In a world in which there's a lot going wrong at the moment and in which we can't take that kind of cohesion for granted, we have a lot of very good news stories in Australia about the extent to which the centre has held, I think, in our society. So, allowing for the decline in political trust, I think that what is striking, actually, is the extent to which this remains a very cohesive society.
Professor Frank Bongiorno, Head, School of History, Australian National University, Committee Hansard, 14 February 2020, p. 5.
What does it mean to be an Australian citizen? What rights and responsibilities attach to citizenship? How does citizenship interact with democracy? Should citizenship be defined in Australia's Constitution? Should the federal government have the ability to remove a person's Australian citizenship? If so, from whom and under what conditions?
Is Australia a socially cohesive country? Is it a tolerant country? Are Australians free to practice our diverse religions, and express our varied cultures? Are we safe from persecution? What does the data and evidence say? How do different communities feel? How has COVID-19 impacted upon social cohesion?
What is the role of governments in building mutual respect and promoting social cohesion? What is 'multiculturalism', and is it the right policy approach for modern Australia? What about the role of language teaching, and language policies?
This chapter presents evidence from a broad range of sources, and the views of inquiry participants in response to these questions, concluding with a discussion of proposals for defining and protecting citizenship, and strengthening social cohesion.
The legal category of 'Australian citizens' did not exist until 1949, when the Nationality and Citizenship Act 1948 came into effect. Prior to this, Australians could only be British subjects. Citizenship is not defined in, or protected by, Australia's Constitution. This section considers what it means to be a citizen as Australia enters the third decade of the 21st century, the rights and responsibilities of citizens, and how citizenship interacts with democracy and nationhood. It also looks at:
whether citizenship should be defined in the Constitution; and
whether governments and/or parliaments should have the ability to remove citizenship from individuals who possess it, and under what conditions.
What does it mean to be an Australian citizen?
In the early 1900s students in Australian schools were being taught about what it meant be a citizen of Australia, despite the fact that legally the category did not yet exist. Walter Murdoch's book, The Australian Citizen: An Elementary Account of Civic Rights and Duties, published in 1912, was 'read and approved' by then Leader of the Opposition, the Hon Alfred Deakin MP, before being published in large numbers and distributed throughout Australian schools as part of the civics curriculum.
History lecturer, Dr Ian Tregenza, said Murdoch's book 'promoted the idea of citizenship as service', an idea with origins in Christian church culture. Murdoch wrote:
To make the society in which we live a true Commonwealth, in the best sense of the term – not a mere collection of persons scrambling for wealth, each one seeking his own selfish ends without regard for others – but a hearty comradeship for all noble purposes, each one striving for the good of all, and all together seeking for the most splendid and beautiful life possible to human beings – that is the task of citizenship.
Citizenship later became a 'secular category', Dr Tregenza explained, and was linked to 'rights' rather than 'service'. According to Dr Tregenza, this shift was captured in the essay Citizenship and Social Class, published by British social theorist TH Marshall in 1950. In Citizenship and Social Class, Marshall argued that citizens in countries around the world increasingly expected (and were increasingly likely to be granted) more civil rights, regardless of wealth or social stature. Rights such as 'the right to freedom of speech, the right to own property and to conclude contracts, and the right to justice [and] political rights'.
Constitutional law specialist, Professor Helen Irving described citizenship as a 'modern form of membership of the modern state', which is determined by law, and is internationally recognised. Professor Irving said that citizenship provides citizens with certain rights, and means the state 'has responsibility for the person in question', who has 'the right to return' and 'the right of abode' in that country.
Rights and responsibilities
The Australian Citizenship Amendment Act 1993 added a preamble to the 1948 Act, setting out 'reciprocal rights and obligations' of Australian citizenship, and a new pledge of commitment. The pledge calls on applicants for citizenship 'to commit to the Australian nation and people, rather than pledging allegiance to the sovereign', and commit to upholding 'national unity' in multicultural Australia.
On 1 July 2007, the Australian Citizenship Act 2007 replaced the 1948 Act. The Australian Citizenship Act 2007 'defines who is, who can become, and who ceases to be an Australian citizen'. Applicants for Australian citizenship by conferral must meet a set of 'expectations' to qualify for citizenship, including:
a basic knowledge of the English language;
signing an Australian values declaration;
sitting and passing the Australian citizenship test (20 multiple-choice questions on 'knowledge of Australia and the responsibilities and privileges of Australian citizenship)'; and
making a pledge of commitment within 12 months of their citizenship application being approved (usually made at the conferral ceremony).
Visa applicants, and those aspiring to become citizens of Australia, are required to sign the Australian Values Statement (Figure 4.1), which commits applicants to 'confirm that they will respect Australian values and obey Australian laws'. The Department of Home Affairs submitted:
The Australian community expects that aspiring citizens demonstrate their allegiance to Australia, their commitment to live in accordance with Australian values, and their willingness and ability to integrate into and become contributing members of the Australian community.
