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Select Committee on Strengthening Multiculturalism
Protecting and strengthening Australia's multiculturalism and social inclusion

BRISKMAN, Professor Linda, Margaret Whitlam Chair of Social Work, Challenging Racism Project, Western Sydney University

CLARKE, Dr Tamsin, Freedoms Committee Chair, Australian Lawyers for Human Rights

MANSOURI, Professor Fethi, Director, Alfred Deakin Institute for Citizenship and Globalisation; and UNESCO Chair, Comparative Research in Cultural Diversity and Social Justice, Deakin University

SOUTPHOMMASANE, Dr Tim, Race Discrimination Commissioner, Australian Human Rights Commission

Evidence from Dr Clarke was taken via teleconference—

CHAIR: Thanks for appearing today. We have some time for a brief opening statement, but we will try to keep it relatively short so we have time for questions.

Prof. Briskman : Thank you very much for the opportunity to be here. I will watch my watch. I am presenting today, as you know, on behalf of the Challenging Racism Project at Western Sydney University. The CRP is the leading national research project on racism and antiracism in Australia. It is led by Professor Kevin Dunn. One of the key foci of the CRP is Islamophobia, so that is mainly what I will be talking about today.

I should tell you that I am quite new to the university and a few months new to the CRP, but I also have a strong body of work in the area pertaining to this inquiry, particularly around asylum seekers and also Islamophobia. But today I am just going to refer to research that has been conducted by the Challenging Racism Project, sometimes in conjunction with others. They have been conducting this work for more than a decade. Some of you may know of this group from the SBS series Is Australia Racist?, where it was quite prominent.

You have the submission, which speaks to the terms of reference, but I will just spend a few moments highlighting some key points from the body of research of the CRP. Some of it is particularly recent—2015 and 2016 data and large surveys. On the whole, the research found strong indicators of Muslim integration into Australian society, with aspirations in keeping with the rest of the population. Muslims, on the whole, expressed pro-diversity beliefs and a strong sense of national belonging. The vast majority agreed that Islam is consistent with Australian norms and society, and most considered it important for their children to be fully accepted in Australian society.

But the research does show that over the last decades there have been high rates of experience of racism, with reports about racism in workplaces, public transport and the street being much higher for Muslims than for others. This backs up other research that has been conducted in this area by other people. We have also found high levels of discrimination in housing, the workplace, education and public settings. An area of particular concern—and of course it is relatively new—is that of cyber-racism, and one of our recommendations is that we would like to see improved data collection in this area so we know what we are up against. We are also concerned about the serious impacts of discrimination and racism, including mental health concerns and potential for undermining a sense of belonging. But there are some positives. Most respondents to the national surveys hold the view that cultural diversity is good for our society, but many believe that multiculturalism and cultural diversity are a threat to nationhood.

For Muslim respondents, we found that there was a lot of distrust of media. A high proportion of Muslim respondents said that, and the main area of concern was commercial media—less so with the ABC and SBS. There was some strong distrust of politicians—I think that was particularly evident when Tony Abbott was Prime Minister—and also concern about targeting of Muslims by antiterror laws and policing.

Our recommendations include media monitoring—and intervention will follow from that, which could include resourcing minority groups to respond to what is being said about them—data collection on cyber-racism, and protective legislation—18C is, of course, one example, but we support enshrining multicultural principles in law, which was one of your terms of reference. We believe it would allow strengthening of the fabric of our society and greater accountability and support. In my own professional view and from my own research, I think that legislation signals the importance of multiculturalism to Australian society. Again, from my own work, I believe we need to strongly challenge discourses coming from political leadership. I will leave it there.

Dr Soutphommasane : Thank you for the opportunity to give evidence to this important inquiry today. Australia is frequently celebrated as a multicultural society. This success has not been by accident; it has been essential to the Australian experience that our multiculturalism has been conducted as an exercise in nation building. The idea of multicultural Australia says to everyone in our nation that everyone can belong as a citizen regardless of their background and that everyone can be comfortable in their own skin. It says that our nation is strengthened by our diversity, not weakened by it. Our national identity is not defined by race, colour or ancestry. Grounded in our liberal democratic values and traditions, an Australian national identity can accommodate diversity and evolve to reflect the changing nature of our society.

The Australian Human Rights Commission takes an active role and interest in multiculturalism, particularly in light of our function in countering racial discrimination. In our submission we have highlighted the impact of racial discrimination on multiculturalism and have made a number of recommendations about how multiculturalism could be strengthened in Australia. Speaking in a general sense, there are three respects in which this strengthening can happen. First, we require renewed political and civic leadership on multiculturalism. There can be no question that leaders, as well as media, set the tone for public debate. Inflammatory rhetoric about race, religion and immigration can undermine our multicultural harmony. Unfortunately, such rhetoric is too often indulged in our debates.

