Dark data hole leaves multicultural Australia in danger in second wave pandemic.

Part 1 The problem

A dark hole sits at the heart of multicultural Australia – the data by-pass on how the COVID19 virus pandemic is affecting our culturally diverse communities. While extraordinarily careful measures have been taken to identify and protect vulnerable Indigenous people, governments in all jurisdictions have been cavalier if not conspiratorial in ensuring they know nothing about our multicultural reality and the disease.  This works both for the impact of the disease on communities, and the contribution that communities make to containing or transmitting the disease.  Now with the second wave rising in inner northern Melbourne, these issues have suddenly come to the fore with a vengeance. The Victorian government doubled down on multicultural communication, admitting it had only started this a day or so ago (following the release of this article! )

Despite the national government’s reiterated claim that Australia is the world’s most successful multicultural society (never true and especially not so now), one of the fundamental requirements of a multicultural society, that social facts as they effect social groups should be enumerated and recorded, has been consciously and systematically avoided. In the USA and the UK ethnicity or race are clear indicators of vulnerability. In Australia, who knows? The only public commentaries are anecdotal reflections, and a shared belief apparent among the managers of the pandemic in government that for the most part the disease is confined to Anglos either local or travelling in. The first study of the question (based on an online survey through Sydney University) appeared on June 5, where the key findings demonstrated that lower levels of health literacy are associated with poorer practices in health protection. A key indicator of low health literacy even among English readers, was a language other than English spoken at home. Other factors (age etc.) exacerbated this effect.

While multicultural health issues can be quite well researched, and state health agencies usually record data that allows an understanding of the potential cultural and social influences on health and illness, a perfect storm of absence has been generated around the corona virus – and not because as the US President opined, it should be called the China Virus. In the process of preparing this article I used every element of my research network to discover what it would be possible to say with any degree of certitude, while also identifying where and why the data for policy was failing so substantially.

Collecting data

The story apparently begins with the National Notifiable Diseases data base, created in its current form about fifteen years ago, with its associated Surveillance System. The data is collected under state public health legislation reflecting the WHO definition of surveillance as “continuing scrutiny of all aspects of the occurrence and spread of disease that are pertinent to effective control”. One would expect that given the social dimensions of this definition, demographic data beyond age, Indigenous status, gender and location would be pertinent. Perhaps but in fact, no such data are not collected on ethnicity, language spoken, or country of birth. Asking the national government what is being revealed by the ethnic characteristics of groups infected by the disease, tested for the disease or under-represented in testing, reveals nothing. No data, no answer. My in-box is replete with “no information” emails from media groups at all levels of government, or as often, no reply.

Perhaps then the testing schedules might help – yet no ethnicity data is collected on individuals tested that is of any use, even though with many hundreds of thousands of tests done this data would be of enormous potential value. What of incidences of infection – over 7000 so far? The schedule that is used to determine the pathway of infection and permit tracing to be pursued, a primary method of controlling disease spread, does include country of birth and language spoken at home. However it appears that these questions only get asked IF an interpreter is required, and it is impossible to discover how many of the 7000+ even used an interpreter. So the assumption appears to be that the spread of the disease is geographic rather than through social networks; in lockdown phase this may be an acceptable proposition, but after that? Given that the correlation of neighbourhood with ethnicity varies considerably, knowing where outbreaks occur does not help adjust strategies for tracing contacts per se through ethnic networks across cities and regions.

Harassment of minorities – is it better not to know?

It has been put to me by many people in the system that it’s good we don’t know the answer to my query, because were such information to leak out it would intensify racism and put hotspot groups at risk of attack, abuse and stigmatisation. It is clear that abusive harassment of cultural minorities, especially but not only Chinese and other Asians, Jews and Muslims, has been intensifying both online and off during the pandemic. When the level of abuse had risen to the point that Australian Chinese leaders were petitioning the government for action, PM Morrison and Minister Tudge came forward, decried the abuse, and while reiterating the claim about the success of Australia’s multiculturalism, proclaimed that racism has no place in Australian society. The victims of abuse were advised to complain to the Human Rights Commission. It is possible then that adequate data might reveal something else – that ethnic communities are missing out on access to adequate testing and disease identification, indicating structural and systemic discrimination exists at the most fundamental level, a finding evident in US studies.

