Nicholas Kotsiras is in Parliament House again, but this time as the Minister for Multicultural Affairs after the Baillieu Coalition government swept Labor from office last November.
The Minister is fired up and is working with no time to waste. At the forefront of his mind is the fact that promises were made and in government he will need to make them happen.
“I want to be judged on outcomes after four years, at the end it’s all about what you can achieve, and I aim to achieve,” says Mr Kotsiras.
Meeting him in the bowels of Victoria’s Parliament House, his office is neat and utilitarian. He’s focused on work – very much a reflection of him.
He did not waste time introducing changes to the Victorian Multicultural Commission (VMC) last week. The VMC will be broken up and its policy and administrative functions will now be transferred into an Office of Multicultural Affairs and Citizenship (OMAC) within the Department of Premier and Cabinet.
There will also be eight Regional Advisory Councils established to work in partnership with the VMC and local communities.
Criticism has been pointed, particularly from former Labor Government Multicultural Minister John Pandazopoulos who accused the Minister of “going back to the bad old days”.
It has been said that Mr Kotsiras is merely creating another layer of bureaucracy, claims he flatly rejects.
“I believe the reverse will occur. Currently the VMC is highly politicised and the bureaucracy is tied in with the VMC,” Mr Kotsiras says emphatically.
“The department provides the Minister with policy and advice on policy implementation, whereas the VMC, the Chairperson and the Commissioners are there to provide feedback from the community.”
The Minister has, it seems, a sense of clarity of purpose when detailing his thinking. “The VMC are the ones that go out to talk to the community and come back to government and say what is required.”
He adds, “The Minister will ask the department to prepare briefs and provide information on how to implement policies and initiatives to meet the needs of migrant communities and refugees.
“If the Commission controls the public servants, then how can the Minister get objective advice?” he asks rhetorically.
“We will de-politicise the VMC, we will allow the VMC to function on its own, so it can investigate any department it believes is not meeting the state’s multicultural objectives.
“Whereas in the past, they could only do that if the Minister approved,” he adds.
Eight Regional Advisory Councils will also be established to work in partnership with the VMC and local communities, as conduits for information on regional settlement and service delivery.
Mr Kotsiras discounts the notion that settlement services should not be the realm of state government but rather local and federal government.
“The Commonwealth Government has programs and policies, the state government has some and so has local government; but there has never been coordination, no one knows what the other is doing.”
His face animates as he says: “We are forming a settlement coordination unit within the Department of Premier and Cabinet to coordinate the three tiers of government, to coordinate all the departments.”
Mr Kotsiras rejects the suggestion that the VMC will become a toothless tiger.
“No, quite the contrary, the VMC will have at its disposal the right staff; it will investigate and it will report to me. I will examine the recommendations and I will make my response to those recommendations public. So if a department fails to deliver on any recommendations the public will know about it.”
During the Kennett years a five percent levy on all departments was introduced to be spent on ethnic media yet few have ever fully implemented that policy.
Kotsiras is determined that that levy be implemented.
“We initiated that levy and since then many departments have not met that target. I hope that the VMC will continue to monitor that and I hope it also increases.”
While Victoria’s bipartisan position on multiculturalism is well-known, the reality is that services, especially age care for Greek and other older communities need more than feel good rhetoric.
“I am aware of our ageing population, I know that people revert back to their native language, dietary and religious needs and need specialised care. That is why I will set up an inter-departmental committee which I chair to make sure that aged care, policing, education all reflect the diversity of our ageing population,” Mr Kotsiras says, pointing again to the role of the VMC which “will have direct input in that committee”.
While the Minister is keen to point out that every department, education, the arts, and welfare will have to prove that they are meeting their responsibilities, at the end of the day “the government is responsible”.
“I am responsible, each minister is responsible. I am not going to handball that responsibility to public servants who are there to assist in the implementation of the policies we took to the last election.”
One major election promise is the introduction of second languages in all schools by 2025. A long time, but the Minister is keenly aware of the need to train teachers up.
“We are proud of our diverse cultures yet we do not speak enough languages outside English. It is crucial for us in terms of economic, cultural and political development,” says Mr Kotsiras.
The conversation extends to the arts – a passion for Mr Kotsiras.
“Arts Victoria, like all departments will need to prove that they are responding to the needs of diverse audiences, patrons and artists,” he says.
He adds, “Just because my name is Kotsiras, it does not mean I should be referred to the VMC, all departments have the responsibility.”
In four years the electorate will judge if the passion which determines the Minister’s work ethic will result in tangible outcomes.