Budget blows cold on cultural diversity

The Government will cut family reunion places by 5750, replacing them with employer-nominated skilled immigrants, the Immigration Minister Sen. Chris Evans announced in his Budget media release . Meanwhile Border Security has been upgraded by over 30% with a forward budget of about $1.2 billion over the next four years.New IT equipment will be used to raise the capacity of security forces to monitor and detect illegal and threatening movements of people towards the country. Indonesia will be given more support to build a first line of defence. In a curious consequence of the ban on the processing of Sri Lankan and Afghan applicants, $800 000 of additional funding over two years will go to the Commonwealth Ombudsman to ensure the fairness of detention and immigration processes on Christmas Island, though it is not clear whether the Ombud will have any powers to advocate for the banned categories of asylum seekers.

Despite rising refugee pressures around the world the Government will hold the refugee intake to 13,750. ‘The main resettlement focus will continue to be on refugees from the three key regions of Africa, Asia and the Middle East,’ Senator Evans said. Within those regions, of particular interest will be those refugees in protracted situations, such as the Bhutanese in Nepal, along with others in critical need. Vulnerable women will again be a priority through the ‘woman at risk’ program, which the Government increased to 12 per cent of the refugee component of the program last year. Sen Evans said, ‘The Rudd Government is committed to a humane and fair refugee and humanitarian program. This is something our nation has always done well.’ There was no budget statement from the Parliamentary Secretary for Multicultural Affairs and Settlement Services.

The former Diverse Australia program and the National Action Plan to Build Social Cohesion, Harmony and Security program are being merged to form the Diversity and Social Cohesion program, with administrative savings projected of $300,000 per year. Grants to agencies undertaking Settlement Services for Migrants and Refugee program will be amended to a Wage Cost Index as new contracts are entered into between 2010-11 and 2013-14, with a projected saving of $9.4 million over four years. This will seriously affect community agencies concerned to build effective career opportunities for staff, and retain experienced staff in the community. Three Settlement Services programs are affected by this change: the Adult Migrant English program (AMEP) which provides English lessons to eligible migrants; the Humanitarian Settlement Services (HSS) program which provides humanitarian migrants with initial intensive settlement services; and the Grants for Community Settlement Services (CSS) program which provides grant funding to help migrants participate equitably in Australian society. One bizarre remnant of the 2007 election campaign remains, namely the extraordinary funding of the Mirabooka Multicultural Centre in WA as part of an inter-party bidding war in the marginal Federal electorate (to be funded out of the now reduced pool for the Grants for Community Settlement Services program).

In a continuing area of controversy $47 million is earmarked for the National School Chaplaincy program, another remainder from the former government’s priorities. The scheme is to be reviewed in 2011, and is not earmarked in the budget estimates to continue in its current form.

The one area of initiative that may directly benefit working class immigrant communities, the Skills for Sustainable Growth Foundation Skills package in the workplace and community, will provide a further 17,500 training places in language, literacy and numeracy over four years. Industry Skills Council brokers will encourage participation by enterprises in target industries that have a high incidence of workers with low LLN skill levels -ethnic and multicultural community organisations will need to become strong advocates for client election and support. Funding for community?based projects will deliver up to 8,000 additional training places to be provided through short courses in innovative community settings such as neighbourhood houses, men’s sheds, mothers’ groups, Indigenous support organisations and community colleges. These courses are aimed at attracting adults into further foundation skills LLN training. Up to 60 projects will be funded in 2010?11, 100 projects in 2011?12 and 120 projects each year in 2012?13 and 2013?14.

Key program areas in settlement areas have received small increases – with AMES rising by $3.5 million, the Refugee Council by $20,000, and community and Humanitarian Services by about $3 million. The key Outcome 6 “A cohesive, multicultural Australian society through promotion of cultural diversity and a unifying citizenship, decisions on citizenship status, and multicultural and citizenship policy advice and program design” sees an increase in funding for community programs. The pre-existing Diverse Australia Program and National Action Plan to Build Social Cohesion, Harmony and Security – Community Engagement (totaling about $2.5 million in 2009 including the Parliament of World Religions), has been converted into a new Diversity and Social Cohesion program with about $3.5 million – a significant increase but one paid for by cannibalizing some of the salary indexation funds in community service delivery, and the significant reduction in funding for Promoting the Value of Australian Citizenship (down $300,000) and Promoting the Benefits of a United and Diverse Society (down $2.5 million). The Citizenship Test Preparation Program, which was terminated in 2009 (saving $170,000), will particularly affect the most vulnerable humanitarian applicants who have had the lowest success rates in the Test.

Overall the impact on the most vulnerable and least articulate immigrant and refugee communities will be small but significant, eroding at the margins community services already strapped for resources. There is no sign of the Australian Multicultural Advisory Council recommendations on improving services having had any impact as yet.

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