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Joint Standing Committee on Migration - 03/02/2012 - Multiculturalism in Australia

ARISTOTLE, Mr Paris, Director, Victorian Foundation for Survivors of Torture

COLE, Ms Rebecca, National Coordinator, Forum of Australian Services for Survivors of Torture and Trauma

SZWARC, Mr Josef, Manager, Policy and Research, Victorian Foundation for Survivors of Torture

[10:28]

CHAIR: I welcome representatives of the Forum of Australian Services to Survivors of Torture and Trauma. Although the committee does not require you to speak under oath, you should understand that these hearings are formal proceedings of the Commonwealth parliament. Giving false or misleading evidence is a serious matter and may be regarded as a contempt of parliament. I ask you now to make a short introductory statement, and the committee will then proceed to questions.

Mr Aristotle : I would like to start off by saying thank you for the invitation to appear before the committee. The Forum of Australian Services for Survivors of Torture and Trauma is a national network of agencies. We are all independent non-government organisations and we come together as a group to try to strengthen the national footprint for service delivery to refugees who were tortured prior to coming to Australia. That has been our primary focus for many years. In recent years we have been providing more services to people in detention centres or to those who have been released from detention, who now constitute quite a substantial proportion of the humanitarian program. In recent years we have been providing more services to people in detention centres or those that have been released from detention and who constitute quite a substantial proportion of the humanitarian program. The agencies across the vast network provide a range of mental health services in the form of psychotherapy and counselling. We provide casework services and client centred advocacy. We run programs in schools. We run programs that have an employment focus or a focus on preparing people for employment. There are services delivered to children, adolescents, adults and elderly people. There is quite a diverse range of programs across all facets and family support programs as well.

We adopt a very broad interpretation of the social determinants of mental health and wellbeing, and our programs and services are geared around the provision of those sorts of services to people. Obviously for us, one of the important aspects of the committee's work in this context is that, while we are very clearly of the view that people in this circumstance require to deal with the experiences of torture and trauma, specialised services that have the capacity to develop the depths of expertise to provide that assistance also have the capacity to work hand in glove with other service providers in the community to ensure that they are able to response more appropriately to this group.

Multicultural policy and the tenets contained within that helps to provide the overall framework in which people can begin to feel safe and secure, so social inclusion and multiculturalism which are highly complementary and hand in glove in and of themselves provide an environment where people can begin to re-establish new lives with a sense of security and safety, which is fundamental to any beneficial effect that settlement services or torture and trauma counselling services may be able to offer as well.

I am accompanied by my colleagues Rebecca and Jo and I am happy to take questions. I would also like to hand over to Jo, who was the principal author of our specific agency's submission which the rest of the network are in general agreement with.

Mr Szwarc : I would like to speak briefly to the submission and bring some of it up to date because it was from April last year. I think it is worth while to talk about some of the things we focused on and their currency now. The first and most important point which Paris has made is why this inquiry is seen by us as so important to people from refugee backgrounds. By definition, a person who is from a refugee background very often has experienced the very forms of exclusion that the concept of persecution, which is central to the definition of a refugee, involves—that is, their race, their religion or other background has seen them excluded from in a very profound way the very participation in economical life allowing their children to get education right through to the physical persecution that takes place.

Promoting a society where these things do not occur, where people can participate or to use the word integrate or be socially included is very profoundly important to the people on whose behalf we work. We have put in some examples where we responded to the committee's suggestion of settlement programs that help promote. It is interesting that the language in the terms of reference of the inquiry is 'innovative ideas for settlement programs for new migrants, including refugees, that support their full participation and integration', reflecting, I think, the intersection between all those concepts and of course multiculturalism. Whatever sensitivities one may have about one particular term, I think the others will cover pretty much the same territory for the governments of both persuasions for a very long time. I think there is a lot of common ground in terms of the importance of the subject matter of this inquiry to very many people as well as to the community as a whole. What I focused on in this submission, and it is work that Foundation House has been involved in for quite a period, was: with these aims, whatever particular language one wants to use—integration, participation, settlement, multicultural objectives—how do you make sure the framework is there so that you realise those aims? I wanted to focus on some areas where I think over the years we have made some commitments—and I think we have some commitments now—but the delivery has been a little less than one might have wanted.

