Fifty years after the Whitlam government released its landmark report on multiculturalism in Australia, the Albanese government has launched a major review of its policies to ensure they are serving multicultural communities in the best ways.
But will this review provide a multicultural policy “for all Australians”? Or is it just seeking to ensure, as the government put it, that “no one is left behind, and everyone feels that they truly belong”?
Multicultural policies in Australia initially aimed to benefit all Australians, not just multicultural communities. They were meant to express the broader principles of liberal democracy, such as equality, freedom and economic opportunity.
Perhaps this is why the Albanese government review, promised during the 2022 federal election, has set a modest goal on multicultural policies. It may ultimately fall short of the broader goal of engaging with wider society.
So, what will the review actually be looking at? And what is it seeking to achieve?
How Australia has changed
It identifies discrimination, systemic barriers to services and social mobility as focal points for action.
Australia has changed significantly over the past decade. More than 50% of the population today was born overseas or has at least one parent overseas born. And nearly 30% identify with a non-Anglo culture.
Over the past decade, perhaps the biggest issue in relation to the social integration of immigrants has been the huge increase in temporary migration to Australia.
Public policy has equated “temporary” with “not requiring support”. That means these migrants have not received adequate services in housing, transport, education, employment protection and health.
They were the ones most abandoned during the pandemic, when they were told simply to “go home” or survive on the streets.
What the review will look at
There are three intertwining policy spheres that require a major rethink in the multicultural review:
multicultural policy (including language policy, recognition of people’s identities and support for their sense of belonging to Australian society, and employment protection policy)
settlement policy (focused on new arrivals of both migrants and refugees, including trauma recovery), and
community relations (covering discrimination, relations between different cultural groups, anti-racism efforts, social integration and the all-important relations between Indigenous and non-Indigenous Australians).
These policies were left to decay over the last generation, throughout both Labor and Coalition governments.
Another focus of the review will be on the power hierarchy in Australia and how open it is to non-European Australians.
This remains a major challenge for the country. There are few people of multicultural backgrounds in positions of power, such as
Importantly, the review will also consider the role of the government as an employer itself. Recent studies have pointed to the under-representation of culturally and linguistically diverse groups in the public sector at both the Commonwealth and state levels – especially at senior levels.
The review will consider how the Commonwealth government has been addressing all of these issues. It will make recommendations on legislation, policy settings, community relations and government services at the federal, state and local levels.
Where the review may fall short
Unfortunately, the review was not asked to examine the poor state of Australian government data collection on diversity and its appalling consequences.
Neither is it being asked to consider how to rebuild the depleted state of Australian research on diversity and multicultural issues. This was a central recommendation of the last Labor-led parliamentary committee review of multicultural policies in 2013.
The chair of the current panel is Dr Bulent Hass Dellal, executive director of the Australian Multicultural Foundation. He has considerable experience as a government advisor in the Abbott, Turnbull and Morrison governments. He also has the confidence of the new government.
However, there are no First Nations people on the panel, though they will be invited to contribute. The government has also not appointed any academic researchers to either the panel or reference group.
From the perspective of experts with an interest in cultural and linguistic diversity, this is disappointing.
Lastly, the review is being conducted within the Department of Home Affairs rather than the Department of the Prime Minister and Cabinet.
Multicultural policy was once thought important enough to have the support and imprimatur of the prime minister and be monitored by his staff – be it Malcolm Fraser or Bob Hawke. This is seemingly no longer the case.
- ^ landmark report on multiculturalism (minister.homeaffairs.gov.au)
- ^ for all Australians (www.multiculturalaustralia.edu.au)
- ^ put (minister.homeaffairs.gov.au)
- ^ principles of liberal democracy (researchdata.edu.au)
- ^ reminded (www.canberratimes.com.au)
- ^ terms of reference (www.homeaffairs.gov.au)
- ^ past decade (www.abs.gov.au)
- ^ born overseas (www.abs.gov.au)
- ^ 'I will never come to Australia again': new research reveals the suffering of temporary migrants during the COVID-19 crisis (theconversation.com)
- ^ Racism is still an everyday experience for non-white Australians. Where is the plan to stop this? (theconversation.com)
- ^ Recent studies (www.psc.nsw.gov.au)
- ^ mortality from COVID (www.theguardian.com)
- ^ parliamentary committee review of multicultural policies (www.aph.gov.au)
- ^ Dr Bulent Hass Dellal (www.vic.gov.au)