Furthermore, Morrison made reference to the fact that Australian Chinese communities had gone into lockdown and isolation far earlier and with greater discipline than many other groups, thus exemplifying social responsibility in the face of the pandemic. As we now know, the Chinese government has publicly identified Australian racism as a major issue for Chinese citizens thinking of visiting Australia in the future, suggesting they might be safer elsewhere. Last week a coalition of ethnic and Indigenous organisations called for the reactivation of the Australian Anti-racism Strategy operating before 2015 but cancelled by the Abbot government.

The failure to collect data on cultural background and language leaves potentially vulnerable groups without adequate information, and epidemiologists and public health officials without a realistic sense of the landscape in which they need to move. If sanitary social distancing and testing are the key weapons against the disease at least in the short term, then rigorous documentation of how the pandemic is affecting different groups must underpin strategies that seek to protect the vulnerable and ensure potential “spreaders” can take appropriate and rational precautions.

Part 2 What we know but need to know more.

What can be discerned at this early data-scarce stage in investigating the ethnic dimension of COVID19 in Australia? From discussions with various officials ranging from ministerial advisers through NHMRC committee members to parliamentarians, multicultural agency officers, ethnic community workers, and frontline health personnel, a knowledge framework that has bits of information associated with its nodes can be discerned. [more]

The three knowledge networks that co-exist in the COVID19 space encompass: a) epidemiological understandings; b) political economy understandings and c) social communication understandings. 

Culture and epidemiology

The cultural epidemiology suggests in Australia that the primary entry of the virus came via five or six pathways. The first were individual arrivals into Australia from countries where the infection had already taken hold. The people came from China, Iran, Italy and maybe South Korea, from which entry was soon shut down. However the second source, through uncontrolled intake, a case of institutional racism lit large and lethal, allowed people from Britain and the USA to enter without control until all entry was shut down later in March. Of the Anglo sources the UK appears to have been the most prolific with the USA not far behind – Tom Hanks and Rita Wilson being the most infamous examples. The Bondi outbreak among American backpackers (ostensibly transmitted through partying in which $100 bills were shared to sniff substances) was another example of this phenomenon.

However of all cases Anglo-Australians are the most likely patients (either travelling home or acquired locally), not only because they are a large majority of the population, but because in the older age cohorts Anglo-Australian or British reflect the make up of the population forty to fifty years ago, and to some degree the class structure, where more middle class and White populations survive longer than people of colour from working class backgrounds.  Then of course there was the Ruby Princess, with its 2500 passengers (the majority apparently Anglo-Australian) and unknown number of its multicultural crew with their Sydney contacts, amongst whom the virus was reproducing with gusto, that flooded into Sydney and spread out from there.

Political economy of ethnic groups

It is at this point we need to understand the cultural political economy of Australia. Ethnic groups are not distributed randomly across either the economy or the landscape, but rather clumped into certain occupations, localities and socio-economic classes. In the USA and the UK higher rates of infection and death among certain ethnic groups reflect the social power of those groups or the lack of it. For those groups concentrated in more poorly paid, casualised, and under-unionised sectors of the economy the onset of the pandemic and the lockdown regimes imposed, especially among women, created catastrophic consequences. Extended and multigenerational families moved in together, overcrowding became more common, domestic violence rose and the possibility of social distancing in the domestic environment significantly reduced. The conditions for self-isolation at home effectively disappeared for many.

This picture of Australians society has been described as one based on a division between primary and secondary labour markets, first identified fifty years ago by Jock Collins in his “Migrant Hands in Distant Lands”.  In simple terms, the primary labour market can be expressed as a large pool of workers with recognised skills, fluency in English, and stable jobs, protected by the trade union movement and with associated benefits. In the pandemic these have been the workers most likely to have been protected to some extent by the JobKeeper and JobSeeker schemes. The secondary labour market reflects the opposite characteristics – lower pay, casualisation, few benefits, poor workplace protection, and in some cases they are undocumented status and highly exploitable. The overwhelming members of that market are immigrant or refugee, or asylum seekers who are the most marginalised. While the majority of migrants are not in the secondary market, the majority of secondary market members are migrants. They are the ones effectively abandoned by the national government.


