FECCA 2013 National Biennial Conference – Gold Coast Convention Centre, Friday, 8 November 2013
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Breaking down the barriers: A strength-based approach for a just society
Good morning ladies and gentlemen. I begin by acknowledging the Traditional Owners of the land on which we are gathered and pay my respects to their Elders past and present, and thank them for their custodianship of the land.
It is a pleasure to be here representing the Hon Bill Shorten, Leader of the Federal Opposition, and in my own capacity as Shadow Minister for Citizenship and Multiculturalism.
This is my first opportunity in my new role to formally address a conference comprising both a significant stakeholder organisation, in terms of the Federation of Ethnic Communities’ Council of Australia (FECCA) as a peak body; as well as the many delegates who both represent, and are individually, leaders across the spectrum of interests in our culturally and linguistically diverse society.
It is a great honour to be invited to give the Opposition’s perspective on the multiculturalism space. Three weeks into the role and barely 2 months since the Federal election, you will appreciate that this is a work in progress. So I thought I would use this opportunity to introduce myself, provide an insight into some possible directions and methodologies Labor will pursue in Opposition as we develop our thinking in some critical areas of public policy, and tie these into the themes of your conference. I would also like to do a call out to both FECCA, and each one of you, with a strong desire for us to engage and to help inform myself and my colleagues in this task. Indeed, I have already received kind messages from a number of conference participants whom I recognise from the program and your nametags, expert thinkers and activists in key areas of this portfolio. I look forward to meeting and working with you all.
On that note, allow me to acknowledge:
- Mr Pino Migliorino, Chair of the Federation of Ethnic Communities’ Council of Australia (FECCA) – and let me say that Pino was one of the first people to contact me after I was appointed to this position, so thank you Pino.
- Ms Agnes Whiten, Chair of the Ethnic Communities Council of Queensland (ECCQ);
- Mr Ricardo Viana, President of the Multicultural Communities Council of the Gold Coast (MCCGC); and
- All delegates for making this Conference such a success.
I also want to mention the outstanding achievements of my predecessor, Senator Kate Lundy, for her work all around Australia in bringing communities together and being a great ambassador for multicultural Australia. One of my first calls following my appointment was to Senator Lundy, and I hope I earn as constructive a relationship with you as I believe she enjoyed. I know many of you would have encountered Senator Lundy, Matt Thistlethwaite and the Hon Chris Bowen in their various capacities in the previous government.
I’d been thinking about your conference theme over the last couple of days before I realised – I’ve actually been thinking about it for quite a few years. This portfolio is one which has held my abiding interest as a public office holder at the Local and Federal level; as a life-long resident in one of the most diverse regions of Australia, namely Western Sydney; as an active member of a political party for over 20 years, who views diversity in its membership and representation as compulsory rather than merely desirable; and whose life experiences reinforce on a daily basis the fundamental principle of equality of opportunity.
So in my remarks today I would like to focus on three key themes.
First, finding models that work across the country to break down barriers and enhance social cohesion amongst Australians, especially in concentrated parts of country.
Second, looking at recognition of past injustices and how this may improve future relations.
And finally, addressing practical citizenship issues that many people who now call Australia home are forced to face.
At the outset, I want to be clear that I will be taking a very active role in this arena. I am not just a Shadow Minister for symbolic purposes. My strong view is that Government involvement in multiculturalism needs to be far more than just turning up at the odd cultural festival or holy day.
There is a reason why I want you to know the kind of Shadow Minister I will not be. On too many occasions, I’ve observed “multiculturalism”, or “ethnic issues”, become something of a box to be ticked on a long checklist of “stakeholders” in both policy formulation and by the political process itself. I have no interest in perpetuating such an extreme disservice to the multiplicity of interests and voices in our society who demand to be heard, examined and acted upon; their needs are no less relevant – and in many cases, not so different – to every other constituency.
My observation is that the attitude of the government of the day plays a critical role in shaping the national public perception of multiculturalism. As I read Professor Andrew Jakubowicz’s comments in The Conversation only this week, I saw further evidence of this – the recent Lowy Institute lecture by Rupert Murdoch which, and I paraphrase Professor Jakubowicz:
“…celebrated Australia as a multicultural and migrant society, a place where ‘multiculturalism is not relativism, and tolerance is not indifference’ and there is ‘an openness to all comers – provided they are willing to abide by our way of life’…His shaping of the multicultural discourse gives strong indications of where Australia may be headed over the next few years…”
“Essentially, Murdoch believes it is the British institutions that give Australia its core morality and energy…What then does this mean about the ‘multicultural face’ of Australia over the next decade of potential conservative dominance?”
