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

HARGREAVES, Ms Clare, Manager, Social Policy, Municipal Association of Victoria

PAGONIS, Mr Con, Multicultural Policy Adviser, Municipal Association of Victoria

[14:10]

CHAIR: I now call on representatives of the Municipal Association of Victoria to give evidence. Welcome to the hearing, and thank you for giving evidence today. 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 remind you that the hearing is public and is being transcribed by Hansard and recorded and broadcast live. I now invite you to make a short introductory statement, and the committee will then proceed to questions.

Ms Hargreaves : As I am sure you would be aware, the Municipal Association of Victoria is the peak body for local government in Victoria, so we will be speaking in that capacity. We will focus on areas with which we are more familiar in terms of your broad terms of reference. Local government is one of the areas where we see the outcomes of both federal and state policies in these areas and how they play out on the ground, so we are pleased to have this opportunity.

As we said in our submission, councils face the same challenges as the other spheres of government. We are involved in covering effective design and delivery of services for the broad community, providing leadership in community relations issues—which Victorian councils certainly embrace—the successful settlement of newly arrived migrants and refugees and the part that can be played by councils to contribute to that as well as the challenge that we continue to have reflected in our workforce of the diversity of the population.

Victorian councils have been addressing access and equity in relation to programs and services for many years now, particularly for the last 20 or so years in earnest. As I said, they are progressively working more in a range of goals around social cohesion, addressing race based discrimination and taking on that leadership role, for example through multifaith endeavours and so on. Traditionally, perhaps councils thought it was something that they would not be involved in, but they are now very much looking at that area. In fact, we are doing some fairly detailed work with the Victorian Health Promotion Foundation on that at the moment in relation to a guide for local government in that area.

One of the other key areas in relation to settlement has been work in an interagency manner both with the other spheres of government and other agencies on the ground, and that is one of the areas we have referred to in our submission. We do see that previously perhaps there was stronger federal and local government assistance around collaboration in that area, and that is something that we wanted to raise. As I mentioned at the outset, there is also the challenge for us of our workforce—how diverse it is and encouraging democratic participation of people in communities.

In terms of the capacity of local government across Australia—there are around 500 to 600 councils across Australia—there is diversity in the capacity and in the manner of responding to this. That is clear to you from all your constituencies, I am sure. We have now had a multicultural position at the MAV for some time. We try to do that value-add of encouraging councils in this area, and we feel that with a stronger plan between federal, state and local government in this area that it could be better resourced and supported in a more systemic sort of manner than it perhaps is at present.

So just coming back around to some of those suggestions in the submission—some are broader and some are more practical—we are looking for a more clearly articulated agreed position between the roles of government around settlement in particular as well as around intergovernmental engagement. And there are certainly questions around whether there is sufficient support provided for new arrivals, particularly in rural and regional municipalities. The councils are certainly very interested in that area, but it does require expertise, support and so on, as I am sure many others who have presented to you have talked about. On a more practical level, I think we also talked about perhaps a national resource, a guide to local government in this area—some sort of handbook or something might be useful—and also perhaps a periodical intergovernment conference that brought these issues to light. We can certainly expand on any of these areas for you.

Some of you will know Con, not only from his work with the MAV. He is a person who has very strong past experience, particularly working in the federal arena. So, as well as speaking on behalf of the MAV, I think he has a useful perspective to add. Thank you.

CHAIR: I am sure he has. Con, are you going to make any comments?

Mr Pagonis : Just in a nutshell—

CHAIR: Yes, in the direction of where the committee should be directing its questions to you as well. You can set the parameters for us.

Mr Pagonis : I think one of the things that is concerning us in local government at the moment, as Clare has already indicated, is a waning of engagement with the local government sector from the federal government and from state governments. This is a worry. Traditionally, since the Second World War, when the immigration department was established in 1945, it has been the government sector leader in postarrival settlement planning as well as the range of things that flow on from that, including how government as a sector addresses community relations issues arising and that sort of thing.

