Note: Where available, the PDF/Word icon below is provided to view the complete and fully formatted document
Foreign Affairs, Defence and Trade References Committee
14/10/2020
Issues facing diaspora communities in Australia

EDWARDS, Professor Louise, Vice-President and International Secretary, Australian Academy of the Humanities

FITZGERALD, Emeritus Professor John, Immediate Past President, Australian Academy of the Humanities

PAROLIN, Dr Christina, Executive Director, Australian Academy of the Humanities

CHAIR: Thank you for your time and for your submission, which is submission No. 52. Information on parliamentary privilege and the protection of witnesses and evidence has been provided to you. Do you have anything to say about the capacity in which you appear today?

Prof. Edwards : I'm a professor at UNSW.

Prof. Fitzgerald : I am an emeritus professor at Swinburne University of Technology.

CHAIR: Thank you. Would you like to make a brief opening statement—one on behalf of all of you, or all three of you? I apologise that we're running a little behind.

Dr Parolin : We're each going to make a very brief statement. I very much appreciate the opportunity to appear today. I wish to acknowledge and pay my respects to the traditional owners of the land on which we meet. I am speaking to you from Canberra, which is Ngunnawal country.

The Australian Academy of the Humanities is one of the nation's four learned academies. We were established to promote excellence in our respective research fields and to provide evidence based advice to governments on matters of national importance. Our academy exists to ensure that the humanities thrive and excel in Australia, because we believe that a better future for all depends on ethical, historical, creative and cultural knowledge and expertise. It's this expertise and knowledge of Australia's humanities and social science researchers that has, regretfully, been undervalued of late, despite having clear relevance for policymakers and decision-makers about how we understand our communities and cultures, both now and in the future.

It is this expertise which we've brought to bear on the matters of interest to the committee today and on which we've been working for many years now. It's why we led a series of reports on Australia's diaspora advantage on behalf of the Australian Council of Learned Academies for the Office of the Chief Scientist. We have long argued that Australia doesn't adequately recognise or take full advantage of the knowledge, connections and capabilities of our diaspora communities, and we believe that there is a need for a national strategy to coordinate both diaspora policy and capability development across relevant portfolios and agencies. My colleagues are going to tell you more about the key findings of the reports we led and our other work in this area. Thank you.

Prof. Edwards : I'm going to speak about the education, research and language components of our report because we feel that it's really crucial for Australia to realise this diasporic advantage by developing some sort of national strategic approach to diaspora. This is to do with the idea that we've posited about brain circulation. That's not just brain circulation of diaspora into Australia, or Australian diaspora out, but also within Australia. That's the challenge that we'd like to see opened up in terms of how we can leverage the transnational economic benefits that diaspora provides and also to generate a new transnational policy space.

My job in the daytime is teaching students, largely from the Asian diaspora, in courses at UNSW. One of the things that comes up frequently from my students is that they're really seeking clearer pathways to positions of leadership in both the public and private sectors. They have a real concern that they're welcome, as Asians, into roles as technical service providers in things like IT or accounting but they feel like they're not as welcome or able to make as much impact in leadership positions that will really shape the debate about institutional cultures or big-picture policy direction. So in that regard Australia is not able to benefit from their global knowledge.

The other thing that's really apparent from my discussions with them is that they feel like there's a real lack of nurturing of multilingualism among the broader Australian population. This kind of thing needs to happen over multiple generations, because you don't just pick up a language—you really have to nurture it over multiple generations. As well as supporting our English language skills, we're losing our diasporic advantage by not actually harnessing the skills that our diaspora have. We've lost, as a population, real expertise in a raft of European languages that were really abundant in Australia after the war. We had Italian, Greek, Serbian, Russian and German—all of these languages that people came to us with and we've kind of let them wither. And we're in real danger of letting the same resources wither with languages that came with groups in the seventies, like Vietnamese, Arabic and Persian. These are really good resources we could benefit from.

