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Multicultural Australia: what does that mean under Conservative Government?

By Jatinder Kaur - posted Friday, 21 March 2014

Today we celebrate ‘Harmony Day’, which is an annual celebration of Australia’s cultural diversity and communities across the country hosted events to celebrate diversity, food, music and culture. Today also coincides with the United Nations Day for the Elimination of Racial Discrimination (21st March) and the 2014 theme is ‘The Role of Leaders in Combating Racism and Racial Discrimination’.

Australia is a multicultural society with a rich diversity of cultures, languages, religions and ethnicities. The ABS Census (2011) revealed that one in four (5.3 million) Australians were born overseas, speaking over 260 languages. In the major cities: Sydney, Melbourne and Perth, over 80% of the resident population are born overseas.

When the Liberal National Party came into office in September 2013, ‘Multiculturalism’ fell off the Agenda and was not a priority for this new Government. It was dropped from the Ministerial portfolio and we no longer have a ‘Minister for Multicultural Affairs’ and has been devolved to a ‘Parliamentary Secretary role’ with Senator Concetta Fierravanti-Wells, being responsible for Multicultural Affairs within the Department of Social Services portfolio.


One of the first acts of this Conservative Government was ‘Budget Cuts’, whereby they pulled already committed funding for the ‘Building Multicultural Communities Program’ (Labour Government initiative), $11.5 million funding to over 400 organisations across the country. Unfortunately many organisations were sent letters by the new Government to ‘return grant funding’ back to the Department even though some organisations had already spent funds (e.g. building infrastructure projects) and instructed to not speak to the Media.

Secondly, in February 2014, we saw the appointment of Tim Wilson as the ‘Rights and Freedom Commissioner’ to the Australian Human Rights Commission (AHRC) by the Attorney General George Brandis. There was much debate over his appointment, as it was not merit based, no recruitment panel or any consultation with AHRC President Gillian Triggs.  Following on from that appointment, the Conservative Government announces that it will repeal section 18C of the Racial Discrimination Act. The basis of this decision is about the adverse finding against conservative columnist Andrew Bolt. This has caused lots of anxiety and fear amongst many multicultural, ethnic, religious groups and the Aboriginal Peak bodies, who recently released a joint statement, whereby they felt that ‘Australia’s national interests are being sacrificed to score points in the “culture wars”. The joint statement was issued by representatives from Indigenous, Greek, Jewish, Chinese, Arab, Armenians and Korean communities who have vowed to step up their campaign against the amendments which they argue would “license the public humiliation of people because of their race”.     

When it comes to Australia’s reputation in dealing with Refugee’s and Asylum seekers, this continues to be damaged by ‘Operation Sovereign Borders’. This policy involves the: calling Asylum seekers “illegal’s” or “transferees” [to dehumanise them]; tow-back of asylum-seeker boats back to Indonesia; use of Navy personnel and military style operations; increased secrecy around Asylum seeker boat arrivals and treatment of Asylum seekers; reintroduction of Temporary Protection visas. In February 2014, there has been 1 death and injuries suffered by 70 Asylum seekers on Manus Island, due to growing unrest on the offshore detention centres about being resettled in PNG. The Government has suspended granting of new permanent Protection Visas, with Minister for Immigration’s Scott Morrison issuing a directive to cap the number of permanent Protection Visas at 2,750 for the 2013-14 financial year. The Government granted a $1.2 billion contract to Transfield Services to manage Australia’s offshore detention centres at Nauru and Manus Islands. In light of all of this, the Conservative Government is still committed and adamant that this is the best course of action in dealing with ‘Asylum seekers’ who come here “illegally”, despite criticism by UNHCR and world leaders.   

I feel a sense of ‘de-ja-vue’ or going ‘Back to the Future’, with this Conservative Government reverting back to the Howard era approach and ideology in relation to Multiculturalism. What has become evident in the first 6 months of this Conservative Government is that their side of Politics does not value ‘Multiculturalism’. Nor do they value or believe the rights and views of migrants, refugee and asylum seekers are required. However, they are keen to capitalise on Business opportunities, Trade Agreements and increase foreign investment into Australia, as declared by PM Tony Abbot that “We are open for Business”.  

Australia is a multicultural nation, and we need our elected leaders to show leadership and combat racism, racial intolerance and xenophobia, not to perpetuate or encourage it!.

If we want to live in a civil society, we must show respect and tolerance of ‘others’ who are not from the dominant culture [Anglo-Australian].

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About the Author

Jatinder Kaur is the director of JK Diversity Consultants, epxerienced advocate, researcher and social worker for culturally diverse communities.

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