Second, multiculturalism requires support through legislation and policy. Since 1975, the Racial Discrimination Act has served in effect as the legislative expression of multiculturalism. As our submission makes clear, it is vital that legal protections against racial discrimination and hatred are maintained. In addition, there is scope for the strengthening of the policy machinery of Australian multiculturalism. Finally, there is a need for multiculturalism to be supported at the level of civil society. There should be continued efforts to improve understanding of cultural diversity and to strengthen community responses to racial prejudice and intolerance. I would be pleased to answer any questions that you have.

CHAIR: Thank you. We will now go to Professor Mansouri.

Prof. Mansouri : Thank you very much for the opportunity to speak to you. I think a lot of what I have to say probably has already been picked up by my colleagues here. Suffice to say that the submission I made to this inquiry really highlights two things. The first point that I would like to make is that there is an absolute need right now, perhaps more than ever, that the recommendations of these inquiries when they are conducted are taken up into implementable action plans. I say this because my two colleagues have mentioned something that has been mentioned previously, and I have made extensive reference to it in my submission, which is that we really need urgently a federal multicultural act that will help us as a society in general—not just government; as a society—to really take into account the nature of the society that we are and that we are developing for the future.

Diversity shapes us and diversity is what makes Australia as multicultural society quite unique. But the more we delay the expression of this diversity, the more we are playing into the hands of extremists on both sides. Let me explain what I mean by that. What has really been the most popular product of extreme voices both on the right wing elements of populist ultra-nationalist movements but also on the side of some jihad radical Islamic individuals is that they have had the capacity to define the multicultural society that we are. They hijack the agenda of informing the youth, in particular, of the kind of Australia they want to project upon them.

For one, the right-wing populist, that is the idea that Australia is essentially a new country that does not have any history that reflects the Indigenous richness of our Aboriginal Australia on one hand and, two, that all the successive waves of migration that settled into this country had more or less had to adapt and assimilate in ways that did not allow them the opportunity to maintain a sense of cultural recognition. Of course, the other extreme of the equation is that the discourse, which has been very nihilistic, has been a discourse that has emphasised the us-and-them mentality, emphasised foreign policy agendas and emphasised social exclusion and socioeconomic deprivation. And I think we really need to step into that vacuum and state once and for all, as other societies have done—Canada has done it since '88, and some states in Australia have done it, too, and we have not seen any ethnic backlash or Armageddon—that what we want to see is that we legislate for a basic statement that reflects who we think we are, and the census data today has actually given us a lot of food for thought in relation to where we are heading as a society, demographically speaking.

In addition to that—and I say this because I have seen this point made repeatedly—we need a national multicultural act. That is what we need. It will not solve all the problems we have, but it will allow everyone to understand what the espoused values of the society are, not just the sound bites of the day-to-day politics but what deep institutional reforms we might consider and not just the superficial kinds of interventions that we get now and then. And unless we tackle that problem vigorously, rigorously and systematically, I am afraid that we will have numerous future inquiries into this particular area of public policy, and the outcomes will see exactly the same destiny, which is that they will not even be articulated into a set of implementable action plans.

Linked to that, which I view as being a particular problem, is the issue of political leadership in this country. I should have started by mentioning that I run the Alfred Deakin Institute for Citizenship and Globalisation. I am the director. It is one of the largest social sciences research institutes in Australia in terms of the breadth and depth of the research that we do. A lot of the research that we do is internationally comparative. We look at examples of exploring, investigating, examining how diversity is managed globally. We compare models at the level of jurisdiction in terms of the mix of policies and legislative frameworks, and we look at how groups within those jurisdictions actually interact with that kind of framework in terms of policies plus legislative frameworks. The understanding—and one of the studies was launched last week, which examined in particular the situation of Muslim migrants in North America, in France and in Australia. We look at how, for individuals who were actually born in those societies, those policy frameworks affect them on a day-to-day basis.

So, what we are requesting is not something that will sit there and that has absolutely no relevance to individuals. As a matter of fact, it shapes the way they view themselves. It allows them to define or not define the relationship with the society in which they live. And I think we need to embrace that opportunity and not think that having a strong legislative framework or having a political leadership that is culturally literate about these matters is necessarily going to be a difficult thing to project. I would be happy to take some specific questions. The details of my submission are there in writing for you, but I would be happy to talk more about it.

CHAIR: Thank you very much. Dr Clarke?

