Multiculturalism is a strength in rebounding from COVID-19 crisis

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Australia must wholeheartedly welcome multiculturalism to swiftly bounce back from the coronavirus (image via YouTube).

Dr Klaas Woldring and Dr José van den Akker argue that embracing principles of multiculturalism is essential for Australia's economic recovery. 

THE AUSTRALIAN NATION has been severely tested in the last year with massive bushfires, heavy rains and floods and now the deadly coronavirus.

Combined with the lack of trust in the political system what will the future hold? The emergence of political, religious and ethnic enmities in recent years have also concerned many. 

Multiculturalism as a political slogan

As part of the White Australia policy, prior to 1972, all migrants were expected to fully integrate and become "Australian". This policy changed under the Whitlam Government. Since then, Australian governments adopted more progressive policies to promote multiculturalism.

Multiculturalism, largely considered to benefit the Australian economy, has been presented as a positive model for other countries as well. But serious questions around the sincerity of the Australian multicultural model have emerged. 

Although Australia is an immigration country, internationally developments in Australia are watched with considerable anxiety and reserve.

Kelly Tranter reported in Independent Australia that:

Australians are repeatedly told by our Government that ‘we are the envy of the world when it comes to strong border protection policies’. Yet heavily redacted documents relating to our bid for the United Nations Human Rights Council, released under Freedom of Information laws, suggest that in diplomatic circles the view is that our border protection policies create a reputational vulnerability, resulting in a defensive position against the increasing pressure of the world.


Consecutive immigration ministers and prime ministers confidently assert that Australia has found the solution to border protection issues and proudly spruik this glorious news to all those parts of the world struggling with similar issues. Few take them seriously.

By claiming that refugee and asylum seekers are "illegal immigrants", far-right policies written by the current Coalition Government undermine the ideal of a multicultural Australia.

They also hinder migrants from succeeding in Australia, although many of them are skilled, have excellent English language skills and would add billions of dollars to the Australian economy provided migrants’ skills are matched with the jobs they hold. 

The development of migrant cultures since 1972

Recent research suggests that women from other than non-English speaking backgrounds remain largely invisible due to systemic discrimination and fragmentation, which reinforces the stigma around migrants’ competencies. Also known as culturally and linguistically diverse ('CALD'), many women are skilled or highly skilled, but their skills are largely under-utilised and they often face unemployment.

Political representation of ethnic minorities, although improving, is also still inadequate. Highly skilled ethnic immigrants tend to experience considerable difficulty in reaching executive levels in corporations, public services and not-for-profit organisations. Achievements of post-WWII migrants from non-English speaking backgrounds are sparsely rewarded in annual honours lists.

The policy of social inclusion, promoted by the Labor Party after 2007, was supposed to assist multiculturalism. But further commercialisation of the special public broadcaster SBS reduced its role of achieving cultural diversity through the use of media. Attempts by the Abbott Government from 2013 to 2016 to remove section 18C of the Federal Racial Discrimination Act have been indicative of an increasing trend to accommodate racial prejudice couched under the term of “freedom of expression”.

This trend cannot continue if Australia is to recover from the major economic setback that the coronavirus has inflicted.

When it has been overcome, the economic recovery of Australia will need the maximum input from all its people, including its migrants and so-called "illegal" immigrants. The treatment of political refugees arriving by boats and their management in detention camps in Pacific countries has raised serious questions about the multicultural values of Australian society, here and internationally.

Meanwhile, the Constitution neither reflects the multicultural realities and aspirations nor protects the human rights of citizens and newcomers. The absence of a Bill of Rights at the federal (and in many states) is a further handicap. 

In 2012, a national Expert Panel on the Refugee Question recommended that the Federal Government consider processing genuine political refugees who were camping in Indonesia. Once accepted, they could have been flown to Australia, which would have stopped the people-smugglers trade.