As should be clear by now, we have very limited information about what has been happening in Australia in relation to ethnic groups, other than that the same social processes and parameters are likely to have been activated here as in the USA and elsewhere. However we do know from anecdotal responses around some hotspots such as retirement and nursing homes, that particular ethnic groups are more likely to be employed in those facilities, at various level of skill. For example nursing homes in the west of Sydney employ many Filipina workers, from cleaners and assistants to nurses. In the north of Sydney Iranians may be more likely to work in those facilities, while in the south it may be Nepalis. On the cruise boats the multinational work forces also fell ill, but we do not know what their socio-cultural networks might be in Sydney and Perth. News reports of the cases at Cedar Meats in Melbourne point to the high level of non-English speaking background workers (especially from the Middle East), their low educational backgrounds and fluency in English, and the hazardous work environment. Infected workers have passed on the infection to an aged care worker and a nurse, as well as a school child. The reports of Melbourne’s MacDonald’s infections refer to extended families – most likely immigrant and refugee background.

Social communication and ethnic networks

These networks of vulnerability already exist in Australia, but are cloaked with a barrier to identification. Why should this be of concern if identification and tracing can be pursued on a locality basis through voluntary and extensive testing? We have no idea what the rate of testing is, and who may be missing out – and for what reasons. In discussion with frontline health workers they have described the sorts of issues that have arisen that suggest clusters of people who are rarely tested though they may be vulnerable. Three dynamics may be at work.

Most health communication messages in NSW are originated in English and then translated by Health translation services or the State Translation agency, directed by Multicultural NSW – targeting vulnerable communities with limited English skills. Multicultural NSW has a seconded officer working in State Emergency Operations Command with authority to ensure sensitive coverage of ethnic communities. In Victoria ethnic community networks on social media have been widely used to get messages through. Social media penetration declines as the population gets older.

There has been considerable commentary on how different messages from state and federal authorities can cause significant confusion even for fluent English speaking native born Australians. In NSW state messages get processed through state agencies and follow state policies, while the same communities may also be exposed to Federal messages translated by the National health agencies, and through SBS, and get other information from social media. Moreover, many immigrant communities follow social media in their own languages and media streams from overseas, deluged with the variable nature of those messages. (For instance, if you are an elderly Greek what would be your information sources to decide whether to wear a mask or not when going to church, with that option now open?)

For many communities, their social conservatism clearly displayed in their voting during the Same Sex marriage poll, religious leaders provide a guide to appropriate behaviour. Early on in the pandemic messages were delivered in some faith communities about the role that religious piety might play in protecting people from infection, while medical explanations and advice went unheard.  In NSW  MSNW moved quickly to activate its religious leaders’ forum fortnightly, usually a quarterly event,  to ensure that across the range of beliefs in NSW the message of the government was delivered clearly. It also provides grants of $5000 -$10000 to community groups providing essential support services to culturally and linguistically diverse groups.

Social media has also become a space of contestation, as messages ranging from bot trolling and overt racism to academic medical research struggle for the attention of audiences and their networks.  Fear and anxiety has grown, with hate speech dividing communities from each other, and fear and “fake news” feeding each other.  Communities especially of faith are also seeking ways to protect their members from harassment, through reinforcing social solidarity online, as shown in  a recent Scanlon Foundation report detailing the response by religious bodies around the country.

Testing regimes have proven a difficult terrain with unknown impacts. Knowing the ethnic or linguistic dimensions of people who have been tested would allow some scoping of the people who have not been tested, and are therefore at greater risk as both patients and transmitters. Frontline workers told me of such situations. Young Afro-Australian men in western Sydney feel that the surveillance of COVID19 lockdown behaviour by police soon became yet another form of harassment, exacerbated by their overcrowded living conditions and poor incomes.  Single mothers with children, still working on limited incomes, feared that they would lose what work they had, as slow test processing times meant they had to stay at home in self-isolation until cleared: they feared the self-isolation regimes.