The first one that we focused on as an area where we felt the committee could really contribute was in pushing the collection and analysis of evidence and data to inform policy and service provision. It is very important to all of us to know about the employment participation and record of people of refugee backgrounds. Where is the data? You need not only data; you need analysis. You need an understanding so that you can answer questions like: 'If this is the rate, what is this telling us? What are the factors?' You quite rightly spoke to Paul about the impediments to people with qualifications being able to use those qualifications. We need hard data to know what the scale of any issue of concern might be, but we also need a quality of analysis that gets behind the data and says, 'This is about employer attitudes,' or it is about difficulties they have doing English so they cannot upskill or get their qualification, or it is about discrimination.

Before we start developing programs, it is good to have some hypotheses and evaluation. We felt that was a really important area where over the years we have had a mixed record, to be honest. I think we have some good commitments in place, but really I want to suggest to the committee that it might be good to inquire about how these are going. The Australian government has said it wants to work with the states to look at disaggregation of data by what it called 'markers of cultural diversity'. Not trying to be clever pedantically, my suggestion was: it is not about markers of diversity. I do not think they actually meant that, but just using that phrase is problematic if what we are interested in is integration, participation and social inclusion. We need to say, 'What is the kind of data that we need to see how different groups are doing?'

I know there have been efforts over the years to improve data collection, both at a state and a national level. There is a current one, but there is a lack of transparency about how it is going. This is a year down the track. Where are we up to? I think the committee is well placed to say, 'Can we get a briefing on how this is travelling?' As I say, it is critical. If we go to a philanthropic body and say, 'We'd like to trial a new program to help people of refugee backgrounds,' they will say, 'What's your evidence for a problem?' If data is not being collected about difficulties people are having with access or employment or whatever, it is very difficult to say, 'The reason we want to do the project is this, and we have hard evidence of the problem.' In a way, you have to start again and you have to do the research to uncover the scale of the problem to justify the programs.

So getting the right kind of data properly collected at the original point by the service providers or whoever is very important. I am not for a moment saying that it is not a difficult task. Recently we did a health project where we were talking about collection of health data by health professionals, and someone who worked in emergency services quite rightly pointed out that, at the time that someone comes into his emergency department with cardiac arrest, you are not going to ask him whether he came as a refugee. Without minimising the complexity of issues around data, it is terribly important. A good example is in one of the submissions that you got from the department of employment. There is a section called 'Labour Market Outcomes for Humanitarian Entrants', and one paragraph reads:

The latest available Australian Bureau of Statistics (ABS) data on the labour force status of humanitarian entrants was released in 2004.

Without explicitly being critical of that, the fact that we are relying on data from 2004, particularly important data about employment, is problematic for the development of policy. So getting that data collection and analysis right—I will get back onto analysis—is incredibly important to the work of those who want to see multiculturalism, integration, participation and social inclusion happen. The Social Inclusion Board is doing a lot of work around indicators and data because it realises how critical they are and how complex it is, and while we are welcoming it here they are not heavily focused on diversity. They acknowledge it is important. So, really, what we are talking about is complementing, through the work of the Multicultural Council, the work of the Social Inclusion Board. You cannot do it all. The Social Inclusion Board is not that massive, but they have acknowledged they need to look at that area. That expertise needs to be added.

In terms of the analysis, even people of refugee background are not a homogenous group. As Paul indicated, they come from very different backgrounds. So disaggregating the data so we know whether the kids from a particular background are doing okay in school versus kids from another background is very important. NAPLAN has recognised that. I think it is in their submission. Currently they do language background other than English to disaggregate. It tells you nothing about the difference between a skilled non-English-speaking-background migrant, who might be a professional, and someone of a refugee background. So they acknowledge that that is too broad. It is okay for a broad multiculturalism—yes, people of non-English-speaking backgrounds are doing well. It is not sufficient if you want to get into social inclusion. It will not give you that data.

