Why Australia needs a Multiculturalism Act and why Malcolm Turnbull should deliver one.

Shorter version publlished through The Conversation, with 100+ comments (some people are scary)

When Australia’s Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull in early November used a celebration of Australian multiculturalism  to open a speech justifying increased penalties for ever-younger potential jihadis, he made two rather profound statements. For the first time since Bob Hawke an Australian Prime Minister centred multiculturalism as a potential strength in building national security. In the same breath he demonstrated that it had failed in that task, as punitive sanctions were required because by implication multiculturalism had not been successful enough.

The reason for the failure was left to us to discern. I argue that the key reason for multiculturalism not providing “the cement for all Australians” that PM Howard had derided in 1988, lies in the refusal of national government after government since Hawke to legislate for its application to public life. Unlike the major states that have had no problem with multicultural legislation, the Commonwealth has surrendered the territory that effective multicultural policy should occupy, by pre-emptive buckling to nativist Right wing populists, and more recently, to jihadist ideologues with no interest in Australia.

So surveillance, stripping of citizenship, trace bracelets and close policing are ever more necessary because the national government has never wanted to included the full diversity of Australia’s population in the national narrative. Today we pay the consequence of that failure in threats of hostile violence and thousands of alienated youth, who see nothing for themselves in the story people like Abbot and Turnbull tell of the nation.

Unlike Canada, which has had inclusive rights-based multicultural legislation since 1985, we have few federal politicians of non-Anglo immigrant or refugee background. We have no High Court judges of colour. The ABC Board has been stubbornly Euro-Australian for decades. Our national advisory bodies are overwhelmingly bleached, and Australian Story is only very occasionally inclusive.

Yet the national Scanlon Report once more in 2015, despite the depths of the moral panic over Islamism, found that 86% of Australians believe multiculturalism is good for the country. The NSW Liberal Government in 2013, even before the election of the Abbott government, had reframed its language (watered down under Carr’s Labor government to make a small target in the days of Howard’s crusade against the term) to once more call the agency and the law under which it operated Multicultural NSW.

No Federal government since Hawke’s first floated the idea in a discussion paper in 1989, has had the courage or the principled commitment to draft, debate, test and pass legislation asserting and implementing Australian multiculturalism. Indeed the situation has been even more dramatic than this pre-emptive buckle to the opponents of multiculturalism would suggest. Government inquiry after inquiry has refused to even recognise that such an issue exists, declining to take note of any submission or component of submission that proposes federal legislation in any area of multiculturalism.

The 1999 Howard era report on multiculturalism (known in the trade as “Arthur’s ploy” as proponents of it slowed its progress through the bureaucracy until Arthur Sinodinos, then Howard’s adviser and the only force likely to prevent the total abolition of multiculturalism, returned from an extended honeymoon) made no reference to a legislative model for multiculturalism. In this it specifically avoided the proposals from the previous decade made under Hawke. The 2010 advice from the Multicultural Advisory Council to the Rudd Government avoided any mention of legislation, despite submissions. The 2012 Review of Access and Equity specifically discussed the question of legislation in its meetings, but then decided to make no mention of these discussions in its report, leaving Access and Equity the continuing lame duck that it is.

However the most notorious case must be the parliamentary Joint committee report of 2013, brought down unanimously (but toothlessly) under Rudd 2, to which I made a specific submission (among other people) proposing a version of the Canadian legislative model. In discussions with members of the committee at a public hearing it was clear to me that they (both sides of politics) would do anything to avoid having to mention legislation. And indeed that’s what happened. The logic of the report pointed towards the necessity of a legislative base, the politics of it steered it towards denial.

Parallel to the withdrawal from any fashion of legislative institutionalisation, governments slung the multiculturalism portfolio further and further down the ministerial food chain. Hawke had kept it close to him, pushing its priority in 1989 (and in the process accelerating its manager Peter Shergold’s rise through the public service). Keating preferred Indigenous issues (which Hawke did not). Howard disliked both and demoted the idea, the policies and the management, firstly by ejecting Multicultural Affairs from his Department, and then by grudgingly allocating it to the lowest end of the ministerial outriders, where it has remained.

So from an apogee of salience for government in 1989 it dropped (in the wake of the long wash from the Blainey affair and in the surge of xenophobia occasioned by Hanson) to a perigee of denial by 1997. Multiculturalism only resurfaced as a significant issue when Attorney General Brandis in 2014 sought to implement the IPA proposal to remove section 18C of the Racial Discrimination Act. Somehow, I assume unintentionally, he managed to galvanise a dormant coalition of opponents, that saw the sharp end bringing together Chinese, Jews, Indigenous, Greek, and Arab (but not Muslim) leaders in a sustained defence of this one area of legislated civility in the whole Commonwealth pantheon.

What might we then conclude from the research evidence that underpins this narrative? Australians in general like the idea of a culturally diverse society – not surprisingly given the high proportion of overseas born and their immediate descendants. They recognise both the creativity that comes from the interaction of different ideas and viewpoints, and the comfort that comes from sharing intimacies within a communal tradition. They are happy with individual cultural traditions being retained so long as the consequences do not breach social harmony. They really do not like inter-group vilification, though they want to affirm a common bond of fairness and respect, words used repeatedly by Malcolm Turnbull.

When multiculturalism and these principles are marginalised as they were during the Howard, Abbott and Rudd periods, then social cohesion unwinds. When the allocated political champion of multiculturalism of the day has no legislative lever from which to shift prejudice and encourage engagement, the society suffers. Given the sustained avoidance of legislated multicultural goals and practices by governments and the evident consequences in pockets of alienation and fragmentation, it should be time for a debate on what form of legislative framework Australians would like to see in support of their desires for a fair and multicultural public sphere. At the FECCA session where this issue was discussed, even the somewhat cautious Chair of the Australian Multicultural Council, Dr Sev Ozdowski, voiced a tentative vote of support for the move to create such an Act, subject to its content.

This means an Australian Multiculturalism Act, and a ministerial remit for the whole of government.  It remains to be seen whether either or both (better) FECCA or the Australian Multicultural Council have the fortitude to press home the case, and whether our newly sensible PM recognises its import.


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