September 2012
By Fern Chang, Helena Rojas and Dieter Runge

Fern Chang is the Sydney-based project manager and digital marketing manager at Transpacific Translations.


Dieter Runge is the regional director for Australia/Asia-Pacific at Transpacific Translations.



Helena Rojas is the regional manager at Transpacific Translations.



One nation, many cultures

The all-time classic Crocodile Dundee has created an image of Australia as a place inhabited by laid-back bushrangers; a continent so remote that it hardly interferes with the real world. In fact, Australia is a fascinating melting pot of countless societies and nationalities, a place where the diversity of culture is accentuated and celebrated like nowhere else. The wealth of linguistic proficiency and intercultural skills make Australia a favorable business location for international organizations.

To understand the Australian society you need to take a look at a few facts and figures: In 1945 Australia was inhabited by no more than seven million people, i.e. a smaller population than New York City during the same year. Since then, 6.5 million migrants have settled in Australia, lifting the population to nearly 23 million today. Taking these figures into consideration it is not hard to believe that around 44 percent of Australians today are either born overseas or have at least one parent born overseas. Australia is made up of social and cultural influences of millions of migrants who have settled in Australia since World War II. These migrants have enriched almost every aspect of Australian life, from business to arts, from cooking to comedy, from science to sport.

A brief history of Australia's multicultural policies

Up until the1960s, Australia's approach to immigration excluded non-Europeans. After World War II, the “White Australia Policy” was gradually removed and officially ended in 1973.

Up to this time, the emphasis had been on ‘assimilation', that is, immigrants should shed their cultures and languages and rapidly become indistinguishable from the host population. In 1968, Jerzy Zubrzycki, an academic, proposed the idea of 'cultural pluralism', which challenged the idea of assimilation and suggested instead that Australia's cultural groups maintain their ethnic traditions but share Australian identity and the institutions of democratic society.

Zubrzycki’s ideas had a major influence on the government’s multicultural policies. The government officially recognized the importance of ethnic organizations in helping with migrant settlement and increased migrant welfare assistance.

What multiculturalism means

A common understanding of multiculturalism is simply a diverse population, and a non-discriminatory immigration policy. However, in reality there is much more to it, depending on the perception, experience and value system of the individual stakeholders.

Multiculturalism has a vast impact on everyone living in Australia, as well as international business partners, potential immigrants and visitors. This is a topic that has the power of drawing heated debates with opposing views on the pros and cons, benefits and challenges of the policies and realities.

The stakeholders affected by multicultural policies and practices include:

  1. Australians of European ancestry living and working in Australia for generations who fully embrace the ideals of the Australian lifestyle.
  2. The Aboriginal people who inhabited the land long before the European discovery by Captain James Cook in 1770.
  3. Refugees who are adjusting to a totally new culture and environment, and welcome a new start to their lives.
  4. Skilled immigrants who want their skills appreciated and recognized, and be treated fairly in promotions and job opportunities.
  5. Families who have joined immigrants that settled in Australia, trying to adjust to a new environment.
  6. Young parents trying to adjust to the demands of raising a generation amidst a changing cultural landscape.
  7. Business owners having to manage a workforce with diverse cultural backgrounds and work ethics.
  8. The government trying to strike a balance with policies that have the capability of drawing the benefits of multiculturalism (economic gains, vibrant growth) while minimizing the undesirable effects (disharmony, strain on resources).

This list could be extended, and it is not difficult to see why multiculturalism is a very complex issue.

The Australian model of multiculturalism

In Australia, multiculturalism is not just a fancy term for a diverse society, it is in fact institutionalized as a national policy. The governments approach to immigration is one of multiculturalism rather than assimilation. On one hand, much assistance has been provided to help immigrants settle in Australia, e.g. by offering English language classes and job skills training. On the other hand, assistance is also given to fund ethnic community self-help groups, which in turn contribute to the successful settlement of immigrants.

It is believed that the basis for this multiculturalism, which strengthens the Australian society rather than to weaken it, are the following three elements:

1. Respect for Australian values

the Constitution and the rule of law, parliamentary democracy, freedom of speech and religion, English as a national language, equality of the sexes and tolerance.

