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Book review: A Multicultural Odyssey: A Memoir (almost) sans Regrets

Tuesday, 24 January 2023  | Mersina Papantoniou

This autobiography is over 80 years in the making. The affable storyteller in the book reveals not only a journey of Homeric ‘Odyssean’ proportions, but a profound struggle wrestling with God narrated in three parts. In the first part of the book, through the murky world of politics, Jim (James) Houston develops what came to be adopted as a uniquely Australian bi-partisan immigration/multicultural policy. In the second part of the book, he propels Christian belief into ministry practice as a Melbourne Anglican priest, based in a rundown, urban, profoundly multicultural, predominantly public housing neighbourhood, located on the main trucking route between Melbourne and Sydney. The third part presents an apologia (Greek: απολογία, a defence of the truth of one’s ideas) on the nexus between contemporary culture and a practised Christian faith.

Jim’s wrestling of faith lived out in principio sees the life-long cumulative impact of his ‘enthusiasm of the gospel’ (as formerly described by followers of John Wesley) lived out through the dual edges of the one sword. Firstly, as an Evangelical who ‘braves’ the ethical fields of evangelism, coupled, secondly, with parish-based social/welfare programming, the dilemmas are fleshed out, where the ‘Christ of the gospel’ inevitably ministers to the transformative needs of the body, heart, soul, strength and mind, and not necessarily in that order.

Our narrator, Jim Houston, begins:

As harsh as this judgement may sound, it should be matched by one further factor: the surprising role of God’s grace which “seeing the end from the beginning” constantly yet imperceptibly edges us on to the direction of God’s purposes, while encouraging us to own them as ours. The story line is about a life-long partnership unfolding with God, featuring my bumbling progress along a tortuous path, with many a re-lapse, but also his patient shepherding towards a higher purpose. As the passage from the book of Proverbs, learnt at Sydney University EU [Evangelical Union], put it in its Shakespearean English:

Trust in the Lord with all thy heart, lean not on thine own understanding, in all they ways acknowledge him and he shall direct thy paths. (Proverbs 3:4-5)

It has to be not only learnt but experienced. (pp. 106-107)

Houston’s memoir begins in the unparalleled, politically charged days leading up to ‘the dismissal’ of the Whitlam Government in 1975. It chronicles firsthand accounts of the democratic idealism, hopes and dreams of an Australian landscape in the 1970s, recognised by the few and by the disciplines of the Social Sciences as ‘cultural pluralism’. The nation since WWII had embarked on a massive immigration experiment, predicated upon the ‘assimilation’ of migrants and the Indigenous people under what came to be known as the racially defining ‘White Australia Policy’. In the brief advent of the Whitlam government, this policy could not reasonably continue in its covert, let alone overt, forms of exclusion.

White Australia, assimilationism and the Racial Discrimination Act (RDA)

In the last days of the Whitlam government, the vision for a nation based on poly-ethnicity, rather than on ‘whiteness’, is set. The foundation stone for the dismantling of a ‘white-washed’ history of Australia is laid in the historic creation of the Racial Discrimination Act (RDA, 1975), merely two weeks before ‘the dismissal’ of the elected Whitlam Labor government. The RDA gave legal teeth to the UN’s International Covenant Against All Forms of Racial Discrimination (1965), to which Australia was a signatory, not only as a means of arbitrating cases of prejudice, but to acknowledge and embed the cultural plurality of its population. In so doing, the RDA ‘abolished’, at the legal level, an Australia founded on the Coloniser’s historic conquest and its accompanying victor’s privilege that fashioned the superiority of ‘whiteness’ in its own image.

However, under the surface there continues that unmistakeable, delineating, legacy of the ‘phenotypical marker’ of race, branded and seared into the nation’s ‘psyche’. Much of Australia’s recently constructed historical identity sits on the fulcrum of what is currently described as racial/identity politics, even in what is now the era of post ‘terra nullius’ since 1992. The unrelenting Australian neurosis continues to rear its head, with migrants/refugees/asylum-seekers continuing to be kicked expediently as ‘political football’ in policy debates. Given that there have been recent attempts to dismantle Section 18C of the RDA, one wonders: would it have been possible for such a law to be passed today, in the present political climate? Such was the enduring vision of the policy advisors at the time, who attempted to redress racial/social inequality for the sake of a fully participatory culturally pluralistic society, not just a second-rate one.