I suppose there was a peak in how that was all addressed in the early nineties during the period when Gerry Hand was minister and, immediately after him, Senator Bolkus, where we in fact had the National Integrated Settlement Strategy, the NISS, and under that a systemic framework for intergovernmental engagement and planning on how we settle new migrants and refugees and deal with all the issues arising. We established a very sophisticated framework where we had state settlement-planning committees in every state, we had local settlement-planning committees at the municipal level and we had a national intergovernmental forum for reaching agreed positions on the respective roles and responsibilities of federal, state and local government. That arrangement continued on in one form or another. At the state level, where we at the MAV operate, we had a very active and—this was before my time in the MAV, but I would say—probably the best state settlement-planning committee of all the states. That was chaired by and had secretariat support provided by the immigration department.

In the last two years, that framework has simply dissipated. There has been no intergovernmental meeting involving local government around issues of settlement planning in Victoria for nearly two years now. This is a concern to us. There certainly was criticism of how the Victorian Settlement Planning Committee was operating. Some would argue, probably justifiably, that it had become moribund. It in fact had a wide range, with 10 subcommittees looking at particular issues like housing, youth, African settlement and those sorts of things. But I suppose my concern and worry is that, rather than looking for a better way of doing things, we simply disbanded that forum for intergovernmental collaboration.

It is encouraging that the Victorian state government is in the process, as we understand it, through the establishment of a settlement-planning unit about six months ago, of establishing a cross-portfolio settlement planning committee, primarily with a focus on state government portfolios. But our understanding is that when that convenes—and we are yet to have notice of when it might convene—it will include local government representation through the MAV and federal government representation through DIAC. That is still on the horizon but it is a good sign and an opportunity for local government sectorally to re-engage with both state and federal government. I suppose the main point I am making, which is I think an issue for this committee to address, is going forward how do we set in place a workable, cost-effective framework for systemic engagement between Commonwealth, state and local government addressing the settlement of newly arrived migrants and refugees and the range of issues that flow from that.

CHAIR: In relation to the abandonment of that intergovernmental interaction, you indicated that in recent times it had become unworkable. Who instigated the abandonment? How did that happen?

Mr Pagonis : I do not have inside knowledge of that because it occurred after I had moved on from the immigration department, which was early 2007. Certainly the view coming to us outside federal government and the immigration department was that for DIAC it was not a cost-effective means of achieving its objective of co-ordinated planning for newly arrived migrants and refugees. It was a big investment on their part in terms of chairing and providing secretarial support. It is a question you need to ask them but my understanding of their position is that they formed the view that they were not getting a return on that investment. My concern is not so much that they did not continue with that arrangement but that they continued with no arrangement at all.

CHAIR: You are not aware of what sort of money we are talking about, a figure which might have kept this arrangement going?

Mr Pagonis : It is not money that was visible and I will tell you what I mean by that. DIAC will argue, quite rightly, that the level of investment in settlement of migrants and refugees, if anything, has increased rather than decreased if you look at the amount of funding which goes into Settlement Grants Program, into the social cohesion programs. All of that money is still there. The costs associated with the VSPC were internal departmental costs of staff time, effort and commitment. So you are probably looking at departmental salary for several officers who are providing secretariat support to the VSPC.

Ms Hargreaves : Perhaps I can with comment because I was the one sitting on it from most of the time.

CHAIR: Just tell us what its function was.

Ms Hargreaves : Certainly on the positive side we were very appreciative of the fact that local government had a seat at the table and that we were formally recognised, which does not always happen—often they are federal-state committees and local government is not there. Perhaps it becomes rather bureaucratically cumbersome, as these things tend to become overtime. We probably had 10 state departments there because they all needed to be there for some reason and then there was us. From the local government perspective, something more streamlined. Clearly we are very much in partnership with the state but also we need to be working with the federal government directly on the sort of economic development and employment, particularly programs in rural and regional Victoria which councils are very interested in. We could probably have a very much more direct relationship and because the MAV has this defused structure where we are small at the top of the councils are out there, it does mean we can work and at least provide a point to which the federal parliament government can come to look at how would could support the councils in working together on these issues more directly I suppose—perhaps just that rethinking of how we might go rather than feeling if Con was not as well-connected as he is you would not really know where to start.