The second recommendation that we looked at was asking you to check what resources the new multicultural framework is getting. I have looked at the budget; we do have a new Australian multicultural advisory body, and I think that is terrific. They have research in their mandate. What are their resources? You cannot do research without knowing how many dollars you have got to do these kinds of projects. I cannot find out just by looking at the public data. I could try FOI but it is not a friendly way of going about things. We are really suggesting that, okay, the Commonwealth says it is committed to this, so what are the dedicated resources? I assure you—and we have a small research budget—it is very difficult to do this kind of research without some decent dollars. Doing research, particularly if no data has been collected, is expensive. If you have seriously got research on your agenda, which the Multicultural Council does—that is what it says: 'We are going to do research'—what are your dedicated resources, either people or money or both? You need to commission to get the right expertise. So we think it is brilliant that the framework is there. What is the reality in terms of their capacity to deliver?

You might say that the third recommendation we made has passed now. At that time the government had announced (1) that the new Multicultural Council would do access and equity and there would be an inquiry into the responsiveness of government services. It actually indicated that the Productivity Commission would do that. This was in April last year. So our view was that, if you have got a body set up to do access and equity, that is the logical body to also look at responsiveness of government programs and services, because that is really what access and equity is about. For some reason unbeknown to me the Multicultural Council has set up a separate inquiry into access and equity. That inquiry is covering access and equity and responsiveness of government services. It will report and then the Multicultural Council will take on the responsibility. It is peculiar, but there we go. There is only one member of the Multicultural Council involved in that inquiry. It is the chair, and he has an ex officio position. It is strange that we have an access and equity inquiry not being done by the body that is going to cover access and equity. I think we have bits in place, but how is it going to deliver? The time frames are getting tight. We have budgetary cycles and political cycles et cetera. For me, it is about getting some of the keystones bedded down. Access and equity was a bipartisan policy, but we know it has not worked. It became mainly a showcase for, 'What are you doing that we can report?' rather than a robust inquiry into how well it works. Sorry, I have rambled on.

CHAIR: I might just ask some questions now. Two questions come to mind. Firstly, there is data everywhere, but was there ever a time in the last four decades of multicultural policy when this sort of research and data was collected and analysis was provided? It seemed some organisation was responsible for it.

Mr Szwarc : We certainly did.

CHAIR: Was there a time—

Mr Szwarc : There was a time. I used to work for the Australian Institute of Multicultural Affairs. It was set up by legislation, had an independent existence—and I can tell you that that was robustly defended—had a dedicated budget, did and commissioned research and reported publicly—

CHAIR: And was funded adequately to do that job?

Mr Szwarc : Yes. We did some major projects. Generally they were in health, welfare, education et cetera. After the change of government they decided to go a different way and they set up a body within the bureaucracy. But, again, it was a funded research body. Over time that was gone. There was a change of government again and it went.

Mr Aristotle : It was the Bureau of Immigration, Multicultural and Population Research. It had its own advisory structures and budget for research that it would conduct itself or commission as well. It also produced some major reports and convened major national conferences on a regular cycle.

CHAIR: Do you believe the gradual eradication of those specific organisations led to what we have now, where we have lots of anecdotal evidence and all sorts of things everywhere but that are not informing—

Mr Szwarc : We have ad hoc bits of research. Now a lot of the research is commissioned by the Department of Immigration and Citizenship. It is not, to be honest, a very transparent way of operating because if you go and look at their research mentioned on their website there is not a list of projects. They do research and they do commission research. Now the council is supposed to have a research function. The anxiety we are expressing is that, unless you say, 'You have $500,000 and you can set up a research agenda. Here are the priority issues for multiculturalism. You have a dedicated budget and it will be coordinated with social inclusion,' how do you operate? They may well have that; I am just saying that it is not apparent.