Why we have to do “multicultural” properly

The signs of a second wave are already riffling the not so distant horizon. Official after official told me, becoming astonished in the telling to realise it, that there was no data about ethnic diversity. We are on the edge of something very complex with potentially major “downsides”. It is not just the abandoned asylum seekers whom I see searching for cans in the bins on my local street in order to collect a few coins, or the refugees fed by charities shivering in the cold as winter comes on, or the international students riding through the night for Deliveroo, but the whole edifice of multicultural Australia that has been overcome with shadows.

Hopefully someone will work out that some authority needs to say, “let’s do this right”, and open up the illumination. This must begin by redefining the Notifiable Diseases strategy to recognise Australia as a multicultural society, and soon, so that if/when wave 2 arrives the country is rather better prepared to respond, resist and recover.

Launch talk “The Man Who Wasn’t There: In Search of Gerhard”

Book cover: launch on 1 December 2019 Melbourne

Launch by Andrew Jakubowicz
The Man who Wasn’t There – Searching for Gerhard
By Susan Hearst, nee Friedlander
Melbourne
Beth Weizmann, 308 Hawthorn Rd, Caulfield. Sunday 01 December 2.30pm

To buy: phone Lamm Jewish Library +61 3 92725611 or email info@ljla.org.au.

I acknowledge the Aboriginal custodians of the land on which we meet, the Wurundjeri people of the Kulin alliance, and pay my respects to their elders past present and emerging.

Remembering is a personal and a political act – a stand in that flow of history that otherwise dissolves the past from under us. In oral cultures history become myth and is repeated through the generations, in rituals of story-telling. As people of the book we are drawn to writing the stories, perhaps no less ritualised or myth-repeating.

The aim of the Holocaust, though such a tragedy cannot be so sanctified with any sense of a rational mind at work, was to remove the telling of the long narrative of the Jewish people, by removing the people. The first action by the Nazis involved burning books, then burning synagogues and homes and shops, and then burning people. The writing of a book about our history represents a step forward into the face of those who burnt everything precious.  The palm rises into the hoard bearing down on us, tripping up and hurling aside the hooligans of eradication, reinscribing on the palimpsest scraped free, our record of lives lost but now no longer forgotten. As Susan and I had chiselled into our grandmother’s grave in Sydney “As we live, she lives”.

Family histories are exemplary ways to communicate the long story of love and caring and human frailties and strengths, stretching back into an infinite regression. They also foreground through their telling those values that are to be communicated into the future, to children, grandchildren and onwards, to be read not just now but again and anew. So Susan has done not only her own good work, but good work for many others of us, and many others of her own.

This book is partly about heart-break, about the way in which the Holocaust rolls on through the decades, catching and shaking the lives of survivors and their children. It is also about discovery, and quite literally putting the pieces back together again, out there in the narrative, inside in the heart.

When Susan asked me to launch her memoir and investigation into her missing father, I was honoured but worried. When you start opening the discarded baggage of other peoples’ lives, you can disgorge stuff that has no resolution. And so with this set of stories, and nearly all of her own doing, though with a little help from her friends.

Susan and I have been close forever, from the time we used to eat mangos in the bath when kids in the Blue Mountains, or cower from the anger of adults when we had done something quite naughty as we played in the house in Bentleigh. I vaguely remember her in the dark serge of St Gabriel’s school, just around the corner from our place in Bondi, chosen for her by a single mum who had to work.

The stories of Maria and my parents and our mutual grandmother were the stuff of our childhoods, great escapes and dumb silences. In her wonderful analysis, The Silence: how tragedy shapes talk, my old friend the late Ruth Wajnryb takes us on a journey to disinter the stories from the many silences with which we are surrounded. For Susan these silences were palpable, both that kept by her mother, and those left like a relentless wake by her father. As Susan says of her mother and her one great passion, a man who appears suddenly, momentarily yet warmly in these pages, that when she could tell she wouldn’t tell, and when she would’ve told, she could no longer tell. Everything can be in the telling.