If we really want to benefit from our global diaspora advantage, we've got to look after our languages. The reason that's important is we've got to keep up with global challenges, the best ideas from around the world, as they're happening rather than wait for them to be translated into English and come to us via the UK or the USA. We're missing out on really good policy innovation, and our business leaders are missing out on great products and opportunities, because we're waiting for things to come to us in English. All of our diaspora are able to provide us with that kind of thing if we show them we value it. For example, with the latest COVID response, if we had paid attention to the developments over the last five years in pandemic planning by the Taiwan government we'd have had time to adopt their excellent plans and make them suit our more complex federal system of government, and then we could have been the ones exporting that federal model of pandemic planning to places with similar governments, like Canada, Rwanda, Belgium—other Federation type constitutions. We're missing out if we don't build our language capacity. We also have the scope for building community cohesion and strengthening Australian cultural values if we have better engagement with community language media.

One of the international aspects our diaspora can help us with is shaking off the prejudice and stereotypes we currently labour under as Australians internationally. They can help us shake that 'dumb, drunk, racist' tag. They can help us overcome the sneering jokes we often get about being deputy sheriffs. It's embarrassing travelling internationally when people sneer at us and make those kinds of jokes. The last one I heard, from a bunch of European leaders, was that Australia acts like it's suffering from battered child syndrome because it's so busy trying to please the USA and the UK and seek their approval despite years of abuse. It'd be nice for our diaspora to help us change those stereotypes through their global connections.

On a couple of things that have happened recently: multilingual research infrastructure has been badly hit with constraints on libraries and universities. The National Library of Australia is no longer collecting material in Japanese, Korean, Thai, Burmese, Cambodian—these are major trading partners, certainly Japan and Korea. Universities have pretty much given up the ghost on non-English language collections. There is real scope for revamping our national languages and literacy policy as one that's fit for the 21st century and has a lifelong learning approach, not just a schools approach.

Prof. Fitzgerald : Thank you for the opportunity to appear before the committee today. I would just like to note that we should be proud that Australia scores well on a number of global indices for human development, human security, quality of life, liveable cities and, in fact, social harmony. That's quite an achievement, given we come from so many different cultural backgrounds and different places.

Beyond our borders, we feel that Australia is not maximising the cultural capital that has accumulated over generations of international migration to this country. That's the thrust of the first of our joint academies reports on the diaspora advantage, which focused on business. This was initiated by the Academy of the Humanities and it offers compelling evidence that Australia could make far better use of the social networks and the intercultural skills that Asian Australian communities in particular bring to bear on economic and trade relations with countries in that region, especially India and China. We feel the same can be said of Africa, Latin America, North America and Europe, but our focus is on Australia's diaspora advantage in the Asia-Pacific.

Looking around the world, other countries seem to have taken a lead on us in seeing and grasping these diaspora advantages. Smart countries such as the United States give talented people from every background the opportunity to succeed—that is, not despite their foreign backgrounds but because those countries value the special qualities that people of culturally diverse backgrounds bring to the task. These include—and I'm sure you're aware of these—cultural intelligence in language skills, immediate networks into markets and talents, and a breadth of vision that brings insider and outsider points of view into a single focus that enables entrepreneurs and other businesspeople with these transnational linkages to make sense of markets at both ends. What works in business, we found, also works in diplomacy and international cultural exchange, so another of our reports focused on diaspora diplomacy, and it particularly looked at bridging ties with Pacific Island nations and countries in the wider region. Our team found that diaspora communities were, on the whole, better able to tell great Australian stories in their former home countries, in their literature, arts and music, than formal, government-to-government diplomacy. They were doing better with no support than we were doing pumping millions into public diplomacy.

We also found that Australia could do more to press home its diaspora advantage by recognising, encouraging and supporting the efforts of these diaspora communities, which are doing all this on their own account because they love it. A number of entrepreneurs and cultural mediators that we interviewed for the reports told us that, as they went about their business, they didn't always find Australia as supportive or, really, as effective as it could be. In particular, their knowledge and skills and networks were often overlooked when it came to setting up or managing programs around business and cultural exchange or around leadership or managing major businesses and so on, relating to countries in the Asia-Pacific. This lack can be remedied at little cost, and failure to remedy it, we believe, is an opportunity lost. While we have enviable rankings in global industry for happiness and quality of life, clearly indicating our multicultural qualities are working, it seems that there's another step we need to take: to develop a national strategy to nurture and enable the talent and networks of diverse communities to work in the service of the country, in international trade and cultural relations, to better secure our future.

