Multiculturalism in Australia is an endlessly disputed thing. It’s so often talked about, and yet with so little detail or definition, the term can start to seem virtually meaningless.
But in the years between 1975 and 1985, when the Australian Ethnic Affairs Council asked ‘What is the nature of Australian national identity?’, they seriously reckoned with the question.
‘Multiculturalism should not just mean majority group assistance for minority cultural groups,’ the Council wrote, ‘but rather should be a way of perceiving Australian society as a whole.’ And for a brief moment, ‘multiculturalism’ meant something in Australia. It meant structural pluralism, wherein institutions in all parts of society are expanded and changed to accommodate a society made up of people from many different backgrounds.
That moment gave birth to a remarkable place: the Addison Road Community Centre in Marrickville, Sydney.
Today, it remains a wonderful community organisation, committed to poverty alleviation, the arts and refugee assistance. But 40 years ago, Addy Road was a progressive multicultural centre, where immigrant groups adopted the huts formerly built for an army depot and turned the space into one of Australia’s most radical community organisations. These groups were committed to cultural expression and political activism – not in the name of assimilation or even integration, but to living more complete lives as Greek-Australians, Turkish-Australians, Sudanese-Australians.
That Addy Road doesn’t exist anymore. It couldn’t. It was a radical organisation that could only exist in a uniquely radical moment in Australian politics. But what it was, and what happened to it, can teach us a lot about where Australian multiculturalism used to be, and where it is today.
The Vietnam War was over, the army was moving out, and the depot on Addison Road sat empty.
Originally founded during the First World War, the depot was on farmland whose propensity to flood had protected it from encroaching suburbia. The huts on the land were built during the wars and repurposed as the army needed. Over time, the lot had slowly become one of the only open spaces in Marrickville (a semi-industrial suburb in Sydney’s inner west).
By the time the lot became available, the suburb had become one of the most diverse areas of Sydney. Greeks and Turks dominated in their respective areas, at such high concentrations that Athanasios Fotiadis, one of the area’s residents, recalls that ‘you didn’t even need to know English: you listened to Greek radio, talked to Greek people, went to Greek businesses.’
Anglo-Celtic Marrickville was not thrilled; in 1969, the Marrickville RSL banned speaking anything but English, and most public halls had de facto discrimination rules that made it onerously difficult for ‘ethnic’ groups to rent them out for meetings or cultural festivals.
The sudden availability of the land at Addison Road presented an unprecedented opportunity, and Marrickville’s migrants sprang into action. Three groups – Rigas Feraios (a left-wing Greek organisation), Greek Residents and the Turkish Welfare Association – presented a proposal to the local council: that the land, with the huts still intact, be used as a cultural community centre, where ‘ethnics’ from all over Sydney could gather and practice their cultures in a space not dominated by Anglo-Australians.
The proposals went to a community vote, and the community centre idea lost to a shopping plaza. The council wavered and delayed their decision. Marrickville’s ‘ethnics’ campaigned, and it’s rumoured that pressure came in from the federal Labor party.
Finally, the Council announced that the lot would be used for the community centre instead. In 1976, ten immigrant groups moved in – Greeks, Turks, Portuguese, Egyptians, Italians, Lebanese, Yugoslav, South American, Spanish and Sudanese – claiming huts alongside nine welfare and arts groups. Within the year, the Australian Bush Music Club also moved in.
The new centre was a haven for cultural expression that had been restricted in other spaces. The Greek Hut put on an enormous Orthodox panigiri. Planning for the all-important lamb spit-roast dissolved into giggles when the men, all from the Greek islands, realised none of them knew how to perform the mainland tradition. A couple of singed trees later, they were well on their way. Music and dance groups rehearsed on the old parade grounds, and artists worked with local unemployed youths to decorate the whitewashed huts with elaborate murals. Activism by the groups at the Centre led to the creation, in 1977, of Carnivale, one of the first Australian multicultural festivals, which took over downtown Sydney every spring with dance, music and art.
Participating in each other’s festivals was paramount. Athanasios recalls the pleasure and surprise of discovering similarities between Greek, Turkish and Yugoslav traditions. Monthly, all the groups met to discuss the affairs and directions of the Centre, all shouting over each other – almost never in English – in what one observer called a ‘mini UN’.
