We often hear that Australia stands at a crossroads…. And most of the time whenever we need to take a major decision two different if unclear futures compete for our attention. Yet it‘s rarely the case that two government campaigns launched within weeks of each other so starkly frame different visions and representations of “the nation”.
May 14 and the “export” focused Austrade “Australia Unlimited” campaign is launched by Trade Minister Simon Crean. He announces that the bold new image (an Australia “book-ended” by stylized boomerangs) heralds a new aggressive multicultural presence . “Being the ‘quiet achiever’ is not going to cut it in an increasingly competitive global market. We need to make ourselves better. Australia is known as a great place to have a holiday but it is also a great place to do business. We should be better regarded as a dynamic and creative nation, a good global citizen and a strong business partner. We want great recognition of our many achievements.”
The promotional video focuses on our greatest asset, “our people”, and then flips through the real diversity of contemporary Australia (hijab but no burquas or niqabs but you can’t have everything).
Fast forward two weeks. Tourism Australia launches “Nothing Like Australia”, and if you’ve seen the Australia Unlimited video then you’ll understand how accurate the TA campaign label really is. Addressed it is claimed to prospective tourists (and to be aired in the UK, the USA, New Zealand, China and Japan) , it is nothing like the Australia that AU paints for our international business partners. An Aboriginal kid in a billabong (again!) and a Chinese girl in an SUV churning up a high country meadow chasing kangaroos. Then it’s all Euro-Australians, overwhelmingly blond and young. Very attractive, fit and powerful, but only marginally like the real Australia.
Now it could be argued that tourism advertising is all about the fantasies that are created in the jaded imaginations of big spending foreigners on package tours, and hundreds of thousands of young Europeans arriving to back-pack, have unprotected sex and save the rural fruit industry .
No one is really expected to believe everything here, and the adverts should not be expected to contain anything that might put off prospective money spenders. This includes any reference to non-Indigenous Black people, women in Muslim head gear, and large Pacific Islanders. The last major attempt in 2006 to attract foreigners used Lara Bingle to convince them that Australia was a place for drinking, sexual excitement, and unbridled self-indulgent fun. And it too was free of any sense of cultural diversity.
So here we have two major multi-million dollar campaigns, each at the sharp end of key industry sectors, in a world that increasingly and mistakenly views Australia as a haven for racism and intolerance. They are both funded by the Australian taxpayer, and managed through national government corporations. They both consciously decided to represent Australia in very specific though as it turns out quite contradictory ways. Is that a problem or just a case of horses for courses?
Just before the Australia Unlimited launch, the government’s “The people of Australia” report from its Multicultural Advisory Council recommended that a firm whole of government position should be endorsed, with strong national leadership. The report was clear in identifying cultural diversity as a critical component of our social cohesion, creativity and productivity. While lacking an overarching strategy, the report was clear on one issue – after fifteen years of obfuscation and denigration there now had to be a clear sign-on by state and federal governments if rising racism and social exclusion were to be addressed.
The situation gets curioser and curioser. Let’s look at Tourism Australia, and its Minister Martin Ferguson. Its former chief executive is Scott Morrison, also a former NSW Liberal Party director, and of course now the MP for Cook and the shadow Immigration spokesman. Morrison has taken the vanguard position on the new Opposition policy to bring back temporary protection visas etc etc. Throughout Morrison’s TA stewardship the agency produced very whitebread images of Australia, to a continuing low rumble of criticism. So there’s a trail of continuing cultural homogeneity associated with his presence. But he has since left, and under the new regime one might have expected a move forward. But the new government didn’t have a policy here either, so TA was left floating in a policy-free zone, with no sign that this Minister Ferguson even recognizes that there is an issue.
At the TA launch one of the cheer-leaders was Chris Brown, managing director of the Tourism and Transport Forum, chaired by Morrison’s predecessor in Cook, former MP (and recently retired Institute for Cultural Diversity chair) Bruce Baird. Baird has a seriously positive track record in defence of human rights and cultural diversity, being one of the small minority of the Howard government Party room to stand up on asylum seekers. Under the Rudd government, he has been charged with chairing the Refugee Resettlement Council and has run the successful review of international student services in the face of the Indian student-bashing furore. So inside the tourism industry it could be said that there is an awareness that cultural diversity might be an issue. Yet even though Tourism Australia insists on an Indigenous Director, it manages to survive quite well without anyone from a diverse cultural background as a director ( a government decision that is replicated across the board – look at the ABC, the High Court etc etc). The Tourism and Transport Forum also is essentially made up of Anglo-Australians. This means that there really is no quantum of support for making cultural diversity a priority in tourism promotion.
