Acting Immigration and Multicultural Affairs Minister Alan Tudge focused on the COVID-19 health crisis in his address at the National Press Club on Friday. Below is his speech:
Keeping Australians together at a time of COVID
When Scott Morrison was sworn in as Prime Minister on 24 August 2018, he outlined three commitments that would be his government’s focus: keeping our economy strong; keeping Australians safe; and keeping Australians together.
Australia is a very different place to what it was two years ago – with the COVID pandemic having a devastating impact, particularly in Melbourne – but these commitments remain the same.
Today I want to discuss the third of these commitments – keeping Australians together – and what we need to do to maintain our social cohesion, particularly in the current COVID climate.
COVID has already caused hundreds of deaths and massive damage to our economy, but in Melbourne at least, which remains under harsh lockdown and curfew, it has the potential to tear apart our social fabric if we are not careful.
I want to begin this speech with a message for my fellow Victorians, and indeed all Australians, to continue to reach out to each other in these unprecedented times and make the additional effort to maintain the community linkages which are the bonds that keep our society together.
Today, I want to discuss at a broader strategic level the challenges we face as a nation in maintaining our unity – not just due to COVID – but challenges we have not previously faced as a nation. At least not to the same extent as we do now.
Whilst our immediate focus is on fighting the pandemic, we must also put in place the building blocks for the medium and long term so that our society emerges in a stronger place.
A standard bearer in social cohesion
When discussing social cohesion, Australia’s starting position is one of strength.
Our nation is not perfect, but it is as strong and united as any country on earth.
Consider some of the data.
According to the Scanlon Foundation (which provides the most comprehensive annual assessment of Australia’s social cohesion), 90 per cent of Australians had a “great” or “moderate” sense of belonging in Australia; 84 percent were “very happy” or “happy” over the last year, while 62 per cent were “optimistic” or “very optimistic” about Australia’s future. Now these were pre-pandemic survey results from 2019, but they are still illustrative.
The World Economic Forum in their Global Social Mobility Index, finds that Australians’ social mobility is high. Pre-COVID, our employment levels were also high and, importantly, there was little difference in the unemployment rate between new arrivals to our shores and those born here, whereas across the OECD, there was an average 2.9 percent gap between the migrant and non-migrant unemployment rate. In the European Union it was a 4.1 percentage point gap.
Migrants create more small businesses in Australia proportionately than non-migrants, despite 83 per cent of migrant business owners not owning a business before coming here.
What all this data shows is that regardless of where you come from, everyone in Australia has the opportunity to ‘have a go’ and succeed.
As the Prime Minister has said, ‘if you have a go, you’ll get a go’ in Australia.
People aren’t excluded. Individuals such as Hieu Van Le are living examples of this: a person arriving as a refugee from Vietnam is now the Governor of South Australia.
Our social cohesion is particularly remarkable given the size and diversity of our migrant intake. There are people from every single country on earth living here. Almost 30 percent of us were born overseas and a further 21 percent have at least one migrant parent. The United States, known as the “great melting pot”, has just 13 percent born overseas.
Further, we have not seen the extent of religious or ethnic violence experienced in some other countries. We’ve actually seen quite the opposite, and this has never been more on display than during the bushfires and the COVID pandemic where multicultural communities have stood up to support their fellow Australians.
When you see Buddhist monks providing free massages to weary fire-fighters, Muslim builders putting on barbeques for bushfire survivors, Irish truck drivers delivering hundreds of thousands of litres of water, and Sikhs cooking and delivering curries to Melbourne’s public housing estates during the COVID lockdown, you know we have something special in this nation.
We have fought hard to build and maintain our social cohesion. Of course, we began European settlement without the class structures that are present in other countries. And egalitarianism, articulated through mateship and the ‘fair go’, have permeated our society. In recent decades, our policy of multiculturalism based on integration (as opposed to assimilation or separatism) has also served us well.
The Government has put policies in place to support people to integrate, including funding a $71 million package of initiatives to ensure that what we share and what brings us together is always stronger and more important than any differences.
In the work my department does, we have supported measures through the Fostering Integration Grants that have enabled new arrivals to become part of and contribute to Australia’s economic and social development; we have built interfaith and multicultural understanding through sport, in classrooms, cultural institutions and through community-driven programs and outreach; and we’ve promoted resilience against harmful and divisive messages, particularly those that promote violence.