Importantly, the Centre was also a hub of intense left-wing political activism. Rigas Feraios, the Greek organisation that had spearheaded activism for the creation of Addy Street, was openly Communist. They sought to take advantage of changes in citizenship policy to make sure that Greek-Australians were registering for citizenship and voting. Meanwhile, the Casa Latina put on concerts to raise money for groups resisting right-wing dictatorships back in Latin America. When Australia boycotted the 1978 Olympics in Moscow, the Centre donated $500 to the effort to send Australian athletes anyway.
This was a multiculturalism dedicated to political action, to changing government so that non-Anglo-Australians could participate in and shape the governance of Marrickville, Sydney and Australia.
It’s hard to imagine such a place existing today, and certainly not one being founded. Addy Road’s goal was not assimilation, nor even to welcome migrants into the bosom of ‘Australian culture’. During that era, the federal government and Marrickville Council appeared to believe that it was important to help migrants organise, and to give those communities space to practice their maternal cultures without fear of retribution or judgement.
Since then, immigration has only increased. Over half of Australians have at least one parent born abroad. Australia is a much more culturally and racially diverse place today than it was in 1976. But would a council in 2018 overrule a popular vote – or even a simple proposal for a housing development or a shopping complex – to establish such a centre today? It would be unthinkable. But why?
Part of the answer lies in the brief but hugely impactful reign of two frequent visitors to the Centre in the 1970s and 1980s: Gough Whitlam and Al Grassby.
1975, the year Addison Road became available, may possibly be the most important year in the history of Australian multiculturalism. The Racial Discrimination Act came into effect in October, SBS Radio began broadcasting, and, in New South Wales, the Ethnic Communities’ Council was established. All of these were, to some extent, policy objectives of Whitlam, who had come to power in 1972 with an eye to ending the White Australia policy. Along with immigration minister Al Grassby, he campaigned for a ‘more just and tolerant future’ that included Aboriginal people and immigrants as real political actors.
His changes to citizenship laws allowed non-Commonwealth immigrants to become citizens faster, enlivening the efforts of groups like Rigas Feraios. The Australian Ethnic Affairs Council, which then stood separate from the Department of Immigration, actively campaigned for structural pluralism and argued that ‘what we believe Australia should be working towards is not a oneness, but a unity, not a similarity, but a composite, not a melting pot but a voluntary bond of dissimilar people sharing a common political and institutional structure.’
Whitlam was out of power by the time the Centre was founded, but he remains a patron saint. He figures on the Centre’s Honour Roll of Peace, and current and former members still discuss him fondly. He was on the invite list for almost every Addy Road event, even after he was out of power.
But by the 1980s, the tide had turned.
The Fraser government, which took over in 1975, was unable to turn back the clock on multiculturalism. But the structural pluralism envisioned by Whitlam and Grassby was too radical a philosophy for the government, and increasingly, multiculturalism became viewed instead as an increasingly limited and nonpolitical initiative. Dr Adam Jamrozik has said that it was the hope of the new government that immigrants would go back to organising about ‘your language, your dances or theatre or whatever – but that ought to be kept separate from, say, the big issues, the economic issues, that sort of thing.’
Before long, Labour had moved away from structural pluralism too. The Hawke government’s 1986 budget steadily cut back on most of the programs that had bolstered multiculturalism to that point. In the name of ‘mainstreaming’, the AEAC was shuttered and put under the Department of Immigration, thereby defining multiculturalism, again, as an issue of integrating immigrants into a dominant culture.
Most controversially, the government proposed merging SBS and the ABC, although widespread protests forced them to back down. Conservative historians – Geoffrey Blainey foremost among them – railed for a ‘return’ to a white Australia, exclaiming, with no apparent irony, that ‘multiculturalism itself is quietly anti-British’.
Then the latest wave of globalisation appeared. Sydney was increasingly seeing itself as Australia’s link to the rest of the world, a new London, a new New York, a city that reflected the face of the world back to it. ‘Multicultural Sydney’ was an asset because it implied a certain cosmopolitanism, the understanding that visitors to the country could sample foods from all over the world, even if they were millions of miles from anywhere else.