Dr Clarke : Australian Lawyers for Human Rights think that a policy and legislative framework based on European human rights law and a bill of rights or a human rights act would best underpin a successfully multicultural Australia, because it would provide a useful and fair framework for managing related and overlapping with culture, gender and sexuality [inaudible] and for balancing competing rights. We agree with other submissions that there should be funding for multicultural education, for English-language teaching to correct the [inaudible]. We agree that there should be stronger media regulation and there should be [inaudible] around racism [inaudible].

Unfortunately, because Australia inherited an English legal system and did not adopt a bill of rights in its Constitution, despite having been a founder member of the United Nations and having assisted in drafting the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, we have missed out on that framework for law and policy which is used throughout Europe [inaudible] government. The current Australian citizenship legislation amendment bill, for example, asks [inaudible] migrants demonstrate adherence to Australian values but does not explain what those values are. We do not seem to [inaudible] those values enough to enshrine them in law. We do not discuss Australian values much, either, which is obviously why about [inaudible] per cent of Australians think that we already have a bill of rights. However, I think it does demonstrate that the values collected in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights would generally be accepted as a good reflection of Australian values. A human rights act or bill will also help by calling out the harms, such as racism, that are not acceptable in a multicultural nation and which lead to exclusion rather than inclusion.

To run through very briefly what a human rights framework would involve: it follows a number of simple principles. There is no hierarchy of rights—all are equally valuable. They are interdependent, which means that all rights are protected together to the maximum possible. Where there are conflicts there is balancing. Obviously, with some rights, such as to be free from torture, there isn't much room for balancing. Similarly, protection of one's internal beliefs is also an absolute right: it is an aspect of both freedom of speech and freedom of religion. However, subject to those exceptions, all human rights must balance so as to reasonably accommodate the maximum of all other rights. Where [inaudible] other rights such as property rights and other important considerations, such as reasonableness or proportionality, might come into play, and this is consistent with the general rules that legislation should be reasonably proportionate to the harm being set. So the extent to which people are claiming legal protection for a human right will [inaudible] on the extent to which that human right will infringe others. This comes up, for example, in the context of religiously based exceptions to antidiscrimination law, where it is necessary to balance the competing interests. There may of course be disagreements about what reasonable accommodation when there are competing interests. To give one example from Germany, a producer wanted to show an anti-Semitic, pro-Nazi movie. The lowest court put the property right of the film's producer to earn money over the rights of those who wanted the film banned. The court of appeals agreed, but then the constitutional court balanced the competing rights differently, taking into account the boycotters' aim of combatting anti-Semitism, which it found had been insufficiently taken into account in the lower courts.

Finally, there is the concept of abuse of rights, which was adopted in Germany's constitution when it was rewritten after the Second World War. This is also very desirable to take into account in a human rights framework because it was a concept about protecting democracy. Basic rights such as freedom of speech and freedom of the press can be forfeited where abuse occurs, because it recognises that false information can mislead or distort [inaudible] can hinder [inaudible] the [inaudible] public discourse, and it can undermine democracy.

So the result of [inaudible] human rights principles together with the concept of abuse of rights is that people from all ethnic groups are entitled to the same protections. Racist hate propaganda is generally seen as speech that is not worthy of protection. The media is required to be responsible and basically truthful, and individuals are required to exercise respect and civility in their public communications. We suggest this is an outcome that is worth thinking about as a template for a multicultural Australia.

CHAIR: Thank you, Dr Clarke. I will kick things off. It is interesting: your submissions, I think, all accept as the core premise that we need to strengthen multiculturalism and deepen that principle. But you all have different perspectives on how we do that. Professor Mansouri, you argued very strongly for the principle of a multicultural act, as we have seen federally. Could you speak to that. Dr Soutphommasane, I did not see that explicitly addressed in your submission and I would be interested in your thoughts on that, as well as those of Professor Briskman and Dr Clarke, who I believe takes a different view on that. Professor Mansouri, would you like to start, because I know you mentioned it in your opening statement.

Prof. Mansouri : There are obviously a lot of advantages in articulating many multicultural policy objectives, and legislating for the kind of diverse society that we want to have—and we already have anyway as it continues to develop, regardless—through a legislative act passed by federal parliament that essentially enshrines the ethos of multiculturalism and diversity. In my opening remarks I said that other countries have done this. In the other countries and in some states where that has been done we have seen perhaps more positive rather than more adverse outcomes as a result.

