The Degradation of Data: why Australia knows so little about its multicultural realities
Submission to the Multicultural Framework Review Draft Terms of Reference.
Andrew Jakubowicz PhD FRSN FASSA
Emeritus Professor of Sociology
University of Technology Sydney
3 March 2023
As the Draft Terms make clear, it has been many years since Australia’s institutional capabilities in relation to multicultural policy have been reassessed. The Framework Review is thus a welcome initiative. As a scholar of and participant in the development of multicultural Australia since the 1970s (initially as a member of the NSW Migrant Task Force reporting to Immigration Minister Grassby) I recognise that there are many issues that will need to be addressed. However not all of these have been identified in the draft Terms of Reference, most importantly the critical role that will be played by evidence-based policy which depends on well-considered structures of data collection, analysis and application which is totally missing leaving the Terms seriously flawed.
Current Challenges in the Data field
Over the past three years as the COVID pandemic has affected Australian society, it has become clear that the knowledge base associated with multiculturalism is seriously degraded and operating with declining effectiveness; scholars in the field have long known this, identifying its inception to the closure in 1996/97 by the incoming Howard government of all the key knowledge and policy institutions created out of the 1978 Galbally review (eg Office for Multicultural Affairs, Bureau of Immigration, Population and Multicultural Research).
My comments are derived from my history of research while an academic, and my recent professional engagements as:
- Member Commonwealth Department of Health and Ageing advisory group on COVID and CaLD communities (especially Data working group)
- Analyst Vaccination Task Force, Commonwealth Dept of Health and Ageing
- Senior Advisor Cultural and Linguistic Diversity, Royal Commission on Disability
- Lead consultant Waverley Council (NSW) Cultural Diversity Policy and Plan
- Consultant Sydney Migrant Services: Report on Multiculturalism and the Community: looking back and looking forward
- Author on politics of multicultural communities The Conversation (475000 reads)
There are at least four reasons for this failure in relation to Knowledge Data and Evidence that are apparent to me as a sociologist concerned with this issue. I submit that these dimensions should be addressed as part of the terms of reference.
- The concept of Cultural and Linguistic Diversity (CaLD) has underpinned data collection policies of Australian governments since 1999. It was designed to replace the term “non-English speaking background” which had become common after the ABS retired the concept of “Race” after the 1966 Census. In detail, CaLD requires four different criteria in its simplest form – born overseas in a non-English speaking country, speaking a language other than English at home, level of proficiency in English, and Australian Indigenous status. However it is rarely applied in totality leading to many mistakes in policy and practice – for instance the NDIA only discovered in September 2021 that its CaLD data included about 20% of people who were Australian indigenous language speakers and who were double counted. Moreover the emphasis on intersectionality identified in many recent government policy papers appears totally missing from the Terms of Reference.
- The Racialisation of Australian policy language in the wake of Black Lives Matter has revealed other data problems. The current Terms document talks of “second generation plus migrants”, which is extremely confusing in its application, let alone what assumed model of society underpins it. It may refer to ongoing racist responses in society to inherited physiognomy, or the continuation of cultural practices brought by the migrant generation which are sustained by their descendants (eg dance, dress, language or religion), or contradictory identities experienced by descendants of immigrants, or many other possibilities. Recently the Diversity Council of Australia has promoted the idea of cultural and racial marginalisation, abandoning linguistic diversity as an issue (or implying it is included in culture where relevant). Unlike other comparable societies, Australia has no data marker for race, a consequence of a decision after signing on to the UN Convention on the Elimination of Racism in 1966 to accept the UNESCO directive to remove “race” as a social descriptor. “Australia uses “racism” in many contexts but it has never been defined, not even in the Racial Discrimination Act. The Review should address and seek to resolve this issue.
- Governments are apparently apprehensive about what the data would show in relation to inequities in the health and other social systems; they have no communication strategy to manage their fears and so lock down even the collection of “dangerous” data. Throughout the COVID pandemic, governments have been reluctant to use the CaLD core data points in assessing the testing, infection, morbidity and mortality of the virus on communities. Mortality data are only available far after the date on which the deaths occurred yet even so have revealed massive inequities with high multiples of deaths among first generation migrants compared to the general population. Fierce resistance by the NSW government to collecting data on language spoken by people being tested resulted in much greater infection and morbidity than might otherwise have been the case, despite pilot work in Victoria demonstrating the effectiveness of using this data to identify priority groups for contact who had low testing numbers. The dynamics of this problem, replicated in all states except Victoria (though not used, thus having the same negative outcomes) and recognised and implemented by the Commonwealth only late in the day, was revealed by the extraordinary progress made once vaccination started and the vaccination data could be enhanced by correlations with the CaLD data in the 2016 Census under the MADIP program. The AIHW used a similar approach in its latest report on chronic illnesses and CaLD health. This situation of government data hesitancy should be a matter of priority for the Review as it is the best documented expression of the degradation of data and the conscious refusal by government to collect and use data that would have had major health benefits to Australia’s multicultural communities. The situation continues, with COVID deaths currently heavily concentrated in migrant elderly cohorts, without public recognition or apparent government concern.
4. While the Review purports to reference a national multicultural framework, it does not identify the roles of state, territory and local government as requiring specific attention. The data problem is magnified by the different attention and interest of these many spheres of government in ensuring the effective collection and application of data, and their orientation to the empowerment of multicultural communities in the conversations with government and their agencies. Having seen first-hand what the confusion, tension and impact of these un-coordinated spheres has proven to be, with destructive consequences for the well-being of communities, especially their most vulnerable members, it is imperative that the Review identify, explore and address these issues.
Summary of additional proposed inclusions
The Terms unfortunately contain confusing and limited perspectives on the issues that should be addressed. In our 2013 chapter in “For Those Who’ve Come Across the Seas…: Australian Multicultural Theory, Policy and Practice” on the still outstanding issues in multicultural Australia, Assoc Prof Chris Ho and I identified three broad issues –
· the need for a reinvigorated and systematic Research framework and network to improve evidence, data and build deeper and inclusive knowledge,
· a process that deals with Representation in its two meanings of political voice and socio-cultural presence, and
· Recognition of the multicultural realities through legislative and institutional reform, including engagement with intersectionality (gender, age, sexuality, disability, social class, locality) .
The current Terms reflect some of the second two ideas, though in a far too limited and confusing way. No reference to Research, data or evidence- based policy appears in discussion or in the Draft Terms. While there has been a hint in pre-Election statements by the minister that this Data issue might be addressed in a separate exercise, without this Term being incorporated into the heartland of the review process, the Framework Review will most probably fail the Australian people.
Andrew Jakubowicz BA PhD FRSN FASSA
School of Communication
Faculty of Arts and Social Sciences
University of Technology Sydney
PO Box 123
Broadway NSW 2007
Recent book: Cyber Racism and Community Resilience
Blog: Andrew Jakubowicz Sociologist
Blog: On The Conversation
W: The Menorah of Fang Bang Lu
W: Making Multicultural Australia
One thought on “The Degradation of Data in Multicultural Australia”
A thorough critique of the shortcomings of such an important and long overdue review.
Andrew has been a significant contributor in research and policy development relating to multiculturalism and his wealth of experience would be invaluable in steering the review in the right direction. From personal experience, derived from the three levels of government and the voluntary sector, I fully endorse his comments on data.