a multicultural History of Australia

Making multicultural Australia

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Commentary on: Making Victorian multiculturalism work »

Prof Andrew Jakubowicz.

Text Commentary

(Audio file available at a later date)

By the late 1980s the Labor government had established a strong ethnic affairs policy, with close links to the labour movement. It had created support for various organisations such as migrant workers’ centres in some of the major trade unions. A new generation of politicians was becoming politically active across local and state politics.

The Liberal government led by Jeff Kennett, which won power in Victoria in 1992, continued and extended the policies associated with cultural diversity. While he adopted a neo-liberal reform agenda, generally reducing government expenditure on services, Kennett, a former Minister for Ethnic Affairs, pursued a very pro-active approach to multiculturalism. He strongly opposed racism and xenophobia and criticized the policies of Pauline Hanson’s One Nation party. He was the first political leader to speak out against her maiden speech of 1996. He maintained close relations with leading figures from ethnic communities, such as Sir James Gobbo, a Victorian judge of Italian background and inaugural president of the Australian Multicultural Foundation in 1989, whom he appointed as Governor in 1997. Gobbo emphasised mutual rights and responsibilities as an essential part of multiculturalism.

Kennett refashioned the Ethnic Affairs Commission in 1993 and removed many of the ALP Cain/Kirner government personnel; in 1996 he renamed it the Victorian Multicultural Commission, and took on the title Minister for Multicultural Affairs at the time when the recently-elected Federal Government under Prime Minister John Howard was moving away from the term “multiculturalism”. Kennett was also a strong supporter of the Liberal federal member for the Victorian seat of Kooyong (once held by Sir Robert Menzies) , Petro Georgiou, who was formerly the adviser to Malcolm Fraser and the first Director of the Australian Institute for Multicultural Affairs. Georgiou became one of the main critics of Prime Minister Howard’s approach to multiculturalism , the One Nation party and later, the asylum seekers.

In general Victoria remained unresponsive to the campaigns launched by One Nation in the late 1990s, as both the government and the opposition were firmly opposed to any expressions of racism in public life. Meanwhile, even in the context of increasing funding constraints, Victorian governments continued to develop multicultural policies across a range of areas, including social services, education, cultural heritage (and museums) and the arts. The full participation of Victoria’s multicultural communities was also promoted by organizations such as the Ethnic Communities’ Council of Victoria, Multicultural Arts Victoria, and the Education Department’s Languages and Multicultural Education Resource Centre. Meanwhile federal government projects such as Migrant Resource Centres, were facing major cuts in funding and were being forced to reorient themselves as fee-for-service providers.

The return of the ALP to government in Victoria in 1999 brought with it a group of younger politicians of diverse backgrounds, many of whom had been involved in the emergence of “ethnic branches” of the ALP. Awareness of issues around cultural diversity also increased in local government, as local councilors became more representative of and responsive to local cultural diversity.