New ABC chairman has history calling out ‘problems’ with multiculturalism

It’s unclear what the ABC chairman, now 77, would make of these comments today (she declined requests for an interview) but her autobiographies reveal a dynamic perspective on multiculturalism over the past 30 years.

She revisited and reprinted swathes of the original column in her 1998 autobiography A Passionate Life in a section about the future of Australia. The chapter containing these thoughts is missing from the 2012 edition of the book and the Kindle version. The later edition of the book contains new thoughts about Australian society.

Back then: Ita Buttrose in her office in 1980.

Back then: Ita Buttrose in her office in 1980.

Credit:Bob Finlay

In the earlier edition, the former Cleo editor claims political correctness had made it hard to talk about immigration. The comments may cause discomfort among some observers in 2019 but were commonplace in 1980s Australia and would also reflect the views of other people now.

Buttrose argued in the column that the majority of concerned citizens were not expressing racism – which she defined as believing in the superiority of one race over another – but a “fear that Australia which for 200 years has been a European-based, Christian society, could change to an Asian-based one”.

In a way [the ABC] resembles the Australian Women’s Weekly: both are national institutions and have a very special place in the hearts of the Australian people.

Ita Buttrose

“It should be possible to talk about the issue without being proclaimed a racist … Should we have a referendum on these issues? I think we should.”

She also said that “other nations look at the way we get on with each other and marvel at how we’ve done it … Australia is one of the best integrated multicultural societies in the world.”

Her column received 12,000 letters in response (“most of them in support of a referendum”) and she sent them to then-Prime Minister Bob Hawke who, she said, did not respond.

Buttrose’s Sun-Herald column, which was headlined “It’s not racist to be concerned”, was published eight years before Pauline Hanson gave her historic maiden speech. The One Nation leader’s address pushed for the end of multiculturalism, warned about “the privileges Aboriginals enjoy over other Australians” and said the country was “swamped by Asians [who] form ghettos and do not assimilate”.

In A Passionate Life, Buttrose repeatedly criticises Hanson, who was elected to parliament in 1996, and both accepts Australia as one of the “best integrated multicultural societies” while acknowledging the qualms some have with immigration.

To her, it was “no wonder” that “the appalling Pauline Hanson [was] able to garner such support”.


Then, in an updated version of A Passionate Life, Buttose includes her 2008 appearance on the SBS-broadcast show Who Do You Think You Are? in which she learned more about her family’s Jewish and Scottish heritage.

Racism also features in a passage describing hate-fuelled phone calls she received after publishing a cover of ITA Magazine, which closed in the mid-1990s, featuring two girls in traditional Vietnamese dress.

“Sales dropped by 7000 that month as racist Australia exercised its choice not to buy,” she said.

That later edition expanded the ITA chapter to mention “illuminating” observations from Sydney surgeon Charlie Teo’s 2011 Australia Day address about racism and an Indian neurosurgeon being spat on and told to “go home”.

Her thoughts on other sensitive social issues of the 1980s and 1990s are also covered in her autobiographies (including Early Edition: My First Forty Years first published in 1985).

This included a difficult public reaction in her role as chairman for the National Advisory Committee on AIDS (“Gays say News Limited is ‘homophobic’. I think that’s a word they’ve added to the language”), her views on early feminists (“their aggression sometimes frightened women and terrified men”) and media diversity (“in the hands of a few powerful industrialists”).

The role of her current focus, the ABC, was discussed in recounts of a meeting she had with the public broadcaster’s directors after being contacted by headhunters in the 1980s for the role of managing director.

“Naturally, I was interested in the ABC proposal even if the salary offered seemed a long way below what a man or woman should earn if he/she were to run the organisation capably,” she wrote.


When former director general of Radio New Zealand Geoffrey Whitehead stepped into the position of managing director in 1984 his salary was $71,000 with $3500 in allowances. There were more than 160 applications for the job.

Buttrose, the first female editor of a major metropolitan paper in Australia and editor of The Daily Telegraph and The Sunday Telegraph until 1984, said she was one of 10 people to make the shortlist and have a meeting with the board.

“In a way it resembles the Australian Women’s Weekly [which she famously edited in the 1970s]: both are national institutions and have a very special place in the hearts of the Australian people,” she said.

She was underwhelmed by its directors, calling them “very light on knowledge and experience of broadcasting” with a focus on sponsorship and advertising.

Despite this, she praised the public broadcaster for stories that would otherwise not have been told.

Ita Buttrose in 1992 as editor of ITA Magazine.

Ita Buttrose in 1992 as editor of ITA Magazine. Credit:David Porter

Ita Buttrose is now one of the ABC’s most experienced chairmen when considering her lengthy media career. She did not apply for the job and instead was approached directly by the government (it wasn’t the first time the Liberals had come knocking – in 1994 she was asked to run for the party in North Sydney).

It’s unlikely Buttrose ever expected to find herself in this highly influential role when she wrote her autobiographies.

But she closed her 1990s book predicting the same social debates would continue in the future, writing “the problems at the end of the twentieth century will still be here at the beginning of the twenty-first”.

Jennifer Duke is a media and telecommunications journalist for The Sydney Morning Herald and The Age.

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