CHAIR: Thank you, Professor Fitzgerald. I'm not sure whether you're aware, but this committee, sitting as a legislation committee, has also had two days of hearings this week looking at the foreign relations bill. We had evidence yesterday from the universities and from the peak bodies. We heard evidence around the moral responsibility of universities, in terms of dual-use technology and research that's undertaken at different campuses, and also around universities providing a safe environment for students on campuses to also, essentially, protect what's important in our system, which is critical thinking, or the Socratic method—to protect that way of learning as well. What do you think about diaspora student groups and whether universities are providing a safe environment for them? Are universities also providing a learning environment that does play to our strengths, such as learning by critical thinking, if I can put it that way? I'm interested in your views on that.

Prof. Edwards : I'm happy to dive in here because I'm at the coalface, teaching, most of the time. And one of the courses that I teach deals a lot with issues of Australia-Asia relations, basically. One of the things that we have at UNSW, within my school, is a little 'respectful discussion' document that we remind students to look at—and we remind our staff to look at as well—so that people can really debate as vigorously as they like but also with respect for the diversity that's in the room. And most of the students are really keen to engage in that, because they feel like this is perhaps safer than, say, a conversation around the dinner table with family members or relatives. They can actually test out ideas within the classroom, and they love doing it with each other. We have a lot of fun. Note, certainly not everyone agrees with everybody, but all ideas get a good airing. So I'm constantly surprised when I hear media reports that there is some sort of silencing or some sort of constraint on debate because, certainly within the faculties of arts and social sciences, that's our whole bread-and-butter—that we are really into that debate. We set up scenarios within the teaching format where those debates are encouraged and alternative views are elicited. For example, in a situation where you might get the class only looking along one angle, it's up to you as the teacher to come in and provide the counterargument so that they can see the other side. The students today—certainly at the tertiary level—are really remarkable. They can manage complex ideas. Two contradictory things can happen at the same time and be equally true. It's a stimulating environment. There is the occasional media case that we get. I don't know that that reflects the actual atmosphere in the university. That's more political activism than the educational environment. Does that answer your question?

CHAIR: Yes it does. Something we discussed yesterday was whether the University of Sydney having an ad on its careers hub website for recruitment for the Hong Kong Police Force was something that was appropriate. There was evidence from some witnesses about having a safe, non-threatening environment for diaspora communities on campus and whether it would be helpful to have those sorts of ads on the careers page—whether that was good for the student diaspora community.

Prof. Fitzgerald : I think your question comes to the wider issue of the moral responsibility of universities. If I may speak to foreign relations bill as an individual, not as a representative of the academy on this occasion; the academy does not take a position on law and regulation, it would seem that, even if we had in place a foreign relations bill, there's nothing to stop universities going ahead and putting up advertisements of whatever kind they like. It comes down to the question of the ethics around governing the university. It's possible that, no matter how draconian the legislation was, it would have no impact whatever on the question of the moral responsibility of universities, in meeting community expectations around academic freedom, association with authoritarian regimes and so on. In my view, there's the risk of legal overreach, which will be ineffective in relation to the foreign relations bill. There needs to be another mechanism—I'm not quite sure what it is—to encourage universities to exercise greater moral responsibility in their relations with authoritarian regimes for the security and safety of their own students.

That could be greater transparency—just a requirement for transparency on a host of different issues involving international relations. I imagine that, if the community has access to that information, they will make judgements about universities and where to send their children. Students themselves will decide where to go. The market, so to speak, will perhaps be a greater force for good in enforcing universities recognising their moral responsibility than would be a legislative sledgehammer.

The second point I make is that the diaspora refers not just to international students, of course, but to the majority of students at our universities, many of whom are second-generation students whose parents have come from overseas. In the city of Melbourne, around 50 per cent of the total population is either from overseas or has a parent who is. They all have their diasporic networks. And it's not just China, which could be thought to be the elephant in the room, that concerns them. Some are from the Middle East. Some are from Turkey or from other countries. They are equally concerned that universities are not protecting them on campus, for a variety of reasons.

