The government’s multicultural statement is bereft of new ideas or policies – why?

Malcolm Turnbull often claims Australia is the world’s most successful multicultural nation. AAP/Lukas Coch

The slogan for the federal government’s newly released multicultural statement – United, Strong, Successful – sounds somewhat like a soundbite from Donald Trump’s presidential campaign.

It starts with an untruth – that Australia is the world’s most successful multicultural nation. Canada would win that race on any rational criteria. But the new policy stays fairly much in the place where government rhetoric has been located for the past generation – social control and integration.

Conservative multicultural policies in Australia tend to stress social integration into the pre-existing social order, aspirational core values, and signing on to “Team Australia”. More progressive policies tend to stress social, economic and political participation, social justice, and access to education.

What’s in it and where did it come from?

Labor’s last multicultural policy in government in 2011 began with similar statements about multiculturalism meaning a fair go. It noted the importance of reciprocity and recognition. It also emphasised the rule of law and the importance of English as the national language.

The policy created an anti-racism partnership. Its key message was social inclusion.

Since then, a parliamentary committee on migration unanimously supported key innovations in its 2013 report. These included a strong national research program, the promotion of multiculturalism as a policy of rights, responsibilities and obligations in community languages, the promotion of inter-faith and intercultural dialogue, and a focus on employment-related issues.

The Federation of Ethnic Communities’ Councils of Australia, a peak body of many multicultural groups, has criticised the Coalition government’s new statement for not tackling the need for either a national Multicultural Australia Act – which was first foreshadowed in 1989 – or a national language policy. This would mirror some of the benefits created for Canada by its own legislation from the early 1980s, and in the Australian states since 1978.

The statement accepts many of the traditional rhetorical elements of the multicultural narrative. “Fair go” reappears, for one. Three groups of values are presented – respect, equality and freedom. These grow from the seven values espoused by the Howard-era Citizenship Council report and the four principles in Labor’s policy.

However, the statement has no interest in social justice. Multiculturalism seems to depend on maintaining the Nauru and Manus Island offshore detention options in order to have strong borders.

In the examples given of how multiculturalism is being implemented, the anti-racism strategy created by the previous government and continued until now is no longer mentioned. The statement offers no new policy initiatives – only a beefing up of the surveillance and integration priorities.

The idea that cultural difference creates productivity which ensures greater wealth and prosperity perhaps reflects Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull’s input.

“Multiculturalism” as a philosophy is never mentioned. “Multicultural” is defined through its application to a lot of people of different cultural backgrounds living in the same society.

What now?

The statement claims the government will “condemn people who incite racial hatred”. But the ongoing attempts by many government MPs to reduce the protections Section 18C provides against this suggest the level of racial hatred that will be condemned will need to meet a much higher test than now exists.

There is something for nearly everyone in the rhetoric. Even One Nation likes it. But there’s nothing for anyone in terms of new ideas or actions.

The statement’s main effect will be inaction. The critical need for an Australian Multicultural Act to ensure a strong espousal of values and strong and funded delivery to implement them has once more been rejected.

The sector is left without any program bite, just more rhetoric. Its limited and highly vulnerable projects can be abandoned at the government’s whim.

Multicultural Australia remains on the very edge of government, the most junior of the junior assistant ministries. It’s dependent for any movement on weak product champions for its cause scattered through other parts of government.

There’s much ado about not very much at all in this announcement. And key areas like anti-racism are always at risk of disappearing in the next round of budget savings.


Further reading: Interculturalism: how diverse societies can do better than passive tolerance

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