I mentioned in my opening remarks that we do comparative research. Sometimes you understand the problem by comparing how other situations are developing or unfolding. I came back from Canada—we did field work in Canada, Detroit in the US, Yorkshire in the UK and also in Grenoble and Lyon in southern France. All of these are areas where you have high concentrations of migrants, in particular migrants of Arabic and Muslim backgrounds. To use Canada, because Canada—and many of my colleagues here would perhaps confirm this—is very similar to what we have done in Australia in terms of having a very open, progressive policy towards supporting diversity and multiculturalism, but they have gone one step further and actually enacted a national multicultural act, in 1988.

In 1989 in Australia you will remember that we had a statement that alluded to the possibility of ultimately arriving at the stage in our history where we have a multicultural act. I cannot remember how many inquiries have been held since then, but there have been successive one. When you read the submissions to those successive inquiries you will see that people from across the spectrum have actually all come to the same conclusion, which is that we need to have something coherent articulated by a national parliament to really set the record straight in terms of where we are heading. This is important, and here I am talking in the context of countering violent extremism and radical ideologies. We really want to be a situation where we define the parameters of the national debate on the kind of society we want to have and we want to be able to live within. The extremist voices from all sides are very good at utilising alternative media, social media in particular, and using those platforms to articulate their own vision of how they think this space needs to be managed and operated. They therefore project different sets of values, which, unfortunately, in some cases are extremely problematic.

In Canada some research has recently been released that coincided with some of the research done in Australia. Because of the combination of what Canada has—the federal act, and the current political leadership of Canada, which we all know—when national surveys were conducted in Canada soliciting migrant views, in particular minority views, and how they feel about membership and belonging in Canada, I can tell you that the figures are much higher, comparatively, to what we have in Australia. By way of clarification, I must add that that does not mean that Canadian society is free from racists and bigots. No, they still have a small proportion, probably comparable to what we have in Australia when you look at all the evidence that we have—about 10 to 15 per cent who have what I would call 'racist' views about diversity and multiculturalism. They still have comparable figures in relation to that, but what is very encouraging is that when you speak to minorities in Canada they have a much stronger and more positive notion of who they are vis-a-vis Canadian society, meaning that the political discourse, combined with the legislative framework they have there, allows those minorities, in particular Muslim Canadians, to feel much more attached, much more included and much more empowered within Canadian society. So what we are suggesting is that you, at least, definitely have a plus and that plus is ensuring that every single citizen in that society feels respected, included an empowered, not excluded, not racialised and certainly not subjected to racial abuse, discrimination or vilification. That for me is very important.

I want to combine with that the fact that one of the really important things Australia did about four years ago, during the Gillard government, was to put us on a path where we had a national anti-racism strategy. I was in Canberra for some of the meetings for this national anti-racism agenda. Of course, with the change of government that whole anti-racism agenda for some reason seems to have been forgotten about. If you combine that with recent talk about changing 18C or weakening 18C, and thankfully that has not progressed, then you will see that in addition to the absence of progressive legislative articulations of our society, then, with attempts at either discontinuing things that we think are absolutely needed, like the anti-racism agenda, or attempts at weakening 18C, combining all of those with what is going on in relation to the fight against terrorism, extremism et cetera, you will see that we are right now at the crossroads—the crossroads in relation to whether we do things that are really bold and ambitious and will challenge and shape deeply some of the institutions that we have, or we can say business as usual and let us continue on. I am afraid that if we say business is unusual and let us continue on not only will we have the same status quo in five or 10 years time but I think more significant problems will emerge. There is no doubt about it. I have seen the face of those problems in southern France.

CHAIR: When you refer to more serious problems, which you said you had seen in southern France, what do you fear will happen?

Prof. Mansouri : Some of the research we do very carefully examines the key variables in France, and particularly southern France. France, as a secular society, in the public sphere aggressively denies any recognition of religiosity. Plus, France as a society aggressively does not want to have any multicultural policy, in terms of supporting migrants or supporting their language et cetera. Combining all of that with what is going on, what we have seen in southern France, in particular in Grenoble, is that radical imams are running mosques almost in a clandestine manner—I have interviewed them and the youth who frequent those mosques—and they are really in a position of immense power where they really monopolise and shape and even direct what you would do what you would not do. One of the things I saw that is extremely problematic is that there is a strong discourse encouraging youth not to engage socially, not to engage locally, not to even recognise institutions in French society. I think that is a direct outcome of the French policy of ignoring all the evidence that says that if you are more open and progressive and more forthcoming in relation to who you are as a society, then you are much more likely to have positive dividends. I think that situation will continue to have significant problems.