The book picks out the pieces of Susan’s family – firstly the survivors who escaped from Lodz through Vilnius to Japan. Some of that narrative lurks in the memoir by our uncle Marcel Weyland, The Boy on the Tricycle. Some I have referenced in a series of academic articles on Shanghai and the Jews of China, also an exhibition at the Sydney Jewish Museum in 2001. Some is in the interviews recorded for the Shoah Foundation by the late Maria Kamm, Susan’s mother, many years ago. Yet Susan’s story only gestures to how my side of the family, my parents Hala and Bolek, and our indominable grandmother, Babcia Weyland, shaped what would happen to her.  Perhaps we were not always great for her, however well-meaning we might have been.  Gerhard and Maria were a young married couple when my tribe arrived from Shanghai and moved in with them at Kings Cross in 1946. The marriage didn’t last that much longer. Susan alludes to a dynamic that shifted their love affair of wartime to the reality of the postwar recovery, when Gerhardt left and effectively disappeared. Everyone else knew more about him than she was ever allowed to know. Except me, I knew nothing.  

Searching for fathers lost through the Holocaust has become an oft-repeated but always demanding laneway in history. So often it was the mothers who shielded the children, arranged their escapes, led them to safety. The fathers were taken earlier, found it harder to hide, went on their own adventures.  So it is for Susan’s search for Gerhard, George, the man who introduced my recently arrived father in post-war Sydney to the six o’clock swill, where he would drink ten icy schooners in a row thinking he would die of a frozen throat. George who convinced my father to go on a road trip into southern Queensland where he noted that the water in Roma, tasted oily, missing the chance to become an oil magnate. And George who one day was no longer there.

Why had Gerhard deserted her as a baby, this German refugee, with a family lost in Europe, hanging out with a young Polish woman? Did he love her- either Maria or Susan? What did he know about his own family? Why had he cut off all contact? In bursts, Gerhard emerges like a body sculpted from marble, cool, distant but increasingly distinct as Susan discovers elsewhere many of the answers to questions she wanted him to answer. But of course not the one that matters.

Intention and serendipity intertwine, blocked passageways open out, people appear out of unformed landscapes with fragments of the story.  Susan puts them together like a jigsaw, moving the pieces around as her writing tests propositions of possibilities and then tightens the logic from the evidence she can nail down.

We skip from Australia, to China, to Poland, to Germany, to Norway, to Palestine, to Israel, to north and south America, to Chile and on. Along the way there are many stumblestones, not just the ones sunk into the cobbled streets of Berlin or Vienna to remind the passers-by of their stolen Jews, but those created by history in the soul.

We meet Susan at the beginning of the book as an orphan with an unknown father and nothing more, isolated on the edge of the world. By the end, the families in which Gerhardt played a part have dimensions in time and space, and Susan is wrapped in an extended network of caring and memories across five continents – I await to hear the story from America of the distant cousins who survived through a Shanghai escape: where my own parents found refuge.

Throughout the book there is the figure of Gary, from the first call from my parent’s home to a momentarily rediscovered Gerhardt 44 years ago, to the guide he offered to Susan through his own tragic landscape of Austria and Byelorussia. He knew there was a “piece missing” for Susan that had to be found for their family together to be made whole.

In publishing this book Makor extends the Loti and Victor Smorgon Community Archive, which comprises all the books in the Write Your Story program, adding to its already renowned and impressive portfolio a unique “take” on the meaning of survival. The Makor/ Smorgon archive is the largest publisher of Holocaust memoir in English in the world, and I wish to recognise the contribution they make to the reinvigoration of memory, and the survival of culture.

This book is a good read, moving, insightful, sharp, curious, not unlike its author.

I have great pleasure in launching this book, The man who wasn’t there: In search of Susan…

Difference not Division: 40 Years of Multiculturalism in Australia: FECCA 2019

Check against delivery

I pay respect to the traditional and original owners of this land the muwinina (mou wee nee nar) people, – to pay respect to those that have passed before us and to acknowledge today’s Tasmanian Aboriginal people who are the custodians of this land.

In 1979 when FECCA was established I had just returned to Australia to become the Director of the Centre for Multicultural Studies at the University of Wollongong. From the outset I had a close relationship with FECCA and wish to acknowledge the founders and the staff who have sustained this organisation and its national networks over four decades.

