A message to the new(ish) mob who have responsibility for ensuring Australian democracy remains on an even keel, in the wake of the UN deciding Australia had a few issues on racism that were still “unfinished business”. My focus concerns what we used to call multiculturalism, and given there’s still a Multicultural Advisory Council, that term will do for now. I am addressing here the new Gillard Ministry, but the Greens, the Independents and even the Coalition have roles to play.
Under Julia Gillard’s hero Bob Hawke, multiculturalism sat within the portfolio of the Prime Minister. New policies from all ministers were checked to see they fitted the multicultural parameters of social justice, access and equity. The 1993 review of multiculturalism argued for an Act of parliament to advance multiculturalism’s objectives.
Paul Keating was not that way inclined, nor were John Howard or Kevin Rudd. PM Gillard comes from the “western” heartland of multicultural Melbourne; she has some ardent multiculturalists in tow - Adam Bandt and Andrew Wilkie - and she might be able to squeak some Liberals across (Malcolm Turnbull and Judith Troeth in the Senate). Rob Oakeshott and Tony Windsor might buy into something that was flagged well, and Liberal newbies Josh Frydenburg and Ken Wyatt could possibly be available.
So now is the time to get a sense of who the players are, and how to fashion a strategy of change that will once more make Australia a beacon for multicultural innovation, rather than the butt of racist jokes. Multiculturalism is a whole-of-government issue, though key segments of the government have more to do than others.
Starting from the top: Julia Gillard, PM and member for Lalor, named after the leader of the Eureka rebellion, and centred in Werribee, an industrial suburb west of the city. She is responsible for government direction and strategy, and she could set up a multicultural policy unit in her department.
Chris Evans, Senator for Western Australia, responsible for skills and jobs. He could have a cultural diversity, employment and skills development policy group.
Peter Garratt, Minister for Schools; he could tackle the failure of the National Curriculum to recognise Australia’s cultural diversity; he could move on second language acquisition and bi-lingualism, and ensure Arabic joins Chinese and Japanese as language priorities.
Nicola Roxon, Health Minister: she could insist on a national multicultural health policy, especially in relation to mental health, chronic diseases and age-related illnesses. Mark Butler, her mental health and ageing minister, should be asking for full briefings on cultural diversity dimensions to his portfolio, particularly if the Greens gee up the Coalition enough to get them to move legislation on their highly popular mental health proposals.
Rob McLelland, Attorney-General: has he had a bad year? He was trashed by Cabinet on the Human Rights (HR) Act, and given a pittance to pay for human rights education: a very scaled down version of how the Howard government dealt with their opposition to Racial Vilification (no criminal penalties, only minimal education and Harmony Day). McLelland does have two shots in his locker, and a lot of likely support from the Greens etc. to fire them: first, the commitment to create a joint human rights committee of the parliament to review new legislation to make sure it is in accord with Australia’s international human rights treaty obligations; and second, ensure human rights education resources (pitiful though they be) are expended to raise the community’s awareness of issues and rights - including Bob Carr, the main opponent of the HR Act, who seemed to believe the Australian Human Rights Commission (AHRC) had the power to prosecute people for discrimination (and the answer is that the AHRC does not have such powers). He should also get on and start working through how to reduce the level of everyday racism, and the license to hate that politics seems to be delivering.
Tony Burke, Minister for Sustainability, Communities and the Environment: he could insist from the outset that a sustainable Australia has to be a multicultural Australia, and that population debates cannot be allowed to be proxies for racist prejudices and social marginalisation. His three working parties on a sustainable population should be reviewed, and a spread of people from diverse backgrounds included in all of them (not just one Waleed Aly). The debate should be resourced with a strong research commitment to identify the differential impact of policy options on different communities and source countries. This government has form for targeting specific national groups for negative treatment (e.g. Afghans and Sri Lankans in the freeze on processing asylum seekers).
Chris Bowen, member for McMahon, Minister for Immigration and Citizenship, saw 11 per cent of his electorate voting informally, and a 7 per cent swing against him. Bowen takes on the “poison chalice” portfolio, covering what Chris Evans described as the issue that was “killing the government” prior to the election.
Bowen could be the leader of the “swing to the Right on asylum seekers” that Rudd warned of just prior to his removal as PM. Or Bowen could now start to get things sorted, with the Greens, Wilkie, Windsor and Oakeshott all on the record asking for better treatment of refugees; and the Greens policy requiring the end of off-shore processing (which is the opposite of the goal of Gillard’s “regional solution”). Bowen should quickly review the situation and issue a public options paper, canvassing the possible strategies for dealing with the asylum issue. It should be evidence based, assert the acceptable constraint imposed by the UN agreement on refugees, and work through all the worries that people have - from “green lighting people smugglers” to “sending people mad in detention”.