What Gillard’s government can do on cultural diversity

Under Julia Gillard’s hero Bob Hawke, multiculturalism sat within the portfolio of the Prime Minister. All new policies were checked to see they fitted the multicultural parameters of social justice, access and equity. Successive governments have lost this focus, replacing it at the worst of times with dog whistle politics and fear. Andrew Jakubowicz outlines some practical policy ideas for the new folks in government so that Australia can be cultural diversity leaders instead of the butt of racist jokes.

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.

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 on 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 Garrett, 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: firstly 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; secondly 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 marginalization. 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 (eg Afghans and Sri Lankans in the freeze on processing Asylum Seekers).

Chris Bowen, member for McMahon, Minister for Immigration and Citizenship, saw 11% of his electorate voting informal, and a 7% 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”.  The current mess is three parts apprehension, one part self interest and scarcely a pinch of humanity from either the ALP or the Opposition. Chris Evans frank admission that failing to ensure a sane and unemotional debate on asylum seekers was his biggest failure, sets some framework for the need to be brave, innovative and resolute about the policy work needed.

Bowen also walks hand in glove with Tony Burke on the sustainable population question; and Evans is still somewhere in there as he has to ensure skills and jobs, and of course, workers for industry. Bowen though has his hand on the main tap that can adjust the flow of people. We have seen already that the twist to the off position initiated by Evans has had a number of downstream negative effects: there is now an impending drought of skills as immigration has dropped; the international students who are still here are anxious and angry about their futures here; the university and college sector is hemorrhaging as demand dries up from India and elsewhere, and they need someone to sort it out – probably Evans in his new role pushing Bowen in his.  Bowen also needs to use some muscle to unlock resources from Finance Minister Penny Wong for the Citizenship side of his portfolio, that goes beyond paranoia about de-radicalising young Muslim men.

Tanya Plibersek, member for Sydney and highly vulnerable to the Greens, takes on human services and social inclusion.  Tanya could immediately demand that her departments and agencies brief her on the cultural diversity dimensions of their programs, how they will ensure that cultural diversity becomes a centre-plank of social inclusion. For the past three years the combined Rudd/Gillard/(Ursula) Stephens team at Social Inclusion Central have systematically sought to avoid, exclude and remove cultural diversity from the government’s policy priorities. Now Plibersek, who knows what the issues are, can insist that they move up the ladder of priority considerations. Social inclusion strategies will be crucial in ensuring that the educational targets that Garratt has can be met, that the equity goals that Evans inherits for universities are met, and that the mental health priorities that Roxon and Butler will be “ferociously” shadowed on by the Coalition have some hope of achieving their outcomes.

Kate Lundy, parliamentary secretary for multicultural affairs, Socialist Left senator from the ACT, ex-BWIU organizer and current internet maven (a national broadband true-believer who’ll be spending most of her time massaging the internet issues for the PM and worrying at multiculturalism on the side). Lundy replaces the old Left’s Laurie Ferguson who used up all his political capital getting Gillard to back him in Werriwa, and now can provide useful tutelage for Lundy, if she wants to hear it. Lundy could do a lot, given her entrée into the PM’s inner sanctum for other reasons.

Lundy needs firstly to revisit the pre-emptive buckle of the Demetriou review (The people of Australia), and send it back for another go. She should demand it be detailed, vigorous and serious about racism, and insist that the AMA Council look at the whole of government in detail and with a clear head. It should resource the Council to do its own research and run its own race, and unbuckle it from the dead hand of the Immigration department.  She should also begin public consultation through the Prime Minister’s department on a Multiculturalism Act for Australia, that enshrines individual freedom of cultural identity as well as recognition of the value of culturally diverse communities and cultural heritage.  Then she should negotiate with Bowen and Burke, with the support for the Prime Minister and in discussion with Kim Carr as the national research maestro, to create an independent Policy and Research Institute on Population, Immigration and Cultural Diversity. Australia has suffered grievously for over fifteen years from the lack of sustained research, and good evidence for the making of public policy.  One reason Evans failed so abysmally was that there was no deep knowledge base from which to have rational discussion. Howard’s government made the decision to destroy that information base; Rudd’s government made the decision to do nothing to replace it. Now Gillard’s government has the chance to ensure that we move forward with some rationality, and the basis for measured debate about policy objectives, priorities and programs.