2. A citizenship-centred multiculturalism – an invitation to inclusion

Immigrants who share the Australian value of respect for democratic beliefs, laws and rights are welcome to join as full partners with equal rights. Australia has one of the highest take-up rates of citizenship in the OECD.

In comparison, Germany had one of the highest immigration rates in Europe but regarded immigration as an economic necessity. Multiculturalism is not a policy in Germany. Similarly, France's resistance to a formal policy of multiculturalism has not encouraged greater integration of immigrant societies but, on the contrary, it has bred resentment, separatism and violence.

3. Political bipartisanship

The ideal of multiculturalism runs over and above the parliamentary debates, and Australia's two main political parties can both claim to uphold the importance of the multicultural vision.

It is the combination of the above three elements that forms the cornerstone of Australian multiculturalism and strengthens the Australian society.

Supporting language diversity

Languages facilitate communication and play an important role in sharing information and ideas across diverse communities across Australia. Many of the Australian government websites include translated resources. Translation and interpretation services are commonly provided in hospitals, schools and government organizations like Centrelink and the Australian Taxation Office.

Social inclusion via the media - Special Broadcasting Service (SBS)

Underlying and supporting the changing landscape of Australian multiculturalism is the Special Broadcasting Service (SBS). SBS is a hybrid-funded Australian public broadcasting radio and television network. The creation of SBS was a response to the massive waves of migration Australia experienced after World War II.

However, the programs shown on SBS are not just produced for viewers of a specific language but  are tailored to all viewers in Australia. Some examples include:

  1. World Watch screens un-subtitled domestic news bulletins from around the world.  It is a powerful recognition of the reality of Australia as a multilingual country.
  2. Ten Canoes offers rich insights into the traditional life of an indigenous community, through English subtitles. This recognizes the linguistic landscape and history that precedes the imposition of English.
  3. Iron Chef is a Japanese cooking program, which is considered international entertainment that appealed to a broad range of viewers. English subtitles allow the content to be understood while the source language can be heard. Subtitling is therefore culturally democratic. Subtitles bridge the gap from one culture (Japanese) to another (e.g. an Italian viewer) through a different but common language (English).


What does multiculturalism mean for international business

The Australian Multicultural Advisory Council has stated that multiculturalism brings 'innovation, ideas, skills, energy and achievement and makes us richer in all kinds of ways.'

The Minister for Immigration and Citizenship Chris Bowen MP cited his personal experience:“When I was Minister for Financial Services, I had the privilege of promoting Australia as financial services hub. I found one of the best selling points in New York, London and Asian centres is our high proficiency in Asian languages. Telling financial houses in London, for example, that they could base their Asian operations in Sydney and have access to any number of Mandarin speakers was of unquestionable assistance.”

Australia has indeed become a strategic hub for multinational companies to set up their regional headquarters. The multicultural environment has proven to be conducive for business and the interaction with the respective parent countries and regions. Anecdotal evidence suggests that language skills not only facilitate communication but also carry a connotation of cultural understanding which builds trust.

The main areas of interest of companies currently operating and investing in Australia include the automobile industry, domestic goods, technology, telecommunications, banking and finance, logistics and the resources sector.

One example is the market research firm Research Now, who set up their Asia/Pacific headquarters in Australia. The company conducts its business via surveys, questionnaires, focus group meetings and panel interviews in a number of languages, and regularly employs staff from a multitude of cultural backgrounds.

Another example is the financial services and consulting company Ernest & Young, which has established offices in Australia to understand the business environments in Australia and in turn provide advice and support to the parent company. Business and financial reports are regularly translated for the parent countries.

Software companies like Google and Microsoft that aspire to expand in the Asia/Pacific region are able to find a skilled workforce in Australia that has the technical, linguistic and cultural background to work on their localization projects.


The world is rapidly shrinking, largely as a result of technologies that bring us closer together. For Australia, once considered a far and distant land, this is particularly true. With the ease of travel and business, merging of cultures is inevitable.

Achieving a stable equilibrium, fostering a favourable environment for business and life among all ancient and modern cultures here in Australia is the ultimate goal.

As with all human interactions, conflicts are inevitable, especially in a multicultural environment. With the comprehensive political framework in place that ensures appropriate implementation, checks and balances, the argument can be made that the degree of success seen in Australia has been much better than in other parts of the world.

Further Reading