Figure 4.1: Australian values statement
The following factors may be taken into account in denying citizenship or visa applications:
any recorded criminal convictions;
obligations to a court in Australia or overseas;
association with people of concern;
incidents of reported domestic violence; and
whether the applicant has been honest in their dealings with the Australian community, including providing false or misleading information in relation to a visa or citizenship application.
Some participants in the inquiry were concerned that the Australian Citizenship Act 2007 is too prescriptive in relation to qualities or attributes that aspiring and dual Australian citizens must possess. Dr Anne Macduff, a senior lecturer at the Australian National University (ANU) College of Law argued that criteria for citizenship in a democratic country should 'be the minimum possible'. Dr Macduff believed that references in the Act to 'good character' and 'Australian values' were aimed at excluding people on largely racially-motivated grounds, and could be used by decision-makers to exclude people who, in Dr Macduff's view, should be considered part of the Australian community.
Similarly, Professor Irving from the University of Sydney said of citizenship that it is a 'neutral' status, and should not come with a 'test of qualities' of the person:
[I]t is and properly is to be understood as a neutral internationally recognised status. Once you start to attach tests to citizenship—and one needs to talk a little bit differently there about citizenship acquisition through naturalisation, or conferral as it's known now, and citizenship by birth right. Once you start to, in a sense, look into the soul or the heart of a person and say, 'In order to be a true citizen, you have to hold certain values or you have to have certain attributes,' then you are undermining citizenship as a neutral modern form of membership of a state.
Citizenship researcher, Dr Rayner Thwaites, submitted that government references to Australian citizenship as 'a privilege', rather than a right, risk undermining, rather than strengthening, Australia's citizenship:
I would say that it's not a status that is at the dispensation of government. Once conferred, a person is a member of the Australian citizenry…An official or someone appointed from time to time has to be careful of arrogating to themselves the right to bestow or remove a person's citizenship…It's an affirmation that it's not a favour; it's a right.
The Department of Home Affairs submitted a list of the privileges and responsibilities of Australian citizens, as outlined the Australian citizenship test handbook, Australian Citizenship: Our Common Bond:
Australian citizens have the right to:
vote in federal and State or Territory elections, and in a referendum;
apply for work in the Australian Public Service or in the Australian Defence Force;
seek election to parliament, if aged 18 years or over and not a dual citizen;
apply for an Australian passport and re-enter Australia freely;
receive help from an Australian consulate while overseas; and
register children born overseas as Australian citizens by descent.
Australian citizens must:
vote in federal and State or Territory elections, and in a referendum;
defend Australia should the need arise; and
serve on a jury if called to do so.
The conflation of citizenship with immigration
The Minister for Citizenship currently sits within the Department of Home Affairs. Professor Kim Rubenstein observed that this results in citizenship policy being framed largely in terms of 'exclusion (who becomes a citizen) rather than citizenship as inclusion…[birth and descent,] citizenship and rights and participation'. It has also led in recent years to an increasing connection between citizen provisions and border protection mechanisms.
Professor Rubenstein argued that having citizenship sit in the Department of Home Affairs:
…detracts from the possibilities available to government to think more positively about policies and programs that promote Australia's national identity, ensuring we work towards a more cohesive and socially inclusive society, built on principles of democracy and active citizenship.
Suggesting that citizenship could be located in the Department of Prime Minister and Cabinet instead, Professor Rubenstein said this would enable a more holistic, whole of government approach to promoting 'active citizenship', informing Australians about the rights and responsibilities of citizenship, and progressing discussion on nationhood, national identity and democracy.
Removal of Australian citizenship
In 2015 the parliament passed the Australian Citizenship Amendment (Allegiance to Australia) Act 2015, which 'expanded the grounds on which the Australian citizenship of a dual citizen will cease if the person acts inconsistently with his or her allegiance to Australia'.
The legislation introduced three new ways in which dual citizens could cease to be Australian citizens:
by engaging in specified terrorist-related conduct;
by fighting for, or being in the service of, a declared terrorist organisation, as defined by the Criminal Code and declared by the minister; or
by being convicted of a specified terrorism offence as prescribed in the Criminal Code.
The provisions operate so that the person's Australian citizenship is deemed to cease automatically as result of the conduct, and 'do not necessitate the Minister making a decision'. Dual citizens whose Australian citizenship has ceased on this basis are permanently ineligible to apply to have that citizenship reinstated, unless the minister grants an exemption.
A number of inquiry participants argued that the 'citizenship stripping' provisions result in Australia treating dual citizens differently to sole citizens.
Legal scholar, Professor Rubenstein argued that the policy undermines previous steps taken by governments to 'affirm' dual citizenship in Australia, and creates 'the potential for dual citizens to be alienated and identified as "other" from the mainstream community', which may have negative impacts upon social cohesion. The capacity to strip dual citizens of their Australia citizenship undermines national unity, Professor Rubenstein said, and 'creates a second-class citizenship', and it 'should only be in the rarest of cases that the state is able to strip citizenship'.