Dr Soutphommasane : On the question of whether there should be a multicultural act, the commission has no objection in principle to legislation concerning multiculturalism. As I noted at the outset, the Racial Discrimination Act currently acts as a de facto legislative statement for multiculturalism, but of course it is primarily concerned with antidiscrimination and human rights. If we are considering what multicultural policy should cover, antidiscrimination and human rights would only cover part of the field. You could posit that multicultural policy requires a public expression concerning cultural diversity and the benefits of cultural diversity. You could say that it also concerns steps that the state takes in settling immigrants and ensuring their integration into society. You could say that multicultural policy is also concerned with race relations and community harmony more generally.

The key question concerning a multicultural act would be: what ends would a multicultural act serve? Many of those who have advocated for a multicultural act would arguably focus on the need for a public expression of multicultural principles. Having legislation can provide a strong statement of principles, but it is not the only way that a society can make a statement about multiculturalism. One alternative way would be for the parliament to make periodic statements and affirmations about multiculturalism and racial tolerance, as has happened in the past. If we were to look historically at the experience of Australian multicultural policy, many scholars would identify the 1980s as a high-water mark for multicultural policy. That was achieved without a legislative statement on multiculturalism. You did have an office of multicultural affairs and other policy machinery, which were not necessarily anchored by a multicultural act.

So, if we are talking about strengthening multiculturalism, I would highlight the need to be very explicit about the precise ends that we are seeking to realise. A multicultural act is one means of achieving certain ends, but the ends that I would put forward would include having a clearer statement or articulation of multiculturalism and its content as policy. There is an opportunity to strengthen the policy machinery on multiculturalism as well. There currently is no clear coordinating agency or body concerning multicultural policy. You may also be seeking to have better public education concerning multiculturalism, but there would be a number of ways that you can fulfil these ends. A multicultural act is one of them. We have no objection to it, but we would also recognise that there are other ways of reaching that destination of strengthening multiculturalism.

CHAIR: Professor Briskman, do you have a view?

Prof. Briskman : Yes. I certainly support legislation. I think one of the problems is that the idea of multiculturalism just slips and slides from the public consciousness and is subject to criticism, often unfairly and often not from a good body of knowledge. I cannot really comment on what the detail of it would look like, but I certainly see it as an affirming document around inclusivity in a society. I wonder—and I have only just been thinking of that as the others have been speaking—whether, if there were such legislation, it could be looked at alongside other legislation—for example, a human rights act, which of course we are lagging behind in compared to other Western industrialised nations, and also other, existing legislation. I might be a little bit off the track now, but one that I have been concerned about—we have put it in our submission, and a lot of other people here may have too—is proposed changes to the Citizenship Act, because I do not think we can look at one piece of legislation in isolation from another.

What might the legislation do? That is the big question. Could it be a springboard to deal with some of the issues that people have raised today?

I do not think everything can go in legislation, but it might raise some consciousness so that we can deal more productively with problems with media, with political leadership, with some community attitudes and with the rise and influence of right-wing groups, including in the political domain. Another area that I am concerned about—and it does not get a lot of attention—is, when people come to Australia, essentially to propagate hate, whether a multicultural act would be able to influence the acceptance of such people coming to this country and influencing others in a very negative way.

CHAIR: Thank you. Dr Clarke, your view seems to be that, if we had a charter of human rights or a bill of rights, we would have no need for a multicultural act. Do I understand that correctly?

Dr Clarke : I am not entirely sure what the content of the multicultural act could be, so it is a bit hard to say for sure, but I see the human rights legislation, ideally—although perhaps it would have to be a little more restricted in its structure to be more politically palatable—as ultimately being able to cover all those issues and more, because there are not just issues about culture; there are also issues about gender, sexuality and the whole gamut of human experience that all need to be dealt with in an appropriately fair structure. I think multiculturalism is a very large part of that but not the only part.

CHAIR: Dr Soutphommasane, the government's current approach is to have a multicultural access and equity policy. That seems to be one of the central tenets around multiculturalism. We heard a critique and some of the limitations of that policy approach were presented earlier. Do you have anything to say about how effective it is and whether it is able to hold government departments to account in terms of their equity and access policies?

Dr Soutphommasane : There is an important role for government departments and agencies to play their part in giving expression to our commitment to multiculturalism. Access and equity has been a way for governments historically in Australia to ensure that. You will be aware that the government recently released a statement concerning its multicultural policy, which, for the most part, has represented a continuity of Australian multicultural policy going back to the eighties and, arguably, the late seventies, but the language of access and equity signals the relationship between multiculturalism and social justice in that multiculturalism has as one of its components a concept and idea that all members of society should be able to access the services of government and be able to participate in our society as equal members. So the idea of access and equity would go to that.

