Transcript of Spoken Address to FECCA conference, Shepparton, 26 October 2009.
Shepparton Mosque October 2009
Well, thank you very much for having me here today. I think it’s one of the signifiers of FECCA sensitivity about cultural diversity, that they’ve replaced a Jesuit with a Jew and some of the people in the extreme right of Australian politics would of course, say there’s no difference so we shall proceed. Firstly I’d like to pay my respects to the Indigenous elders of the people upon whose land we’re meeting and recognise the importance of the indigenous part of Australia’s culture and diversity for our future.
I’m sorry that Andrew Demetriou isn’t still here because I was about to begin by having a few words with him about the Greater Western Sydney AFL team. I was at the Eid Festival in Sydney a couple of weeks ago and there were two very dramatic stalls there; one indeed was the AFL stall seeking to recruit young Muslim men and women into support for the AFL development in Western Sydney and I wish it well and the other was the Bulldogs, the NRL Bulldogs tent where Hazem El Masri, and for those of you who are into the minutia of Sydney football will realise that Hazem El Masri is the most important figure in Sydney Muslim folklore. He’s the prize goal kicker of the NFL, the only member of the Bulldogs who hasn’t been implicated in rape and drunken, etc, etc, and he is also recognised by young Muslims as the outstanding figure of respect and it’s a very interesting role that he plays. And I think Andrew’s point that there are many emerging people like that in Victoria and very few in New South Wales is in fact an indicator of the difference as we move around Australia, around the whole issue of social inclusion.
I was reflecting on my first contact with FECCA, which was actually the first year it was established, 1979, and I can remember the founding fathers, and most of them were fathers at that stage, who brought that organization together. There was, in a sense, at that stage, a sort of rising tide of support for the idea of multi culturalism. In the article that I’ve written for the Australian Mosaic that you have with you for the conference, I’ve indicated that the period when FECCA was established was a period of great courage in Australian life, that over a period of a decade there had been a huge transformation in what Australians thought about themselves and what they were able to achieve. We’ve moved from a situation in the late sixties where we finally recognised Indigenous people as being part of the Australian polity, we’d signed on to the International Accord for the Elimination of all Forms of Racial Discrimination.
Malcolm Fraser, despite the suspicion of us young leftists of the day, actually had brought in a multi cultural agenda which many of us then spent the next decade trying to turn into something rather more effective than perhaps Petro Georgiou had wanted it to be and there was a whole dynamic there, a movement upwards. And, since that period there have been many moments of crisis and I think we are now in yet another of these moments of crisis. I was helped in this analysis by the contribution of Kevin Andrews who was always able to come out at the appropriate time and make an inappropriate comment. You may have noticed that this morning he is reported in the media as saying that Muslims are a problem and we have to have a conversation about that problem and we should start it now. I’m sure that there are many people who’d like to have conversations with Kevin Andrews by suggesting that he rather than the Muslim community of Australia is the problem that we want to deal with. Anyway I want to address the social inclusion aspect of the multiculturalism question in a bit more depth and focus.
Firstly, the issue of social inclusion itself I think is something that has swamped us with great speed and I’m not sure people are very comfortable with this concept. I know as a sociologist that social inclusion is essentially an ideological concept. It doesn’t describe a reality, it’s a spin that governments put on what they’re trying to achieve. And, if you’re trying to include people the issue is, what are you trying to include them in, how are you trying to include them and what do they have to do, how do they have to change in order for them to be deemed to be appropriate people and to be included in what we the majority define as our society? And I think that dynamic is a really dangerous one. One of the reasons that there’s been so much frustration amongst various ethnic community organizations ranging from FECCA through about the failure of the social inclusion agenda to bite on cultural diversity is because the social inclusion agenda does not want to bite on issues of cultural diversity. It is not interested in a diverse culture of Australia. What it’s interested in is a homogenous culture of Australia in which people behave and act as all nice, white, middle class Australians should do.
Now, this may sound like a fairly radical critique but I’ve been reflecting on what the problem is. Right through government there has been a systematic refusal to engage with questions of cultural diversity since the new government came to power and I was trying to track why this might be because the Labor Party is renowned for being the party in which people of cultural difference place most of their faith.
