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What does the future hold for multiculturalism in Australia under an Abbott government? betta design

Does Murdoch’s multiculturalism light Abbott’s path to the future?

Rupert Murdoch’s Lowy lecture last week celebrated Australia as a multicultural and migrant society, a place where “multiculturalism is not relativism, and tolerance is not indifference” and there is “an openness to all comers – provided they are willing to abide by our way of life”.

Having visited Australia in April to celebrate the Institute for Public Affairs’ (IPA) 70th anniversary - where he was praised as one of the three Australians to have “most shaped the world” by then-opposition leader Tony Abbott - Murdoch has now further positioned himself as the éminence grise of Australian neoliberal conservatism. His shaping of the multicultural discourse gives strong indications of where Australia may be headed over the next few years.

Essentially, Murdoch believes it is the British institutions that give Australia its core morality and energy. This is moderated only by the now-clear ascendancy of Catholic politicians (Murdoch is a papal knight but not a baptised Catholic) and values in the form of Abbott and many of his frontbench, an impossibility a generation ago. What then does this mean about the “multicultural face” of Australia over the next decade of potential conservative dominance?

While we cannot speak of a Catholic/Protestant split in the Liberal Party, the decisions around multiculturalism point to some interesting social directions. In particular, Abbott specifically decided to take multicultural affairs (but not ethnic affairs) out of the hands of immigration minister and evangelical Protestant Scott Morrison, and instead passed them across to Kevin Andrews, a conservative Catholic, ex-Lyons forum mover-and-shaker and a former immigration minister (now social services minister).

It was Andrews who famously announced in 2007 that African humanitarian immigration would be halted because Africans could not assimilate, while also leading the witch-hunt against supposed (and later exonerated) Queensland terrorist Dr Muhamed Haneef. Andrews also has carriage of the IPA-prompted policy on the privatisation of social services, which has implications for settlement services.

Abbott assigned multicultural affairs to Wollongong-raised senator Concetta Fierravanti-Wells, another conservative Catholic, who is responsible to Andrews, and comes from a personal history as an activist for the Italian community on welfare and cultural issues.

Liberal senator Concetta Fierravanti-Wells has been assigned responsibility for multicultural services. AAP/Alan Porritt

Fierravanti-Wells sits at the bottom of a rather long ladder of power – the most junior parliamentary secretary. However, she has been making progress since her appointment by meeting with key stakeholders - most of whom had approached the election of the Coalition with a modicum of trepidation with good reason.

Morrison went on the record in January condemning multiculturalism in a London Australia Day speech. He effusively celebrated Henry Parkes as the father of Australian democracy, missing the key role Parkes played in bringing in White Australia and excoriating the Chinese, though noting his anti-Irish Catholic bent, which Morrison half-excused.

For Morrison, the mantra now is so strongly “what we share not what makes us different” that he has alienated himself from significant ethnic members of the NSW Liberal Party. NSW premier Barry O’Farrell, already crusty about shenanigans in Morrison’s electorate branch (that lost Miranda back to the ALP in October in the largest ever NSW by-election swing), has been careful to reiterate his strong support for multiculturalism, including its “differences”. O’Farrell recognises the role that his commitment to multiculturalism played in his landslide election win in 2011.

The other spoiler in the multicultural patch is attorney-general George Brandis. He has been pushing (in support of the IPA and Murdoch columnist and IPA celebrant Andrew Bolt) for the elimination of Section 18C of the Racial Discrimination Act as it now stands, which outlaws racial vilification.

This is a difficult issue for “multicultural Australia”. Any reduction now in the small protections available (even if only to freely permit the right to “insult” and “offend”) would be widely seen as a license to proliferate hate speech.

The Jewish community was already concerned about this promise by Brandis, and has upped the ante since the attack on a group of Jewish pedestrians (including a senior Jewish National Fund officer) in Bondi last week. The attack, quite clearly racist and opportunistic, fed concerns that any diminution in official condemnation of hate speech would leave the way open to more such attacks.

Local MP Malcolm Turnbull, whose office last year told me that he totally supported the removal of 18C, has been in meetings with Jewish organisations where he seems to have recognised that removing the protections now would not be a good look - even if the backdown makes Andrew Bolt angry. Abbott had been looking for a win-win here, but may simply decide to have Brandis lay low for a long while.

Rupert Murdoch’s Lowy lecture last week may have hinted at the changing nature of multiculturalism under the new government. AAP/Dan Himbrechts

Even so, as recent events have shown, stakeholders in multicultural policies may get a better hearing from the Coalition than they did from the Labor government, though they face widespread privatisation of their services. Rudd’s first term was not a great period for multiculturalism. He was no product champion and little if anything was done, other than moving some of the deckchairs around and reviewing settlement services.

With Julia Gillard’s election and Chris Bowen moving into the immigration portfolio, there was a significant shift. The government instituted a Multicultural Council, appointed a full-time Race Discrimination Commissioner (now Tim Soutphommasane, who was blasted by Brandis) and a significant commitment of funds to community organisations (which may or may not survive the razor-gang).

A joint parliamentary inquiry also reported on multiculturalism and migration, and its limited recommendations were signed off on in March by both sides of politics.

Multiculturalism on display on a mixture of languages displayed on shop signage in western Sydney. AAP/Dean Lewins

Fierravanti-Wells will be facing many pressing issues, not the least how to build some leverage from the bottom of the pile on an issue that once sat (during the Hawke period) in the office of the prime minister. The Federation of Ethnic Communities’ Councils (FECCA) meets this week in Queensland and has signalled its priority for a Multiculturalism Act. The proposed act has long been anathema to both political parties at a national level and hated by the bureaucracy, though Liberal governments in NSW and Victoria had no problem with introducing such legislation.

Meanwhile, the Multicultural Council has run its term. The new government will have to decide whether there will be another and if so what will it do and who will be on it. Further, with a major attack by treasurer Joe Hockey on the Australian Research Council’s humanities and social sciences funding role, a probable break-up in the immigration department’s research section, and few (if any other) sources for support for research, the parliamentary inquiry’s unanimous recommendation for a major invigoration of research into migration, settlement and multiculturalism looks to be stillborn.

In this case, ignorance will not be bliss. The 2005 Cronulla riots demonstrated this all too well.

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