Shift across to Austrade, and something rather different is apparent. While the Austrade Board was abolished in 2006 (a decision criticised by the ALP at the time but not reversed by Simon Crean) the DFAT culture is more sensitive to the perceptions of Australia in the international environment. At the 2020 Summit in 2008 the foreign affairs cell was the only group that mentioned cultural diversity as a plus for Australia. DFAT/Austrade have had to deal with the fall-out from Pauline Hanson, the asylum seekers fiascos, the Indian students’ affair, and so on. They are the focus for discovering how the rest of the world feels about us, as they negotiate to get Australia a UN Security Council seat.
While the capacity to juggle two mutually opposed positions in the air at once may be a sign of flexibility and extraordinary coordination, it can also be a symptom of a total lack of attention to detail and a pattern of cynical utilitarianism. It’s very hard to find any overarching government position on cultural diversity. Apart from the portfolio ministers Chris Evans and Laurie Ferguson and Stephen Smith in his Indian adventures, none of Labor’s senior ministers has made a single speech extolling the values of cultural diversity in terms of their portfolio responsibilities. Not in Education, Health, the Arts, Industry, Media and Communication (except for Stephen Conroy when talking to SBS). Kevin Rudd has only spoken on cultural diversity in very delimited contexts – to ethnic small businesses and by video recording to an ethnic communities conference.
Let’s compare that with the Opposition. There are many messages issuing forth from the Liberal National coalition – from Cory Bernadi’s paranoia about burqas to Judith Troeth and Petro Georgiou’s anxious humanitarianism and anger at the government’s racist freezing of Afghan and Sri Lankan asylum seekers and their own leader’s proposal to reintroduce temporary visas and island internment . The current Opposition leader Tony Abbott has form in this regard, but not perhaps as simply as might be expected. In 2006 at the time Peter Costello was sledging “mushy multiculturalism” Abbott came out in a Quadrant article to argue a conservative case in favour of multiculturalism. Everyone he argued should feel they have a stake in an Australia they recognise, one that respects them. He even managed to say a good word for Sharia law – or at least the sense in having a reasoned debate about what role it could ever play in Australian jurisprudence. In addition Abbott has been working the Asian communities hard, trying to win back to the Liberals all the Chinese and other groups that quit the party in disgust during the Howard/Hanson two-step. These were some of the people who fought so hard to win Bennelong for Maxine McKew from Howard in 2007, and who are now so disappointed with the ALP that they are ripe for the picking and a win of Bennelong back to the conservatives. But as Georgiou has said, Abbott and Rudd are equally cynical in their manipulation of the asylum seeker issue, and have no discernible moral backbone in this regard.
Earlier in the year a national anti-racism forum in Perth called for a country-wide program to build a real human rights based cultural diversity policy for Australia. Since then the Human Rights Commission has foregrounded the rapidly increasing problems of cyber-racism, while the Australian Federal Police have argued that because there is no criminal racial vilification law, the AFP can do little unless violence is advocated. The government’s fudging of the Human Rights Act to the delight of opponents such as Bob Carr has meant that the most vulnerable groups are left without protection, dependent on the civil initiatives of a few NGOs with skills and resources (eg the long Jewish Board of Deputies battle to close down the Adelaide Institute Holocaust-denial website). The Budget allocation to human rights education may help a little in this regard.
Over the next few months it is possible that a national coalition might emerge with the goal of placing anti-racism and cultural diversity goals on the national election agenda. While neither the ALP nor the Coalition show much stomach for doing anything but beating up on cultural minority groups, the rapid increase in support for the Greens (where many younger ethnic political activists now find their home) could open up a new space for a national debate about what an egalitarian, respectful and socially just social program should contain. This debate will need to encompass at least the national curriculum in education, the health reform agenda, aged care, the arena of mental health, youth programs, media and the arts, and dare I say, how we sell Australia to potential tourists.
Wouldn’t it be cool if our people were presented as an attractive a reason to come to Australia as our beaches? And what if we were welcoming enough to make the hard sell a realistic reflection of how we really are?