Text size: A A A

Multiculturalism: time to codify program impact and engagement

Last month’s issue with Operation Fortitude was a clear example of a government department not engaging and consulting multicultural community leaders and representatives. If there is a real issue, what the Australian Border Force should have done in the first place is to engage the relevant stakeholders and seek their advice and feedback to ensure actions and strategies are culturally appropriate. The lack of consultation with multicultural leaders and representatives by the ABF were reflected when a number of them made contact with Victorian Premier Daniel Andrews sharing their concerns on the ABF’s operation.

If the federal government had a legislation specifically to address multicultural affairs, then the ABF would have been required to report on how its policies, programs and services engage with multicultural communities.

Currently, the federal government has a specific policy entitled The people of Australia – Australia’s Multicultural Policy. In this policy, the federal government recognises that Australia’s multicultural makeup gives the nation a competitive edge in today’s globalised world. The policy also supports the rights of Australians from multicultural backgrounds to maintain, practice and celebrate their cultural traditions while promoting social inclusion and an universal commitment to Australia, it democratic institutions and the rule of law. While I welcome this policy, it does not have the legislative and legal parameters to encourage federal government departments and jurisdictions to comply. In my humble opinion, only a specific legislation can achieve this.

To support the rights and responsibilities of all Australians in a multicultural society, I am proposing for the relevant minister (in this case Scott Morrison) to introduce a Commonwealth Multicultural Act to enshrine the core principles of Australian multiculturalism into law. In addition to recognising the cultural diversity of the people in Australia, social inclusion and equality of opportunity, the new Act should create a federal statutory body to manage multicultural affairs across the government. Through the Act, the federal statutory body should instruct all federal ministers and departments to report annually to the parliament on their activities, initiatives and achievements in engaging multicultural communities and Australians of multicultural backgrounds. Such legislation would provide a benchmark for the measurement of multicultural policies and initiatives at the national level.

This proposal is not a new one. Similar federal jurisdictions such as Canada and state parliaments of New South Wales, Victoria, South Australia and Western Australia have a legislation and act that enshrines multiculturalism. In the case of Victoria, the act serves as an important legislative function that requires all Victorian government departments to deliver initiatives and report to the parliament on how they support multicultural communities. Since the act was introduced in 2011, government departments have implemented a number of initiatives including interpreting and translation services, cultural diversity plans, encouragement of multicultural community representatives to join government boards and committees, developing consulting programs to seek the views of multicultural communities on government policies and address the specific needs of migrant and refugee communities.

Race discrimination commissioner Tim Soutphommasane argues in his book Don’t Go Back to Where You Came From that the successful introduction and adoption of a Commonwealth Multicultural Act requires bipartisan support and commitment from both sides of politics. He further argues the Act can achieve its full significance if there are senior leaders within both the governing and opposition parties willing to step up and champion the cause.

Dr Soutphommasane is right. To uphold such a vital piece of legislation requires champions from both sides of politics. Unfortunately, in today’s political arena, we have yet to see a parliamentary champion at the federal level similar to current vocal champions on other social issues such as gender equality, same sex marriage and indigenous affairs.

This is a different case in Victoria. Take the campaign to remove Section 18C from the Racial Discrimination Act for example, both major political parties and their respective ministers and leaders hit out at the federal government’s proposed changes. The then Victorian Coalition Multicultural Affairs Minister and now Leader of the Opposition Matthew Guy made a submission to his federal Coalition counterparts stressing his concerns that the removal of Section 18C would cause much harm upon Victoria’s multicultural community. Guy said in a statement, “the government believes all Australian have an obligation to protect and encourage social cohesion.”

As a regular observer of Victorian state politics, I have never seen anything else that brings all the political parties and their leaders together much like multiculturalism and cultural diversity. Australia’s multicultural communities need to know that the highest democratic institution, in this case the Parliament of Australia has legislation and laws that would protect them. The federal government can no longer assume that its policies and programs are culturally appropriate when there are no legislative check and balances currently in place.

Given over 40% of Australians were born overseas or have a parent who was with four million Australians speaking a language other than English, it is time for the federal government introduce a Commonwealth Multicultural Act to bring themselves into line with a majority of the states.

Jieh-Yung Lo is a policy advisor, writer and councillor at the City of Monash

Author Bio