CHAIR: In the absence of this intergovernmental coordination or consultation I am assuming that individual councils will make it their business to develop their own community relationships in order to facilitate the role of local government in the settlement program.

Mr Pagonis : As Clare said in her opening statement, there are 500 to 600 municipal authorities around Australia, but they are very disparate. A great many councils excel in how they deal with cultural diversity issues in their municipalities—Darebin, Dandenong, Maribyrnong, Moreland and many others. Individually, as municipalities or council authorities, they excel at how they engage with the new arrivals in their municipality and how they deal with cultural diversity issues in terms of access to and equity in local council services. Other councils are newer to dealing with diversity because they have a different demographic profile. It perhaps either has not changed much at all in the last few decades or is only gradually starting to change, and this arises as a new challenge for them.

The issue for local government is—and Clare might correct me because she has much better experience in local government than I have; my experience has primarily been at the federal level. But, as a relative newcomer to local government, I would say it is different from federal and state in the way that it is structured, and Clare alluded to this as well. While individual councils can excel in how they respond on a particular issue like cultural diversity, in my view—and I have only been with the MAV for four years now—as a sector it is difficult to respond consistently. This is where I think it is critical that we get support from federal and state governments, which have the resources and the capacity to work in partnership with local government to achieve mutual ends of successfully settling newly arrived migrants and refugees and dealing with community relations issues as they arise from cultural diversity.

Local government as a sector, whether we are talking Victoria state wide or nationally, given the structure of our peak associations, whether it is the MAV or the ALGA at the federal level, is very limited in the sort of resources it can deploy to address multicultural policy development as a sector. Local governments can really only do that effectively if they can tap into and work in partnership with federal departments like Minister Crean's department for local government or Minister Bowen's department for immigration and with their relevant state organisations, if they are going to be effective sectorally, putting aside how they deal with the issues at the municipal level as individual councils.

That is why we are so concerned that we do not appear to have an adequate working partnership at the moment with state and—more importantly, I think—with federal government. It is through that sort of partnership as a sector that I think the huge resource that is out there in the local government sector can be tapped and effectively deployed in a consistent way. What we need is a dialogue with federal and state governments on how we can do that best. It needs to be negotiated. Cost-shifting and resourcing issues need to be addressed. It is something that they need to be talking to us about as a sector. I think it would bode well if we could establish that sort of systemic framework for engagement and partnership. That would bode well for much better outcomes for newly arriving migrants and refugees, for local communities and for Australia more generally in terms of getting a return on the investment which is in fact the immigration program.

CHAIR: Do you want to add to that, Clare, before I go to my other colleagues for questions?

Ms Hargreaves : Yes. I am assuming that material where specific councils, particularly the rural ones, have taken a big lead has probably been available to you, such as the program Warrnambool council went through where it developed a resource. I suppose, as Con says, that can happen from time to time with the input and expertise of particular people there, around particularly—I think that was the Somali community—

Mr Pagonis : Sudanese.

Ms Hargreaves : Sudanese, yes—communities at that stage. But it required a huge amount of effort from the council to make sure all the appropriate resources were lined up for a very newly arriving community that was not familiar to the local population to be well embraced, accepted, engaged, employed and so on. A lot of resources were required to pull that together. I suppose from our point of view it would be good to look at those examples and look at how we can work together to do that in a more systemic sort of way that does not require that huge investment each time.

Senator GALLACHER: I have a question on your submission with respect to national productive capacity. I take your point that perhaps there need to be some more economically qualified people to tell the truth about migration and how it is of net benefit to Australia in economic terms. More particularly, I am interested in whether any of your regional councils have a real success story to tell, because it says in your submission that a number of councils 'have looked to attract recent migrants and humanitarian entrants to stimulate population growth and to address labour market shortages'. Are any of those at a stage where there is a really good story to tell?

Ms Hargreaves : I think there are a number. As we have said, certainly Warrnambool, Greater Shepparton and councils like Ballarat are embracing it to the extent of the whole of their population directions and development and really incorporating it in their mainstream thinking, not seeing it as something out there. Con, you might want to elaborate—or we could refer you to examples.