The ministerially-appointed Australian Multicultural Council submitted that dual citizens should be treated the same as Australian-born citizens, protected from revocation of citizenship except in the most extreme cases, and provided with due process. The Multicultural Communities Council of New South Wales and Chinese Community Council of Australia (MCC NSW and CCCA) recommended legislation be put in place to ensure 'Australians (citizen by naturalisation or acquired by birth), shall not be deported under any circumstances'.
Professor Rubenstein argued that stripping dual citizens of Australian citizenship is a 'policy direction' that is not 'consistent with democratic principles'. She cautioned against connecting citizenship with criminality, saying:
There are many actions of individuals that do not represent shared values in a western liberal democratic nation and they are generally criminalized – and the criminal law is brought in to manage that activity. Using citizenship, as the tool to manage that aspect of human behaviour is not wise.
The one situation which Professor Rubenstein believed removal of citizenship was an appropriate response was if a person 'sought to get rid of the nation-state itself'. In other cases, processes of criminal law should be seen as the appropriate avenue.
The revised explanatory memorandum to the Australian Citizenship Amendment (Allegiance to Australia) Bill 2015 states that the laws are necessary 'to ensure the safety and security of Australia and its people and to ensure the Australian community is limited to those persons who continue to retain an allegiance to Australia'.
Historian, Ms Ann-Mari Jordens argued that, in a legal sense 'citizenship is a statutory rather than a constitutional concept', which leaves Australians vulnerable. Ms Jordens quoted Professor Rubenstein, who proposed:
…that amendment of the Australian Constitution 'to acknowledge and define the scope of citizenship would clarify its extent and operation amidst a confusing patchwork of legislation, and would crystallise the all-important questions of national identity'.
The Science Party made a similar recommendation, proposing the Constitution be amended by referendum 'to append the rights, privileges and obligations of citizens'.
The case of Love and Thoms
A 2020 High Court judgment provided a focus for discussions during the inquiry. In the judgment of 11 February 2020, the High Court found that the two plaintiffs, Daniel Love and Brendan Thoms, were not to be considered 'aliens' within the meaning of section 51(xix) of the Constitution, and thus could not be subject to deportation on character grounds, despite never having taken up Australian citizenship.
The two plaintiffs identified as Aboriginal men, and claimed connection to Aboriginal communities and lands. Mr Love was born in Papua New Guinea (PNG) to an Aboriginal father and PNG mother, and Mr Thoms was born in New Zealand to an Aboriginal mother and New Zealand father. Despite having lived in Australia for many years, neither had taken up Australian citizenship and both were residents on visas. Both had been found to fail the character test.
In concluding the lengthy judgment, Justice Edelman wrote:
Political community is not a concept that is wholly a creature of legislation. For example, a child born in Australia to two parents who have only Australian citizenship is not an alien. The metaphysical ties between that child and the Australian polity, by birth on Australian land and parentage, are such that the child is a non-alien, whether or not they are a statutory citizen. The same must also be true of an Aboriginal child whose genealogy and identity includes a spiritual connection forged over tens of thousands of years between person and Australian land, or 'mother nature'.
This conclusion could only be avoided by denying its premise, so that the children in both scenarios are capable of being aliens according to the definition of citizen chosen by the Commonwealth Parliament. That approach would be contrary to the essential meaning of s 51(xix), which is not tied to the state of legislation. It would deny the long-standing existence of a category of persons who are non-citizens and non-aliens. It would effectively allow the Commonwealth Parliament to recite itself into power.
Constitutional law specialist, Professor Elisa Arcioni, said the case went to the heart of who is a member of the Australian people, and who is not an alien, and the High Court found that Aboriginal persons could not be considered aliens under Australia's Constitution.
Participants discussed Justice Gageler's dissent, which has been represented by some as an argument that the majority ruling creates a 'special category' of citizenship. Justice Gageler wrote:
To concede capacity to decide who is and who is not an alien from the perspective of the body politic of the Commonwealth of Australia to a traditional Aboriginal or Torres Strait Islander society or to a contemporary Aboriginal or Torres Strait Islander community, or to any other discrete segment of the people of Australia, would be to concede to a non-constitutional non-representative non-legally-accountable sub‑national group a constitutional capacity greater than that conferred on any State Parliament. Yet that would be the practical effect of acceptance of either of the first and second variations of the plaintiffs' argument.
Professor Arcioni disputed that interpretation of Gageler's commentary. She said:
It wasn't about creating different classes but asking, 'What is the outer boundary within which the parliament is allowed to act in excluding people?' The answer being that Aboriginal Australians are not aliens and, therefore, are not within the alien category. That's, at its simplest, what the case presents rather than setting up multiple categories of persons…The concern in response to the case might be, from the parliament or government's perspective, that they perceive a separate class simply because they had operated on the assumption that Aboriginal Australians could be aliens. And so the High Court has just affirmed that they're not.
