OPINION: Multiculturalism in Australia – we still have a long way

OPINION: Multiculturalism in Australia – we still have a long way

Original post on SBS by our co-founder Jieh-Yung Lo.

On 21 March, Australians from all backgrounds will be celebrating Harmony Day – an initiative developed by the federal government in 1999 to recognise and celebrate Australia’s cultural diversity.

To coincide with this important celebration, the Turnbull Government has launched a new Multicultural Statement this week entitled “Releasing Multicultural Australia: United, Strong, Successful.”

Malcolm Turnbull is calling on all Australians to unite under the shared values of ‘freedom, democracy, the rule of law and equality of opportunity. With words such as ‘integration’, ‘values’ and ‘security’, the Turnbull Government’s statement echoes views shared by the Howard Government where Peter Costello described multiculturalism as ‘mushy’ and Andrew Robb referring the ‘M’ word (multiculturalism) as a philosophy that put ‘allegiances to original culture ahead of national loyalty.’

As an Australian of Chinese heritage, I am concerned that the Turnbull Government’s Multicultural Statement is steering Australia back into the past rather than looking towards the future. I am disappointed that the Turnbull Government did not use this opportunity to develop a policy statement that would help multicultural Australia fulfil its incredible potential.

Yes, the Prime Minister is correct in saying that our cultural diversity is one of our greatest assets. About 28 per cent of Australians were born overseas with an additional 20 per cent having at least one parent born overseas.

Australians come from 300 ancestries and close to 20 per cent of Australians speak another language other than English at home.

The questions I would like to ask the Prime Minister and his government is – do our institutions reflect Australia’s cultural diversity make up? Is Australia’s cultural diversity represented within positions of senior leadership in our governments, parliaments and executive boardrooms? The short answers are – no.

According to the ‘Leading for Change‘ blueprint released by the Australian Human Rights Commission in July 2016, only 4.98 per cent of ASX 200 CEOs, 1.61 per cent of federal and state public service Secretaries and heads of department, and 0 per cent of federal Ministers and Assistant Ministers come from a non-European background.

Results from the blueprint demonstrate that senior leadership teams across Australian sectors fail to reflect Australia’s multicultural communities and workforce.

When it comes to direct representation, no place is more relevant than the Parliament of Australia. Research from the blueprint identified that 79 per cent of the 226 elected members in the Australian Parliament have an Anglo-Celtic background, 16 per cent have a European background and those from a non-European background make up less than four per cent of the total.

For many of Australia’s recent and new arrivals, they do not feel the Parliament of Australia is representative and reflective of our diverse society.

The research has also found that leadership within Australian institutions remain Anglo-Celtic and out of reach for Australians from multicultural and interfaith backgrounds.

Institutions such as businesses, corporations and government departments are simply not making use of our cultural diversity make up. What’s worse is that there are many leaders, policy and decision-makers whom do not recognise the value Australians from multicultural and interfaith backgrounds bring to the decision making table.

Australians from multicultural and interfaith backgrounds face many challenges and barriers including institutional racism in workplaces, discrimination and bias and the lack of cultural understanding from senior leaders and decision-makers.

Businesses, governments and parliaments need to do more to cultivate and promote inclusive leadership, provide opportunities for people from multicultural, culturally and linguistically diverse and interfaith backgrounds to serve in leadership roles, respond to bias and discrimination in the workplace; set up performance targets and introduce policies and measures that recognise the potential of cultural diversity.

Responding to these challenges requires our governments to show leadership and set a positive example.

In my experience working with multicultural communities, embracing cultural diversity brings financial and social capital.

Research from US-based global management consultant firm McKinsey has shown that US businesses with a multicultural workforce are 35 per cent more likely to have financial returns above their competitors.

In an increasingly globalised world and economy, having a culturally and linguistically diverse workforce that possesses knowledge and understanding of a range of different cultures and languages can give Australia and our businesses an edge over its competitors.

Having elected representatives from multicultural backgrounds serving in parliaments also increases the interest, engagement and participation of Australians from multicultural backgrounds in politics and our democratic processes.

I’ve witnessed this firsthand as a former local government councillor and Deputy Mayor of the City of Monash. My presence on the City of Monash encouraged the local Chinese and Asian-Australian community to engage and connect with the council’s policies and activities, with some community members telling me that it was the first time they made contact with their local council representative.

Rather than focusing on national security, violent extremism, counter-terrorism and border protection, I would’ve liked to see the policy statement focus more on the potential, aspirations, opportunities and strength of multiculturalism in Australia.

The Turnbull Government had an opportunity to shift the debate and discussion of multiculturalism in Australia by presenting a case to change the status quo and a call to arms for Australian institutions to embrace multiculturalism in their day-to-day operations.

The Prime Minister has reiterated time and time again that we are the most successful multicultural society in the World.

While there’s much for Australia to be proud of, we have merely scratched the surface of Australia’s multicultural and cultural diversity potential.

Jieh-Yung Lo is a member of the Australian-Chinese community, the Australian Labor Party (ALP) and is co-founder of Poliversity, a “national partisan independent organisation affiliated with the ALP that promotes multicultural representation, leadership & engagement.”