CHAIR: Perhaps to be more explicit, one of the criticisms was that we have this multicultural access and equity policy. It is effectively each department auditing themselves and saying, 'Here are the things that we do,' but there are no outcome measures. There are a whole lot of activities that are described, but we do not actually know whether they are achieving what we are hoping an access and equity policy framework would achieve—that is, ensuring that people are able to access services in a way that is non-discriminatory. That was an argument for the establishment of something like a national multicultural commission, to perform an auditing function to say, 'It's no good you guys just assessing yourselves and telling us that you're doing things that don't actually relate to what the end goal here is.' That is really the context in which I ask the question.

Dr Soutphommasane : In theory there is scope for better monitoring and evaluation of what government departments and agencies do. There being no overarching agency with policy responsibility for multiculturalism—namely, a standalone office, agency or department—

CHAIR: Or commission?

Dr Soutphommasane : we do not have the ability to execute an access and equity policy in the way you have described. But in my work on racial discrimination I frequently encounter members of the community who will share with me their experiences in having contact with government departments and agencies and the issue of structural or institutional racism is one that does exist. It is very difficult to have a clear and comprehensive appreciation of those issues when we do not have an overarching framework to assess or audit the work of government in their delivery of services.

CHAIR: I will ask this generally of all the panellists. I imagine, Professor Mansouri, you have had some engagement with the Victorian Multicultural Commission. Do you see that that needs to be replicated at the federal level? Do we need to get the same sort of body that exists federally to coordinate the various state bodies that exist?

Prof. Mansouri : Yes, I would agree with that kind of approach. Let me just address what has been said in relation to whether a multicultural act is needed or whether to add any specific value to the mix of instruments that we have. We think we are talking at cross-purposes here because I see personally anyway a multicultural act operating at the micro level. It sets the scene and the parameters for whatever specific instrument you might want to introduce, including things to do with the Racial Discrimination Act or other diversity et cetera. We need to get that right. One is about, as my colleague here mentioned, an affirmation of the kind of society that we are. Within that we will need a multiplicity of specific instruments with which we can operate. I will mention some examples.

The Canadian multicultural act, for instance, has two fundamental principles. The first one is that it does recognise the diversity of people. It does also work to preserve equal access and so that people have freedom to preserve, enhance and share their cultural heritage. But, more importantly, secondly, the Canadian multicultural act wants to ensure that there is full and equitable participation of all citizens, regardless of their background and origins, in their adopted society. That means two things: one, recognition and, two, redistribution empowerment. I think we can probably do a lot of things in relation to recognition with what we already have right now. When it gets to really challenging the socioeconomic imbalances that exist and how that could also have implications for other cultural and racial problems, then I think we can see how the two levels of perhaps legislation, framework or a national body similar to the VMC of the state government are extremely important and will add value to what we have. We really have to be very careful that we are not saying that perhaps one can do the job of the other. I see them as being complementary, operating at different levels and also having different missions.

The problem with racism, for instance, is we still talk about racism as if it is about feeling good or feeling bad about being subjected to racism. I think racism is much more complicated than that. There is racism that actually kills people. There are people who have lost their lives as a result of mistaken identity. For instance, it has been reported recently that someone wanted to interfere in a racist attack and two people ended up losing their lives. So racism has an economic cost. Racism could be life threatening for many people. Racism, as some of the research we did previously has shown, has strong and deep health implications for people who are involved in it.

Yes, we need to work very proactively and strongly on that, but we need a much more perhaps elegant expression of the kind of society that we have. Ultimately, that is how we all relate to the political community within which we happen to live. We all want to look at the community and say: 'Yes, Australia is demographically a society that is not going to go backward in relation to diversity. It is not going to go backward in relation to multiculturalism; therefore, let's enshrine those principles in a legislative framework.' I am not really an expert in how it might look, but having those values enshrined means that everyone in the society—not just government; it could be civil society, it could be corporate Australia, it could be academic institutions—and every single part of the society, therefore, understands and accepts the challenge and responsibility that comes with that.

Senator PATERSON: I am interested in understanding exactly what a potential multicultural act could or should include. I might direct my questions primarily to you, Professor Mansouri, because it was the biggest part of the opening statement, but if any other witnesses feel they can add something, please feel free to. Just to clarify, am I right in understanding from your evidence that the main content or purpose of a multicultural act would be to include a statement of principles or aspirations about multiculturalism? Is that what you envisage?