CHAIR: I have another question. It goes to the $9 million budget that the Attorney-General's Department has. For some time there has been a shift of quite a lot of money into national security which goes directly to the issues that we have discussed about settlement, multiculturalism, migrants and asylum seekers. We would probably know why that may have been the case. On reflection, do you think that that was an unnecessary shift and not an appropriate shift of significant dollars to an area that probably has a specific focus on new migrants and communities which has to do with national security? How divisive and how difficult has that been for the last few years of debate on multiculturalism?

Mr Aristotle : It is hard to comment on how divisive it has been. It is entirely appropriate for a government to conduct research into that framework for particular purposes.

CHAIR: But it is also funding communities within that prism, and that is really what I want to get some comment on. I realise that it is a difficult issue.

Mr Aristotle : The issue for me on that front would be that blending these broader questions about multiculturalism, productive diversity and the capability of the wider Australian community to be as harmonious, supportive, inclusive and so forth as possible - whatever language you want to attach to that - cannot really be conducted purely through a security lens. That is a very small lens, which can become quite distorted once that is the overall paradigm for how these other pieces of work are done. Our position is not that it is not important to do some of those pieces of work, but it is certainly important not to allow that to be the paradigm for an area of social policy which is much more complex and encompassing than just that one particular aspect. If there is a requirement for money to do some work in that area that is fine, but it should not be the pull or the paradigm that we conduct the rest of this sort of research and development.

CHAIR: Thank you.

Mr Szwarc : I think that badging a lot of that money under the A-G's counter terrorism makes people wary. There is a sort of social harmony budget which has a broader frame of reference that people identify with. If you badge the money for deradicalisation or to prevent radicalisation then you will get a wariness. Again, that issue of countering threats to Australian society and security are absolutely a key priority, but that caution around how you then frame particular programs and describe them is critical or you end up achieving the reverse.

CHAIR: You do, and that should not be the paradigm.

Mr Szwarc : If we have to play football with you to deradicalise you is—

Mr Aristotle : We looked at that program when it was advertised. We considered it because it was the only source of funding for those activities and we made a conscious decision that we would not apply for it because it was structured in that sort of a paradigm and it would have been very difficult for us to conduct anything meaningful with the client groups that we work with that had all of the requirements in the funding criteria that are required under those sorts of programs. For us it became a no-go zone to even contemplate, which is a shame.

Mrs MARKUS: What you have highlighted today is consistent with a number of submissions and a pattern and a need for research that the committee are well aware of.

Mr Szwarc : Thank you. And it is not a bid for us to do it.

Mrs MARKUS: In our attempts to gather information to inform our recommendations with members—

Mr Szwarc : I am sure you have run into how we really do not know how they are doing at school—or citizenship rates. You can get some of that data but it is not produced routinely.

Mr Aristotle : I have probably been around too long but I have looked at one of the great weaknesses in data collection and it is the lack of analysis to accompany it. Oftentimes people will collect some information—some data—and it will not have been collected brilliantly. Asking the question or doing the analysis about what has had an effect as opposed to simply what happened, why did it happen and why did it happen in that way and what was the intervention that generated that outcome—that is often what is missing. And so policy then moves on to be informed without necessarily having the information that tells them why a particular type of intervention had the effect that it had, good or bad. That is the area of weakness that I think we need to tackle more substantially.

Mrs MARKUS: Thank you for highlighting that.

Mr ZAPPIA: Thank you for your submission. You have made a number of suggestions, as have a number of other people who have made submissions to this committee and, by and large, I would have to say there are very many good propositions put to the committee for us to consider. Implementing good suggestions can be difficult if for no other reason than cost. Are there any policies or actions currently being taken that you would suggest ought to be stopped or changed because they are actually compounding or adding to the problems? If nothing immediately comes to mind, that is fine.

Mr Aristotle : Perhaps I could take it on notice.

Mr Szwarc : We know we are doing this, this and this, but what have been the outcomes, what may be more effective. Good evaluations should tell you what works and does not work, and then you follow the evidence, which is what governments of all persuasions say they are committed to doing, but we do not always have the evidence, as you suggest, to say, 'That program demonstrably is not…'.