Today I want to reflect on those years and what we have learnt about multiculturalism, its challenges, successes and failures, and where we stand today. Multiculturalism was never something to take for granted, remaining  today a controversial idea. When Al Grassby and Jim Houston put the idea into circulation in 1973, as part of the Whitlam ALP government’s initiatives on human rights, Australia was just coming to terms with the idea that White Australia would not define our common future. So multiculturalism’s birth and White Australia’s alleged death were closely aligned – though the next five years until its incorporation into public policy through the Galbally report in the Fraser government remained a rocky road.

Multiculturalism has been concerned with outcomes of social cohesion and national stability through processes of that address inequality, prejudice and marginalisation. Sociologists recognise that in a country like Australia that has built its non-Indigenous population through recruitment from many different societies, the creation and deepening of social capital remains a major social challenge. Because with diverse societies social trust, the “cement” of social capital, is always shallower than in more monocultural societies, social programs have to look to how social capital can be created. Immigrant communities bring with them a tendency to focus on bonding social capital, that is the intensification of and reliance on interactions and resources within the group. Yet a multicultural society needs to strengthen the bridging social capital that allows people to interact with and trust people different from themselves, while using and contributing to organisations over which they may have little influence.

Multiculturalism in Australia has always been framed by a “progressive” conservatism, most eloquently expressed in the continuing refusal of both major political groups to consider its legislative enactment. Yet it took a conservative government to bring it into the arena of broad public policy, advocated for by Malcolm Fraser and shepherded by Petro Georgiou, the last liberal Liberal.  Let us hear from Fraser (though it is more likely Georgiou, given his comment that Georgiou “could still relate to the issues much more readily than I ever could, for example, or other people in my office”) as he marked out what he believed it was necessary to achieve in 1981 at the launch of the ill-fated and short-lived Australian Institute for Multicultural Affairs:

We have not simply grafted an ethnic dimension on to an otherwise unchanged conception of ourselves. There has been a fundamental reappraisal of the established way of seeing Australia. In multiculturalism, we have forged a radically innovative basis upon which we can respond as a nation to Australia’s  diversity, to its challenges and opportunities…. We know that the attempt to enforce conformity holds high costs both for the individual and the society. It denies  people their identity and self esteem. It drives a wedge between children and their parents. Ultimately it poses a real threat of alienation and division. We cannot demand of people that they renounce the heritage they value, and yet expert them to feel welcome as full members of our society… Multiculturalism is about diversity, not division — it is about interaction not isolation…. multiculturalism is about equality of opportunity for the members of all groups to participate in and benefit from Australia’s social, economic and political life.

The man who had put the program together, Galbally, noted some years later (1994), that the situation he needed to address was confronting: “ You wake up in the dark. You do not know where you are and you can’t even find the light switch. And that was it. The migrants could not find the light switch”.

Speaking in 1988 at the FECCA Congress Fraser reflected on the decade since Galbally, noting ‘I said then that: “multiculturalism is the most intelligent and appropriate response to the diversity which characterises our society”. In hindsight, that judgment could perhaps have been expressed slightly more forcefully as: “multiculturalism is the only intelligent and appropriate response to our diversity …”’. He ended thus: “If ever we find discrimination against ethnic groups, if ever any of us see any element of race in policies of government or of political parties, then that must be opposed with all the force at our command”.

Fifteen years later and I was addressing the FECCA Congress of 2003. In that audit of multiculturalism 25 years from its creation, crucial issues had emerged –  a rhetoric of respect and recognition of diversity masking a sustained pattern of ethnic power residing in the Charter communities of White Anglo-Celtic Australia (WACA). In 2003 there were no non-WACA in Cabinet, on the ABC Board or on the High Court. Religion was becoming an increasingly conflictual dimension of social difference, with a rapid intensification on one hand of anti-Muslim political discourses, while on the other anti-Asian rhetoric declined.

Fast forward another fifteen years and here we are today. Australia has gone through tremendous population changes, with communities from NESB societies now contributing to over half the population having immediate family links outside the country (born overseas or at least one parent born overseas). The largest single religious grouping is now “no religion”, strongly affected by the immigration of Chinese from the PRC, with fast growing non-Christian religions including Buddhism and Islam, along with Eastern Rite Christians.

