Presented by Dr Sev Ozdowski OAM at the Managing Diversity Conference, Melbourne, 3 October 2003


Conference Convenors, distinguished guests, ladies and gentlemen, all.

I would like to acknowledge the Wurundjeri people, part of the Culin nation, the traditional custodians of the land on which we stand.

Huntington Theory

It was author Samuel Huntington whose seminal 1993 article "The Clash of Civilisations?" articulated the hypothesis that:

"....the fundamental conflict in the next millennium will not be primarily ideological or primarily economic. The great divisions among humankind and the dominating source of conflict will be cultural"...

"....the principal conflicts of global politics will occur between nations and groups of different civilisations. The clash of civilisations will be the battle lines of the future."

Eight years later in the immediate aftermath of 9/11 these words received a large amount of media time in the United States, due to their seeming relevance as a possible explanation for the causes of the terrible attacks.

In light of this, I believe it would be useful to briefly consider Huntington's conclusions as to the best way forward if the scenario he had outlined, did come to pass.

Huntington Conclusion

In summing up Huntington wrote this:

"Western civilisation is both Western and modern. Non-Western civilisations have attempted to become modern without becoming Western. To date only Japan has fully succeeded in this quest. Non-Western civilisation will continue to attempt to acquire the wealth, technology, skills, machines and weapons that are part of being modern.

They will also attempt to reconcile this modernity with their traditional culture and values. Their economic and military strength relative to the West will order to deal effectively with this the West must develop a more profound understanding of the basic religious and philosophical assumptions underlying other civilisations. It will require an effort to identify elements of commonality between Western and other civilisations."

I think you will agree with me that there are many interesting avenues for exploration in the above statement, not the least of which is the one about Japan - undoubtedly worth an entire speech on its own.

However today I want to concentrate on the last line:

"to identify elements of commonality between Western and other civilisations".

The key question we need to ask ourselves is: on what will we base these "elements of commonality"? Within that answer resides, I believe, the key to managing diversity in Australia.

International Perspective and Human Rights

But before exploring that issue further I would like to briefly digress for an update on international affairs, from a human rights perspective.

The UN which arguably used to act as moderator between the opposing positions of civilisations, is going through a difficult period. It previously held an unassailable position as the powerhouse of international human rights standards which identified some, if not most of the benchmarks for "civil" behaviour.

That is common standards developed by all UN members representing the full range of cultures and civilisations. The UN drew upon many experiences and value systems but all were expressed in a secular way.

The Iraqi War debate however challenged its authority; there are reports (UNESCO) that its standing in international public opinion is at an all time low. Often it is blamed for lacking legitimacy (unlike democratic governments which have the electoral process), backward looking to post WWII status quo and being inefficient and bureaucratic. There are calls for "restructuring" of the UN. These factors are all issuing challenges to the international human rights order, as we know/knew it.

None of these issues have lost their relevance, by the way, simply because in the last few weeks, America has belatedly discovered that "the coalition of the willing" can't go it alone in the post war reconstruction of Iraq.

Alternative Models to the UN

Nevertheless fair minded, objective observers of the UN would probably agree that there is an argument for reform of that body. Are there any alternative models, already in existence, which could do a better job?

First - Pax Americana

  • US could arguably be used as a model because of its bill of rights and strong civil rights culture;
  • As the Prime Minister said recently, if there has to be a superpower then it's better that it's America:
  • But it has even less "elected" legitimacy than the UN because of its uni-lateral, "in the national interest" motivated actions - eg. Kyoto.
  • And as already mentioned its track record with Iraqi post war reconstruction is not exactly encouraging;
  • As the Pew Research Centre in Washington found in its May, 44 nation, international public opinion survey: "the war has widened the rift between Americans and Western Europeans, further inflamed the Muslim world, softened support for the war on terrorism, and significantly weakened global public support for the pillars of the post-World War 2 era - the UN and the North Atlantic alliance".
  • Hardly a model that will be adopted by acclamation!
  • And that's before Arnold Schwarzenegger is elected Governor of the 10th largest economy in the world.

Secondly - there is the European Union model.

  • Again has some advantages such as democratic institutions, creation of powerful economy, and strong record in the human rights field, the European Court of Human Rights in Strasbourg etc. It may be very helpful to Europeans.
  • But it is also selfish - agricultural policy; and often unable to act - Bosnia/Kosovo.
  • Further it is moving towards being a single European government; whereas the UN should not aspire to being a "world government;
  • And it must be acknowledged, French and German hypocrisy over their Iraq War position sits very badly with their covert trade with Saddam's regime in illicit goods and services.
  • So in summary I would argue that while the UN may require some reform, thus far it has proven to be the best international forum available for dialogue between civilisations. And most likely will continue to so do, albeit in some "reformed" format.

In particular the UN has established human rights concepts, or generally accepted universal standards, the use of which assist in the maintenance of a civil society both inwardly and outwardly. These standards might need strengthening, protection and education about their meaning, but they still provide the best template for action.

Returning then to my earlier question as to: "what are these elements of commonality between Western and other civilisations?"

I believe the answer lies with the above mentioned "UN inspired human rights values", as they relate to relationships between individuals and groups in a society.

What Rights?

