Over the next few days, Victorian Multicultural Affairs Minister Richard Wynne will announce the names of the people he has selected to represent the states’ ethnic minorities to the Victorian Multicultural Commission (VMC), following the Government’s in-house review of its rather unimpressive performance for several years.

The VMC has been mandated to be an independent body to offer advice to government on matters affecting ethnic minorities and multicultural Victoria and to distribute to ethnic community organisations some $55million (in 2018-19) for festivals, events and infrastructure needs.

The VMC, earlier called Ethnic Affairs Commission, was formed in the middle 80s during the period of the historic struggles for migrant workers and ethnic communities’ rights, ostensibly to be their collective voice within the government in planning and funding socio-economic and cultural policies and programs. The earlier Ethnic Affairs Commissions had a genuine representation from elected leaders of their ethnic communities, trade unions and some employer organisations. They played an active role in promoting the particular needs of migrant workers and their communities be they wages and working conditions, teaching English on the job, culture and language maintenance in the main stream education system, fighting against all forms of discrimination and racism.

They actively encouraged them to take a more active and leading role in the affairs of their workers and other social organisations. And in the process change Australia from the closed shop of asphyxiating monoculturalism and monolingualism to the reality and advantages of the growing and irreversible multiculturalism and multilingualism. Victoria was in the forefront of progressive policies and reasonably better funded programs, and undoubtedly influenced developments at a federal level and in other states.

Usually in Victoria and elsewhere there was an appointed dedicated minister to the Ethnic/Multicultural portfolio with separate funding identified policy/administrative staff, and authority to monitor the performance of other ministries/departments in the provision of services, employment and representation of migrants and their ethnic communities. For some time now, this portfolio – state or federal – is allocated as an add on to a busy minister or a novice, with hardly any degree of meaningful consultation and accountability. Just look at the recent renaming of the Immigration museum to a meaningless Museum of Shared Humanity.

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Here, I must make a fundamental point.The current bureaucratic term of referring to non Anglo-Celtic Australians – almost half of the country’s population – as either multiculturalist or CALD (Culturally and Linguistically Diverse) is a clumsy yet a strategic component of the still powerful assimilationist establishment to hide, and if possibly bury, the reality of Australia being a nation of its original people – the Aborigines and subsequent waves of immigrants, the majority being of Anglo-Saxon ethnic descent with English as the common language and very large and smaller ethnic minorities from over 150 other countries, including nearly two million Chinese, over one million Indians and half a million Greeks.
Therefore multiculturalism is not a side issue for ‘the ethnics’, nor is reconciliation only a matter for a few blacks. It is an integral part of and for the whole nation.

Continued resistance is basically motivated as Senator Pat Dobson – the father of reconciliation – correctly and wisely said, “by the leaders fear of loss of the Anglo imprint”(The Australian, 10 August 2019), as if the imprints of the other half of Australians are not as important to recognise and protect.
The rhetoric of inclusion has not made up for the undeniable fact that non Anglo-Australians are hardly represented in parliaments, public service, in the leaderships of socio-political policy shaping socio-economic and cultural institutions and organisations not even in areas where they make up the great majority. More than six million Australian citizens born overseas or descendants of parents or grandparents born overseas cannot be elected to the Federal Parliament and their citizenship can be revoked. There are of course some voices trying to be heard but mostly spasmodic and not as coordinated and grass rooted as they were some 40-50 years ago nor as required now with the rise of bigotry and racism.

With passing of time the VMC and similar bodies in other states and at a federal level – the latter abolished by John Howard in the 90s became remote from, and often opposed implicitly or explicitly to the real needs of migrant workers and ethnic communities. The democratic principle of direct representation, imperfect as it was, has been replaced by government selection and policy direction intended to make for conformity all the way down the line and not responded to and accountable.

As discrimination is still rampant, despite many efforts to combat it, the need for a united voice by ethnic minority Australians and other proponents of multiculturalism is as important and urgent as ever.

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Making common cause with the indigenous peoples and their historic Uluru Statement ‘From the Heart’, that is constitutional recognition as Australia’s first people, a treaty and a voice of their own on matters affecting them can be an equally historic step forward for ethnic minority Australians to amend the constitution to reflect our increasing demographic multicultural reality, removing all articles that create two classes of Australians and providing for an elected advisory body to parliaments.

In a sense this – to have a say – has always been a major objective stated or otherwise since non Anglo Australians set foot on this land only to be frustrated and bitterly opposed during the reign of the distructive White Australia Policy and the hold it continuous to have in powerful conservative circles, neo-liberal ideologues, other white supremacists and victims of xenophobia.

But, more importantly, support for multiculturalism has taken root and growing. We need to build on it and take it to the level of major policy and structural progressive constitutional and legislative changes as referred to above, with the all embracing demand “it is time for our voices to be heard, for meaningful participation through democratic election and not establishment selection”

The major drive for such an epic task should and must, come from the ethnic minorities, initiating and pursuing a public discourse and organising our own “Uluru” gathering and statement, drawing from the history making Migrant Worker and Ethnic Communities Rights conferences and campaigns of the 70’s and 80’s. The Greek Australian communities which have contributed immensely to such campaigns have the political and intellectual capacity to be a leader in this huge big step forward. Lets deliver on this that means so much for our present and future in this Country.

  • George Zangalis is the retired president of the Australian Railways Union Vic., the past president of the ACTU Migrant Workers Committee, the  foundation member of ECCV, FECCA and Community Broadcasting, past member of SBS board and National ABC Advisory Committee, recipient of the Federation Medal for services to community and migrant workers, author and current affairs radio commentator and Vice President Fair Go for Pensioners Coalition – Vic.