SPEECH - ADDRESS TO THE FEDERATION OF ETHNIC COMMUNITIES COUNCILS OF AUSTRALIA NATIONAL BIENNIAL CONFERENCE - 5 NOVEMBER 2015

SYDNEY

 

THURSDAY, 5 NOVEMBER 2015

 

*** CHECK AGAINST DELIVERY ***

 

Thank you ladies and gentlemen.

 

Let me begin by acknowledging the Traditional Owners of the land and pay my respects to their Elders past and present.

 

We meet at a time of global tension and debate about the challenges of social cohesion.

 

As we find ourselves immersed in the biggest movement of people since the Second World War, far too many nations have seen the unity and harmony of their citizens strained by the poisonous language of xenophobia and recrimination.

 

It would be misguided to view these dangerous trends as simply isolated to one nation’s experiences - these attitudes breed widespread intolerance and hostility and pose a serious risk of eroding hard-earned progress and pulling us back into a darker, more divisive era. 

 

And yet, here in Australia, the recent ‘Mapping Social Cohesion’ survey from The Scanlon Foundation found that our differences are dwindling, and a broad consensus and genuine appreciation of our diversity is emerging.

 

The survey found an overwhelming 86 per cent of Australians believe multiculturalism has been good for the nation - a strong endorsement which follows similar high levels of support in 2013 and 2014.

 

The survey also found just 35 per cent believed that our immigration intake was ‘too high’ - the lowest number ever recorded by the Scanlon Foundation.

 

Even more encouragingly, 19 per cent of respondents considered our immigration intake as ‘too low’ - the highest percentage ever recorded in this category and nearly double the result in 2010.

 

If we need further proof at how positive these statistics are, we need to only contrast them with the United Kingdom, where a ‘British Social Attitudes Survey’ in 2014 found that 77 per cent of Britons favoured a reduction of immigration.

 

Australia's refusal to submit to such negativity is testament to everyone gathered here. By breaking down barriers and fostering diversity, inclusiveness and social cohesion, this organisation, and forums such as this, serve to reaffirm and advance our nation's unity.

 

However, although we can draw strength from the Scanlon Foundation's findings, it would be disingenuous to suggest that our cohesion as a nation is absolute. 

 

Challenges

 

The voices of those determined to foster division amongst us, whilst less endemic in many respects than in other nations, are nevertheless real and must be addressed.

 

We must acknowledge that these voices cannot simply be wished away and concede that their rhetoric can indeed be persuasive and inviting to some.

 

Their intent is to galvanise existing sentiments within parts of our community - sentiments which may not always be expressed publicly, but which can quickly rise to the surface in the right circumstances.

 

To simply dismiss these voices offhand, therefore, would be naïve and counterproductive.

 

We have already seen how beguiling they can unfortunately be.

 

I recently had the opportunity to travel to the United States on a Parliamentary delegation and every day I was there you could find a local newspaper carrying a headline about communities decrying the arrival of migrants – specifically Syrian refugees - into their local area.   The commentary about these prospective arrivals recorded the xenophobic and negative attitudes of many of those interviewed. 

 

Similarly, the rise of UKIP in the UK and the National Front in France as well as the increased vote of Parties right across Europe on explicitly ‘anti-immigration’ platforms highlights a deep cynicism and detachment amongst European citizens towards their Governments’ multicultural policies and institutions.

 

It is fundamental to understand that Australia cannot simply insulate itself from the spread of this type of discord.

 

Indeed, too many of our elected officials have already used the threat of terrorism and the growing humanitarian crisis as an opportunity to demonise others - shamefully attempting to amplify and exploit misguided feelings of fear and anxiety within the community to score cheap political points - even if it fundamentally damages the notion of an inclusive society.

 

It reflects, in part, the shortcomings of our own multicultural policies to adequately address the challenges of a diverse society and, if we’re truly honest with ourselves, have often been constricted (at least in the minds of some politicians and their advisers) to serve as mere symbolic gestures to acknowledge from afar or tick off a list.

 

Consequently, the political failure to meet this challenge has allowed a vacuum of misunderstanding and anxiety to be filled by a profoundly distorted view of immigration - a view which seeks to highlight perceived differences and peddle a great untruth - that immigration is somehow a drain on our economy.

 

This fallacy is not new. The emergence of Pauline Hanson in the 1990s is testament to that. Her recent re-emergence in our media and in our communities, however, is deeply troubling and underlines the stubborn persistence of bigotry and just how volatile public opinion can be. 

 

But how do we respond to these movements in Australia?

 

I don’t believe we should necessarily fear the formation or re-emergence of political parties with anti-multicultural agendas. Fear is exactly what these groups want – they are formed from fear and attract votes through fear. But the ballot box can be a great disinfectant, and I have confidence in Australians and their ability to see through racist and ignorant posturing for votes. And if you want recent proof of my view, consider this: the Rise Up Australia Party received less than half the number of votes than the Sex Party in my electorate of Greenway in the 2013 election.