After a stint in the Australian Commonwealth Office of Education, Jim accepted the role of Assistant Commissioner (1975-1981) in the Commission for Community Relations, the forerunner to the Australian Human Rights and Equal Opportunity Commission (2008). Under the inaugural leadership of the indefatigable Al Grassby, Jim’s task, amongst other things, was to produce anti-racism materials. (He had already produced curriculum materials for advanced students of French language, the Let’s Speak French series, through the Office of Education.) Jim’s knowledge of the French language enabled him to read and interpret the ‘two state solution’ in the debates around Quebec’s independence that was to help formulate Canada’s policies regarding ‘ethnic’ minorities and their brand of multiculturalism.

Jim opened the first ever file titled ‘multicultural communities’ within the Federal Immigration Department. His mentor was one of Australia’s pre-eminent founding ‘multicultural’ theorists, Prof. Jerzy (George) Zubrzycki, who encouraged him in the task. Zubrzycki was instrumental in asking Jim to write up his research as a view from the grassroots. It was clear to a particular group of Australian academic social theorists, described as ‘hybrid anthropo-sociologists’ (including Zubrzycki), that the incoming populations through the post-WWII settlement ‘populate or perish’ national policy were not automatically ‘assimilating’ as expected (Gillian Bottomley, ‘Jean Martin and the Exploration of (in) Difference’, The Asia Pacific Journal of Anthropology 1, no. 2, 2000, 110).

It needs to be noted that the landmark interdisciplinary social sciences research across education, trade unions and health was carried out by Australia’s other eminent foundational multicultural theorist, Prof. Jean Martin, described by Jim as the ‘doyenne’ in the field. She became one of the harshest critics of assimilationism. In Jim’s words, assimilationism was a ‘one-size-fits-all’ approach, expunging, supposedly, all that had gone before. Jim succinctly observed that Jean Martin ‘many years earlier had identified assimilationism as mainly responsible for migrant welfare problems, since it devalued their cultures and led to isolation, imposing an intolerable burden’ (p. 167). This was in contrast to the bi-lingual, functioning, fully pluralistic first world democracies such as New Zealand (with its indigenous Māori) and Canada (with its Quebecois minority).

A ‘melting-pot’, ‘fruit salad’, ‘pizza’ or a good ‘Irish stew’ still simmering, yet to boil over?

Jim was included in the Immigration Advisory Council (IAC), the premier agency advising on government policy, where he threw his lot in with the ‘proto-multiculturalists’. Jim’s role, however, appeared to be meticulously yet unobtrusively in the background, as he continued to observe, analyse, write and advise the echelons of government. In A Multicultural Odyssey, Jim reveals that he was the author of the Hon. Al Grassby’s ground-breaking speech that was to become the foundational document of multicultural policy (‘A Multi-Cultural Society for the Future’, presented at the symposium ‘Strategy 2000: Australia for Tomorrow’, 11th August 1973). The speech was to succinctly clarify social policy for decades, suggesting that, paradoxically, ‘unity in diversity’ can undergird and manage Australia’s social cohesion. The speech is long held by students of contemporary Australian history and social policy to be the cornerstone of the country’s unique multicultural policy. Jim’s extensive bibliography of publications at the end of his tome would have done well to include the full ‘signature speech’ as an attachment, if only to teach current and future policy-analysts and speechwriters how to construct persuasive rhetoric within a novel, if not hostile, environment!

Jim’s initial use of the adjective ‘multi-cultural’ in the speech ultimately became the foundational secular social policy cornerstone, ‘Multicultural-ism’. The concept has persisted in public discourse, overturning the ‘White Australia policy’ and re-defining Australia as an ‘immigrant’ nation. However, this signified a momentous leap of faith within both the ‘sacred’ and ‘secular’ realms, as the enduring value of the policy was contested in and through partisan debates over subsequent decades. The doomsayers were by and large proven wrong and Australia’s multicultural policy became the envy of the world. Jim was recognised for his contribution to this policy, as well as for his Christian ministry, in receiving the Order of Australia Medal (OAM) in 2001.

