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Issue #1605      August 7, 2013

Multiculturalism and the elections

Among the many issues concerning Australians of all ethnic backgrounds in these elections, the socio-political and economic dimensions of immigration and multiculturalism should be at the centre of public discourse as they are fundamental to nation building. The current focus on refugees, important and urgent as this issue is and deserving a humanitarian solution, should not be allowed to detract from this wider national agenda.

A “bower” is a simple structure traditionally used by Indigenous Australians to shelter from sun, rain and wind. Students travelled to Darwin to build a community facility, from a recycled shipping container. Working closely with local Indigenous trainees, tradespeople and members of the communities, students began to understand first hand the issues and aspirations of Indigenous town campers, to understand the bower’s relevance for contemporary Indigenous housing in Australia’s “top-end”. While a basic bower structure may not represent the aspirations of all Indigenous Australians it does help us understand the key issues of shelter for the climate, culture and technologies.

The facts as confirmed by the recent census and subsequent data show that Australia in the second decade of the 21st century is more multicultural and multilingual than ever before and more so than any other country in the world. And it will continue to be so as immigration – economic, political and now ecological is integrally linked to Australia’s growth and takes a unique place in our vast and underpopulated continent in a world starved of space and resources.

Furthermore, the Anglo Celtic component of the population which played a crucial role in defining the character and socio-political institutions in the greater part of the post-white settlement period is in a historically rapid decline – from more than 90% in 1947 to just over 50% in 2013. As the immigration waves now come increasingly from Asia, our closest neighbours and also our major economic and strategic partners, the White Australia supremacy policies so tragically despised at our great cost, will further alter the ethnic and social composition of the country’s population.

The fact that Australia is unquestionably the better for this gigantic and ongoing demographic change should not obscure or minimise what it has taken and will take in terms of overcoming historically entrenched racist/assimilationist policies and attitudes to keep moving forward. Those who want to turn the tide back to White Australia days or variations of it, some of whom still occupy high places, are fighting a losing but nevertheless damaging battle. Opposition immigration spokesperson, Scott Morrison, when not keeping endlessly on the matter of refugees, pronounces that, “Immigration is about people joining us not changing us” (Australian 04/02/2012). Where would one find either in sociology or physics that when one or several parts come together, the interaction does not irrevocably result in change.

This is as bad and nonsensical as Abbot’s non-existing pollution emissions.

John Howard, once again the ideological guru of the conservatives, described the Labor government’s 2012 school curriculum reforms as “lacking in priorities and of marginalising the Judeo-Christian ethic and British history” (Australian 28/09/2012). This was supported by Tony Abbot and shadow education minister Christopher Pyne. And what was it that the education experts appointed by Labour proposed to get the conservatives up in arms? It was simply to include more history of Aborigines and Asia.

Another significant demographic point to note, but without the space to expand on in this article, is the fact that the great majority of non-English speaking background migrants are in the workforce, generally occupying the lowest paying jobs, living in working class suburbs and their children attending government schools, not withstanding the social mobility of some. Job security and cost of living issues are a daily concern.

Yet proportionately non-English background Australians are seriously under-represented in the nations’ parliaments and other institutions, fewer now than 20 years ago. Of the 230 Federal MPs and Senators fewer than 30, or about 15%, are of non-Anglo-Australian background and fewer than five were born in non-English speaking countries. The parading of a few “ethnics” by the still dominant but more sophisticated Anglo-Australian establishment cannot hide this chasm.

The fact that Australia has been and continues to be a nation of Indigenous people and immigrants of diverse ethnic and cultural backgrounds is not reflected and integrated in policies, laws and the constitution. Just look how at the stroke of a pen portfolios on multicultural affairs appear and disappear, and policies are made and unmade on the run, treating immigration and multiculturalism essentially as an ephemeral issue.

