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Holi and Pizza, Refugees and Multiculturalism

My Chronicle column this week is about migration.

Celebrating the Australian Way of Diversity, The Chronicle, 2 April 2013

If you’ve ever seen a Bollywood movie, you probably know about the Indian festival of Holi, in which people shower one another with colourful powder. Indian society is typically quite respectful of social boundaries, but on Holi, it’s alright for anyone to throw powder at anyone else.

This year, I celebrated Holi at the Hindu Temple and Cultural Centre in Florey. My hosts had told me there would only be a bit of powder gently smeared on my cheeks, but by the time I left I was a rainbow from head to toe. Amidst the delicious food and exuberant dancing, I thought about how appropriate it was to hold such a messy celebration in the suburb named after Howard Florey. After all, Florey and Fleming discovered penicillin after a stack of dirty plates in the corner of a lab started to grow mould. Sometimes, a bit of chaos makes the world a better place.

Canberra’s vibrant Hindu community is just one of the many multicultural communities that give strength to our city. Recently, Minister for Multicultural Affairs Kate Lundy hosted Harmony Day celebrations at Parliament House. There, I got chatting with young philosopher Tim Soutphommasane, whose book Don’t Go Back to Where You Came From argues that multiculturalism has been part of building the Australian nation. The child of Chinese and Laotian parents, Soutphommasane argues that multiculturalism draws on both egalitarianism and liberalism – recognising that everyone should enjoy equal rights, but also that different cultures are valued.

The genius of multiculturalism is evident in the way suburban Australians have welcomed successive waves of migrants into our community. Past decades have seen significant waves of migrants from Greece and Italy, Vietnam and China. In each case, initial disquiet has turned into acceptance. When James Savoulidis brought pizza to Canberra in the 1960s, it was an unusual delicacy. Now, the diversity of our culture is represented in the quality of Australian cuisine. ‘Modern Australian’ isn’t just a menu choice – it’s a way of life. Half of us were either born overseas, or have an overseas-born parent.

Many Canberrans already help welcome new migrants into our city. Bodies such as Canberra Refugee Support and the Multicultural Youth Centre provide links into the local community and social support in the early months. Companion House in Cook provides medical services for new migrants, while the Big Bang Ballers in Belconnen offer Saturday night basketball. As local member, I’m often struck by the quiet generosity Canberrans display in working to build a stronger community.

Another quiet movement to celebrate diversity is Welcome to Australia, which will be holding its second walk on 22 June, starting at lunchtime from Commonwealth Park. As a Welcome to Australia Ambassador, I’m proud of the work this organisation does to tell the great story of Australian generosity – reminding us of the skills and ideas that migration brings to our nation.

Few other countries have succeeded in multiculturalism like Australia. But we haven’t done it by being lucky – it’s by constantly working hard to bridge the barriers of difference, to embrace openness rather than being a closed society, and to share our stories with one another.

Andrew Leigh is the federal member for Fraser, and his website is www.andrewleigh.com.

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