Australia is a vibrant multicultural society and a model to the world on how to build a cohesive society, according to a report tabled in federal parliament last month.
The report – authored by the Joint Standing Committee on Migration – made 32 recommendations to enhance the government’s delivery of multicultural policies after receiving over 500 submissions and holding 27 public hearings in its two year investigation.
Its recommendations include enhancing research into multiculturalism, factoring cultural and linguistic diversity into the government’s social inclusion agenda, and ensuring greater flexibility in English language training and support for micro enterprises, especially for women.
Job Services Australia – the government agency whose mission it is to support job seekers – was slammed in the report, with the inquiry saying it had to lift its game in delivering services to people of diverse backgrounds.
Migration Committee chair Maria Vamvakinou told Neos Kosmos the report told a story of Australian multiculturalism as an unparalleled success.
“We are a cross party committee, and for me the journey we went on was inspiring. We stuck to the evidence – much of which was very politically charged – and produced a report that responded to that evidence.”
“Overall it has reaffirmed for me how successful has been our experience of multiculturalism in Australia, but we need to refine it, and address the faultlines,” said the federal member for Calwell.
Whilst the report describes Australia as a vibrant multicultural society, the inquiry did highlight public tensions about Islamic integration and reaffirmed “inclusiveness and engagement within the framework of Australian laws”.
With some submissions expressing concerns at a perceived introduction of elements of Sharia Law, the committee made plain that it did not consider legal recognition of Islamic practices necessary or desirable.
“It needed to be said. ‘No legal pluralism’,” said Ms Vamvakinou, who added that the views espoused by the controversial Dutch MP Gert Wilders had informed the narrative of many people who had written to the inquiry.
“Notwithstanding those submissions, the overwhelming number actually put forward strong cases explaining how multiculturalism has succeeded.”
Ms Vamvakinou described the inquiry’s findings as further evidence that commentators who portrayed multicultural policies as divisive were wrong.
“The committee believes that access to Australian citizenship has been at the heart of the success and cohesion of Australian society.
“Settlement is a long-term and intergenerational process, and we need a whole government approach and better coordination between all three tiers of Australian government,” said Ms Vamvakinou.
On the issue of 457 visas, which the Gillard government has vowed to reform in recent weeks, Ms Vamvakinou said she was critical of recent rhetoric used by the prime minister on the subject.
The PM’s comments on rorts by temporary foreign skilled workers and employers – portrayed as protecting Australian jobs – rang alarm bells for the chair of the Migration Committee.
“We’d picked up concerns over 457 visas during the inquiry. The emphasis and the rhetoric should have been focusing on how migration agents and a few employers are rorting the system.
“At the end of the day running a debate which says ‘we don’t want foreigners’ is a false debate,” says Ms Vamvakinou.
“It’s not the way I would have advanced the discussion. I’m very aware of how sensitive this kind of narrative is. It backfires.”
Coinciding with the tabling of the Migration Committee’s report, the inaugural Australian Migration and Settlement Awards were also held in Canberra last week.
The awards, presented by the Migration Council of Australia, recognise finalists from around the country who are exemplary in their commitment to providing world-class services to migrants.
The PM and Minister for Multicultural Affairs Kate Lundy congratulated Sir James Gobbo for being awarded the Australian Migration and Settlement Lifetime Achievement Award.
Leader of the Opposition Tony Abbott, who was also present, said that he and the PM shared a common ancestry in their families’ migration from the UK.
“Like millions of others, they came because they sought a new life here and because they had the skills and the attitudes that our country needed, principally the determination to become Australian and to succeed in their new home,” said Mr Abbott.
“Our support for refugees indicates our warm hearts as a people. Our support for skilled migrants indicates our cool heads as a people because why not take the best from anywhere in the world and make them ours?”