Late in December, I took a phone call from a young woman working for the Department of Social Services. She had called, she said, because the department was checking its database of contacts, so that the minister and the parliamentary secretary could improve their engagement with the multicultural community.
Two days later, the politicians thus identified jointly announced the membership of the Australian Multicultural Council, which for six months had existed with no members. The new version was a slimmed down and rather more ideologically acceptable group than the former team, which had been allowed to lapse in July 2014.
After a long struggle with the Prime Minister’s Office, former Social Services Minister Kevin Andrews and parliamentary secretary Concetta Fierravanti-Wells had managed to save a council with six members from the crash-and-burn of dozens of other advisory groups abolished by the Abbott government.
Gone was the ex-officio representation by the Secretary of the Department of Social Services and the Race Discrimination Commissioner. The new chair would be the Howard-era Human Rights Commissioner Sev Ozdowski, a conservative Polish nationalist. Ozdowski was the only public figure from the “multicultural community” to endorse Attorney-General George Brandis’ failed attempt to reform Section 18C of the Racial Discrimination Act earlier in 2014.
Of the six members, two have Muslim backgrounds and one is Jewish. Vasan Srinivasan is an Indian Tamil Hindu, a property consultant, and founder and chairman of the Victorian Multicultural Liberal Business Club. The youth member, Victorian lawyer Faiza Rehman, is also known for her ultimately unsuccessful bid for MasterChef status in 2013. Charlotte Vidor is a multimillionaire from the hospitality and property development industries. Her family company donated A$25,000 to the Liberal Party and $20,000 to the ALP in 2010-11.
So, what “narrative” emerges from the appointments to the council?
Three of the new members are of west or south Asian background (all from Melbourne); three are Europeans (two from Poland). None are from north, east or southeast Asia; none are from Africa or the Americas.
Half are well-established “multicultural industry” figures: the chair (Ozdowski), who has been in government and in education, the CEO of the Australian Multicultural Foundation (Bulent Hass Dellal, the only carry-over from the former council), and a deputy chair (Helena Kyriazopoulos) of national lobby body the Federation of Ethnic Communities’ Councils of Australia (FECCA).
Half have close links to the Liberal Party (as members or long-term supporters). This is enough to ensure no proposed advice critical of the government could ordinarily achieve a majority.
Announcing the appointments, Andrews said the council:
… will advise the government on ways to sustain and support socially cohesive communities, to ensure all Australians have the opportunity to participate, engage and contribute to Australian life.
Under the previous government, the council’s membership was drawn from a public call of expressions of interest. Even so, the minister’s office played a key role in shaping those who would be shortlisted and ensured that a very Muslim-linked Council would be appointed.
This time around, however, there was no public call, and the appointments process was even less transparent. There was nothing that might lead an observer to find evidence of “opportunity to participate” being extended much beyond the handpicked political circle of the conservative wing of the Liberal Party and its donors.
The former council’s submission on the proposed changes to Section 18C pilloried the process and content of the government’s actions. The new council has been designed to ensure it neither can nor will want to confront the government’s right-wing ideology during its term of office.
If we examine what the Abbott government has done in relation to the broad multicultural agenda, we need to distinguish between things that were on its agenda but have failed (as yet) to be achieved, and things that have moved forward with serious impacts on relations and opportunities in multicultural Australia. Key failures that had they succeeded would have been seriously damaging include the attempt to remove protections from racial vilification, the closing down of family reunion visas for parents, and, momentarily, the isolation of veiled women in security boxes in parliament.
“Successes” include significant cuts to SBS’s funding, the reintroduction of non-contributory parent visas with a waiting time of at least 30 years, “stopping the boats” and the continued punishment of asylum seekers, swingeing and increasing cuts to the Human Rights Commission and its work on racial vilification and a further whitewashing of the National Curriculum.
Government support for research on social cohesion has also been truncated, both through cuts to the Australian Research Council and through cuts in supported research by government departments.
While multiculturalism and settlement services were not heavily targeted in the May 2014 budget, there are fears in the sector that new Social Services Minister Scott Morrison will revisit this given the major cuts to welfare advocacy organisations announced just before Christmas.
Three key challenges continue to confront Australian governments of whatever political flavour in relation to social cohesion and multiculturalism. Federal legislation must locate multicultural concerns at the centre of government. A more extensive empirically informed conversation about the development of Australian diversity needs to be supported by independent research.
Finally, sustained action around media representations of cultural diversity would be a key driver of social cohesion and identification with a representative and culturally diverse “Team Australia”.
While there may be little appetite in government currently to re-run the 18C debacle (despite some fringe enthusiasm), there is no sense of a government for whom these multicultural issues are anything other than marginally symbolic – or one which might risk the fragile remnants of its political capital on advancing them.
There are a number of positives about the new council, clearly the result of work by Fierravanti-Wells. Half the members are women, reflecting her commitment to issues affecting immigrant women’s well-being, such as domestic violence. The selection of Dellal and Kyriazopoulos, both highly respected professionals associated with leading apolitical NGOs, points to an awareness that there needs to be serious and fearless advice available, even if it is not followed.
The survival of the council at all must be seen as a significant victory in the face of the razor gang of economic rationalists, and the IPA ideologues for whom multiculturalism is an anathema. Fierravanti-Wells was also careful never to line herself up too publicly with the Brandis/IPA push to kill 18C. She applauded Abbott’s abandonment of the exercise. It is her phrase that there is currently “no appetite” for pursuing this issue.