Mr Pagonis : Certainly a number of regional councils have approached government—Commonwealth, state and the MAV—where they have seen benefits for their local municipality, for their local community, in addressing population decline and in addressing labour market shortages through the immigration program. Within the immigration program, the greatest leverage you have in terms of placing people in a particular geographic locality is in the humanitarian stream, particularly where the new arrival does not have a family or a community attachment. Obviously, where they do have a family or a community attachment, that takes precedence in terms of whether they are initially settled in Melbourne, Sydney or whatever the case might be. Within the humanitarian program, where there are particular cohorts that do not have those sorts of links, there is the capacity to initially settle them in regional Victoria or regional Australia without Melbourne or Sydney acting as a magnet, and within no time people relocate to where their community is or where the jobs are or whatever the case might be.

A successful pilot of humanitarian settlement in regional Victoria was conducted in partnership with stakeholders in Greater Shepparton during 2005 and 2006. In partnership with the immigration department a decision was made to settle newly arriving people from the Congo in Shepparton. Over a period of a couple of years, about 15 families were settled in Shepparton. A rigorous evaluation of that process was undertaken by Margaret Piper, who is a consultant in this area, and that was generally assessed to be a successful exercise.

Similarly, as Clare has indicated, Warrnambool approached federal and state government to look at resettling new arrivals from the Sudanese community. They successfully resettled in the vicinity of 100 Sudanese people in the Warrnambool area. As Clare indicated, that was largely led by the council itself.

There have been other instances where it has not been so planned. We have had a sort of spontaneous movement of people from the Sudanese community down to Gippsland, mainly to the City of Latrobe, in the last five or six years. That is secondary migration from people who initially settled in Greater Dandenong. But the council has played, I would say, the lead role in terms of chairing and providing leadership to the local settlement planning committee that addressed issues arising from that significant movement of a new group into the community, which had not in fact experienced newly arriving migrants and refugees since the fifties and sixties.

So there are a range of success stories. Certainly I would say that the immigration department is best placed to advise you on how that has all played out.

Senator SINGH: Has the association done any research where it looks at elected representatives? Obviously those councillors who come from culturally diverse backgrounds are great role models and often connect very well on grassroots levels with some of the emerging or existing communities. I wonder whether the MAV has any data or any research in relation to that and the change of that over time, whether for the better or for the worse, and the future.

Mr Pagonis : We have been asked that question before. The main difficulty in establishing the ethnicity of elected councillors is that that data is not currently collected by the Victorian Electoral Commission when people register as a candidate to stand for council. The short answer to your question is no; that research has not been done, although anecdotally we can certainly point to a range of councils. I am thinking, for example, of the City of Monash. I hesitate to quote a figure because I do not know categorically, but certainly there are a significant number of councillors who are either born overseas or have an ethnic ancestry other than Anglo-Australian. The short answer to your question is that the research has not been done.

I will add—and Clare may want to elaborate or qualify what I am saying—that, on my observation, an organisation like the MAV, and I think this applies even more so at the national level with the Australian Local Government Association, has very limited resources, both staffing and budget wise. They are organisations that attempt to represent the sector nationally and state wide on a very narrow resourcing base. Again, without the support of state or federal government to do this sort of work, we are very limited in what we can prioritise for this program area.

Ms Hargreaves : We set up those sorts of research surveys from time to time, often with the support of the state government—whether it is about the profile of our workforces or a profile of the elected members and so on.

Mr ZAPPIA: I will just go back to the issue of multicultural policies within local government. You made some reference, Con, earlier on to some of the councillors that you thought were perhaps doing more than others. Can you put a figure on how many of the councils, in percentage terms, actually have a multicultural policy of one kind or another?

