The Challenge of Cultural Diversity for Social Inclusion: 4Rs Opening Plenary

The challenge of Cultural Diversity for Social Inclusion
Opening Plenary paper
The 4 Rs Conference, Sydney, 1 Oct 2008.

I acknowledge the Gadigal people of the Eora nation on whose ancestral lands we meet, and pay my respects to their laws and to their elders past and present.

The following quote is drawn from papers in the National Library of Australia, and a somewhat scratchy radio tape.

To date we have been isolated for a long time. Because of our isolation we had a xenophobic feeling, we hated foreigners, we didn’t trust. If we didn’t hate them, we didn’t like them and we certainly didn’t welcome them. That has passed. We still fear large-scale immigration from Asia or from Africa, and I think that position will always obtain. We absorb a few, admit a few annually, but relatively few, and that only to save our own faces before Asia, and that only to enable Asians who trade with us and come among us to be able to appease people in their own countries who feel there should be an open-door immigration policy for Australia. I don’t believe that there ever should be an open-door immigration policy for Australia. It’s our country, our people made it, we helped to build it, we are just as much entitled to say who will come into our country as any of us individually is entitled to say who shall come into our home…
(Arthur Calwell, radio broadcast, 15 Jun 1967 [NLA oral history section DCB tape 259]).

That was Arthur Calwell recording for a time capsule. Don Dunstan, then South Australian Premier had already by that stage “succeeded, after a very long struggle in the Labor Party, in getting a motion passed at Federal Conference to get rid of the words “maintenance of White Australia”. And Arthur Calwell was forced into seconding the motion, with ashes in his mouth, I may say.” ( interview recorded 1993).

In one of the last interviews he gave Mick Young, a ground-breaking Immigration Minister of the Hawke government spoke of his concerns for social justice. He noted “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.” ( interview recorded 1995).

We need therefore to place the discussion of Social Inclusion, the call for a national compact, and the related rhetorics of change within an historical context. The conversations we will engage in at this conference, the voices we will listen to, the values we will debate, emerge from a past of dynamic and sustained engagement between the peoples of Australia. These peoples are not equal. They do not have the same access to power, to resources, to language, to media, or to public opinion. We still live in a society in which differences of gender, race, ethnicity, class, faith and disability status have profound consequences for health, quality of life, self-realisation, and community well-being. In many ways the past decade may have raised the base-level of consumption, but it has also intensified the fissures that these differences mark. We can see the impacts most clearly in the fracturing bio-sphere which we all inhabit. Or perhaps most graphically in the melt-down of capitalism that occurs when there is no more room to play out its myth.

Since 9/11, the attacks on New York and Washington, and the retributive aftermaths ignited in the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, there is a widespread sense that “things have changed”. The joyous certitudes of a benign future which is buoyed by the ever-expanding operations of the market and the limitless exploitability of resources have begun to trip and unwind. The conversations we have are edged with a sustained anxiety, in which social groups revert as Mick Young noted, to “the bad old ways”.

I want to focus my comments on the Social Inclusion story and begin with the 2020 Summit, that you remember was going to lay out the parameters for the critical issues in Australia’s future (and be cost neutral). One thing that Australia’s culturally diverse community can agree on is this – the 2020 Summit was not about them. Despite valiant efforts by the few mestizo Australian delegates to Canberra to articulate a vision for Australia of which they would be a part, it wasn’t there at the end. Despite relentless clips of women in hijab and people of colour on the ABC TV coverage, the Australia of 2020 recorded by the government’s scribes was relentlessly uniform and bland.
If you search the final report under multiculturalism, cultural diversity or ethnic, you get a rather startling sense of a new broom: and the marginalisation if not effective exclusion of issues of pluralism and inter-cultural dialogue from the national agenda. The Arts Panel actually acknowledged that cultural diversity questions had not been discussed, and should be dealt with at some unknown time in the future, while the only place that pro-active definition of Australia as a multicultural society is mobilised is under foreign affairs – as a means, to draw on Arthur Calwell’s insight of 40 years ago, “only to save our own faces before Asia”. Elsewhere in the report we are exposed to the critical need for the development of bi-lingualism, but essentially in terms of global rather than community language acquisition.

One could almost be foregiven for believing that with the moral imperative to apologise to the Stolen Generation achieved, the agenda for diversity is now one of assimilation and sameness; perhaps this is because diversity for the new government is a common-place, an unremarkable reality of contemporary Australia. Yet as this conference will demonstrate, the reality of diversity in Australia is still remarkable, not yet everyday, and is little understood. In fact over the past decade or more we have seen an active desire by governments to avoid the creation and dissemination of knowledge about diversity.