Not being a member of the Government this time around, I don’t claim to know the answer. Firstly of course, one of my goals is to limit this government’s tenure to well under a decade. But in addition to the influence of a centralised government agenda in the multiculturalism space, public perceptions are also influenced closer to home: by the local member. And in this respect, I can indeed speak from experience.
I was one of those Labor Members of Parliament in Western Sydney who was regularly depicted in the mainstream media as being at the bad end of a rifle’s crosshairs. Sitting on a margin of less than one per cent – needing a net change of only a few hundred votes to lose my seat – in a rapidly changing electorate, in a political climate where we were reminded daily of the anti-government sentiment for well over 2 years, I was written off well before the campaign even began. Even on election day, despite much publicity about my opponent’s campaign in the seat of Greenway, the betting outlets still favoured him at an unbackable $1.10.
Rather than try and bash upwards through a hostile national climate, I decided very early in that first term that the only way was down: to be a grass-roots local member, to take ideas and concerns from the bottom-up, to focus exclusively on the “local” aspect of local member. Until then, I thought I knew everything I needed to know about the area I was born and raised in. But that exercise gave me an incredible insight into who I was representing, their aspirations and their frustrations. And I came out of the 2013 Federal election with one of the few positive swings to Labor in any seat in Australia, and a margin now approaching three per cent.
Why do I mention this? Because I learned so much from the exercise of listening to, and advocating for, a diverse range of community interests in reality rather than in theory. For example, I came to understand that one of the chief concerns of the significant Sub-Continent population in Greenway was their ageing family members. In a local government area where the most common surname in the White Pages is not Smith or Jones, but Singh, this is not a trivial matter. With a continually expanding Sub-continent population, with parents and grandparents living longer, and with many households having two breadwinners – with children in child care or school – just like nearly every other neighbouring household, irrespective of their cultural backgrounds. This represents a huge social, economic and cultural challenge for my community.
So when I fed this back to the Minister responsible for Ageing at the time, I did so with authority and he listened. And hence when the Minister engaged FECCA to devise a National Ageing and Aged Care Strategy for People from Culturally and Linguistically Diverse (CALD) Backgrounds, as a key component of the Living Longer, Living Better aged care reforms, it was undertaken promptly yet thoroughly and enthusiastically received. Similarly, specific funding targeted at the delivery of aged care services to Sub-Continent groups did not make front page news, but the sincerity in which it has been received by groups in my community and to see the positive impact it is having on individuals and their families is worth so much more.
And so it is that I believe one of the key approaches of Labor in this portfolio area will be to inform ourselves from the ground-up; to listen to those who work in the myriad of institutions and services in their respective fields; to digest the research of individuals and look for ways in which the substantive findings of important reports, such as that launched at this conference yesterday into Promoting CALD Women’s Participation on Boards and Decision-Making Positions, can be implemented.
And as Bill Shorten has commented in the past, all this needs to be undertaken within the unmistakable prism that multiculturalism is a positive thing, that it should be embraced not just as a concept, but as an ongoing challenge to us all to deliver on the principle of equality of opportunity.
Multiculturalism needs to be about Government rolling up its sleeves and achieving tangible results for the community. That is the way I will approach this portfolio from Opposition and, hopefully, in Government.
To turn to the themes I mentioned:
Breaking down barriers: Finding a model that works
If we are to break down the barriers that exist in our society for new Australians, we need a strong and considered approach from Government.
This approach needs to be in partnership with the private and community sector, but it must have a clear commitment and direction from Government.
It requires leadership and recognition of what has worked and what has failed, and what is currently standing in the way of further progress in this space.
When I reflect on this issue I am reminded of what made me want to be involved in my community and ultimately in politics and that is the notion of affording people equality of opportunity.
Blacktown: a case study
I live in the Blacktown Local Government Area in Sydney’s Western and North-Western suburbs. Yesterday I attended two significant events in Blacktown: the first was to honour Superintendent Mark Wright, former Local Area Police Commander of Blacktown. The second was Blacktown Council’s scheduled citizenship ceremony, where I am a regular attendee. These events reminded me of something I wanted to touch on today in using Blacktown as a case study for breaking down barriers.
Mark Wright often commented that despite comprising close to 80 distinct cultural groups, Blacktown is a generally harmonious place – contrary to many misconceptions that strangers may hold, the documented crime statistics will attest to falling rates in many key indicia. Close to a decade ago, this might not have been the case but for the foresight of people like Mark Wright who, in the face of some criticism that he was not engaging in “real policing”, decided to form a team to engage initially with the growing number of migrants settling from various African countries. Bear in mind that again, contrary to common misconception, not all of these new arrivals were under humanitarian programs. Mark noticed it was the younger generation of these settling families who were becoming susceptible to anti-social influences – petty crime, gang behaviour and the like. They looked for ways to distract and engage, initially through sport and from the start just with a ball and nothing like a structured or funded program. The important thing is that they recognised a need and decided to act.