Professor Irving contended that the judgment 'affirmed and firmly established…a right of abode of Australian citizens', challenging what she saw as increasing executive power in relation to citizenship inherent in legislative measures passed in recent years.
Professor Rubenstein proposed the case demonstrated a need to revisit the issue of long-term residents of Australia who have not taken up citizenship, 'for whatever reason':
We have…a very concerning period where we have Australians in all but law…removed to countries they have no association with other than a formal citizenship certificate because we can remove them. It hails back to our origins as a penal colony, where the executive decides to remove criminals because they can rather than recognising [their] true connection to community.
Dual citizens in parliament
Dual citizens of Australia are not currently able to run for, or sit in, the federal parliament. State and territory parliaments do not have this restriction. Section 44(i) of the constitution reads:
Any person who -
Is under any acknowledgement of allegiance, obedience, or adherence to a foreign power, or is a subject or a citizen or entitled to the rights or privileges of a subject or citizen of a foreign power;
shall be incapable of being chosen or of sitting as a senator or a member of the House of Representatives.
A number of inquiry participants suggested this prohibition is outdated and negatively effects social cohesion in a modern multicultural country like Australia. For instance, Professor Alexander Reilly from the University of Adelaide's Law School Section, said 44(i) 'harks back to a time when the concept of foreign allegiance was simpler'. In 21st century Australia, 'the diminished political status of dual citizens' that section 44(i) imposes 'strikes at the very heart of Australia's multicultural identity'.
The terminology of 'allegiance', Professor Rubenstein commented, 'is not a helpful way of conceiving of and understanding membership in Australian society today'.
The University of New South Wales Law Society said that the series of cases in which members and senators lost their seats due to section 44 in 2017 and 2018 'exposed the inadequacies of Australia's strict approach to political citizenship'. The Law Society said that countries such as the United Kingdom and the United States do not impose such a restriction, and many of the elected representatives of those countries hold dual citizenships.
However, the committee heard from Mr Iain Walker, Executive Director, newDemocracy Foundation, that to change section 44 would be a challenging task for any government:
There's bipartisan agreement that there is unfairness in this and who can be eligible to stand for office, and yet if someone in elected office stands up and says, 'I want to change the Constitution,' there are 16 million voters out there saying, 'I don't want to give you what you want,' which is an irrational opinion and response. That's why I agree with you that it's a thankless task.
Treatment of non-citizens
Participants raised concerns around Australia's treatment of non-citizens. This included: those who have lived in Australia for a significant portion of their lives but have not taken up citizenship, refugees, and those on temporary visas who found themselves stranded here during the pandemic.
Dr Thwaites identified 'an increasing class' of people who have lived in Australia for many years, but cannot access citizenship. A number of these are people from New Zealand who:
…pay their taxes, who are full members of the community and who are at primary schools and wherever else but who are formally legally locked out of a pathway to citizenship, because the requirement of permanent residence locks them out and the increased use of temporary visas locks them out.
Dr Thwaites said this situation has occurred as a result of changes to citizenship pathways, residency and visa requirements, and needs attention.
Professor Foster submitted that some of Australia's current policies on asylum seekers are inconsistent with the Convention relating to the Status of Refugees, which we 'helped to draft'. The professor said the United Nations Human Rights Committee has declared Australia in violation of its obligations under international law 'on about 30 occasions in relation to our policy of indefinite detention':
We currently have people in detention who have been there for up to 10 years simply because they're stateless. They haven't committed a crime; they simply have nowhere else to go.…I would argue that, really, when our branches of government act in a way that's so inconsistent with the values that we've proclaimed internationally and that represent the minimum requirements of a civilised society, that it erodes trust in those institutions.
The Peter McMullin Centre on Statelessness shared these concerns, arguing that Australia's 'harsh' immigration and citizenship policies are widely viewed as amongst the 'least compassionate' globally, particularly with respect to the offshore processing of asylum seekers.
The Australian Multicultural Council submitted that Australia has 'a generous resettlement program' for refugees. However, adopting an 'Australian Bill of Rights' would assist in ensuring Australia implements the provisions of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights.
According to Welcoming Australia, over 1.1 million people in Australia on temporary visas, including international students, people seeking asylum, and temporary workers, were excluded from the JobKeeper and JobSeeker support payments during the COVID-19 crisis. Many of these people were unable to leave Australia, and as such, state and local governments, community organisations, and universities stepped in to provide 'emergency food and financial support to ensure that nobody [was] left behind'. Welcoming Australia suggested this 'represents a significant risk to Australia's international reputation'.
The Department of Home Affairs submitted that it has worked with the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade to provide consular support for temporary visa holders, provided information and support, and implemented changes to the temporary visa program allowing visa holders to remain in Australia during the pandemic. The department also undertook not to enforce certain visa conditions (such as work limits) and enabled temporary visa holders to work additional hours in certain critical sectors, such as healthcare, aged and disability care, supermarkets, agriculture and food processing, and childcare.
