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MULTICULTURALISM has been a contentious doctrine in Australia, while also being a celebrated and mostly uncontentious fact. Those who complain most loudly about the use of the term typically live peaceably, and sometimes even amicably, alongside those whose religious beliefs and cultural backgrounds differ considerably from their own.

To that extent, the cultural diversity created in Australia by post-World War II migration and the dismantling of the White Australia Policy in the 1960s and '70s has created one of the world's most tolerant societies. But that diversity has in turn been dependent on a shared acceptance of the rule of law, and of fundamental values on which Australian law is based. Sometimes, however, an issue arises that draws attention to the fact that without at least that measure of agreement even the cultural diversity of which contemporary Australians are rightly proud would not be possible. That happened this week when several Muslim community leaders called for a change in Australia's family law, which has always forbidden polygamy.

Very few Australian Muslims practise polygamy, and few advocate a change in the law. But, as Joumanah El Matrah, manager of the Islamic Women's Welfare Council of Victoria and an opponent of polygamy, acknowledged this week, it can be surmised that the practice is probably increasing. If it wasn't, the question of its legal status wouldn't have been raised openly.


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