Career paths to harmony

Kim Beazley’s recent comments have suddenly focussed attention on what the ALP may want to offer on immigration and multiculturalism policy. Beazley suggested that immigrants, even tourists, should sign up to a whole range of glorified Australian values in writing if they are to make the grade. Several Labor MPs have publicly disassociated themselves with this appeal to the Hansonism which was so successfully hijacked by the Howard Government. The appeal to xenophobia from both sides of politics makes it clear that the time has come for a new generation of multicultural policies, to prevent further regression to assimilation and notions of cultural hierarchy and inequality.


Starting from 2000 and reinforced after the 2004 federal election, the Howard Government adopted a new direction in immigration policy: seeking out and encouraging skilled workers and professionals to migrate to Australia shores. There is little doubt that, with the severe skill shortages in the current labour market, this policy makes sense. It also makes sense given that the quality of Australian executive management, as the Karpin Inquiry into Management (1995) clearly demonstrated, leaves a lot to be desired. But what actually happens to the skilled immigrants themselves over time? If we look back to the Hawke years – the ‘clever country’ years – in the late 1980s, skilled immigrants often had difficulty finding appropriate jobs. Their unemployment rate was generally higher than average and they had to settle for jobs that were less suitable than expected. A high percentage returned to their country of origin. This was especially the case for engineers. The prejudices of prospective employers and their preference for locally educated workers were found to be major reasons for their departure (Hawthorne, 1994; Murphy, 1994; Smith, 1994).

From 1948 to 1980 Australian mass immigration was based on attracting unskilled and semi-skilled labour. Research in the early 1990s (Iredale, 1992; Woldring, 1996) indicated that non-English-speaking migrants (NESB1) were severely under-represented in managerial, executive and professional positions — comparable to the number of women in the workforce. This was particularly the case in the upper echelons of the public service, corporate boards in the private sector, the police, the judiciary, universities, parliaments, prisons and the professional sector. These elite groups were dominated by a near closed-shop of White Anglo-Australian Males (WAAM) and their old boy networks. Looking at the cohort of the second generation of non-English speaking migrants (NESB2) in the mid-1990s, the situation had only marginally improved. Better education has not significantly benefited them (Woldring, 1996). More recent assessments don’t seem to be available. Australian management received a scathing report card in the Barraclough study commissioned by the Karpin Inquiry into Management (1995), yet the remuneration of many of the modestly competent WAAM executives, or imported Americans, has gone through the roof in recent years.

In the meantime the deregulation of industrial relations has not helped ethnic immigrants either. Teicher et al (2002) found that, after the Workplace Relations Act of 1996, ‘the transition in the Australian industrial relation system from a centralized system of conciliation and arbitration to a deregulated industrial relations system of enterprise bargaining has compounded the disadvantage suffered by these workers’. This combination of trends does very little to favour multiculturalism and ethnic harmony but instead propagates class conflict and risks destroying what egalitarianism is left.

Thanks to Bill Leak

The encouragement of larger numbers of skilled and professional immigrants brings with it the need to accept that, after an initial period of settling-in and familiarisation, these people will seek access to elite positions in society. If these positions are made unavailable or very difficult to achieve on account of an ‘ethnic ceiling’, they may well leave again. Even if they do choose to stay in Australia and concede to work in jobs which they are overqualified for, their valuable contribution to society is likely to be diminished. Australia may waste the real skills of these people if their careers are thwarted and their contributions and ambitions frustrated.

This has happened before. In the past job offers were only likely when foreign skills were not in competition with local talent. This may be ‘human nature’ but Australia can hardly afford a repeat of this type of hidden discrimination.

Have the WAAM attitudes changed now? Has the establishment composition changed? Hardly. The skills of professional immigrants are still under-recognised and submitted to substantial questioning despite extensive official checks on their formal qualifications.

The role played by migrants in the political sphere is limited indeed apart from being used and abused for branch stacking purposes by major parties. As aspiring political activists they are often simply not accepted. This situation is in itself a major barrier in the renewal of a political system that even many Anglo Celtic Australians regard as ossified. The problem is that discrimination against skilled ethnic migrants is usually very subtle and hard to demonstrate. Of course, one can point to some highly successful ethnic migrants but these are mostly self-made entrepreneurs in the private sector. Like Anglo-Celtic women who have given up trying to break the glass ceiling and started their own businesses, many individual ethnic immigrants have made the most of their own talents and some have done very well. There is also a long tradition, particularly in the Italian, Greek, Lebanese and Vietnamese communities, of families who have banded together to form successful family businesses.

Australia’s latest search for highly qualified individual immigrants, from anywhere, is likely to be as opportunistic as it was in the late 1980s. It is focused on quickly filling gaps in the workforce of technical and professional skills which take considerable time to develop locally. Naturally, these newer migrants bring their own social, political, and lifestyle values that impact on the wider society. They also have views on political arrangements, not just as voters, but also as members of parties and advocates of change. Once integrated as part of the Australian community, they are not prepared to be treated as second class citizens or apprentice citizens who must learn the Anglo Celtic ways and behave accordingly.

The contribution of migrants beyond the immediate functional job context is often valuable and should be optimised, not ignored or merely tolerated. Australia must give them a voice at high levels of decision-making in mainstream public and private organisations, parliaments and educational institutions. Only then will multiculturalism progress to the next stage where it will mean more than food diversity, multicultural festivals and the SBS, however valuable these aspects are. However, if voter attitude surrounding the Tampa incident and the appalling, hypocritical legislation to prevent the boat people from reaching mainland Australia as refugees are any indication, one could well conclude that multiculturalism is no more than skin deep for a majority of Australians. The essentially ethnic conflict between Anglo Celtic and Lebanese communities at Cronulla in 2005 provided yet another failed test of multicultural values.

In the context of recent ethnic strife between the Anglo Celtic and Muslim and Lebanese communities in an environment where police, government institutions and the judiciary are heavily Anglo Celtic, the preservation of ethnic harmony in Australia is central. Band-aids won’t work. The key question that must be asked is how many ethnic representatives are actually in mainstream executive positions in Australia? Are they a substantial, visible segment of the ruling class? At present there are far too few high profile ethnic role models and therefore no adequate links for integration with mainstream society. While it may be correct that Australia has no ethnic ghettos, the absence of such role models is a distinct drawback. The mainstream leadership of this country must become visibly multicultural.

The time to fast-track ethnic minority individuals to the highest decision-making levels of mainstream society seems long overdue. That is what an alternative ALP Government should have as its policy. There are many ideas that come to mind: the very first would be to examine to what extent the much-glorified Australian values are actually practised in the society. There is great opportunity to boost multicultural values by improving ethnic representation at the very top. Why for instance are there no reserved seats in the Parliament for indigenous people? Why is there such limited cultural diversity in the Parliaments? Why is there no provision for enhancing and constitutionally protecting the multicultural character of our society? Stepan Kerkyasharian, the NSW Ethnic Affairs Chairman had this to say in 1998:

‘Multiculturalism is central to national identity — it is not and cannot be a fringe issue at the heart of any discussion of national identity and our national future — the 1998 Constitutional Convention affirmed the centrality of multiculturalism to our sense of national self — they recommended that our most important document — the Constitution — be amended to include recognition of Australia’s cultural diversity in the preamble’.