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Worrying and hoping about Australia's future

By Andrew Jakubowicz - posted Thursday, 22 April 2010

Over the past few months we've seen cultural diversity and racism issues explode across Australia's front pages, and of course, rip deep into the political classes.

Whether it's Indians being mugged (and then fleeing Australian higher education institutions in their tens of millions of dollars) or asylum seekers abandoned if they're of the wrong ethnicity, or Indigenous people left high and dry as their rights are systematically removed, the question of whether Australia is a racist society (and if it is, should we worry about it?) has moved from simmer to slow boil. As Jacinda Moorehead of Overland wrote somewhat laconically on ABC Unleashed recently, "Australia is not a racist nation, we are told. It is some other, hard-to-define reason that explains why Australian institutions - the government, the police, immigration, the media - appear to not only devour the 'racial and cultural divides' invective, but also promulgate it."

April 30 will see the national launch of Australia's Cultural Diversity Statement, a critical document (perhaps I'm being hopeful) in helping Australia engage with its racist past and build a hopefully non or less-racist future. Ghassan Hage once wrote that, to understand how Australia works, you need to understand the politics of hope and the politics of worry. Who's allowed to hope, and what for, and who's allowed to worry about the nation's future? The statement will clarify that divide (hopefully). 


Now the hope and the worry about that future are to be given policy form. The Australian Multicultural Advisory Council has been working for nearly 15-months on this exercise, under the guidance of chair Andrew Demetriou (of the AFL and classic immigrant made-good background) and with the participation of a range of key players in the multicultural industry selected by the government to express their worries and their hopes. The final version was crafted by Don Watson, once Paul Keating's speech-writer and well known as a flayer of bureaucratic gobbledy-gook. So whatever else, it should read well, and be communicated in the vernacular (ie the words will be short and the ideas clear).The nub is of course, what ideas will there be?

Early versions of the statement and the far more important but as yet unfinished action document have been worked over by a federal government inter-departmental committee, representing everyone from the anti-terrorism people on the one hand, to the human rights people on the other, with citizenship mavens in the middle and all leavened by the diplomatic concerns of foreign affairs. Somewhere along the way the "social inclusion agenda", long criticized for its ignoring of cultural diversity (until the belated recognition in a February policy document) has been glued to multiculturalism. Not so easy has been the Human Rights Act (non) agenda , now well lost in the backrooms of the Labor caucus, shot down there by the same alliance now gunning for the grand population growth directions identified by Treasury (led by Bob Carr in his incarnation as "small is beautiful" rather than "rights talk makes work for lawyers").

If we look at what the advocates of strengthening cultural diversity proposed to the Council during its consultations (not yet or maybe never available publicly, unlike the submissions to most such government inquiries that go live online when they're received) then we can see at least one of the boundary walls of the debate; the other of course wants to drop the policy, forget multiculturalism, and just run a unitary nationalistic single small Australia. The Settlement Council of Australia (admission: I helped craft the SCoA submission based on members' input) proposed a series of key initiatives:

  1. an Office for Cultural Diversity to be established in the PM's Department, with a cultural diversity adviser appointed to the PM's team
  2. an Australian Multiculturalism Act similar to that established a generation ago in Canada
  3. Cultural Diversity impact statements be required of all government policy initiatives (eg freezing the refugee processing of asylum seekers)
  4. The national History Curriculum to locate cultural diversity as one of the key concepts to be used in understanding Australia's history, as already has been done for gender and Aboriginality (still missing in the latest version up for consultation)
  5. The Australia Council re-establish the Arts for A Multicultural Australia advisory group
  6. COAG reinforce the centrality of multicultural affairs policy statements as a central plank in ensuring equity and social justice
  7. Something seriously be done about the chronic failure of the Australian media to reflect the realities of a diverse Australia
  8. The creation within the Australian Human Rights Commission of a full time Race Discrimination Commissioner with powers, resources and staff to focus on pro-active pursuit of racism and wide community education
  9. The creation of an independent and high quality research capacity to ensure information for the wider community, and evidence based policy  (highlighted now by the debacle around the Afghan/Sri Lankan refugee processing freeze)

The submission made many detailed proposals, the ideas drawing on the experience of dozens of settlement workers with hundreds of years of combined experience, stretching back to the 1960s and 1970s.

So what might the multicultural Australia be, that is to be proposed by the Demetriou Council?  Well, it will probably be nationalistic and histrionic; it will be pragmatic and economically driven. It will not be about vision or ambition. It will not admit to prior ownership of the land by the Aboriginal peoples, and it will not admit of any question to the legitimacy of British/Commonwealth invasion, occupation, settlement and government. It will assume a British/Irish/Scottish centre around which all others are organised, and to whose values and institutions everyone is thought to aspire. It will recognise the contribution of the energy, ingenuity and enterprise of immigrants, but not their moralities, ethics or values. It will admit no change has occurred to a core "Australian ethos" as a result of the millions of immigrants, only the appreciation by immigrants for the stability of an unchanging Australia created in some fantasised memory of an earlier and simpler time.


So what is likely to be the concrete outcome? You guessed correctly if you surmised the first recommendation of the temporary Council could be that there should be a permanent Council; but it would still be the creature of and dependent on the resources of the ministering Department, Immigration and Citizenship, the Department that is simultaneously charged with putting the Afghans and Sri Lankans "on hold" in breach many would say of international obligations and basic human rights. Next ask a well-known government defender of human rights (perhaps even the Productivity Commission) to ensure access and equity. Make sure the social inclusion agenda mentions cultural diversity, immigrants and humanitarian settlers (and now it does, sort of, so tick off one). Get local communities to develop welcome wagons (many are already doing this) and try to get an effective human rights education project going (after twenty years of the same hope and little effective action).

So what's missing? Just about everything that the multicultural community submitted was necessary. What's there? Nothing that might scare the horses. It's a worry, but not yet hopeless!

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About the Author

Andrew Jakubowicz is a professor of sociology at the University of Technology Sydney. He blogs for the SBS program CQ:

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