John Howard when speaking here at the National Press Club in 2006 said that:
“Australia’s crowning achievement, borne of its egalitarian tradition, is its social cohesion. No country has absorbed as many people from as many nations and as many cultures as Australia and done it so well. The strength of a culturally diverse community, united by an overriding and unifying commitment to Australia, is one of our greatest achievements and one of our great national assets.”
He was right back then, and the evidence suggests that this remains one of “our great national assets”.
Challenges to our cohesion
While we should be proud of what we have collectively achieved, we cannot be complacent. There are factors today, putting strain on our cohesion that weren’t there 14 years ago, when John Howard made those comments, or even six months ago in some cases.
So, far from being complacent, it means we need to redouble our efforts.
Consider four big newer or enhanced challenges we face today.
First, COVID itself.
John Ferguson from The Australian newspaper wrote earlier this month that the Stage 4 lockdown restrictions in Melbourne “will crudely tear the state’s social fabric”. I am not as pessimistic as he is, but there is no doubt that the impact will be devastating for many and challenge us all in ways previously unseen.
Even in other states, everyday community activities which have traditionally been so important at holding communities together are not as vibrant as they once were, or they are still restricted: activities like community and national sport, church and worship attendance, meetings or gatherings at the local RSL or pub, the local Rotary or Lions meeting, or scouts. Even office working life has changed dramatically, with less physical interaction with our colleagues. Technology can only do so much to make up for this lack of physical community.
Most concerning, however, is the impact of COVID on jobs. Compared to other countries, our economy is robust and holding up, but Treasury is still forecasting the COVID effective unemployment rate to rise to more than 13 percent in the September quarter. This will be devastating for so many.
Moreover we know that when unemployment rises, sentiment towards migrants can deteriorate. We have already seen some disgraceful racist attacks against Asian Australians – actions that have no place in the country. We must always guard against such behaviour and call out racist acts wherever they occur. The vast majority of Australians would agree 100% with this sentiment.
Second, foreign interference.
Foreign interference in Australia is at an unprecedented high. As Director-General of Security, Mike Burgess bluntly put it earlier this year: “The level of threat is higher now than it was at the height of the cold war.”
Foreign actors have multiple objectives, but one is to seek to grow division in our society by pushing people away from Australia and placing their loyalties elsewhere. They seek to sow distrust in government and institutions.
Every sector of our community is a potential target, including parliamentarians, their staff, and all levels of government, the media, opinion makers, business leaders, and the university community.
I am particularly concerned about the reach of some foreign actors into our multicultural communities. Members of our diverse communities have been both victims of interference and used as vectors to engage in foreign interference. Despite now being proud Australians, some communities are still seen by their former home countries as “their diaspora” – to be harassed or exploited to further the national cause.
Some who criticise their former country are silenced through threats and intimidation, including to family members back in their country of heritage. Others are persuaded or forced to monitor or harass members of their own community who may hold views contrary to those of the governing regimes in their former countries.
Further, malign information or propaganda can be spread through multicultural media, including foreign language media controlled or funded by state players. This can be particularly influential if local residents’ English is poor and hence they are more reliant on foreign language sources.
The third challenge is the increasing number of those who cannot speak English. In 2006, about 560,000 residents did not speak English well or at all. By 2016, at the last Census, it was 820,000. Based on those trends, it is probably close to a million by now – with about half of those being of working age.
Having poor or non-existent English skills is a huge disadvantage to anyone in Australia because of the barriers it places in gaining employment and fully integrating into Australian life. Indeed, there is no other factor that I have seen which has such a strong correlation with employment. Only 13 per cent of those with no English skills are in work compared to 62 per cent of those who speak English well.
And when the number of people with poor English skills is high, our national cohesion is also affected. How can we fully connect together without a common language? How can everyone fully and comprehensively participate in our democracy?
We have seen this through the pandemic where it has been difficult to communicate with all Australians through the mainstream channels. During this time, we have significantly increased our engagement with community leaders and organisations. Ministerial engagement has been as high as ever during these COVID restrictions, with technology being a major driver in these engagements – providing a regular connection in bringing community leaders together from around Australia.
Since March there has been more than 6,700 engagements with key multicultural groups and community leaders. And whilst we have produced over 4,600 materials translated in 63 languages to accommodate this, the challenge in engaging with all Australians remains.
This is not to blame anyone whose English language proficiency is poor, but clearly full participation in the community is difficult when there are language barriers.
Without English language skills, migrants are less likely to get a job, less likely to integrate, and less likely to participate in our democracy.
