Opinion: Canberra – we have a problem

By Andrew Giles

Wednesday September 23, 2020

Andrew Giles (AAP Image/James Ross)

Australia’s public service needs to look much more like Australia.

Over the past eight years our country has become more diverse but the reverse is true of Australia’s public service.

Declining diversity in our public service is unacceptable.

We can’t fairly claim to be the world’s most successful multicultural society if we don’t work to ensure the diversity in the community is reflected in places of power and influence.

Debates about the diversity of our political, business and academic leaders has brought modest improvements; however, the same cannot be said of our public service.

This doesn’t just mean individuals missing out on opportunities, as bad as that is. It’s holding us back as a society, with some perspectives and experiences not reflected in policy-making and some citizens not seeing themselves when they engage with government.

Deloitte and SBS calculate that the financial cost of failing to harness our diversity in the private sector at $12 billion. We need to think about how we can quantify a similar failure on service-delivery, agenda-setting and indeed our identity as a nation.

We need to understand how this could have happened, and use this understanding to drive change. One thing is clear, we can’t just rely on the current legal framework to remove barriers, political will is required.

It needs to be accepted that this is a problem, and that it has to be a matter of urgency that it is solved.

What we know is bad, but what we don’t know might be worse. It’s unclear what the situation is in different departments.

Labor has been calling for Australia to join other multicultural societies in better measuring our diversity.

Australia has a relatively poor record of collecting data on ethnic diversity.

At the moment, our data is largely limited to ancestry, language and place of birth.

By contrast, New Zealand, Canada and the United States all ask questions about ethnicity or race in their respective censuses.

The UK has produced the Race Disparity Audit, which looks at the treatment of people from different backgrounds across education, employment and the criminal justice system.

The audit is helping to inform policy decisions, and encouraging greater diversity in key roles.

It’s why Labor has called on the Australian Bureau of Statistics to find new ways to measure diversity in the next Census, due in 2021.

Also of considerable concern is that just 37% of government agencies and departments report having a CALD action plan or strategy. This clearly needs to be improved.

Within Australia’s bureaucracy it is well known that what is measured matters.

Put simply, you can’t fix a problem if you don’t fully understand what the problem is.

And Canberra — we do have a problem.

Our public servants do vital work, setting policy directions, and providing the services that underpin Australia’s social compact.

It’s vital that this work is open to all of us, and reflects the breadth of our great multicultural society.

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