BRAND Multiculturalism isn’t selling like it used to. We’re a long way from the 1970s, when unlikely allies Gough Whitlam and Malcolm Fraser set some funky ideas running about gettin’ in and gettin’ along.

And the 1980s, when Benetton showed us how sexy and powerful the differences between them and us can be.

Australia’s cultural and political elites, under Paul Keating’s patronage, jumped on for that ride and cleaned up the face of race relations in Australia, forever. Or so we liked to think, until Hansonism, Tampa, and now the war on terror.

Today’s headlines scream that we’re hyped to fight the enemy within, wherever. This time it’s not reds under our beds — it’s browns on our bus.

This pumps even more oxygen to those who have always found the Big M of multiculturalism as comfortable as a cuckoo’s nest, and have devoted inordinate energy to soiling it. We didn’t put brakes on that when their dog whistling delivered refugee children to camps in Woomera and Nauru. Will we now in the face of their selective spin on terror tales?

Take the resounding mainstream silence on the severed pig’s head left on display outside Sydney’s Auburn mosque after last week’s terror raids — to the considerable distress of worshippers, and readers of Australia’s Turkish press, where it made front-page news.

General silence, too, on the decision to dress Bosnian-born terror suspect Mirsad Mulahalilovic in a Gitmo-style orange jumpsuit, and shackle him in chains for his recent court appearance.

No such restraint, of course, in the public pawing over almost every other actual or presumed detail of last week’s arrests. Nor — and here the soft left has tended to join the hard right — in denouncing the hijab, while dismissing the views of local women spat upon while wearing it.

At the end of a long, hard week for many Australians working to hold our nation together as we know it, not just ASIO and the police, John Howard didn’t help the cause of cohesion. Appearing on Sunday’s 60 Minutes, he confirmed he does “not particularly” like the word multiculturalism, echoing his 1991 statement that, “Australia made an error in abandoning its former policy of encouraging assimilation and integration in favour of multiculturalism.”

At a time of national stress relating to race, all this acts like petrol drips on a smouldering Citroen. While Australia is certainly not France, the dangers to democracy of tu-not-vous-calling aren’t location-specific.

Smear campaign

Many Muslim Australians feel backed into a defensive corner not of their liking or choosing. As Ed Husic, son of Bosnian Muslim immigrants, observed while discussing the background-based smear campaign apparently run against him as a Labor candidate in the last federal election: “The Liberal Party re-elected in Federal Parliament, tasked with the critical role of making people comfortable with new national security measures, is now trying to convince Muslims that they have nothing to worry about, that Muslims are recognised citizens, that their religion isn’t an issue. But at this point in time, trust is much more valuable when it is earned, not demanded.”

Our leaders can only earn that trust by writing humiliation out of all parts of the Australian security equation. And by writing due respect back in, so it’s crystal clear that all individuals are judged by what they do, not what they are.

Without hesitation or qualification, opinion formers should advance a more mature and muscular multicultural project, one that recognises the differences within our subcultures, as well as those between them — and neither blurs uncomfortable facts nor blows them out of proportion.

That might seem like pie in the sky in 2005, but there’s a lot of capital to build on. Beyond the mean lines set by many contemporary powerbrokers — disproportionately freaks who thrive on bullying, branch-stacking and other deadly sins — stands a rich human fact. Ordinary Australians know and love multiculture the way we know and love extended family: bittersweet, warts and all.

OK, we’re not wearing Big M T-shirts. But 30 years on, we’re gettin’ along pretty well — and gettin’ on with it. Otherwise there’d be no movies like Little Fish, Fat Pizza and Jew Boy, no novels by Terri Janke, Christos Tsiolkas, Eva Sallis and Melina Marchetta. Cricket would still be our only beautiful game. Ed Husic would never have won preselection, and the favourite for Australian Idol wouldn’t be brown, and her daughter wouldn’t be called Asia.

And all that would be a big, crying shame.

Dr Natasha Cica is a strategy and communications consultant. This article first ran in The Age