CHAIR: Thank you. We have heard some evidence in this inquiry that—I think this was reported in the media as well—a student might say something on campus or might be involved in a protest not necessarily on campus. A family member in the PRC could then be approached by law enforcement there. I wonder how we go about ensuring that students feel safe on campus in expressing a view. We encourage and allow that in our society and we shouldn't miss out on those voices because there are consequences for the families of those people if they decide to do that.

Prof. Edwards : That's a real challenge. We have to ask what can realistically be done about that. We can provide a safe educational environment within the classroom and ensure that students are respectful to each other, and staff are respectful to each other and to students. It gets more difficult when we're trying to change the behaviour of another country. We can't really manage that.

Another thing is puzzling me. I'm pretty sure, but not 100 per cent sure, that my international students have told me that their visa prohibits them from participating in protests, so the Australian government doesn't allow them to participate in protests. So they feel kind of constrained by the Australian government. They might breach their visa if they take political action while they're students here. It can cut both ways. Some students feel more constrained in Australia than they do in, say, Hong Kong and other countries because of this visa requirement.

CHAIR: Maybe not this year in Hong Kong.

Prof. Edwards : Sorry, I don't understand—

CHAIR: I'm just thinking that particularly the latter part of 2020 hasn't been a good time to be a protester on the streets of Hong Kong.

Prof. Edwards : Yes, but they're Hong Kong students so their student visa can't be cancelled, whereas it can be here. From what my students tell me, if a Hong Kong student protests here—

CHAIR: That's very interesting. We might investigate that with Home Affairs, because that is interesting. If someone did express a view in your classroom—and remember we're not just talking about protests—and that gets reported somewhere and then a threat is made to family members, is there a mechanism for people to let the tertiary institution know that that has happened?

Prof. Edwards : That would be done quite possibly through our normal interactions with students who have issues with study progress or life progress. We have a range of support mechanisms on pretty much every campus in Australia—and I'd be 100 per cent sure of that. Students could approach counselling, medical services or all of their lecturers. If it needs to go higher, it goes higher. We have a lot of scaffolding within the institutions to support students' welfare. There's no reason why this kind of political angle could not also be a legitimate reason for a student to seek support. This is our job. We're teachers and educators. We care about the whole of the student, even if we don't agree with their politics or whatever. It's our job, and we love it. We've set up processes to support them.

CHAIR: Thank you. I'll go to other committee members because I realise we're running a little late. Senator Abetz?

Senator ABETZ: Thanks for the submission. In response to Professor Fitzgerald I have just a comment as opposed to a question. I note the observation that the foreign relations bill is legal overreach, but I opine that governments legislate where there seems to be a deficit. Might I say that in the university sector in recent times there has been substantial ethical underreach, if I can use that term. Professor Edwards, are you able to name which leaders said that Australia was acting like a battered child?

Prof. Edwards : No, I can't name them. These were casual conversations and jokes among people who travel the world.

Senator ABETZ: Right. I thought I heard something about world leaders. Travelling the world does not make people of necessity world leaders. If it were just a joke, I accept that. I must say that I thought it was a joke as well. Thanks a lot.

CHAIR: Senator Fierravanti-Wells?

Senator FIERRAVANTI-WELLS: I have no questions, thank you.

CHAIR: Senator Rice had to jump off the line for another commitment. Senators Antic, Sheldon and Ayres have also gone. We will leave it there. We will go to Home Affairs and check the visa conditions because that appeared to be anecdotal evidence.

Prof. Edwards : Yes, I'm not a—

Senator ABETZ: I think it would be very helpful to get clarification one way or the other.

CHAIR: I agree, Senator Abetz. We will leave it there. I thank you all for your time. I don't believe you have taken any questions on notice, but, if you have, we ask that the answers be returned to the committee by Friday 6 November. We thank you for your time and for your submission.

Committee adjourned at 12:51