Our citizenship is a valuable thing. It makes us part of a national community. It gives us certain rights and privileges, as well as certain responsibilities. We should treasure it and seek to participate in our democracy as active citizens. Governments, in turn, should work to create a society in which everyone is free to participate equally.
The committee strongly believes that Australia's democracy is best served by a well-informed and active citizenry. The committee also believes that this is best achieved by engaging in dialogue with Australian citizens–including prospective citizens–about their rights and responsibilities, and our shared values, history and national identity.
Active citizenship pertains both to the rights and the responsibilities of citizens. Its underlying premise is to encourage citizens to become more involved in public affairs, the democratic process and the world around them. There are many benefits to active citizenship, which can be exhibited in different ways and at different levels. It can involve civic engagement with minority groups in the belief that deeper democratic participation will contribute to social cohesion, national unity and a healthier, just and more prosperous democracy.
The committee notes, however, that citizens by birth and descent are not routinely provided with this information, and may not fully appreciate the rights, privileges, and responsibilities associated with citizenship. Nor would many Australians be familiar with the Australian Values Statement. These statements are of value to all Australians.
It is important that citizenship be seen not only as an issue for migrants and new and aspiring citizens. All Australians should have an awareness of the value and importance of their citizenship, of their rights and responsibilities as citizens, and of the critical need to defend and engage with the institutions of their democracy.
The committee was interested in discussions around dual citizenship. In a modern multicultural nation, such as Australia, where dual citizenship is becoming more common, there is a risk that the prohibition on dual citizens running for, and sitting in, the federal parliament may dissuade otherwise excellent candidates. This is an issue that warrants further consideration.
The committee recommends that the Australian government engages in dialogue with Australian citizens–including prospective citizens–about their rights and responsibilities, and our shared values, history and national identity.
To support this dialogue, the committee recommends the government:
develop and support educational and school programs that improve co‑operation, communication and participation, as well as increasing critical ability, reducing prejudice and building tolerance, understanding, empathy, and an openness to diversity;
enable people and local communities to get involved in their democratic process across all levels – from small country towns to our suburban cities and nationwide activity; and
provide prospective citizens with an engaging and informative history of Australian democracy and our system of government as part of their citizenship preparation process.
The committee acknowledges the challenges inherent in changing the constitution. The committee notes recommendation 2 in the Joint Standing Committee on Electoral Matters' report for its inquiry into matters relating to section 44 of the Constitution which recommended that:
…the Australian Government further engages with the Australian community to determine contemporary expectations of standards in order to address all matters of qualification and disqualification for Parliament through legislation under section 34 of the Constitution.
The committee recommends that the Australian government investigates options to allow dual citizens to run for, and sit in, the federal parliament.
[I]ndividual and community functioning is at its best when we have trust in one another, when we have a sense of belonging and connection to the community and to the nation more broadly, and [when people] engage in their political institutions, including thinking that those institutions are legitimate and representative of who they are.
Professor Kate Reynolds, Private capacity, Committee Hansard, 7 February 2020, p. 33.
This section considers Australia's cultural, religious and linguistic diversity, policy and programs relating to language, and contested views around current levels of social cohesion in Australia. It discusses different approaches to multiculturalism and multicultural policy, before considering racism, intolerance, discrimination and distrust in modern Australian society. The views of participants in relation to religious freedom and expression, and the concept of identity politics are discussed, as well as evidence around the impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic on social cohesion. Proposed suggestions for increasing Australia's social cohesion are then presented.
Modern Australia is an ethnically, linguistically and culturally diverse nation. Almost half of our population was born overseas, or has at least one parent who was born overseas. Figure 4.2 shows Australia's cultural and linguistic diversity as enumerated in the 2016 Census.
Figure 4.2: Australia's cultural and linguistic diversity, 2016 Census
Source: Department of Home Affairs, Submission 138, Attachment D, p. 19.
Darebin City Council commented on the changing ethnic makeup of Australia's cities:
At least one in seven people you pass when walking down the streets in Australia's largest cities arrived in this country in the past twenty years; Today one in ten of us is born in Asia, and for the first time in the nation's history, a greater proportion of people born overseas are from Asia than from mainland Europe; More than one in three residents of Melbourne's CBD speaks Mandarin or Cantonese at home while in 67 Sydney suburbs at least half the population does not speak English at home; In just 70 years, Australia has changed from a mostly white, Anglo-Irish society, with a small Aboriginal population, to a society in which half the population is born overseas or has at least one parent who was.
The Multicultural Communities Council of New South Wales and Chinese Community Council of Australia (MCC NSW and CCCA) submitted that this diversity gives Australia 'an advantage' in global geopolitics over counties with low immigrant populations. Ties that immigrants maintain with 'the old country' should be considered 'an asset' as they give Australia 'the human capacity to understand a wide range of cultures and civilizations'.
