In a dramatic about-face for the Gillard government, Immigration Minister Chris Bowen used a February speech to announce a renewed commitment from Labor to multiculturalism.
Bowen announced the formation of a Multicultural Advisory Council to advise the government on service delivery to migrant communities and a national anti-racism partnership and strategy to consult with migrant groups and combat racism.
Kate Lundy’s title of “Parliamentary Secretary for Immigration and Citizenship” will be changed to “Parliamentary Secretary for Immigration and Multicultural Affairs”.
It was welcome shift from the Gillard government. After Howard abandoned the word in early 2007, Kevin Rudd revived it, adding “multiculturalism” to the title of a parliamentary secretary.
After her election in 2010, Gillard had quietly killed it off again, a concession to the Liberals’ racism.
But the recent party review of Gillard’s catastrophic election campaign (see p14) urged the government to do more to rectify its declining vote among non-English speaking communities.
The concept of multiculturalism was introduced as part of the 1972 Whitlam Labor government’s dismantling of the White Australia policy—a policy which had restricted non-European migration since Federation. Howard’s long-standing rejection of multiculturalism crystallised in 2006, when he reintroduced citizenship tests for migrants.
In 2007, Howard dropped “multicultural” from the title of the Department of Immigration and Multicultural Affairs.
Labor’s new initiative follows the flurry of racist outbursts from the Liberals over the past few weeks. Opposition Immigration spokesperson, Scott Morrison had raged about the cost of Christmas Island funerals.
ACT Senator Gary Humphries introduced a petition to put a ten-year moratorium on Muslim immigration and South Australian Senator Cory Bernardi publicly claimed that multiculturalism has “obviously failed”, fanning the flames of Islamophobia.
Bernadi warned that Australia should avoid letting religious fanatics prosper “before it is too late”, claiming, “Islam is a totalitarian political and religious ideology… and there are these extremists who want to see the fundamentalist Islamic rule implemented in this country … and unfortunately this government is allowing them and encouraging them in many instances to get away with it.”
Reports from a December 2010 shadow cabinet meeting revealed that Morrison recommended the Coalition ramp up its opposition to multiculturalism to try to benefit from voter concerns about Muslim migration.
In his speech to the Sydney Institute, Chris Bowen said, “I’m not afraid to use the word ‘multiculturalism.’ ” But a close look at the Labor government’s approach to refugee policy, Aboriginal rights and international student issues shows that Labor’s revival of multiculturalism is not matched by its practice.
Despite closing Nauru and abolishing temporary protection visas, Labor continues the Howard-era policies of mandatory detention and offshore processing. Gillard’s proposed offshore processing centre in Timor Leste is Nauru all over again. Last year the Labor government froze visa applications for Afghan and Sri Lankan refugees, despite Western occupation and civil war.
Federal Labor’s privatisation program has gutted the NSW Adult Migrant English Service robbing refugees and migrants of quality services.
The government continues to treat international students, who make up an $18 billion industry, as little more than cash cows.
A study by the Victorian state government in 2008 found that in some cases international students were being paid up to $5 less an hour than domestic students for the same work. The government still refuses to extend public transport concessions to international students.
In the last few years Indian students faced a series of racist attacks, including cases of beatings with baseball bats and glass bottles in 2009. Shamefully, the Victorian police encouraged Indian students not to show things like iPods or speak loudly in Indian languages in public to avoid future attacks.
The federal Labor government was more concerned with its international image—it flew 25 Indian journalists to Australia, put them up in a five star hotel and took them to the MCG—than to do actually do anything about the racism.
On Harmony Day in 2009—an Immigration department sponsored event supposedly celebrating multiculturalism—the government would not allow a representative of the Federation of Indian Students to address the official rally. In 2010, overnight changes to residency regulations left thousands of international students in the lurch.
Multiculturalism must be defended from the Liberals’ fear mongering, but bringing the word “multicultural” back into government spin should be welcomed critically.
To address the discrimination and racism in Australian society, it is policy change, not words, that is needed from Labor.