If you look at the defeat of John Howard in the seat of Bennelong, that was brought about by not only demographic changes but by the active work of people from migrant communities who had had enough of Australia being led by a racist bigot. Now, they won. They won and they achieved something there and those people who I am in contact with regularly are very frustrated with the consequence of their work. That is, they see, for sure that the Pacific solution, immigration issues, the refugee issues up until about two weeks ago, were being dealt with in a humane and effective way. I think the government may have got itself into a bit of a problem at the moment over this issue and I think the reason why they’ve in this problem is the same reason why cultural diversity is not on the agenda at the core level. And I know there’s people around me this morning being very impressed by the fact that the Prime Minister actually used the ‘m’ word as it’s known (multiculturalism) in his address, maybe one of the first times. I’ve been searching his website for the last two years looking for it in any other context.
So why is the government in general not prepared to bite on these questions? Some of you may have seen a piece in the Australian earlier in the week referring to a blog of mine in which I’d made comment about the National History curriculum. The National History Curriculum is going to be the definitive statement against which all young Australians learn the story of this nation. In its early version prior to this government under the John Howard period, it was very clearly a very white, a very masculinized version of history and it came under criticism from everybody, indigenous communities, women and so on. In the discussion document it’s interesting that the only people of non-Anglo background who are mentioned in the period after 1950 are the Petrovs (defectora from the USSR). For those of you who know about Australian History that is really quite an indicator. Since then the new curriculum group has been working on the national curriculum and they’ve made some references in the early documents to the whole issue of cultural diversity. Sure there are histories of migration, you couldn’t do a history of Australia without history of migration, but there is no sense in the document that the diversity of Australia actually has contributed to who we are.
In research I’ve been doing for instance in Victoria, it’s fairly clear that one of the bases of the radical political history of Victoria and one of the reasons that someone like George Lekakis can be sitting here today, is because he and the government of today inherited a tradition that was formed by migrants and other people in the nineteenth century who were pressing for participatory democracy and the radicalisation of the new democratic form in Australia and they were successful. And what came out of that was a long tradition of a different form of politics than they’d come from. The Italians for instance, who’d came to Australia in the mid nineteenth century played a crucial role in developing those ideas. If you look at the history of Federation Australian Chinese played a crucial role in trying to define what it would mean to be a citizen of a nation like Australia.
Now, if you go into things like the National History Curriculum you would never know these things happened. It’s not that the authors didn’t know that they could have known, , the curriculum people actually did once have reference to this and all these sorts of issues have now been removed and it’s been referred to some sort of advisory committee which has never been convened and it’s clearly never met. So we have a problem there, small one but important.
Secondly I think we have problems around the whole issue of the media. Andrew Demetriou said that one of the most important things for a socially inclusive society is for everyone to see themselves reflected in the identity of that society. Now, I’m not going to say anything very much about Hey Hey it’s Saturday, uh not very much anyway, but Hey Hey It’s Saturday in a sense, sort of crystallised all that because what it did, leaving aside the poor bunnies who actually put on black face or white face and pretended to be the Jackson Five, the debate about that showed up the absolute what would you call it, tremor at the heart of the Australian media. There is no representation of cultural diversity in the Australian media. Zip. Right? The reason Channel 7 got it’s knickers in a twist was not so much that they got pilloried around the world, I think they probably thought that was quite a good idea at one level, but rather that it demonstrates that if you’re looking for Indians, Indigenous people, people from Asia, people who are visibly different, you would be pushing the proverbial through the gate for weeks before you found people of difference appearing in the Australian media.
I wrote a book about this fifteen years ago, fifteen years ago! And I said then, right, that this was a problem that’s not been addressed. I’d once asked a senior Labor Party figure why cultural diversity was so marginalised? And he said there were three reasons: One is all the people who support cultural diversity vote for the Labor Party more or less anyway, so why would you bother? Secondly, it’s really scary to all the people who voted for the Labor Party last time, but may not next time, so you don’t want to scare the horses if you don’t have to. And thirdly, all the young people of ethnic background who are activists around these issues have joined the Greens, so why should we bother? And I think that sort of analysis is really interesting.
I end I think with Graham Innes’ point that (leaving ethnic branch stacking aside as a strategy for human rights which I’m not sure it’s really the way to go), there is a question about engagement by minorities with Australian politics and I think that is the crucial way forward now because if that sort of pressure is not put on it, then the pressures against multiculturalism which are put on it will win the day. So, as a Social Scientist I would say that’s my analysis and as somebody working for the Institute of Cultural Diversity, (which you can find at http://culturaldiversity.net.au
– please come and visit), that debate I think is going to take off. Thankyou.
Andrew Jakubowicz PhD is Professor of Sociology and co-director of the Cosmopolitan Civil Societies Research Centre at the University of Technology Sydney and Administrator of the Institute for Cultural Diversity website http://culturaldiversity.net.au