Dr Karena Menzie-Ballantyne, from CQUniversity, said Australia's diverse population is increasingly identifying with a 'cosmopolitan citizenship' model:
The cosmopolitan citizenship framework says that it is perfectly possible to hold a local, national and global identity at the same time. In fact, the research shows that using those three levels of terminology with our youth has almost become redundant–because…they are holding all of these identities at the same time, without conflict.
Migrants have contributed greatly to Australian's population, culture, and the economy. The Diversity Council of Australia cited Australian Bureau of Statistics data that indicates recent migrants are well educated and participate in the labour market at rates equivalent to, or higher than the total Australian rate.
According to the 2016 Census, Australians speak over 300 languages. Professor Catherine Travis, from the Australian Research Council (ARC) Centre of Excellence for the Dynamics of Language (the ARC Centre), observed that twenty-one per cent of Australians speak a language other than English at home. The Diversity Council of Australia submitted that this linguistic diversity has the potential to greatly benefit 'Australia's economic performance', particularly as people who speak more than one language are better able to 'understand and appreciate people of other countries, thereby lessening racism, xenophobia, and intolerance'.
Professor Travis proposed that part of building Australia's nationhood and national identity should be making 'positive statements' around multilingualism as a way to 'help people accept diversity', which in turn 'will help tolerance and cross-cultural understanding'.
Director of the ARC Centre, Professor Nicholas Evans, maintained that 'languages matter deeply to our nationhood, our national identity, and in the promotion of democracy'. He argued for the need to 'maintain the languages of immigrant communities', because doing so makes Australia more economically competitive and capable of working in global business, especially in China and India.
The Association for Language Testing and Assessment of Australia and New Zealand emphasised the importance of linguistic diversity in fostering social cohesion, arguing that 'the fact that Standard Australian English is an additional language…is unrelated to a person's ability to contribute positively to a nation as a citizen or to form strong bonds in the community'.
A number of participants suggested the government could ensure a focus on languages by reviving the national policy on language, such as the policy developed in 1987 by Professor Joseph Lo Bianco.
English language capability
Professor Lo Bianco, from the Melbourne Graduate School of Education, opined what he saw as the 'erosion of the public commitment to teach English to adult immigrants' over recent decades, saying the Adult English Migrant Program (AMEP) is 'just treated as a bit of an administrative thing, beaten from one department to another'. The program:
…is a major way in which new arrivals can find jobs, support their children in school, have their qualifications recognised and become participating, substantive citizens; it goes back to 1947…I think this is one of the things that distinguish the Australian success of immigration from practices or experiences around the world.
The Scanlon Foundation confirmed that levels of English proficiency were falling among migrants, noting that 820,000 migrants, or one in eight, overseas born migrants 'reported poor English proficiency' in the 2016 Census, 'the highest level since 1996'.
Research conducted for the Scanlon Foundation in 2019 corroborated Professor Lo Bianco's views on the AMEP, finding that the program, which once 'enjoyed a global reputation' for excellence, 'has suffered from falling student numbers and a crisis of identity, focus and morale'.
The department submitted that it is making 'substantial reforms to the AMEP so that English capability is more accessible and widespread'.
Reforms to the AMEP were announced by acting Minister for Immigration, Citizenship, Migrant Services and Multicultural Affairs, the Hon Alan Tudge MP on 28 August 2020. The reforms involve amending the Immigration (Education) Act 1971, in order to:
remove the cap that limits free English tuition to 510 hours;
raise the AMEP eligibility threshold (and exit point for the program) from functional…to vocational…English; and
remove the time limits on enrolling, commencing and completing AMEP tuition (for those already in Australia as at 1 October 2020).
According to the department, these are 'the most significant' reforms to the program in many years, and are designed to 'support Australia's social cohesion'. These changes will mean:
…more migrants will be able to access free English tuition for longer and until they reach a higher level of proficiency. The reforms to the AMEP are being led by the Commonwealth Coordinator-General for Migrant Services as part of her work to drive better settlement outcomes for refugees and migrants with a focus on employment, English language acquisition and community integration.
As at publication of this report, the bill to enable the reforms is being considered by the parliament.
Social cohesion: how are we doing?
The Department of Home Affairs is responsible for policy and strategy in relation to social cohesion, along with protecting Australia's sovereignty, border control, domestic and national security, law enforcement, countering foreign interference and counter-terrorism. Its purpose statement is: 'prosperous, secure, united'.
The department submitted that Australia's 'robust' democratic system, inclusive citizenship model, and 'shared values' help to maintain strong social cohesion. The department relies on the Scanlon Foundation's data on social cohesion, saying Australia has enjoyed 'relatively strong social cohesion' since surveys began in 2007:
The 2018 Scanlon Foundation report found that 'a large majority of Australians have demonstrated a remarkable resilience and optimism about the future', with 85 per cent of people providing a positive response on questions concerned with sense of belonging, identification with Australia and happiness.