Australian Diversity 1991 2001 2016
Population 16771700 18769249 23401892
O’seas Born 3689600 4105468 6,163,667
%O’seas Born 22.0 21.9 33.2
%Born NESB Country 12.8 13.3 49
%2nd Gen 18.6 18.3
%LOTE at home 14.7 15.2 27.3
%Aboriginal TSI 1.6 2.2 2.8

The Cabinet is still overwhelmingly WACA, though now it has Ken Wyatt as Minister for Indigenous Australians the only outlier. Here Cormann and Frydenberg can be counted as WACA for our purposes. Meanwhile the High Court has become more diverse, at least in terms of gender, though showing no signs of visible cultural diversity. The ABC Board now has a majority of women, though again all members are from the Charter ethnic groups.

The factors that have driven Australia’s population changes remain broadly as they have been – though family reunion has shrunk and skill and capital importation has grown. A much larger part of the population are longer term temporary residents, facing ever more difficult requirements to achieve citizenship. The most important social change though must lie in the political impact of non-European immigrants on the direction of Australian public policy. Two critical examples of the complex relationship between multiculturalism and human rights are now evident in retrospect.

Once the Coalition achieved government in 2013, it set about as a top priority the evisceration of the Racial Discrimination Act provisions in relation to racial harassment (Section 18C). It was a concern of the Charter elites who drove Coalition public policy on such matters (as in the Institute for Public Affairs) that section 18C unfairly limited the rights of public actors to criticise people on the basis of racial characteristics. A number of significant contributors to the conservative rhetoric (especially Andrew Bolt of News Ltd and Sky) had been caught out when their comments had caused grave offence and personal distress to their targets. Twice the Government attempted to remove or limit the extent to which 18C would affect these ostensible free speech rights. There was widespread public push back on this issue, with the Government failing to win its reforms. The opposition alliance was bi-partisan and multicultural, even though the conservative chair of the Government’s Multicultural Council supported the Government goals. This alliance, drawing together Jewish, European, African and Asian groups, mobilising the growing strength of Chinese and Indian networks, checkmated the forces in the government advocating for a return to pre-18C days. In the 2019 election the PM refused to resurrect the reforms, though they are not dead for all time. These campaigns proved the strength of the multicultural lobby in defence of one of the few pieces of legislation that enshrined the values that Fraser had espoused in the 1980s.

However while the conservatives were aiming for the right to vilify, progressives were aiming for the right of gay people to marry. This was also a human rights struggle, but it took a different turn. Ultimately successful, the strongest opposition to the same-sex campaign came from “multicultural” working class areas of the cities, and the White rural zones. Interestingly the strongest support came from middle class WACA localities, especially those with higher incomes. So the Charter communities also held the significant pockets of moral progressives who were also important in defeating the anti-18C push, though some of them had seen the anti-18C campaign for free speech in similar terms as they later saw the freedom to marry campaign.  

Multicultural communities are therefore neither inherently progressive nor conservative – the highest “diversity” communities supported protecting 18C, but could also be diametrically opposed on same sex marriage. However the impact of a politics of morality on Australian public life has had profound effects on multicultural communities of faith.

By the 2019 election the sheer size and concentration of multicultural communities in both safe Labor and swinging seats meant that they constituted a new “third force”, one which no longer tied purely material interests to voting. A very high proportion of those communities now consisted of dual-citizenship voters, people who could not stand for Parliament but could vote (following the citizenship reforms of 2000). In their localities Labor members, before perceived as defenders of diverse communities from the threats posed to their well-being by diminution of 18C,  were now seen as aligned with the pro-same sex marriage campaign, often identified by religious leaders as an anathema of atheistic modernism (true in many gatherings of Christian, Jewish, Buddhist, Sikh, Muslim, Hindu and Confucian faiths) . In marginal seats, where in effect the 18C fight recently had been won, non-WACA voters moved on, seeking to protect traditional moral beliefs (often presented as the antithesis of same sex relationships) by rejecting demands for change.

