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Do we need a national Multicultural Act?

12 November 20150 comments

Successive federal governments have been negligent in the debate around multiculturalism giving extremists groups the opportunity to dominate the argument, according to leading sociologist Professor Andrew Jakubowicz.

He says the failure in Australia to stop radicalisation is in part due to a lack of courage in Canberra to back multiculturalism with a legislated Multicultural Act as well as with rhetoric.

The conversation around a Multicultural Act is heating up

The conversation around a Multicultural Act is heating up

Speaking at the 2015 Federation of Ethnic Communities’ Councils (FECCA) conference in Sydney this month, Prof Jakubowicz said most Australians had a mixed view of multiculturalism because of this.

“For thirty years successive governments have surrendered the territory of the discussion about multiculturalism to the likes of the ‘white right’ or Hizb ut-Tahrir,” said Prof Jakubowicz, of the University of Technology Sydney.

“When extremists from each side are allowed to dominate the debate about what multiculturalism is in Australia, something is seriously going wrong.

“No government since 1989 has had the courage to consider multicultural legislation. Not since Bob Hawke was Prime Minister has any political capital been put into multiculturalism.

“One of the consequences of this has been the reduction in institutional leverage available to the federal government around multiculturalism and issues of race and religion,” Professor Jakubowicz said.

He said that as recently as a Parliamentary Joint Committee Report in 2013 there was an opportunity to address this.

“But there were no recommendations and no mention that legislation was even a question – there was no reference at all,” Prof Jakubowicz said.

“The reason for this was that they did not want to scare the horses; but the effect has been to surrender the territory of talking about multiculturalism to those who don’t want multiculturalism,” he said.

Prof Jakubowicz said that after an apogee in 1989 the chances of a Multicultural Act had hit an historic low now.

He said that in Canada, which has had a Multicultural Act since 1985, this month’s federal election  saw 42  new members of parliament from diverse cultural backgrounds elected to parliament, including a former Somali refugee who arrived 22 years ago.

Leading social scientist Dr Sev Ozdowski told the FECCA conference that even though state legislation, federal race discrimination laws and legal checks and balances ensured equity, on balance he favoured a legislated national Multicultural Act.

“Such legislation would enshrine the principles of equity, access and participation but would also have educational value,” Dr Ozdowski said.

“Australia is one of the most diverse nations on Earth yet social cohesion is high. The key to this success is giving everyone a fair go.

“Multiculturalism has survived threats that include Pauline Hanson, the economic downturn, and the Sydney siege but we can’t take it for granted.

“I think a national Multicultural Act would create conversations in schools, in local government and among politicians and administrators that would entrench the principles of multiculturalism,” said Dr Ozdowski of Western Sydney University.


Laurie Nowell
AMES Australia Senior Journalist