The Scanlon Foundation's 'Mapping Social Cohesion' survey, conducted annually, looks at a range of indicators, including:
support for immigration and multiculturalism;
trust in government; and sense of belonging.
It uses the Scanlon-Monash Index of Social Cohesion, which incorporates 'five domains of social cohesion: belonging, worth, social justice and equity, participation, and acceptance and rejection/legitimacy'.
Referring to the Scanlon data, policy and public administration specialist, Dr Scott Prasser, said:
We've got phenomenal social cohesion, given the level of immigration we've had in this country—of which my family is part. I think there's a fair amount of tolerance within some limits and in some issues from time to time. We see that with some debates, where people can't debate because they are pilloried for having a point of view which doesn't meet consensus. But overall I think Australia has been pretty fantastic.
ANU Professor, Kate Reynolds argued that Australia 'is in a better position' than some countries. However, evidence from the Scanlon Mapping Social Cohesion Survey and the ABS General Social Survey points to an emerging decline in the data on social cohesion. Professor Reynolds said Australia has an opportunity to address the issue early:
This is a point in time where there is still opportunity to think about different ways to act that could buffer some of these early signs that we're seeing in the Australian data.
The Scanlon Foundation confirmed that the index has registered a modest but 'general decline' in social cohesion since 2007, with 'acceptance and rejection' being the component to experience the largest decline.
Effect of immigration on social cohesion
The British Australian Community submitted that the 'rise in ethnic diversity has produced a decline in social cohesion in Australia'. This issue was discussed at the roundtable on 7 February in Canberra. Professor Reynolds said that the limited evidence available on Australian communities does not indicate this is the case:
When we look at the Australian data, which we have…we can't see that relationship in the Australian context. Furthermore, with increasing diversity in local communities there is also, it seems, more opportunity for positive contact, which is leading to benefits to social cohesion.
Chief Executive Officer of the Scanlon Foundation, Ms Anthea Hancocks agreed that data suggests social cohesion in Australia is not damaged by immigration: 'That is not the impact point. I would say that we are a highly cohesive society. Compared to societies around the world, Australia is an extremely cohesive society'.
The Scanlon Foundation submitted that its survey results provide no evidence 'of rising hostility towards immigration reshaping Australian politics'. When asked to indicate 'pressing issues facing Australia', respondents consistently cite 'the economy' and 'growing inequality', not immigration. Scanlon stated: '[i]n 2018, only seven per cent of respondents indicated that high immigration was the most important issue of concern'.
In most of the survey's years, a majority of respondents have replied that the number of immigrants accepted into Australia is either 'about right' or 'too low'. Scanlon further observed that public opinion does not seem to correlate 'with actual rates of immigration':
Over the past 12 years between 35 and 40 per cent of respondents have described immigration levels as 'about right', despite immigration rates shifting up and down considerably in this time period. This hints at the importance of non-immigration factors, such as political leadership and individual economic outcomes, driving views on immigration.
In 2018 the Scanlon report cited global polls that ranked Australians equal fourth with Canadians in believing immigration has a 'positive effect' on the country.
The Multicultural Youth Advocacy Network (MYAN) felt that more could be done to deliver positive messaging in relation to migration, and to highlight that diversity provides opportunities for migrants as well as their host country. MYAN argued that messaging 'that speaks to shared democratic values will contribute to stronger and better informed communities and improved settlement outcomes', particularly for young people from refugee and migrant backgrounds.
Despite Australia's relatively high scores in relation to social cohesion, there is evidence that a proportion of Australians have experienced racism, discrimination or exclusion on the basis of race, ethnic or cultural identity, or religious affiliation. There is also evidence that the COVID-19 pandemic has led to increased incidence of racially motivated attacks on certain sections of the community. This evidence is detailed in the following sections.
Closely tied to social cohesion in Australia is the issue of multiculturalism. The University of Western Australia (UWA) submitted that Scanlon surveys demonstrate 'goodwill' in Australia towards multiculturalism, with around 85 per cent of Australians 'consistently supporting' multiculturalism.
International IDEA shared the insights of its research into policies around the world, saying countries tend to adopt policies that promote multiculturalism from either a 'melting pot' or a 'salad bowl' perspective:
…in the melting pot, differences are transcended as part of a greater homogenising whole; in the salad bowl individual differences are preserved – they co-exist without being homogenized, distinct elements of a whole.
The department submitted that Australia's approach to multiculturalism is an 'integrated' approach, meaning 'migrants embrace the Australian national identity, actively participate in the community and achieve comparable living standards'. The department runs a network of Community Liaison Officers (CLOs) who engage with communities around Australia to 'build positive and trusting relationships'. These relationships enable the department to communicate and receive information to 'ensure that Australia continues to be safe, prosperous and socially cohesive'.
