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How national multicultural legislation would strengthen Australian society

Recent federal governments have not had the courage to draft, debate, test and pass legislation asserting and implementing Australian multiculturalism. AAP/Richard Ashen

How national multicultural legislation would strengthen Australian society

Recent federal governments have not had the courage to draft, debate, test and pass legislation asserting and implementing Australian multiculturalism. AAP/Richard Ashen

Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull has made much of the strength of Australian multiculturalism in shaping his government’s response to violent extremism. This flies in the face of governments of both stripes endeavouring for the past 30 years to ensure that as little backbone as possible is put into Commonwealth multiculturalism policy.

This is a problem when extremist groups like Hizb ut-Tahrir continue to make claims based on their definition of multiculturalism. Meanwhile, mainstream Australia isn’t allowed to define multicultural priorities, as the policy has no legislative legitimacy.

Shirking the issue

States have had legislation for nearly 40 years that not only asserts the values of multiculturalism (equity, access, participation, engagement) but also mandates the principles’ systematic application in public services.

It has not led to local ethnic Armageddon. Despite the depths of the moral panic over Islam, the 2015 Scanlon survey found that 86% of those interviewed believe multiculturalism is good for Australia.

Since the Hawke government first floated the idea in a 1989 discussion paper, no government has had the courage to draft, debate, test and pass legislation asserting and implementing Australian multiculturalism.

The situation has been even more dramatic than the pre-emptive buckle to multiculturalism’s opponents would suggest. Government inquiry after inquiry has refused to even recognise that such an issue exists. They have declined to take note of any submission or component of submission that proposes federal legislation in any area of multiculturalism.

A 1999 Howard-era report made no reference to a legislative model for multiculturalism. In doing so it specifically avoided the proposals made under Bob Hawke.

The 2010 advice from the Multicultural Advisory Council to the Rudd government avoided any mention of legislation, despite submissions. The 2012 review of access and equity specifically discussed the question of legislation in its meetings, but then made no mention of these discussions in its report.

The most notorious case must be the joint parliament committee report in 2013, brought down unanimously (but toothlessly) under the second Rudd government. I, and others, made specific submissions that proposed a version of the Canadian legislative model. But in discussions with committee members at a public hearing it was clear to me that both sides of politics would do anything to avoid having to mention legislation.

And indeed that’s what happened. The report’s logic pointed towards the necessity of a legislative base. The report’s politics steered it towards denial.

Parallel to the withdrawal from any fashion of legislation, governments slung the multiculturalism portfolio further and further down the ministerial food chain. Hawke had kept it close to him, but Paul Keating preferred Indigenous issues.

John Howard disliked both and demoted the idea, the policies, and the management. He ejected Multicultural Affairs from his department, and then grudgingly allocated it to the lowest end of the ministerial outriders. It has remained there since.

Multiculturalism only resurfaced as a significant issue when Attorney-General George Brandis in 2014 sought to amend Section 18C of the Racial Discrimination Act. He managed to galvanise a dormant coalition of opponents that brought together Chinese, Jewish, Indigenous, Greek, and Arab (but not Muslim) leaders in a sustained defence of this one area of legislated civility.

Why it matters

Australians in general like the idea of a culturally diverse society. This is not surprising, given the high proportion of overseas-born Australians and their immediate descendants.

They recognise the creativity that comes from the interaction of different ideas and viewpoints. They are happy with individual cultural traditions being retained so long as the consequences do not breach social harmony. They really do not like inter-group vilification, though they want to affirm a common bond of fairness and respect – words Turnbull uses repeatedly.

When multiculturalism and these principles are marginalised as they were during the Howard, Abbott and Rudd years, social cohesion unwinds. When the allocated political champion of multiculturalism of the day has no legislative lever from which to shift prejudice and encourage engagement, society suffers.

Given the sustained avoidance of legislated multicultural goals and practices by governments and the evident consequences in pockets of alienation and fragmentation, it should be time for a debate on what form of legislative framework Australians would like to see in support of their desires for a fair and multicultural public sphere.

This means an Australian Multiculturalism Act, and a ministerial remit for the whole of government.