The Panel recommended also that as a matter of urgency, Australia should accept 20,000 more migrants for humanitarian reasons, to be increased to 27,000. In Recommendation 4, the Panel recommended 'that bilateral cooperation on asylum seeker issues with Indonesia be advanced'.  But this did not happen. Instead, the disastrous treatment of people on Manus Island and Nauru sullied Australia's good standing internationally.

Lack of diversity in key leadership roles in corporations

The Leading for Change Report of 2016 provided a snapshot of the cultural backgrounds of chief executive officers of ASX 200 companies, federal ministers, heads of federal and state government departments, and vice-chancellors of universities.

It also examined the cultural backgrounds of senior management at lower executive levels and group executives of ASX 200 companies, elected members of the Commonwealth Parliament, deputy heads of government departments and deputy vice-chancellors of universities.

Using statistical modelling based on the 2016 Census, the report listed that 58% of the Australian population has an Anglo-Celtic background, 18% has a European background, 21% a non-European background, and 3% an Aboriginal or Torres Strait Islander background.

This cultural diversity is significantly underrepresented among senior leaders in Australian organisations and institutions. Of the 2490 most senior posts in Australia, 75.9% has an Anglo-Celtic background, 19% a European background, 4.7% a non- European background, and 0.4% an Indigenous background.

Cultural diversity is particularly low within the senior leadership of Australian government departments and Australian universities. Of the 372 chief executives and equivalents identified in this study, 76.9% has an Anglo-Celtic background, 20.1% a European background, and 2.7% a non- European background. There is only one chief executive who has an Indigenous background (0.3%).

Parliaments also fails to reflect multicultural Australia

A comprehensive and detailed paper published by the NSW Parliamentary Research Library sketched the situation in 2006, more than 60 years after mass immigration started. The paper showed convincingly that ethnic and racial minorities remained politically underrepresented in Australia.

In the NSW and Federal MPs by surname, the following percentages showed up in late June 2015:

  • NSW Legislative Assembly: Anglo-Celtic names: 80%, Others: 20%
  • NSW Legislative Council: Anglo-Celtic names: 74%, Others: 26%
  • Federal House of Representatives: Anglo-Celtic names: 86.7%, Others: 13.3%
  • Federal Senate: Anglo-Celtic names: 80.1%, Others: 19.9%

The special case of Indigenous people

Constitutional recognition of Indigenous Australians has again been given the cold shoulder, following the Uluru Statement from the Heart proposals for a Treaty and an advisory role to Parliament.

In 2017, then-Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull could not offer a satisfactory explanation as to why the proposals weren't implemented, other than claiming it to be constitutionally "impossible".

Constitutional acknowledgement would include Indigenous people’s participation in key leadership roles and their representation as full partners in negotiations. It would also mean an overhaul of Australia's archaic 1901 Constitution, desirable for this and many other reasons.

The next steps

The potential strength of Australia's multicultural society lies in the recognition of the skills and capacities of the Indigenous people of Australia and migrants from non-English speaking backgrounds. Given the huge cost of the post-coronavirus recovery, it is of utmost importance that these peoples' skills are given full reign in the economy and that, to add billions to the Australian economy, migrants’ skills are matched with the jobs they hold.  

But the political system also needs reform. A change to the "single-member district" (SMD) electoral system, which favours male Anglo-Australian candidates in winnable seats, would be highly desirable.

Currently, ethnic minority candidates are rarely elected, unless they represent a very strong ethnic minority group in an electoral district. Proportional representation (PR), especially the party-list system, would end the SMD system problems and present opportunities for individuals of different ethnic, cultural and religious backgrounds, also for women and Indigenous candidates.

This system would serve multiculturalism. The political culture could change completely as a result. 

The PR system can be simply introduced by changing the Commonwealth Electoral Act of 1918. No constitutional amendment is required. Constitutionally, electoral system matters are left to the Parliament. 

Dr Klaas Woldring is a former Associate Professor at Southern Cross University. He is a committee member of ABC Friends, Central Coast. Dr José van den Akker currently works as a Postdoc researcher at CQUniversity’s School of Education and the Arts.

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