The 70s had also seen a flowering of arts festivals in Sydney: Sydney Festival first opened in 1977, the Sydney Biennale was founded in 1973 during celebrations for the opening of the Opera House, and then there was Addy Road’s Carnivale. In 1993, the three festivals were put in direct competition via the inauguration of a single ‘Summer Mega-Festival’, with all three running at the same time. By 2000, when the Olympics served as Sydney’s global ‘coming-out party’, Carnivale was done. The ‘Summer Mega-Festival’ had heralded the beginning of the end, and Carnivale faded into obscurity.
Carnivale was presented almost exclusively by artists based in Sydney, and Australia more broadly. Justo Diaz, who founded the pan-Latin American band Papalote, says that he couldn’t have made his music anywhere else than Sydney’s inner west. At Carnivale, his Cuban, Brazilian and Uruguayan bandmates could perform their music, which was imbued with a deep Latin American consciousness but made possible only by each of their arrivals in Sydney.
By contrast, the Sydney Festival and the Sydney Biennale are both self-consciously global festivals. Sydney Festival’s ‘About’ page lists a whole paragraph of named non-Australian acts that have come down under, then merely boasts of ‘the most exciting artists and companies in Australia’ without naming a single one.
Multiculturalism as structural pluralism, which prioritised the political and cultural contributions of migrants, began to lose ground to multiculturalism as globalisation, which reduces culture to folk art and cuisine – to an Other, after Žižek, ‘deprived of its Otherness’. Sydney is increasingly a self-consciously ‘global’ city that wants to assert itself as a player on the world stage, not a provincial backwater. But this globalism, commercial and convenient, does not have room for multiculturalism, not in the deeper sense embodied by the early Addy Road.
The real estate boom has pushed low- and middle-income immigrants out of the inner city and even the once-industrial inner west, increasingly far from the heart of the city and into far-flung suburbs where organising is harder. Meanwhile, SBS now airs Viceland, high-brow foreign films, and toys with voluntary mergers with the ABC; the Sydney Writers’ Festival recently included no Australian writers in its highlighted events brochure; and Aboriginal Australian culture is fetishised as a cultural export or an attraction for tourists.
Multiculturalism you can’t sell isn’t sexy. Americans aren’t easily interested in Italian-Australian identity; they have their own. You don’t attract wealthy Europeans to Sydney harbour with siren calls about how the Greek language is alive and well among the yia yias of Marrickville.
And globalisation is a seductive force. Second- and third-generation migrant kids might not be interested in identifying as anything other than a citizen of the world. Like their cousins in Lebanon or Vietnam or Brazil, maybe they just want to listen to American rap, smoke weed and talk about soccer.
I asked Justo whether his daughter hangs out at the Centre, where he and other inner west Latin Americans still hold monthly get-togethers. He laughed: ‘When her mother and I make her. But no, it’s just the old people now.’
Addison Road Community Centre isn’t the place it used to be. For one thing, there are almost no ethnic huts left there today. Now that the Turkish community – and Turkish community services – have moved further west, their old hut is used for the Turkish-run Australian Martial Arts Academy, catering to the children of Marrickville’s gentrifiers. Other bits of history live on, though: Greek-Australian children converge on the Hellenic Theatre each summer for workshops set up 40 years ago by their grandparents, and the Australian Bush Music Group still jangles away in Hut 44.
Addy Road is still one of the loveliest places in the inner west. Holding its own against the encroaching domination of hip-but-fancy cafés all along Addison Road, it and its 50 subsidised tenants run programs on arts, the environment, and social justice. ‘Multiculturalism’ – whatever that means now – remains a by-word, and the Centre does the best it can through a variety of direct services, helping refugees, immigrants and communities of colour access services and learn to navigate what can be a hostile Australian society. Its wildly popular weekend markets are designed to help immigrants learn how to run a stall or truck in Sydney’s cutthroat food scene. The ex-military huts, increasingly threadbare, are the same as those installed during the First and Second World Wars, and the trees still provide refuge for Sydney’s chattering birds.
The Addison Road Community Centre has been many things over its history: a parade ground, an army base, a locus for peace activism, and for a few years, one of the most radical multicultural organisations in Australia. It existed because of a profound shift in Australia’s approach to the people who live here, and because of the concerted activism of people who believed in a different, better, more just Australia.
That it’s impossible to imagine how that Addison Road could exist today is a testament to how radical that time was, and how much – and how quickly – it all changed.
Overland is a not-for-profit magazine with a proud history of supporting writers, and publishing ideas and voices often excluded from other places.
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