Due to many and often bitter efforts and struggles, in the first place by migrants and their ethnic communities and large sections of the wider community, some states enacted legislation on multiculturalism. Yet when this matter was taken up with the federal government in 2012 the then immigration minister, Chris Bowen, said, such an act is not needed and the federal government will not be introducing it. He asserted that “people of different backgrounds don’t need legislation of how to get along” (Australian 02/02/2012). But if we need laws and constitutions to tell us how to get along with each other as individuals, communities, people and states why not for multiculturalism “the glue that binds the nation”. It is blatantly contradictory and indeed discriminatory.

Multiculturalism for whom

Multiculturalism and reconciliation is still considered a matter for the “ethnics” and the Indigenous peoples, and not for the whole nation.

The categorisation of people as Australians on the one hand and the rest on the other – aliens at first, then NESB’s (Non-English Speaking Background) then CALD’s (culturally and linguistically diverse) and currently multiculturalists, perpetuates in essence the “us” and “them” schism and feeds the disastrous assimilation policies.

Australia as a whole is multicultural and multilingual and that term includes as much the Anglo-Australians as it does the Greek, Italian, Chinese etc Australians, valuing their contribution in the building of this country, its economic, social and cultural enrichment on a democratic, pluralist, socially just and cohesive path.

Long term policies are needed

Australia needs to have strategic, immediate, short term and long term policies to better serve and respond to the specific needs and aspirations of what in fact exist – ethnic minorities, now numerous and well organised, within and between themselves.

Representation on elected and appointed decision making positions is at the heart of democracy as is the ethnic and social strata position of such representatives and their accountability to community and constituency.

Parties should adopt binding policies for a substantial quota of such candidates in winnable seats. And positive discrimination should apply to all public and social institutions to enable this to happen.

Ethnic identity, language and culture maintenance are as much a priority as living standards, yet schools have fallen short and in fact failed in this all important mission. The National Languages Policy introduced in the mid ’90s was killed by the Howard government.

In Victoria there are fewer schools teaching languages and students learning a community or second language than 20 years ago. Yet the rhetoric of being the best proceeds unabated. We make very poor use of the tremendous advantages that multilingualism and multiculturalism provides Australia with, both in terms of material and intellectual outcomes, and relating to each other and the world near and afar.

Well funded language and culture programs in schools and implementation of the Gonski reforms with its loading provisions for disadvantaged and special needs schools and students would certainly help. So would the introduction of a multicultural curriculum where the history of the nation and the way forward embraces all of Australia’s diverse peoples, starting from the Aborigines – Australia’s first people – and all others who arrived since some 220 years ago. Australia’s history did not begin with the landing of Captain Cook and rounded off with the Governor General. Non-Anglo-Australians want their history and culture to be taught and acknowledged in schools for the benefit of all Australians.

Well funded policies and programs are needed for all community and other proponents of multiculturalism and providers of multilingual services in employment, social welfare, pensions, care for the ageing, training and retraining of migrants. Some services provided by ethno-specific organisations, important and deserving as they are, can hardly cover a very small proportion of those in need. But the mainstream providers for which the great majority seek support, are not given the capacity to care and attend to their needs in a friendly, linguistic and cultural environment .They need to be multi-culturalised.

The role of the ethnic media in general and community media in particular, involving thousands of bilingual volunteers and other workers, and reaching out to millions of Australians, deserves a better deal from governments, both in terms of funding and advertising. In Victoria, the very modest government policy of 5% of the advertising budget going to the ethnic media has been consistently under-spent. SBS television is still not fulfilling its multicultural charter and mission. One of its four channels should perform exclusively that role as Channel 34 does for Indigenous Australians.

As the nation now debates and seems to be moving towards a referendum to recognise the Indigenous people in the Constitution after centuries of denial, it is not untimely to start a national conversation and debate for multiculturalism to be enshrined in our Constitution, a recognition of a long standing reality of Australia’s multicultural being and development.   

Next article – Culture & Life – Detroit: An object lesson

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