to Australia was extraordinarily high between 1948 and the late seventies. Counting the three generations of Maltese settlers, it is not incorrect to believe that there are more Maltese in Australian than in Malta. The contribution that the Maltese have given to this nation is quite outstanding. Many Australians of Maltese descent have excelled in various fields - medicine, politics, education, sport, commerce and technology. Australian governments have encouraged Maltese migrants by enticing them with assisted passages scheme - the ten pound passage.
Australia, in return, has provided the Maltese and their children a secure future, employment, sound education, opportunities and political, social and economic stability. Australia has attracted migrants from nearly every part of the globe and thus it has become one of the world’s most culturally and linguistically diverse societies. The ethnic composition of Australian society has changed significantly over the last two centuries.
Today out of a total population of just over 17 million peoples, well over 20% of Australians were born in another country. Of these, more than half came to Australia from non-English speaking countries in Europe, Asia, Middle East and South America. People from non English speaking background, both those born overseas as well as their Australian born children, constitutes 25% of the population.
Aboriginal and Torres Islander occupied this continent for hundreds of centuries until 1787 when Captain James Cook claimed this land in the name of the British monarch. Today the Aboriginal population is less than 1.5%, with over half being under the age of 25 years.
Such a culturally diverse society also means a linguistically rich society. Australians speak more than a hundred languages other than English in the community, the home, the street, the school, the shops and the workplace.
Over two million Australians or about 4% of those aged five years and over use another language other English at home. Italian, Greek, Vietnamese, Chinese, German and Arabic languages have the largest proportion of speakers.
Before the white settlement in Australia about 250 distinct Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders languages, including 700 dialects were spoken throughout Australia. Sadly, not more than 20 of these languages have survived..
However, there is an underside to the rich cultural and linguistic diversity, affecting the quality of life of many Australians. A large number of Australians - approximately 2.4%, are unable to speak English well or at all. A disproportion number of immigrants from non-English speaking countries remain confined to low-skilled, low-paid employment. The greatest problems continue to be experienced by Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people who remain the most disadvantaged group in the community.
Language and cultural barriers prevent many such immigrants gaining equal access to education, training, employment and social welfare available to others newly arrived settlers continue to suffer extremely high level of unemployment; skills and qualifications brought to Australia from overseas are not fully utilised; and the reservoir of language ability possessed by migrants remain largely unrecognised and untapped.
Unfortunately, less than 20% of school children are currently studying another languages besides English and the percentage is even less at tertiary level. This percentage is alarmingly low compared with many other countries.
The Commonwealth Government of Australia has taken a major step in promoting and developing these cultural and linguistic resources through the National Agenda for a Multicultural Australia. The National Agenda identifies three dimensions of multicultural policy as a government response to cultural and linguistic diversity:
Cultural identity:- the right of all Australians, within carefully defined limits to express and share their individual cultural heritage, including their language and religion. Social Justice: - the right of all Australians to equality of treatment and opportunity, and the removal of barriers of race ethnicity, cultural, religion, language, gender or place of birth. Economic efficiency: - the need to maintain,, develop and use effectively the skills and talents of all Australians, regardless of background.
In response to our cultural and linguistic diversity, the Federal Government has delineated certain constraints on multicultural policies, namely that:
· all Australians should have an overriding and unifying commitment to Australia, to its interests and future, first and foremost;
· all Australians are required to accept the basic structures and principles of Australian society - the Constitution and the rule of law, tolerance and equality; parliamentary democracy, freedom of speech and religion, English as the national language and equality of sexes
· the right to express one’s own culture and beliefs involves a reciprocal responsibility to accept the right of others to express their views and values.
(National Agenda for a Multicultural Australia, 1989)
From this commitment flow two points. First, all Australians are equally entitled to enjoy the rights and carry the responsibilities of life in this nation. We are all equally entitled to a fair go, equally entitled to dignity and self-respect, entitled to equal access to government services. Secondly, all Australians must not be ashamed of our diversity for what it is - a great source of new talent and ideas, a true source of wealth in both its cultural and economic sense.
These principles of multiculturalism are expressed in the eight goals of the National Agenda:
1. All Australians should have a commitment to Australia and share responsibility for furthering our national interests.
2. All Australians should be able to enjoy the basic right of freedom from discrimination on the basis of race, ethnicity, religion or culture.
3. All Australians should enjoy equal life chances and have equitable access to and an equitable share of the resources which governments manage on behalf of the community.
4. All Australians should have the opportunity fully to participate in society and in the decisions which directly affect them.
5. All Australians should be able to develop and make use of their potential for Australia’s economic and social development.
6. All Australians should have the opportunity to acquire and develop proficiency in English and languages other than English, and to develop cross-cultural understanding.
7. All Australians should be able to develop and share their cultural heritage.
Australian institutions should acknowledge, reflect and respond to the cultural diversity of the Australian community.
E-mail to: Frank L. Scicluna
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