Mr Aristotle : I would go back to the response to the chair's earlier question about the funding that was moved into Attorney-General's and so forth. The real issue is having a clearly acknowledged and dedicated focus that has the imprimatur of the parliament to do genuine research, evaluation and analysis in this area. If that is provided for adequately and has the endorsement of the parliament, I think the general community will have a clearer acceptance or understanding of it. I think it also helps strengthen the fabric of the community when the wider community also gets to understand what the benefits are.

Sometimes it is fine for people like us to talk about what the benefits are or whatever the case may be, but people need to see something tangible from that. Oftentimes they see it without realising it. The person they are working next to may have come from a refugee background and they may not even have thought or known that. It is just their work colleague they have been working with all these years. It is not dissimilar to my own parents when they were working in Australia. There are lots of things around us that tell us that this is a great country to live in and our cultural diversity is one of the critical ingredients to that being a reality, but the absence of proper analysis and being able to communicate that more widely allow the fears to be propagated that may or may not be justified. I cannot tell you which I would cut out, but I can definitely advocate that we should be more dedicated and focused in our commitment to the broad agenda that you are working on at the moment.

Senator SINGH: I am interested in innovative ideas and programs that strengthen cultural diversity and multiculturalism in Australia. You mention in your submission the You Can Too project, but you say that it is philanthropically funded and that funding comes to an end in June this year. Could you tell us a little about that program and its successes for young refugees and also what you see happening after June.

Mr Szwarc : Paris knows more about it. We did recently have an evaluation from a university; I will leave that for members and will send some more. Do you want to talk about that?

Mr Aristotle : The You Can Too program is an example of an area of work where again we are relying again on anecdotal evidence plus some pieces of research and analysis that have been done. The focus of it is on the older adolescent group of refugee arrivals, the 16- to 25-year-olds. The pattern of arrivals was indicating that the actual formal schooling they had had ranged from three to five years prior to their arrival. Much of that would have been in a refugee camp, which would not have been the most outstandingly resourced school environment for young people. The other thing we understood was that often, particularly when people had missed early schooling years, language acquisition rates simply from attending English language classes for a year were not as high as we would like and the government had concerns about investing money into English language programs when it was not getting the outcomes from it—not just the current government; the previous government had the same concerns.

We understood that in the workplace and in different environments language acquisition rates increased dramatically and more quickly. The reason is this. If you think about our education, we started at preschool, which sets children up for primary school, primary school sets students up for secondary school and secondary school for university, vocational education and training or employment. That in many respects is an artificial learning process but it is highly structured, linear and integrated, so each bit connects to the other and that is how we get to the value out of our education system. For many of the older adolescent group they would have had between eight and 12 years chopped out of that process. So they arrive trying to make up for everything in a learning environment where it is very difficult to make up for the years that were lost. They have a concertina time frame—they have a year before they have to transition into mainstream education

Ms Cole : And in a different language.

Mr Aristotle : Yes, in a different language. What some of the research and analysis shows is that they arrive highly motivated and incredibly enthusiastic and very committed, as are their parents in terms of their desire for their children to learn, but 2½ to 3 years in they tend to hit a wall. Many would be okay and would continue to progress; others really struggled and tended to drop out. They found making up for lost ground incredibly difficult.

The You Can Too program is predicated on working with people during the 12 months of English language learning and creating within the curriculum a vocational training component around which they can learn English but which helps prepare them for work in Australia. We have to remember that in many cases their parents would not have had the opportunity to work for the entirety of their lives because they were in camps. The program is designed to provide psychosocial assistance in the form of group work where incredibly horrific and traumatic experiences through these young people's lives often emerge. You can identify and gear support around those experiences, whether it is having been tortured, having seen parents killed, having seen other family members killed. You can then also gear a curriculum around building on the things they feel highly motivated about.