Moreover, living in Australia does not guarantee that English will be acquired. Based on census data, it is estimated that around half of the overseas-born who arrived with no English still cannot speak English well, or at all, after 15 years of residency.
Whilst a 2019 ABS survey showed that the numbers may have slightly improved, there still remains a significant challenge for us to improve this overall trend. We particularly need to get better results from our $1 billion Adult Migrant English Program (which I will come to later).
During John Howard’s address here in 2006, the iPhone hadn’t even been brought to market. It was still a time when the vast majority of Australians read a daily newspaper that largely competed for the middle ground. They, and the nightly news, set the agenda of what was considered to be the common challenges facing our nation.
Today, with technology and media disintermediation, people (and particularly younger people) are increasingly living in online echo chambers with their news content filtered, curated and personalised to reflect their own world view. A person with left-wing views may never come across any content written or said by conservatives, and vice versa.
These echo chambers are particularly dangerous when they bring together those advocating violent extremism or targeting a minority. Online algorithms can then direct them to more hateful, violent, and divisive content and other like-minded individuals, many of them anonymous.
Technology has also been a key factor in allowing fake and malign information to be spread quickly, easily and widely.
Former Chief Rabbi of the Commonwealth, Lord Jonathan Sacks, who has written extensively on this topic, also notes that with technology almost any clash in the world can be imported into a conflict locally. “What might, twenty years ago, have been a local problem dealt with locally….can now set off a series of protests [on the other side of the world] with a ferocity beyond anyone’s power to control. …The result is serious and the danger may get worse.”
Don’t get me wrong. I am not making an argument against technology. It can be brilliant at joining people up and creating digital communities (and we have seen this in spades during the COVID restrictions). But it also has immense power to divide individuals and communities, as we have already seen.
There are other challenges to our cohesion that remain, such as Islamic extremism and other forms of extremism and radicalisation. But I raise these four challenges: COVID, foreign interference, English language capability, and technology, because they present new threats to our social cohesion which we must be alert to and make additional efforts to address.
Maintaining our social cohesion
When I think about Australia, I am an optimist.
We are a robust, resilient people and as I mentioned at the beginning of my remarks, we start from an enviable position.
Our social fabric is strong with hundreds of thousands of volunteer and community groups which bring people together.
Moreover, we have already done so much to counter some of our new challenges directly. For example, the work that the Federal and State Governments have done, with community support, to tackle COVID means that we are amongst the best positioned in the world. Our economic supports have kept the unemployment rate five percentage points lower than it would otherwise be. Job creation is now an even more critical mission of the Government.
Outside of Victoria, some states and territories are easing restrictions on social gatherings to allow those community groups to flourish again, along with things that foster social cohesion – like sport, community gatherings and entertainment. It is these “little platoons” (as Edmund Burke called them) that are possibly the most important thing of all in binding us together. Victoria will hopefully soon follow and these platoons can once again flourish in our community.
On foreign interference, so much work has been done and will continue to be done. The Government has passed new laws and established the office of the National Counter Foreign Interference Coordinator. We’ve established the ASIO-led multi-agency Counter Foreign Interference Taskforce and developed guidelines with universities to counter foreign interference in the tertiary education sector.
And we are also tackling technology-based challenges. Agencies are working closely with digital industry to identify and quickly seek removal of malign information, vile racist content, and exploitative material. The Minister for Communications and the Minister for Home Affairs continue their work in this area – towards ensuring a safer, more open and secure internet.
As I mentioned earlier, the Government has also significantly increased its engagement with multicultural communities, providing reassurance, assistance and information and conveying feedback to Government.
New measures to enhance social cohesion
Today, I announce new measures to further the work of keeping Australians together as these new challenges emerge.
To start, we will be initiating a renewed push on the most important element which binds us together more than anything else: our liberal democratic values.
Our shared values – of democracy, a commitment to the rule of law, freedom of speech and association, mutual respect, equality of opportunity and individual responsibility – are the foundations of our modern society, as is the value that we place on a ‘fair go’ for all.
These values have held us together over the decades and have underpinned the freedom and prosperity that has made our nation so attractive for millions of migrants to seek to come here.
Our values defend us against challenges to our social cohesion.
Defending and promoting our values is a task for all of us, but the government also has a special responsibility in this area.
With this in mind, we will develop a broader campaign articulating our national identity, our multicultural success, and the Australian values which underpin our nation.