Jim’s fieldwork also involved the largely marginalised communities of Australia’s Indigenous people. The small team (he and Grassby) were afforded access to key documents through the legal teeth of the RDA. In their fieldwork with Indigenous people, the two men found anecdotal evidence of the ‘frontier wars’ up until the seventies, with ‘after-church’ hunting/rape parties continuing the atrocities. As a reviewer of this tome, it was horrifying for me to read and digest this all too vivid history. Out of sight was not out of mind. The question of addressing such history is still divided between what Jim describes as the ‘Black armband’ versus ‘White blindfold’ views of Australia’s Indigenous history.

The RDA became the legal backdrop to the ‘Mabo decision’, with its first round in 1989 and completing the second round in 1992. According to Jim, these matters could not have proceeded legally without the RDA in place, despite the decades-long writhing of Queensland law with its every twist and turn. Australia may well have remained ‘terra nullius’. In prophetic measure, Jim acclaims the legislation as ‘arguably the most powerful Act in our national history’ (p. 236).

Towards a uniquely Australian theology of multiculturalism

However the final green light for Jim, his wife Marjorie and their four children would be Jim’s ordination in 1987 to the Anglican priesthood by the newly-appointed Archbishop of the Melbourne Anglican Diocese, the Rev. Dr David Penman (1984-1989), in his all too short life. It is significant that the late Archbishop found in Jim a ‘soul-brother’, and Jim described his ordination as a ‘life-changing event’. Melbourne Diocese (whether it liked it or not) was going to be ‘multiculturally’ transformed. This was the very ‘beating heart’ of Archbishop Penman and he, along with the newly ordained Rev. James Houston, set a cracking pace.

The call to ministry thrust Jim, along with his wife Marjorie and his children, into ‘the poorest parish in the diocese’, to quote the late Archbishop. Jim had earlier researched the needs of this geographic community (with mainly public housing occupants) under the late Archbishop’s behest. Jim was sent to St Mary Magdalene Anglican Church, in the suburb typified as ‘what can be done about Dallas?’. Given Jim’s characteristic alacrity, he recalls: ‘I was embracing voluntary servanthood, my core identity a servant of the poor, following hard after Jesus’ (p. 331). The parish encompassed what is now the former Ford assembly plant at Broadmeadows, with the highest predominantly migrant Sunni Moslem Turkish population in Victoria. Many who would not dare venture into a church were now blessed by it.

If Australia has built one of ‘the most successful multicultural societies in the world’, some of the reasons for this reside within the original context of secular social policy and sacred ministry, configured through the chapters of this densely written autobiographical work, for those willing to wear Jim and Marjorie’s shoes and then walk a mile in them. For believers who are contemplating cross-cultural ministry (including in low-socio-economic areas), this book is a timely, breath-takingly honest and open reflection, a uniquely Australian work. It reveals faith in Christian principles that takes shape burdened by those who are excluded, ‘erring’ on the side of inclusion and social justice. The practice of a living evangelical faith - the ‘evangel’ - is inextricably fused to ‘the other’, with social justice ‘unto the least of these’. A Memoir (almost) sans Regrets should be required reading for all students considering undertaking ministry within the Australian context. I commend it highly, adding Jim’s Grandfathers Scottish motto, ‘true as steel’, in forging the task of multicultural social policy/ministry. Those willing to venture out of their comfort zone will be fortified through this autobiographical, authentically Australian sojourn. The pilgrim cannot help but be transformed by this contemporary journey, a believer’s faith in ‘the hands that threw stars into space’, seeking direction illuminated by the light under ‘the Southern Cross’.


Mersina Papantoniou was the founder of the inaugural Department of Cross-Cultural Ministries, Sydney Anglican Diocese (1987-2000). Her PhD thesis (2017) was titled ‘Multiculturalism’s Challenge to Sydney Anglican Identity’. She is a member of the Religion and Social Policy network, University of Divinity, and the Australian Association for the Study of Religion.


Photo: Jim Houston with Race Discrimination Commissioner, Tim Soutphommasane, at the launch of A Multicultural Odyssey at the Human Rights Commission in Sydney on 19th July 2018. Credit: Australian Human Rights Commission.


This review essay was first published in Zadok Perspectives 153: ‘Multiculturalism: Gifts and Challenges’ (Summer 2021), 25-27.

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