 

Indeed, it has been widely established that support for immigration is highly sensitive to the stability of a country’s economic situation.

 

Recent evidence of this can be seen in a 2014 survey which found that Spain and Greece, two of the countries worst hit by the European debt crisis, had the highest negative attitude towards immigration with 77 and 75 per cent disapproving respectively.

 

Our task therefore is to uncouple immigration and economic security and forcefully debunk the myth that immigration is a burden which can only be supported during times of economic prosperity.

 

Benefits of diversity

 

And we only need to compare the bogus claim that migrants are burdensome to an analysis undertaken by the Migration Council of Australia earlier this year to realise the opposite is true.

 

The findings in The Economic Impact of Migration report conclude that by 2050 migration will have added over 15 per cent to our workforce

participation rate, nearly 22 per cent to after tax real wages for low skilled workers and, significantly, added close to 6 per cent in GDP per capita growth.

 

Moreover, skilled migrants generally receive less government entitlements, including the age pension, and have often had the cost of their education met by their home country. 

 

In other words, skilled migrants contribute more to the government in taxes than they consume in government services.  Indeed, the report concludes that by 2050 each individual migrant will be contributing, on average, 10 per cent more to Australia's economy than existing residents.

 

It is a net winning outcome for the economy as a whole.

 

The Migration Council of Australia’s report, therefore, provides a compelling case for migration and the economic benefits to an ageing Australia.

 

It is estimated that by 2050, almost a quarter of our population will be aged over 65, compared to the 14 per cent recorded at the 2011 census.

 

The large number of baby boomers is set to cause a great drop in workforce participation rates as their retirement looms, and this cohort is further expected to increase demands in both health and aged care services.

 

The evidence, therefore underlines immigration as a sensible economic decision which will allow us to maintain our standard of living and care for our ageing population.

 

Given this, our task is to ensure all Australians value and enable the economic contribution of migrants.

 

The way forward

 

The path to this, however, demands a significant political shift.

 

It means confidently embracing immigration and moving away from the misguided notion that the Australian public won't support or accept an increase in migration levels.

 

I also note the recent ABS data which highlighted the entrepreneurial nature of humanitarian migrants who, according to the data, “displayed greater entrepreneurial qualities and reported a higher proportion of income from their own unincorporated businesses and this income increased sharply after five years of residency.”

 

So we must place multiculturalism at the centre of both social and economic policy making in this country, and actively work to promote our cultural diversity as a fundamental pillar of our nation’s prosperity.

 

How do we do this?

 

By returning to the 'Productive Diversity' model of the Hawke/Keating years - which sought to advance global economic integration matched with policies designed to emphasise the benefits of a culturally diverse society - seen in the creation of the Office of Multicultural Affairs in 1987.

 

The model had three objectives. Firstly, "cultural identity: the right of all Australians, within carefully defined limits, to express and share their individual cultural heritage, including their language and religion". Secondly, "social justice: the right of all Australians to equality of treatment and opportunity, and the removal of barriers of race, ethnicity, culture, religion, language, gender or place of birth". And thirdly, "economic efficiency: the need to maintain, develop and utilise effectively the skills and talents of all Australians, regardless of background".

 

Whilst all of these objectives must be advanced, it is the emphasis on the economic virtues of diversity which broke new ground and is something which has, for too long, been ignored by successive Governments.

 

As Paul Keating stated at the time: "We are a nation rich not only in natural resources, but in human resources as well. If we are to maximise our potential, to achieve all that we are capable of achieving, we need to harness these resources. In doing so, we will achieve our twin aims of economic development and social justice for all Australians".

 

Conclusion

 

Make no mistake, the choices that we make in the coming years will determine whether the future will be shaped by friction or by harmony.

 

This issue goes to the very core of who we are as a nation, and what kind of Australia we want to leave to our children and grandchildren.

 

We simply cannot accept the status quo as a solution.  Everyone here understands what will happen if we do nothing.

 

Unless we work together to address the policy failings which have allowed for groundless claims to appear legitimate, the rising tide of prejudice and disharmony we have seen in other parts of the world will reach our shores and our progress, as a society, will be halted.

 

This organisation was created because it was understood that the unity of our nation is more secure when we actively promote the benefits of our diversity, and advance the cause of cooperation over conflict.

 

FECCA continues to be at the forefront of conveying this message and it is imperative that it be bolstered by tangible government support and action.

 

The time is now.  The momentum the Scanlon Foundation survey has highlighted must be sustained and converted into common-sense policies which foster social cohesion and ensure every Australian values and benefits from the full measure of contributions from all our citizens.

 

ENDS