Prof. Mansouri : Yes. And not only a statement of principle and aspirations but also a statement would actually project some notion of understanding of how our society is shaped, where we would like to see our society go in the future. I want to say 'values', but given the kind of discourse on values, I am very, very reticent to use the word 'values', but actually espousing values might be a good thing. Those values should be values of justice, values of inclusion, values of recognising every single person's history—that is, history as a cultural being, as a social being, as a political being—and the extent to which those journeys, biographical journeys, of each and every one of us could end up being part of the national narrative, of the national story. That does not require a lot of resourcing, by the way; we are not talking about resources here. It does not require a lot of new instruments to go with it. It is an inclusive statement that affirms something that actually we will not be able to wind back anyway. We are who we are. The census data today showed us who we are. We cannot undo that.

The populist rhetoric of 'Go back to where you came from' is just that: it is rhetoric. Ultimately, this is the society that we have established and it has been here before migrant waves started to come in, and we need to reflect that. I say that because multiculturalism operates at two levels: one is the society, which is the demographics and the cultures et cetera, and the other is the institutions that are meant to be supporting and nourishing that society. Unless we understand that one feeds into the other, then we will be really missing out on a very particularly important piece of this.

Senator PATERSON: Sure. Just come back to the act though, and I do not mean to downplay it or minimise it when I use this word, but is your intent basically for it to serve a symbolic purpose, for it to largely have symbolic content?

Prof. Mansouri : To a degree, yes, it could be a symbolic articulation of the society that we want to aspire to be.

Senator PATERSON: What I am really driving at is this: if you are not envisaging legislative change or new laws or a new body to be established or new funding, is an act the right vehicle for this purpose? Typically the parliament passes acts of legislation when it wants to change the law or set up a new body or abolish a body or whatever. There are other vehicles within the parliament where we routinely make symbolic statements. In the Senate we do multiple ones every day; we have motions that affirm things the Senate agrees to. Would that be a more appropriate vehicle, or do you have a particular attachment to an act?

Prof. Mansouri : I actually disagree. I think the act is different from what would just be a purely symbolic statement, because the act may well necessitate the establishment of a particular body, as we talked about—a VMC type body at the national level. But the act, in relation to justice and inclusion and empowerment, may well require some recalibration of resource allocation.

Just remember, as an example, that multicultural education remained a statement. We have never allocated enabling resources to it in Australia. In Victoria we have the Multicultural Victoria Act. We talk to schools about the extent to which they reflect that in the curriculum and the pedagogical interventions that they do. We have never actually allocated adequate resources for that to happen. Worse still, we have never established mechanisms through which we can measure the extent to which schools are actually progressing with that agenda.

It is the same with intercultural education. We introduced intercultural understanding as a cross-pedagogical competence in 2011-12; yet we have never actually allocated resources to the National Curriculum Authority to be able to check whether or not schools are actually implementing that. So it is was left to particular individual interventions to see where that can happen.

So, yes, I would start with the symbolism of that kind of statement but I would expect that that statement would therefore produce a mechanism through which you can have a national body and a mechanism through which resource allocation would be come part of it.

Senator PATERSON: So, if you were seeking substantive changes as well as a symbolic statement, the kind of thing you would be seeking is the establishment of a national multicultural commission, along the lines of the Victorian one, as Senator Di Natale was alluding to before? Is that the kind of what you had in mind?

Prof. Mansouri : That could be a first step towards having this conversation, yes—absolutely.

Dr Soutphommasane : I would add, Senator Paterson, that, if we are interested in strengthening multiculturalism, there are a number of obvious gaps at the moment. One of them concerns the collection of data on cultural diversity. If we are talking about theory, what a multicultural act could be directed at is one example of the kind of policy content that might be involved. The role of public authorities with respect to cultural diversity at the federal level is another gap, as Senator Di Natale alluded to. So, in addition to the declaratory power of a multicultural act, they are some very quick examples of what the substance of a multicultural act could involve. But, as I said earlier, an act is just one possible vehicle for achieving these ends.

Senator PATERSON: Since it is census day, what data collection in particular do you think has not happened that should be happening?

Dr Soutphommasane : The data collected by the census on cultural diversity includes data on places of birth, on people's declared ancestry and on the languages spoken by people at home. Each of those are imperfect or incomplete. In this year of cultural diversity, to give you an example, in my own personal case, in the census I would have answered the question about language I spoke at home as being English. That would not have been case 20 years ago when I was growing up. I was born in France but my place of birth really does not give a good indication of what my cultural background involves. Many other like societies in liberal democracies would have more direct means of capturing information about cultural diversity—for example, questions concerning cultural background or ethnicity. They are some of the examples I would highlight in the current collection of cultural diversity data. We have good data on some indicators but they add up to an incomplete picture of what cultural diversity is in Australia today.

