Politics, Policies and Cultural Diversity

There hasn’t been a lot of talk about cultural diversity this election . Guest poster Andrew Jakubowicz reflects on everyday multiculturalism and what the future might be like if there was a policy debate in which cultural diversity was valued and productive diversity advanced

This federal election has been a roundabout of personalities, melodrama and policy parries. There is a real social world out here, where a majority of people live an everyday multiculturalism. For the forty per cent or more of Australians who come from non-Anglo backgrounds and the rest who experience its benefits, it’s worth reflecting on what the future might be like if there was a policy debate in which cultural diversity was valued and productive diversity advanced.

If we take the largest Commonwealth spending areas and the places where new ideas or recycled old ones have been most evident, cultural diversity hangs well below the radar. It may well be that both the ALP and the Coalition believe that most non-Anglo people are working class and rusted on to Labor; they therefore require no feeding for the ALP, and will be immune to any seduction by the Coalition. Indeed studies by Melbourne social scientists Bob Birrell and Katherine Betts indicate that in the darkest days of the Howard ascendancy, Labor had two core groups holding it up — inner-city trendies and working class non-Anglo immigrants.

This may have changed – with so many immigrants in the last decade, the immigrant constituency is more diverse, in part far wealthier, and more politically astute than in the past. The loss of Bennelong in 2007 was caused by the desertion of more conservative Asian voters who turned to Labor; Howard has been working hard in the region to try to lure them back to what the Liberals hope is their “natural” home.

The gains in Queensland were from upwardly aspirational skilled workers, some of whom were earlier immigrants or their children, but not a group excited by multiculturalism. Indeed most of the people who really like multiculturalism may have already made their move across to the Greens.

Given there is no single “ethnic” or immigrant constituency, what are the issues that affect immigrants and ethnic minorities more dramatically than other segments of contemporary Australia? In simple terms they are those that relate to age group (older people, youth), language and communication, occupation and employment, extended family relations and human rights (often in quite complex ways). For some groups there’s also an interest in competitive leverage on influencing Australia’s foreign policies (eg Muslims vs Jews over policy in the Middle East – and yes, they are religious groups but they act as ethnic lobbies).

Let’s recall that in 1989 the Office of Multicultural Affairs was in PM Hawke’s portfolio, and the ALP won an election asserting the value of the concept and the importance of productive diversity. Two decades on, and we have to search under rocks to find either major party saying anything of any interest.