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Friday, 5 December 1986
Page: 3485

Senator VIGOR(11.25) —The abolition of the Australian Institute of Multicultural Affairs is supposedly part of the Government's new strategy on multiculturalism. It was announced with some fanfare by the Minister for Immigration and Ethnic Affairs (Mr Hurford) on 12 August. Judging by the Government's subsequent fumblings, the strategy seems to be in complete disarray. The Australian Institute of Multicultural Affairs operated properly and effectively in Melbourne; it talked directly with local communities. A new body has been proposed to replace it in Canberra, under the Department of the Prime Minister and Cabinet, and I will come a little later to the fumblings which appear to have been involved in that process. It seems that the Government does not really want to have any communication with the people concerned; it just wants to hear its own advice. The office of multicultural affairs will not have the same type of interface with the community as the Australian Institute of Multicultural Affairs had.

I asked a question without notice on 24 September this year. The Minister for Industry and Commerce, Senator Button, who is usually a mine of information on the operations of government, gave an undertaking that he would seek an answer from the Minister for Immigration and Ethnic Affairs as soon as possible. I have not received an answer. Even though the annual running costs of the proposed new office would cut into the alleged $2m savings from the decision to abolish the Australian Institute of Multicultural Affairs, there does not appear to be any information. I think the Minister should at least enlighten us on this matter.

Estimates Committee B was told by the Department of Immigration and Ethnic Affairs that the role, functions, portfolio locations and resource requirements of the proposed office are under active consideration by government in the light of continuing consultation with community representatives. We also learned that salary and termination payments to AIMA staff were expected to total of the order of $900,000. I have not had, from the various community groups with which I have had contact, much information about this consultation with community groups. Apparently there is some problem with the redundancy and termination payments, which means that we will not have the full figures on how much this measure will cost for some time.

Originally the office of multicultural affairs was to be under Mr Hurford. Since that announcement various Press releases have flooded into my office on the subject of the new strategy stating that the office will come under the Department of the Prime Minister and Cabinet with a watching brief for the Department of Immigration and Ethnic Affairs. I believe that this type of fuzziness is just not good enough when we are dealing with a body that is supposed to be doing research and gathering information on something like 45 per cent of the community and 60 per cent of the urban population.

According to a Press release the new body will be responsible for the grants-in-aid program and for some information activities and sponsorship of research. The Prime Minister (Mr Hawke) also anticipated that a structure for the office and other details associated with its establishment would be settled in two to three weeks. He made that statement in September. We still have not got any information. The position of head of the office and the two supporting roles are being advertised this week. It is hoped that the appointments will be made in the new year. In the meantime, AIMA has been disbanded and the new office is not there. I believe this is an insult to the multicultural community and part of the general program of cutting down on multiculturalism which this Government is doing by attempting to merge the Special Broadcasting Service and the Australian Broadcasting Corporation, by attacking the English as a second language program, by quite unreasonably cutting the migrant education program, and by trying to cut down on most of the areas which would lead to satisfactory cross-cultural awareness and understanding. These decisions and their misleading, if not downright dishonest, nature have incurred the wrath of Australians who wish to see a strong consciousness in this country of its multicultural nature and cultural diversity.

It is not surprising that the annual report of the Australian Institute of Multicultural Affairs was not available to this Parliament before this Australian Institute of Multicultural Affairs Repeal Bill 1986 was debated. It apparently was released in Melbourne yesterday. As I understand it, it questioned the strength of the Federal Government's commitment to multiculturalism. The Institute's Chairman, Dr David Penman, pointed out that multiculturalism had reached a critical stage and that it could be endangered by such measures. He was quoted by Australian Associated Press as saying that the actions against English as a second language programs and the ceiling on the ethnic schools program showed `a profound lack of understanding of multiculturalism by those who made the decisions'. He went on to say;

Considerable concern exists about the extent to which the Government remains committed to multiculturalism-a commitment we regard as essential if the Australian society is to remain harmonious and vital in the next decade.

Some of the grounds for concern can be found in the actions of the Government in relation to AIMA. In April last year, this Parliament extended the functions of the Institute and encouraged it to confer more widely with the community. The Government promptly cut by 30 per cent the Institute's budget last year. The Minister for Immigration and Ethnic Affairs, in his second reading speech on this Bill, indicated his belief that the enormous improvements made to AIMA over the previous year were a good sign. Normally this would be cause for some congratulations, but apparently it is a dangerous thing to improve under this Government. That is obviously why the budget has been cut.

As Senator Messner has said, this Bill is in total contravention of what was recommended by the Jupp Committee of Review of Migrant and Multicultural Programs and Services. I believe that if the Government takes the trouble of commissioning reports such as the Jupp report it should at least take some notice of the findings. Against this background, it seems quite unreasonable that we should be closing down the Institute of Multicultural Affairs. The Australian Democrats will oppose this Bill. In the meantime, as we understand that the Opposition is not taking the strong stand of opposing the Bill and keeping the Institute, we will support its amendment seeking to add certain words to the end of the motion that the Bill be now read a second time, in case the Bill does get through, which it probably will with the support of the Liberals. We will support the Opposition's addition, then we will vote against the Bill. I believe that this is the strongest stance that we can take in condemning this particular step, which is yet another part of the process of dismantling multiculturalism in this community.

I cannot give, nor could anybody give us, any indication of the claimed savings, which appear to be totally spurious. Can the Minister for Community Services (Senator Grimes) give any indication of some ceiling on the price of the proposed office of multicultural affairs and its running costs? Can he tell us something about its structure? Can the Minister provide us with an assurance that we will be continuing to get the important information, such as that contained in the 1985 AIMA reports? For example, there were reports entitled `Ageing in a Multicultural Society: The Situation of Non-English Speaking Migrants', and `Reducing the Risk: Unemployed Migrant Youth and Labour Market Programs'. Will this type of work be carried out by the new office of multicultural affairs? We do not know. Will the office pull into line government departments and agencies which fail to uphold the access and equity principles? The Government claims to promote these principles. In fact, AIMA is a watchdog. Perhaps it did not like being watched.

Will the office play any community education role? Is it basically a conduit for contact between the Prime Minister and various community groups? We do not know. Why replace AIMA, which was working effectively in these areas? Will the office be making community organisations more aware of how to compile submissions for available government funding? Will the office be involved in disseminating information about the rights and responsibilities of residents of Australia? I believe that these are matters about which the Senate and the people of Australia should be properly informed. It is very disturbing that Dr James Jupp, Chairman of the Committee of Review of Migrant and Multicultural Programs and Services, finds that much of his Committee's excellent work has been undermined.

I just want to finish with a quote from the Sydney Morning Herald of 4 November in which Dr Jupp is quoted as saying that the Government's recent decisions `were not consistent with the thinking of the report'. In particular, the Review stressed the importance of ESL and the need for specialist teachers. It also emphasised the Federal role in effective provisions of educational experience for children from non-English speaking backgrounds. Can we get from the Minister an undertaking that the Government will treat stage 2 of the Review in a less cavalier manner? I wish that we could have some confidence that multiculturalism is not dying in Australia. The Democrats will make this last ditch stand and will oppose this Bill.