  • Rights securing life, liberty and security of a person;
  • Equality before the law and right to a fair trial;
  • Right not to be discriminated against in society by government/organisation/individuals because of: race, sex, religion, social status.
  • Right to participate in the political process and elect the government; allowance for majority rule and protection of the minority.
  • Right to freedom of thought, religion and association.
  • Unfettered access to economic, social and cultural rights.

It is only by adherence to values and principals that are secularly based that the clash between civilisations can be mitigated.

Secular not religiously based

Let us not forget that in the past value systems based on religion were very destructive. The 20th century witnessed a return to such difficulties. In saying this I'm not arguing that any one religion is to blame. Simply making a statement based on observation.

Australian Story

Now turning to Australia; where does this leave us?

Some people here also held the view that clashes were inevitable between different communities within this country. Two years ago, when I took on this job, the Pauline Hanson phenomenon was in full swing and its growth was being largely fuelled by the belief that such clashes were already happening. Consequently she and her adherents generally supported: reduction in the policy of multiculturalism, return to assimilation, even more restrictive changes to our immigration policy and harsh treatment of asylum seekers.

In other words a Fortress Australia approach or as they would say in South Africa: a "laager" mentality.

The current Government's reaction at the height of the Hanson firestorm was confusing at best in its initial stages. On one hand the Government's 1999 official statement fully endorsed the report of the National Multicultural Advisory Panel which was unambiguous in affirming that enhanced multicultural policies would continue with an added emphasis on making these policies as inclusive and relevant as possible to all Australians, particularly indigenous Australians.

And on the other hand you had Tampa, the Pacific Solution and the "children overboard" affair which because of their association with people from the Middle East, challenged these multicultural sentiments whether intended or not, and certainly had a demonising effect on Australian public opinion. All of which gave rise to the perception that the gap between government policy and Pauline Hanson, was not as broad as might be hoped.

Multicultural Policy

And yet curiously, despite Bali, I think that the broader Australian community has currently achieved a relative level of equilibrium in this area. The Government for its part has assisted by officially reaffirming and updating its multicultural policy for the period 2003 - 2006 and recent opinion polls show that 75% of those surveyed supported release of children from immigration detention.

This conference is a good example of grass roots multiculturalism assisted by local government and my congratulations to Darebin Council for organising such an important event. If one was concerned that the commitment to multiculturalism has weakened at the central level of government, it must be acknowledged however that conferences such as these are examples of the policy's organic rebirth, as an inspirational occurrence. This is because the democratic credentials in evidence here today illuminate the point that multiculturalism is no longer a top down, settlement-orientated policy, but a genuine people's movement.

So I think there is still a lot of life left in our multicultural policy; a policy that has achieved much for this country. But with one eye cocked towards the international tensions outlined earlier in my speech, I believe the policy needs further strengthening if it is to remain relevant into the 21st century.

In my view the majority of Australians prefer the model of a "modern" society. They wish to have state and church separated, an economy driven by profit motives but with a broad based safety net. They enjoy Australia being in the forefront of economic and social development.

But we also recognise that there are some Australians, who maybe in a minority at different times or over different issues. For example for many Moslem Australians, religion is an integral part of their whole community and lifestyle. Other Australians, for example on the economic front, believe that we should limit our consumption and save resources for future generations.
So how do we best deal with these "mini-clashes" of civilisations on our home ground?

Enhance Multicultural Policy with Human Rights

First, we need to have a strong set of secular standards in order to accommodate our differences. And I believe that we have such standards - these are human rights standards, which in the popular mind are associated with the United Nations. They are the "good behaviour rules", "the grease which oils the wheels".

In other words we need to insure that multicultural policy in this country intersects with human rights values. This is the secular roadmap that we will all need to consult, no matter what our religious belief or stance on economics, as we navigate our way through a community that aspires to civil discourse and behaviour.

These standards, especially those already fully incorporated into our domestic laws, such as sex, race and disability need to be the subject of mass education. Additionally we also need to strengthen the menu of standards by creating better ways to implement them, especially in the field of civil and political liberties (eg bill of rights).

To sum up we should continue to create a human rights culture based on the knowledge and understanding of the existing human rights and anti-discrimination laws. It is important to create respect for other cultures and tolerance of religious differences.

As Kofi Annan: said "...the perception of diversity as a threat is the very seed of war". Between, and within civilisations, dialogue and good conflict resolution skills are the preferred methods of dealing with such cultural tensions.


But for our dialogues to be real, not based on mantras, they need to aim for better understanding of the differences. They need to use the human rights principles as a point of departure and then move to where the differences are, to more particular examples. They need to explore and not be afraid of discovering where the real differences lie and try to understand the other point of view

Accordingly obligations are created on both the majority exponents of, arguably modern/western values and the minority exponents of traditional, often culturally influenced values.

The majority must ensure non discrimination; the minority must appreciate that its values are not obligatory on all and retain a degree of flexibility where private and public life intersect. Respecting separateness and its associated values and lifestyles, brings with it an obligation to remain engaged with broader society.

Australia has most successfully achieved this to date but overseas experience tells us to be watchful; ultimately all our human transactions are enhanced by the degree to which we respect each other's human rights.

Last updated 3 October 2003.