Research I undertook in the early years after 9/11 demonstrated that in NSW and Queensland at that time, and in the Commonwealth, agencies were either prevented from or undermined in the process of seeking to understand the problems of a society wracked with problems of inter-cultural ignorance. As early as the first year of the Howard government we could see that at work. The Bureau of Population, Immigration and Multicultural Research was closed and its staff dispersed. The Prime Minister personally banned the release of a major tax-payer funded study of racist attitudes during the rise of Hansonism in 1998. The report was circulated to Cabinet thus rendering it inviolate for the next thirty years – only twenty to go. I have contacted nearly every Immigration or Multicultural Affairs minister since about 2000 seeking the report’s release. The current Parliamentary Secretary has continued the tradition of refusing to have it released. On Friday Kevin Dunn’s team will release and discuss further findings of their ground-breaking study into Australian racism, now undertaken with the support from many state governments, though not from NSW or the Commonwealth.
Knowledge about our society is an extraordinarily valuable commodity – not on the stock market but in the wider realms of public opinion, and evidence-based public policy. For many years it has been debased and supplanted by histrionics and prejudice, in which manipulation of public emotions has taken the place of careful, sustained and reflective research. This conference has been created to play a small part in reversing that trend, so that social inclusion can be truly inclusive, and egalitarian.
Soon after the 1996 Federal election I was invited by the Australia Centre at the University of Indonesia to give the annual Australia oration for the Australia-Indonesia Council. The Indonesians were fascinated at the recent goings on to their south, and asked me to speak on the question of “Is Australia a racist country?”. My reply to the question was to argue we were a nation with a racist history trying hard not to have a racist future. In commenting on my talk an Indonesian colleague likened democracy and inclusion in multicultural societies to a script-writing session. The issues, he noted, included who was to be allowed at the drafting table? Was the script completed, he mused, and therefore would new arrivals only have the option to act out parts written by earlier arrivals? Or would there be, he asked, space at the table where the script, its shape and nuances, and its convoluted narrative would be open to input from everyone at the table?

We hope that this conference is an open table, where participants can bring their stories, their insights, their analyses, their research and their experience, into engagement with the wider communities of scholars, public servants, activists and the wider society. In the pantheon of the former NSW Premier Maurice Iemma the key values were those of respect and responsibility (as embedded in the NSW State Plan) , curiously but understandably remote from the more difficult spaces of rights and reconciliation. We want to extend the debate onto more difficult terrain.

Julia Gillard’s April address to the ACOSS national conference provides a clear exposition of Social Inclusion as a rhetoric of change. She spoke as the new Minister for Social Inclusion, focussing on economic and social exclusion, and the importance of employment, education and community strengthening. All valid and valuable dimensions. Yet she made not a single mention of cultural diversity, of human rights or intercultural respect. It’s not that she or her advisors are unaware of these issues. It may just be that they don’t want them on the Social Inclusion agenda.
The social justice dimension of the last national social democratic government under Paul Keating, which was the anathema that the Howard government suppressed but did not quite expunge through its replacement rhetoric of social cohesion, has not been rescued. Rather inclusion now replaces or extends, cohesion which replaced or cancelled justice.
Briefly I want to map the terrain that is available to you on the Conference program. The Rights stream begins with a discussion of the political issues behind the government’s lackadaisical exploration of human rights legislation. It then opens out into a raft of ways in which human rights can be understood and the implications of human rights as a framework for interpretation and action. Areas of rights include economic, cultural, religious (and I note that the AHRC has recently initiated a discussion on the right to religious freedom), and those affecting people with disabilities. A new dimension that the conference has elicited is that of climate change and human rights.
The Reconciliation stream explores the experiences of Indigenous and other communities seeking to overcome centuries of discrimination and oppression. New research charts the many ways the history of Australia has constrained Indigenous freedoms, while also foregrounding new initiatives. Participation by school communities demand a greater cultural preservation and development role for Indigenous education. On Thursday evening a special event – the Tangyegere response to the Intervention – will launch a new film on the current situation.
The Respect stream examines intercultural relations in education, around issues of gender, in the politics of listening to marginalised voices and the role of interfaith dialogue, and specific areas of language and social inclusion. The wider questions of what social inclusion might imply for public policy is also addressed.
The Responsibility stream looks towards active citizenship and the relationship between government and the people. Here we see the results of recent research nationally on racism, and hear the ideas of schools from across NSW on the solution to isolation and denial of access to minority groups. We see what active citizenship means for communities, and in relation to social activism.
A few one-off events. Hanifa Deen discusses her new book on the Jihad Seminar; we connect by video link to the UK where Tariq Modood discusses Muslims and multiculturalism in secular Europe (limited spaces should be booked on registration). Saskia Sassen joins us en route from New York to Melbourne, to explore globalisation and its local impacts.
And of course the 300 Days plenary where we try to work out what has been going on about the 4rs in the first ten months of the new government. We also look forward to the networking opportunities throughout the conference including tonight’s dinner at Parliament House. There for the first time an Indigenous hip hop group will perform in the presence of an Indigenous minister as host, and there the great story teller of cultural diversity in Australia, Arnold Zable, will weave together our themes in the magic of his prose.
The blue paper has been lit. Please stand close in and engage.


One thought on “The Challenge of Cultural Diversity for Social Inclusion: 4Rs Opening Plenary

  1. A very valuable source of information. Thank you. I will be subscribing to the feed on this particular issue as one way to ‘keep the finger on that pulse.’ As we all go about our day, ‘the bad old ways’ of some who don’t really want social inclusion on any agenda will continue to act out their prejudices but most will do this in a more subtle manner to simply avoid any evidence of such behaviours. When exposed, some people even act ‘delibertately confused’ to avoid the possible consequences when they have been confronted. The lack of trust and respect is gone in any potential relationship way before it got off the ground, and self-pride and a person’s intergrity maintains our identity. Therefore, no one wants to change (the real/perceived grudge). There is much information available and resources available for Australians to access and self-educate themselves, that is, only if they want to so we would think that if people really wanted ‘social inclusion’ there would be less problems in society because there would be less people acting out their inter-cultural ignorance.

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