The program tends to develop partnerships with the private sector to offer work experience placements for these kids and hopefully part-time employment. Where we can link all of those things, the ability to work part-time, to go through work experience and potentially pick up part-time work—Australia Post, Coles Myer, reject stores, whatever the case may be with our partner companies—the language acquisition rates improve quite substantially. The experience of the program is that where we can link all of those things up with the ability to work part time—to go through work experience and then, potentially, to pick up work with Australia Post, Coles, Myer, the Reject Shop, with one of our partner companies whatever the case may be—language acquisition rates improve quite substantially, personal confidence in what Australia is like increases and they get a belief that they can, in fact, be part of the work culture that is necessary in a society like Australia. It helps retain people in school for longer, as well. It has that dual impact. In a sense, the program widens the classroom into part-time employment as well as being a formal educational process. It has been an incredibly successful program in terms of those sorts of achievements. It is obvious the kids develop confidence: their language improves; it enables them to feel as though they can stay in school a lot longer; they get a bit of an income, they can help at home with that; and they can buy some of the cool clothes and those sorts of things that other kids have got. It has all sorts of beneficial effects along the way.

On our partners: we have a formal memorandum of understanding with Australia Post. Using Australia Post as an example, this year Australia Post will provide around 80 part-time jobs, I cannot remember the exact figure, to young people coming through this program—this is in Victoria. It provides senior staff to act as mentors for the kids on the work site so they are not thrown into it and the Centre for Multicultural Youth has developed a volunteer mentoring and support program that offers assistance outside the workplace.

We think that a program like this helps deal with a range of issues that were being misrepresented publicly in the press about how difficult groups of African youths, or whatever the case may be, were being—a lot of misrepresentation went on around that. The program practically enables them to develop an educational, vocational and employment pathway, regardless of how much of that they had lost beforehand. We are extremely worried about the fact that it is only philanthropically based. We hope to have discussions with appropriate Commonwealth ministers to see if they are prepared to invest in this program. I think the philanthropic source this year is prepared to do matched funding. It has already committed several million dollars to the development of this program. We would be very hopeful that an initiative of this type could get some matched funding, so that we could develop it a bit further in other states to see its applicability at a national level. Having said that, we have also had a small pilot of this project in Queensland. Our counterparts in Brisbane have done it and have had a phenomenal degree of success there; so we are very confident about its transferability to other states. Hopefully, this sort of initiative can be supported and picked up, because it goes to some of the core questions and concerns that governments have been grappling with in relation to that particular group.

CHAIR: On the issue of philanthropic participation: there has been an increase in reliance on philanthropic funding for research and programs that are of benefit to the broader community and that, one might argue, should actually be funded by Australian governments—that it should be the responsibility of government to fund research or programs that are for the benefit of the broader community, whether it is in employment or education. I remember the debates about including partnerships with philanthropy. Have we moved to such an extent that organisations now rely on the goodwill of philanthropic organisations, and government has opted out of that space financially or is maybe not targeting it financial bucket appropriately? That is why I went to that $9 million of A-G's funding, which is an issue that sits with me constantly. Just do a comment on that.

Mr Aristotle : I think that there has been a drift. But the philanthropic sector has also felt the pinch from the global financial crisis because its funds are predicated on investments, so that pool of money has become more constricted as well. I think that has been an issue. One of the things I have to say is that, wherever we have sought to develop innovations in the work, it has been very difficult to find government programs that will fund innovations for strategies to develop new initiatives. We have always ended up turning to the philanthropic sector for assistance. To give you an example, the same foundation funded a program in Victoria around educational programs, group work programs, support services and homework club initiatives for refugee children. The previous state government picked that up after four years as a part of their social justice policy and have picked up funding those initiatives through their department of education. We would never have got that initial money through the department to pilot over that period of time. I think it is a shame that there is not more scope within government sources of funding to develop and do innovation in these sorts of areas. The current state government, I think, has indicated its ongoing support as well for those initiatives. I certainly think government funding that can help resource innovative ideas in a way that enables a bit more flexibility, while also absolutely being accountable for the use of that public money, is an important area that I think is not as strong as it could be.

CHAIR: Again, as is always the case, we seem to run out of time. Thank you for your presentation and for your submission, and I am sure that, if the committee requires to speak to you again, we will do that. If there is anything else that you wish to provide us with, please feel free to do so.

Proceedings suspended from 11:12 to 11:30