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.”

OPINION: I’ve never seen an issue bring community leaders together like 18C

OPINION: I’ve never seen an issue bring community leaders together like 18C

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

The year was 1998. My family just re-located from Footscray to Wantirna South in metropolitan Melbourne. I moved from my first secondary school in West Melbourne, at that time a school comprised of students from many nationalities, to a school where I was only one of two students from an Asian background in my year level. The two years spent at that high school in Ferntree Gully were not easy. During those years, I was not known by the majority of fellow classmates for my academic ability or sporting prowess. I was known as that “Chinese kid with the funny sounding name”.

My ethnicity also gave birth to many names in the playground such as “chink, zipper-head, ching chong and yellow monkey”. Every time I hear these names coming from my classmates, I would wonder why people living in this country, my country of birth, would judge me based on my ethnicity and appearance.

This experience motivated me to dedicate my life to put a stop to racism and vilification. Racist words and attitudes are hurtful, offensive and if no proper action is taken, can lead to further harassment. Racist hate speech can damage an individual’s self confidence and self-esteem leading to social attitudes of racial supremacism, prejudice and racial separatism. I do not want to see my fellow Australians of ethnic backgrounds experience such harsh treatment and judgment.

For four long years, alongside many multicultural community leaders, I have advocated for the retention of section 18C of the Racial Discrimination Act (RDA). Like representatives of the Jewish, Muslim, Asian-Australian, European-Australian, African-Australian and Indigenous Australian communities, we were concerned the Abbott government would move to repeal 18C all together. After nearly a decade working with multicultural and interfaith Australians, I have never seen an issue that has brought all community leaders together under one banner. Community representatives have taken to the streets as well as appearing at parliamentary committee hearings with the purpose of protecting 18C as it stands.

The anti-18C advocates have got it all wrong. Section 18C is not about freedom of speech, section 18D already provides protection of freedom of speech. Section 18C is about protecting Australians from all backgrounds from hate speech – and there is a big difference.

For the past 40 years, the RDA has played an important role in protecting and maintaining Australia’s cohesive, diverse and multicultural society. While Australia at the national level remains one of the very few liberal democracies to not have a national bill of rights, the RDA has effectively served in that capacity by ensuring all Australians, regardless of race and background, are treated fairly and equally.

According to a survey commissioned by SBS and Western Sydney University, one in five Australians have experienced racism in the past 12 months. Nearly a third of those surveyed said they have experienced racism within their workplace and educational facility. At least 35% of respondents said they’ve experienced racism on public transport and nearly half of Indigenous respondents said they have experienced racism in some shape or form at sporting events.

It is unfortunate that so many people are still made to feel unwelcome in our diverse country. This is why calls to water down section 18C and the RDA would send the wrong message to potential offenders that discrimination, vilification and hate speech is accepted in our society.

Results from the same survey indicate that up to 77% of Muslim women in Australia have experienced racism on public transport or in the street. To ensure Australians from interfaith backgrounds are given adequate legislative protection, I would like to see sections 18C and 18D strengthened by adding “religion” into the protection.

Such protections already exist in state based legislation such as the Racial and Religious Tolerance Act 2001 in Victoria and the Anti-Discrimination Act 1977 in New South Wales and it should also be included at the federal level. We live in a society that allows an individual to practice any religion they choose. Muslim Australians should be able to practice their faith without fear, judgment and vilification.

After a three-month public inquiry, the parliamentary joint committee on human rights handed down its report this week. The report recommended minimal changes to 18C but the biggest change of all is to the operation of the Australian Human Rights Commission and the complaints handling process, including the appointment of a judge to serve as a judicial member to deal with initial complaints – a suggestion that many of us in the multicultural and interfaith communities have asked for.

Section 18C is not there to prohibit free speech, it is there to prevent hate speech. A majority of the anti-18C advocates do not understand how it feels to be judged on the basis of their skin colour or faith. They have never been put in a situation where their fellow citizens have made them feel unwelcome in their own country.

The decision to prevent racist hate speech from gaining further prominence is in the hands of the prime minister. For the sake of Australia’s multicultural, harmonious and inclusive society, we hope he will make the right decision and put an end to any further attempts to water down 18C.

Jieh-Yung Lo is the co-founder of Poliversity and a member of the Australian-Chinese community.