For proponents of multiculturalism, the importance of freedom of religious belief has been a given, though its consequences are now levering apart many of the key planks in that edifice. In the decade before the adoption of multiculturalism, the century old tension between British Protestantism and Irish Catholicism had been resolved through the introduction of Government support for Catholic schools. This principle was extended into the Howard period of multiculturalism, generating a rapid expansion in faith education and the bolstering of faith lobbies in the public policy environment. Yet faith implies faithless, with some major tensions between religions seeking converts and those from which they were exiting. Prejudices against faiths among the faithless (now the largest religious bloc) have deepened, fed by perceptions that faith communities are opposed to human rights, worried only about protecting their beliefs and sanctifying their prejudices.

Today, as this FECCA Congress convenes, hundreds of submissions have been made on the Government’s proposals for religious discrimination legislation. Speaking in 2017 Robin Banks former anti-Discrimination commissioner in Tasmania, noted that “if we’re committed to multiculturalism, we must also be committed to freedom of religion—because a multicultural Australia is also a multi-faith Australia.” She made a passionate defence for the right to hold religious views while also pointing out their expression and imposition must be balanced by other rights in relation to gender, sexual identity, and race, for other people. Commenting earlier this year she argued that the Government’s religious discrimination bill was in fact “an extraordinary foray into the culture wars”, licensing offensive views about women, disability and sexual identity. It overrides state laws to protect religious speech, including those here in Tasmania, so long as it does not “harass, vilify or incite hatred”. It would permit speech that offends, insults, humiliates and intimidates, such as is outlawed under Section 18C.  Importantly for one group, it would continue to exclude Muslim Australians from the protection of 18C while leaving them open to insult and humiliation by antagonists who defend their anti-Muslim rhetoric by pointing to their religious beliefs about Islam.

Today, despite reiterated claims that Australia is the most successful multicultural country in the world, there are many aspects of our multiculturalism that are far from successful. I would suggest that we remain a society where the Charter peoples retain their overarching power, and permit minorities to have restricted access to acceptable cultural behaviours.

We are failing dismally in ensuring that bi- and multi-lingualism remain appropriate aspirations for the society as a whole and a recognised resource for new generations of Australians.

Patterns of inequality in terms of economic advancement and social status reveal that ethno-racial equality has not been achieved, and we see in places exactly the layering of ethnicity and economic marginalisation that Fraser warned us of so long ago – especially for former refugees. We continue to refuse to adopt or even to discuss the legislative base necessary for the success of Australia as a multicultural society to be realised, even if the Greens have circulated a draft bill for a national multicultural commission. We are reluctant to address the political discrimination that excludes dual citizens from the opportunity to represent their fellow citizens. We are unwilling to ensure a knowledge base for understanding Australian pluralism, the ways in which power and opportunity flow to the already privileged, and how such flows can be democratised.

Over recent years we have seen public hostility to particular groups intensifying, complicated by global factors and the changing place of Australia. Three main targets, Black Africans, Muslims and Chinese, reflect major international transformations, played out in local unrest and concerns. We live in a world where wealth and power are moving east from the Western hemisphere.

We sit in the south and on the east – and our future is strongly tied economically to peoples to our north, while many of them choose to come to live in Australia transforming us all in the process. Our political institutions are not well shaped to cope with or even take advantage of these processes, our charter elites reluctant to open doors to the wider society and its diversity or share their power with new players at the table.

The multicultural dream that was espoused by the founders of multiculturalism – Grassby, Houston, Galbally, Fraser and Georgiou, and the millions of women and men who rallied to its promise of a fairer and freer future for all Australians – remains alive. However its commitment to social justice, its abhorrence of racism, and the centrality of mutual respect and trust and the sidelining of old hatreds, are now under fiercer pressure than we have seen for many years. The lesson of forty years of multiculturalism is perhaps best summarised by the late Mick Young, one of its early champions:

… take the community with you when you want to do these things.

Left to its own devices, progress is going to be very slow. You really do have to keep your finger on it. The government, particularly as a trend-setter in these areas, must keep its foot on the accelerator. Because as soon as it lifts its foot, people are quite happy for things to drop back, and we have seen illustration after illustration – lots of enthusiasm early, and then as soon as you blink, back it goes to the bad old ways.

Let’s not blink, lift our fingers or our feet. This remains, as it was at the outset, the central role of FECCA