Blacktown is a community of great diversity, in parts there is significant social and economic disadvantage and in other parts the exact opposite. The suburb of The Ponds, in the north of the electorate, has been determined to be the “most advantaged” suburb in Sydney by the Australian Bureau of Statistics’ index of advantage and disadvantage.
In its centre it is a mosaic of different cultures, both established second generation Australians originally from southern Europe and new Australians from Africa, South-East Asia and the Sub-Continent, indeed there is no single dominant cultural grouping.
But I do believe the Blacktown case study is an appropriate one to explore, not only because I know it best, but also because when one takes a step back, it reveals itself to be the face of modern Australia.
And if we are to break down the barriers facing these new communities we first must identify what these barriers actually are.
In my community, significant barriers were in place for new Australians to engage productively with employers because they felt neglected and lacked any meaningful engagement with the wider community.
No one was engaging with them.
As Frank Lowy remarked in his Inaugural Australian Multicultural Council Lecture last year:
“…the starting point for any discussion about our multicultural society must be the recognition that migration is an act of ambition and imagination.
And an act of bravery too.
To imagine a better life for you and your family and to make the leap of faith required to leave behind all that is familiar calls for a special kind of courage.”
At a government level we should be looking for local pilot projects that are working to harness the ambition and imagination of these new communities, find ways to support them, and then rolling out the successful model in other areas.
Local communities are in the best position to recognise local problems and develop local solutions.
In my own community the Blacktown Local Area Command, local NGOs and businesses came together to establish a model called COM4unity – community for unity.
This is a preventative youth engagement strategy that was established in 2009, which provides mentoring for young people in the Blacktown region and enables access to employment and training programs as well as work experience placements.
This program channelled the energy of new Australians into fields that they had a passion for, namely the performing arts.
The advice from Blacktown Police is that this project has helped to reduce anti-social behaviour at Blacktown Station and the Westpoint Shopping Centre and set young new Australians from a variety of backgrounds on path to meaningful employment and stability.
Com4Unity indeed changed the lives of people in Blacktown. That’s why I was so pleased to advocate for its financial support from the former Government, which provided funding through the Proceeds of Crime scheme (whose future now appears uncertain under the new government).
I am reminded of a conversation I had with a young man of South Pacific background who had just performed in front of hundreds of people for the Mayoral Christmas Party in Bowman Hall in Blacktown.
I complemented him on his performance and asked him what impact the program had on him. He replied, “Lady, last year I would have been in the car park trying to steal your car and now I am in here doing what I love.”
These are the pilot projects government should be supporting. These are the projects that affect real change and give people equality of opportunity.
Recognising past injustices
In breaking down barriers facing ethnic communities in Australia we must also recognise past injustices.
In the last Parliament I raised the prospect of bringing to the agenda the recognition of communities who were so badly treated by past Commonwealth policies, namely the shameful Immigration Restriction Act of 1901 or the White Australia Policy
And prior to Federation we also saw state-based discriminatory legislation aimed at a variety of ethnic groups, but perhaps most consistently this took the form of anti-Chinese laws.
Like Australia, New Zealand, Canada and the United States used anti-Chinese legislation throughout their respective histories. Those of Chinese descent in New Zealand, Canada and the US whose families had been affected by the legislation sought recognition and redress from their governments and the NZ, Canadian and US governments have all apologised or expressed statements of regret. Australia has not.
It has been drawn to my attention by many individuals, community groups and scholars who have dedicated considerable time and effort to pursuing this matter, that some form of statement by the Australian Government, some form of ‘Acknowledgement, recognition and regret for past discrimination and injustice’, would not only be appreciated and bring closure to the affected families but would also announce to the world that such policies are no longer part of a multicultural Australia.
As remarked by the President of the Chinese Heritage Association of Australia, Daphne Lowe Kelley in 2011:
“The time has come for a number of Chinese-Australians to get rid of the last vestiges of white superiority. We want to be recognised for all our contributions.”
As I told the last Parliament in its final days: it is my belief that the 44th Parliament must recognise the injustices of the past and acknowledge the discriminatory treatment of Chinese people in Australia throughout our history.