We will also place a greater emphasis on Australian citizenship, encouraging people to take it up and educating people about what it means to declare one’s loyalty to our nation and its people. Over the last 12 months, we have made particular effort to encourage and facilitate citizenship with a record 200,000 becoming Aussies, and we need to maintain this momentum.
I am announcing today that we will be updating the Australian citizenship test and this will include new questions on Australian values. I will have more to say on this in coming weeks, but the stronger focus on Australian values in citizenship testing will be an important part of helping protect our social cohesion into the future.
Australian citizenship is both a privilege and a responsibility, and it should be granted to those who support our values, respect our laws, and want to contribute to Australia’s future. We should ensure that those who come here and those who want to settle here clearly understand – and are willing to commit to – the shared common values that unite us all as Australians.
The Government will also be updating the Australian Values Statement – something that is signed by temporary and permanent migrants as well as citizenship applicants. This will make the Statement more meaningful so that it reflects the importance we place on the values that define and shape our country and culture.
As well as these initiatives, the Government is making substantial changes to our Adult Migrant English Program (AMEP) so that English capability is more widespread.
This is a billion dollar program, but it is presently not having a sufficient impact. It currently provides migrants 510 hours of free language tuition (with a very small number eligible for up to 1090 hours), but, on average, people only complete 300 hours of classes and only 21 percent leave with a functional level of English.
This is not good enough.
The current program is mostly classroom-based and doesn’t provide the flexibility needed for people working or with caring responsibilities, and doesn’t sufficiently take advantage of the massive opportunities from Ed-Tech. Moreover, once you have been here for five years, a person becomes ineligible to take further classes. In many cases, 510 hours is also insufficient, particularly for those whose native language is not a European language, which is many of the major groups of our new migrants today.
Hence, the Government will lift the cap on class hours and remove the time limits. From today, this means that any permanent resident or citizen who doesn’t yet have functional English – that is, the basic language skills to enable participation in society – will be able to attend classes free of charge until they acquire this language capability.
I am encouraging those who fit this description to take up this opportunity. Use this time to become better equipped in learning English.
Further, once we pass legislation, people will also be able to continue to undertake classes until they reach vocational level English.
We will work closely with the English language providers and the industry, including Ed-Tech, to ensure these reforms generate the improvements we need and expect. I want to see better results from the providers, starting now.
The Government will also boost our successful Community Liaison Officer network to include more officers with dual language skills – including in Arabic, Mandarin, Cantonese and Vietnamese – to enhance our engagement with communities at a grassroots level. This will help us to better understand issues in these communities and better ensure they are receiving Government information and support. We started this network when I was last Minister for Multicultural Affairs and it has been effective in reaching out to communities. We will now go further.
Finally, there will be further investment to understand and track our social cohesion in a more sophisticated manner. This will include a focused research program designed to better understand community sentiment towards social cohesion. For example, we will partner with the Scanlon Foundation Research Institute to better harness their research to inform our social cohesion policy-making and program delivery and allow an ongoing public discussion about this area.
These initiatives will reinforce our values, strengthen our common language and keep us further united.
The goal of social cohesion is one for all of us to progress and to take action where we can at an individual and community level.
This is particularly important now during these very tough times – certainly for those in Victoria.
For Victorians who endured Lockdown 1.0, and now Lockdown 2.0 with an added curfew, the slogan that somehow ‘staying apart helps keep us together’ has basically turned the notion of social cohesion and community on its head.
Of course, no one wants to lock people in their homes. Perhaps we need to think longer term, with the hope that the silver lining in all of this might be a stronger community at the other end. For instance, once restrictions ease more broadly, what if we all commit to joining a new community group, or a Rotary or Lions club; or commit to introducing ourselves to a neighbour or a new arrival in the community; or commit to a volunteering pursuit; or commit to assisting the vulnerable or lonely. Whilst we will eventually get through this terrible period, wouldn’t it be good to strengthen our social cohesion when we do? To build on the great community support we saw in the first lockdown.
2020 has already shown us the challenges and uncertainty we face – from bushfires and floods, a global pandemic, sophisticated cyber-attacks and foreign interference. All of this has occurred against a backdrop of a more complex geo-political environment in our region.
But when we look around the world, we are in an enviable position.
Few nations could claim to enjoy the peaceful unity that characterises Australia’s multicultural society, and our challenge today is to ensure we remain one of the most successful multicultural societies in the world.
The government is stepping up to play its part.
It is my hope that the community will continue to step up and do what Australians do so well – looking after each other to build an even stronger Australia.