Senator DODSON: I was just wondering about the way in which cultural diversity expressed in the nation may be more helpful than enactments. If there were more sorts of symbolic institutional structures that celebrated the diversity and richness of our multiculturalism, would that be a greater contribution than trying to constantly look at these things from a problem solving perspective? Not to diminish the problems, but there is not a great deal of symbolism in our national landscape that actually celebrates the richness of the multicultural society and community that we represent. I am just raising the alternative. So much is centred around setting up institutions or legislating, not necessarily against them. I think there is a lack of a whole lot of symbolic ways in which we could celebrate the richness of the contribution and the richness of its ongoing importance to our nation rather than simply trying to find legislative answers. I am not sure this is directed to anyone, but it is a statement. I was listening to the conversations and it seems to me that we also have to highlight that. Symbolism should not be seen as insignificant. People identify with nations in all sorts of ways. Lacking symbolism in this space is one of the difficulties we experience at the interpersonal or cultural relationship level.

Prof. Briskman : What you are saying is absolutely right, Senator Dodson. I think a lot of that is happening already, but in fits and starts and it is not comprehensive throughout Australia. It should not be either/or. We can do both. When you look at the context, why are we even discussing the need such legislation? It is because we are perceiving a problem in society that needs to be rectified. I do not think a broader level of a different type of symbolism on its own will have the greatest effect, or the only effect. There is a lot of fear in our society at the moment, as we know, which is something that has to be dealt with. Legislation that is affirming and symbolic might help erode some of that fear. It will be a statement from the leadership of the country that this is important.

I also think the process of getting this legislation in place is important. We all know what happened to proposals for human rights legislation. There was a big consultation process. As I understand it, people were in favour of it and then it just did not happen. We need to be absolutely confident that we have good processes and support in place and mainly that we have political leadership that will carry it through. We look at Trudeau in Canada and some of the initiatives that he quickly adopted when he became Prime Minister, if we can do that in this country, we will be halfway there.

CHAIR: Two things that came up were education and the role of the media in all of this. They are obviously big questions. Apart from what has come through in your submissions, which is more education, particularly through the school curriculum, do you have any other thoughts on education? We heard about trying to get better representation within the media for people from different backgrounds. Do you have any other suggestions for how we improve the representation of CALD and immigrant communities in terms of the stories we are telling through our mainstream media? Who wants to take that on?

Dr Soutphommasane : I might give this some reflection and take it on notice, but I believe there is an important role the media has to play in providing fair, accurate and responsible reporting and commentary on issues concerning race, religion and immigration. Too often there can be a pronounced focus on conflict in reporting and commentary, which only creates polarisation in our community and does little to advance public understanding of issues. There is a clear need for improvement on this front. Some of it could be achieved if you had better representation of diversity within the ranks of those who work in the media, but there can be more thorough efforts in educating media understanding of what are febrile and delicate issues. I will take that question on notice, if I may, because it is an important question.

CHAIR: Are there any other contributions?

Prof. Mansouri : I am happy to add to, and perhaps link, the issue of education media with yet another big item that should be on the agenda anyway, which is it is probably about time that we also had a national multicultural research agenda. This would feed into data, data collection, data analysis perhaps but from a much more systematic point of view. Let me state here that we talked about the VMC and the possibility of that becoming a national template for a similar body at the national level.

Victoria has been leading the way in research. I think the Research Institute on Social Cohesion, which was set up a couple of years ago with a very small budget from the Victorian government, has been very successful in really establishing a strong research evidence base in relation to issues of diversity and social cohesion. I say that because, unfortunately, from the federal government, we have seen a significant relocation of resources to the countering extreme violence agenda. We have seen that relocation still growing yet we have not seen even proportionately a third or a quarter of that allocation of funds to a much more positive research agenda on diversity and multiculturalism. I would like to see that taken up seriously. This would be in addition to the symbolic things that can be done. Why do we need to do that? I actually believe that the more we are able to research and document positive stories about diversity and coexistence, the more we can feed that into the public domain, the more we will change gradually public perception about diversity and cultural coexistence.

We are not going to do that if the federal agenda is driven, by and large, by the CVE portfolio. We need to balance that a little bit more and we need to go back and look at what works in multicultural coexistence at the local level. We need to allow a proper research agenda to be pursued and we need to work in partnership with communities and academic institutions because that will allow us to perhaps also change the media discourse. Not overnight, not by magic wand but, over time, that will feed into that kind of narrative, and we will have a better chance of balancing what I see right now as being a very problemetised, over securitised media landscape.

CHAIR: Unless there are any other contributions, I would like to thank you all for your evidence today. It has been very interesting. We look forward to talking to you again at some stage. Thank you so much for coming along and contributing to our evidence.