The Multicultural Communities Council of South Australia

Migration has been fundamental to Australia: everyone is a migrant or a descendant of a migrant. Early European migrants to South Australia were predominantly from the British Isles, but there were differences from the beginning of colonisation in 1836. While some German migrants were prepared to adopt the prevailing cultural values – several of the early arrivals swore an oath of allegiance to Queen Victoria in May 1839 and ten of them were naturalized as British subjects four months later – many of the subsequent German arrivals maintained their own traditions and practices into the twentieth century. Notably, the first bi-lingual newspaper in Australia, Die Deutsche Post für die Australischen Colonien, was published in Adelaide in 1848 and was followed by other German-language only papers.

Chinese migrants landed at Robe to join the gold rushes in the eastern colonies in the 1850s: others sought gold in South Australia’s Northern Territory in the 1870s. They and their descendants became merchants and business people, among other things, and have contributed a great deal to Australian society. Indeed, Adelaide’s Lord Mayor for three years from May 2000 was the Chinese-born Alfred Huang, who came to Australia as a student in 1965 and became an Australian citizen in 1970.

Thirty-one Afghans arrived in December 1865 along with camels to work in the pastoral industry outback. Their efforts and those of their descendants are memorialised by the iconic railway journey between Adelaide and Darwin, ‘The Ghan’.

Greeks and Italians migrated here in the years between the two world wars and arrived in greater numbers in later decades and have contributed to the increasingly cosmopolitan lifestyle of South Australians. The first displaced persons from Europe arrived in Fremantle, Western Australia on 28 November 1947. They were part of a migration movement that underwent significant change after World War II, with the reintroduction of assisted migration schemes, this time under the federal Department of Immigration which was established in 1945. In addition to migration schemes for British subjects, agreements with various countries in the 1950s assisted migrants from an increasingly diverse range of countries. These assisted passage schemes continued until 1981.

Large numbers of refugees from South East Asia migrated to Australia after the fishing boat Kein Giang arrived in Darwin on 26 April 1976. Since then, increasing numbers have arrived from South East Asia, China and, most recently, the Middle East and the Indian sub-continent. South Australia’s current governor, Hieu van Le, and his wife are two of the ‘boat people’ refugees who arrived from Vietnam in the late 1970s.

The Good Neighbour Council, established in 1949, sought to assist migrants to settle in South Australia but was tailored towards assimilationist activities and policies. The Council’s narrow focus and the diversity of migrants from the 1970s onwards called for a response that reflected more closely the disparate needs of migrants seeking to settle in a new country. Consequently, the Ethnic Communities Council of South Australia was established in 1975, followed five years later by the United Ethnic Communities of South Australia. The reasons for the establishment of those two organizations and their merger in August 1995 to establish the Multicultural Communities Council of South Australia highlight the issues confronted by those working towards a multicultural Australia.

Multicultural Australia in 2015 contrasts markedly with the lack of cultural understanding that pervaded much of Australian society previously. Intolerance, cultural misunderstandings and social isolation of former times have not been eliminated entirely. However, the shortcomings are less apparent with a more enlightened approach to human rights and the country’s migration policies. There is still an emphasis on migrants and refugees needing to adapt to Australian society though now not at the cost of relinquishing their cultural heritage.

The broad history of Australian migration has been told in a variety of publications, museum exhibitions, documentary film and radio formats, online presentations and so on. Many migrants have recorded their personal stories, while the details of migrant groups have been documented and recorded.

The project presented here differs from those based on individual and group migrant tales because it deals with the MCCSA’s role as the peak body for cultural and linguistically diverse communities in South Australia. The MCCSA is primarily concerned with supporting its members and vulnerable community members through lobbying, policy development and advocacy, and with the provision of support services that mainstream agencies cannot provide when dealing with issues such as those relating to women, mental health, Alzheimer’s/dementia, gambling, information technology, sport and recreation and a host of others which need specialised attention for multicultural groups.

The presentation is based on a series of oral history interviews with people who have reflected on the MCCSA and its work in multiculturalism. The range of interviewees includes presidents, vice-presidents, committee members, participants in ethnic affairs at different levels, a politician, and key contributors to the MCCSA’s operations. Many have a long connection with the MCCSA and so their reminiscences form part of the organisation’s ‘corporate knowledge and memory’.
In this way the contributions of individuals to the MCCSA and to multiculturalism in South Australia and Australia is acknowledged, while demonstrating the MCC’s leadership in and to the multicultural sector.

In recording the development of the MCCSA over its first 20 years, the project observes the changing nature of a multicultural South Australia and nation. The needs of modern migrants differ in many respects to those of previous generations, and so the role of the MCCSA remains critical for the immigrants’ and our society’s well-being.