The previous Government made China a major focus, evident in the new strategic partnership with Beijing and the Asian Century White Paper. The strategic partnership, which involves annual face-to-face meetings between the Australia’s and China’s leaders, regular economic talks and deeper defence ties, highlight this Government’s commitment to the Asian region and making sure we are in the best position to capitalise on the huge growth in China.
As Rory Medcalf, director of the Lowy Institute’s International Security Program said:
“We’re not shifting our loyalties somehow to China but we are overcoming some of the coolness in the relationship.”
As we now look to grasp the opportunities of the Asian Century and celebrate the triumphs of the future, I believe it is important to acknowledge the mistakes of the past and in doing so, I believe, break down some barriers, even if they only are symbolic, that many Australians still face.
I do not profess to have formulated the ideal vehicle for realising what I think is an important issue. These are my personal views on a matter that again has been raised with me at a grass-roots level. What I do think is that any successful approach requires bipartisan will; but will probably have the greatest likelihood of success if it is driven by grass-roots proponents rather than politicians. The Every Australian Counts grass-roots mobilisation, which led to the legislation for a National Disability Insurance Scheme, set a new high bar in how to drive a grass-roots policy campaign. Again, I would welcome the views and guidance of conference participants on this issue.
Practical citizenship issues
Lastly, there is the issue of what I loosely term “practical citizenship”. One of the best opportunities I had in the last Parliament was to co-chair a Ministerial Consultative Committee established by Chris Bowen. As Immigration Minister, he established a series of advisory groups covering a range of communities, both well-established and emerging. It became apparent that many issues faced by society are equally faced by new communities but require unique responses. For example:
- Domestic violence: this was an issue which was raised across the Ministerial Consultative Committees. Mirroring the conclusions reached by organisations such as the Australian Domestic and Family Violence Clearinghouse, and I quote from one of its recent online publications:
“For victims from immigrant and refugee backgrounds, the situation can often be more complex. For these women, disclosure and help seeking can be complicated by factors relating to culture, religion, language, past refugee experiences, current settlement experiences, a lack of access to appropriate services and an absence of family or friends for support.”
Knowing that this is a policy area close to Bill Shorten’s heart and indeed specifically raised by him as a priority during Labor’s leadership election, this is a matter I am confident he wishes to pursue. As the authors of that study highlight, so much research has been done in this area that the recommendations are quite clear. They now require Government support and funding.
- Employment: Again, this is a core policy area for Bill Shorten, specifically raised when he launched The Guide to Employment for Migrants at which I was present. A practical guide to job search assistance and expectations, there was considerable discussion at the launch about pervading problems such as the under-employment of migrants. And with the protection of rights at work being an over-arching concern particularly for workers of migrant background who often lack bargaining power, this will be a policy priority. Again, there have been countless studies into work opportunities for migrants and the barriers they need to overcome to practise their profession.
- Education: Education is a policy priority for people who have chosen to come to Australia to make a better life for their children than they themselves had. Just look at the recognition days that many ethnic groups afford to their successful students and the pride in their families’ faces. As a local MP, I could identify migrant communities as being some of the most outraged at education funding cuts by any level of government, and equally some of the most enthused at the Gonski school education funding reforms. Similarly, the policies contained in the Australia in the Asian Century White Paper for priority Asian languages received high praise in many communities. The challenge now is how to deliver on that strategy, and whether there is the will to do so under the new government.
Amendments to the Racial Discrimination Act
It would be remiss of me at this forum, on a day when one of the lead news stories is the Coalition Government’s intention to scrap certain elements of section 18C of the Racial Discrimination Act, to let this go without comment from an Opposition perspective.
Firstly, I think we need a reality check of these provisions and how they operate: as civil actions, not criminal laws; with extensive protections in the exemptions contained in section 18D, including in the course of making fair comment on any event or matter of public interest, if doing so is an expression of a genuine belief.
And contrary to commentary we have seen and will continue to hear, these are not provisions which impose a ban on free speech. They are protections from racially-motivated hate speech. I believe the Shadow Attorney General, Mark Dreyfus QC MP, is making comment to this effect at this very moment and the Opposition will continue to be very vocal in this regard. There is always a place for open and frank debate in our media, our institutions and in other public fora. There is never a place in Australia for hate speech.
I think we will all be challenged in the coming months to know the facts of the law and its objectives, to inform ourselves and our communities, to participate in the debate with knowledge and conviction. That is what Labor will be doing.
I end by acknowledging Pino who nears the end of his term as FECCA Chair. Your leadership has been fearless, frank and forthright. I look forward to participating in this very exciting portfolio area with you all and doing so with passion as Labor develops strong alternative policies in the multicultural space.