Mr Pagonis : I cannot give you the figure. A good number of councils, primarily those that have significant CALD populations in their municipality—Darebin, Whittlesea, Monash—have in place a specific policy document on how they address cultural diversity. We have not surveyed them to be able to say at this point in time how many have such a plan and how many do not. Where they do not, more often than not issues around cultural diversity are addressed in a broader social justice or social policy document. Anecdotally, I would say that, between those councils, they would have a specific multicultural plan. For example, Moreland has just completed one and Maribyrnong is in the process of doing one. There are quite a lot of them out there, particularly for those municipalities that have a good deal of cultural diversity in their demography. Others in that category—for example, Brimbank—address multicultural policy through the broader social policy statement. The answer to your question is that there has not been a survey to establish—

Ms Hargreaves : Not recently, anyway.

Mr Pagonis : exactly how many would have those plans—not in my time in the MAV.

Ms Hargreaves : I would say, though, on behalf of Victorian local government, that, particularly since amalgamation, awareness of the local government's role clearly is to represent all of the people in their community who live, work and play and so on. Of course, in Victoria, we have a legislated council plan and also a legislated municipal health and wellbeing plan. I would be extremely surprised if the issue of diversity—in fact, I am sure the issue of diversity would be mentioned in all of those, because councils are very aware of the legislation, apart from anything else, around access and equity generally. So, yes, in many cases it would be part of the broader plans in all their activities.

Mr Pagonis : I will just amplify a point I made a little earlier. It is quite a reasonable expectation that an organisation like the MAV would be in a position to do that work—and we do that sort of work from time to time. But I think it is important to appreciate—and I do not think it is appreciated, from the discussions I have had, either in state government or in federal government—how narrow the resource base is for organisations like the MAV and the ALGA to operate. Positions like mine that have a focus on social policy, whether in aged care, community nursing, women's issues or whatever, in the MAV rely on external funding. Without that external funding we do not have those positions. I think it is important for the committee to note that, in the case of multicultural policy development, sectorally, for local government, both at the state association level and at the national peak level, mine is the only position that exists in all of our state local government association counterparts and in the ALGA.

CHAIR: So it is only the Victorian local government that has that position?

Mr Pagonis : Only Victoria. And therefore, as to that sort of work, that is much needed, it is very difficult to get the resources to undertake it so that we can move the sector forward. Even in the case of my position, while it is externally funded by state government, primarily through the Department of Health and VicHealth—not, I might add, through VMC or OMAC—the position does not have a program budget or project staff other than me. So I suppose the point I am making is: we have very limited resources to do needed work such as the sort of work you have identified. I think that is something that needs to be addressed at federal and state government level, if in fact they want local government to be full and systemic partners in the work of settling migrants and refugees and dealing with social cohesion issues.

Mr ZAPPIA: I am trying to determine what comes first: a multicultural policy within a council which, in turn, perhaps then becomes a drawcard for resettlement services going to a council that has shown some initiative in that respect, or whether the agencies that run the settlement services pick a location for whatever reason and then, as a result of the migrants coming into that location, the council picks up on the need to establish a multicultural policy. You may not be able to answer this. But I was just, in my mind, trying to work out which comes first: the people moving into the area or the policy.

Mr Pagonis : Both. As I have indicated, in some instances the people come first and the council plays catch up, and Latrobe council is a good example of where there was a spontaneous, unplanned movement of people from one municipality to another. They have done a good job, including providing leadership through chairing the local settlement planning committee and so forth. But that was very much demand-driven by new arrivals. In other instances, where councils come to the government sector—federal, state or local—MAV, such as Warrnambool, Swan Hill or Shepparton, a lot of planning goes into setting up the infrastructure for settlement service delivery before those people arrive, and it is much more planned. But that takes a level of intergovernmental engagement that has been sadly lacking for the last two or three years. It was there three, four or five years ago and further back.

CHAIR: There being no other questions, I thank you very much for what is a very important submission to the inquiry. As with others who have come before the committee, if we require any further follow up we will be in touch. Equally, if there is anything further you wish to give the committee in order to complement the submission, we would be very happy to receive it. Thank you very much.

Resolved (on motion by Senator Gallacher):

That this committee authorises publication, including publication on the parliamentary database, of the transcript of the evidence given before it at public hearing this day.

Committee adjourned at 14:44