Cultural diversity, migration and multiculturalism – early developments

Cultural diversity is not new to this land we now know as Australia. Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander communities, composed of over 600 distinct groups, speaking at least 250 different languages and many more dialects, have practiced their diverse cultures on this land for more than 65,000 years. Since the invasion of Australia by the British, people have come to Australia from all over the world. The ‘White Australia’ policy put in place from the time of Australia’s Federation in 1901 placed discriminatory limitations on who could migrate to Australia. It was also expected that migrants and Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people would assimilate into the dominant ‘Anglo’ culture of ‘white Australia.’

Both the racist White Australia policy and the agenda of assimilationism were slowly dismantled from the mid 1960s, with culturally diverse community groups playing an important role in pushing for their rights to fully participate in society and maintain their cultures. The Whitlam Government definitively renounced the policy of assimilation in 1973 and the term ‘multiculturalism’ began to be used, increasingly so as the decade rolled on. In 1978, the first official national multicultural policies were implemented by the Fraser Government in the context of government programs and services for migrants.

The adoption of multiculturalism was an evolving process, undertaken both at a government and community level. A significantly higher number of migrants of non-English speaking background settled in Melbourne and Sydney than other Australian cities. The 1970s and 1980s saw a burgeoning of what were then called ‘ethnic’ community organisation in these cities, as well as a strengthening of the broader community service sectors. Much work needed to be done to develop and support the implementation of multiculturalism within community settings, including in the realm of youth services. The rise of multiculturalism allowed for a greater diversity of perspectives and migrant voices to shape the human services sector. It was in this context that the perspectives and voices of young people of migrant backgrounds planted the seed of an idea that grew into the organisation now known as the Centre for Multicultural Youth.


The AIATSIS Map of Indigenous Australia ‘serves as a visual reminder of the richness and diversity of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Australia’1.

AITSIS map of Indigenous Australia
1  AITSIS Map of Indigenous Australia