The Australian Multicultural Council promoted the current national multicultural statement, Multicultural Australia: United, Strong, Successful, launched in March 2017. The Council argued for a redefinition of the narrative of Australian multiculturalism, from the notion of 'celebrating diversity', to a stronger focus on 'citizenship and nation building', saying '[w]ithout social cohesion and shared citizenship values, celebrating diversity for itself may lead to cosmopolitanism'.
The Scanlon Foundation submitted that Australians largely support an 'integrated' approach to immigration. Between 2015 to 2018 about two-thirds of survey respondents agreed with the statement 'people who come to Australia should change their behaviour to be more like Australians', and in 2015, 92 per cent of people surveyed by the ANU believed the ability to speak English 'was central to "being truly Australian"'. The Scanlon Foundation concluded:
Despite the long-term philosophical shift from assimilation to multiculturalism as the basis of Australian nation-building, both established Australians and new migrants continue to believe that newcomers should embrace the country and become Australian as quickly as possible.
Conversely, the Australian Psychological Society said research demonstrates that migrants need to 'maintain their cultural identity' to maintain a healthy 'sense of self…in the resettlement context'. This is especially important for the wellbeing of young migrants.
The MCC NSW and CCCA stressed the key role of governments in promoting social cohesion while preserving cultural identity in Australia:
If all communities believe that they are Australian first, then the new definition of multiculturalism for contemporary Australia must be promoted by political leadership. We are one and not them and us.
Some submitters argued the federal government was not sufficiently dedicated to a multicultural agenda. Immigration historian, Ms Ann-Mari Jordens submitted that the Commonwealth government has steadily turned away from the policy of multiculturalism since 1996, while state and territory governments remain committed to it. According to Professor Reilly, this shift in policy occurred along with 'new global divisions along religious lines and the rise of Islamic extremism', and an increase in the number of temporary residents, which has led governments to reduce their support for permanent migration in favour of temporary visas. Ms Jordens submitted:
The social cohesion, so vital to a prosperous and just society, is in danger of being eroded by the weakening of support for multiculturalism at the Commonwealth level since the emergence of the One Nation party in the 1990s.
Welcoming Australia similarly saw a risk to social cohesion inherent in favouring temporary migration over permanent migration:
…where citizenship had once been recognised for its power in building social cohesion and loyalty. Currently, migration is less about nation-building and more about the national bottom line and recruiting for company talent. The Australian story is increasingly being framed in economic terms.
The department argued that current immigration policies, focussed on attracting 'young, skilled migrants', 'maximise the economic and social benefits of immigration for all Australians'.
The Australian Historical Association contended that the ideology of multiculturalism 'has failed to address entrenched racism and structural inequality within Australian communities'. Multiculturalism encourages the 'consumption of "other" cultures' while allowing racist rhetoric to continue in public discourse and politics, and multicultural policies fail to provide minority groups with 'culturally-appropriate materials' to assist them to access mainstream civic institutions and participate in civic life. Australia's major cultural institutions have also 'relegated migration history to the status of "minority" history', leaving its preservation and collection to under-funded ethnic community organisations.
The Hon Malcom Turnbull MP famously described Australia as 'the most successful multicultural society in the world', but University of Technology Sydney researcher, Ms Ly Ly Lim, questioned this rhetoric, saying:
I submit that it is very difficult to join and participate in Australia's nationhood journey and feel a sense of belonging here when there is such a disjuncture between what our political leaders say and the reality of life in the community. For example, it's very difficult to join this journey when you enter a court room and there is no judge who looks like you and when you turn on the television you see no reflection of anyone who looks like you or similar to you at all. This is true also for this parliament, the executive, the ministers, as well as senior public servants and leaders in the corporate sector.
MYAN echoed this sentiment, submitting that through consultation, young people expressed that 'they felt traditional notions of nationhood and national identity are framed by the Government and ignore the lived reality of young people in contemporary Australia'. MYAN posited that national identity 'should emphasise shared democratic values, rather than a person's ethnicity or the length of time someone has lived in Australia'.
The Australian Multicultural Council argued for a redefinition of multiculturalism that promoted the principles of 'inclusion, loyalty to Australia, equality and democracy'. In line with this view, the MCC NSW and CCCA argued that immigrant communities should be 'encouraged to participate in all aspects of Australian life', and be reminded of the civic responsibilities of citizenship.
The department stated that initiatives to foster integration are part of its remit and are linked to social cohesion. The department appointed a new Australian Multicultural Council in 2018 'to provide independent and robust advice to government on multicultural affairs, social cohesion and integration policy and programs'. The department also administers Fostering Integration Grants, which:
…facilitate integration of migrants by encouraging economic and social participation of migrants, promoting Australian values, addressing issues of low social integration, and supporting greater understanding and tolerance of racial, religious and cultural diversity.
Despite the existence of a national multicultural statement, a number of inquiry participants felt that commitment from the federal government to multiculturalism was invisible. The MCC NSW and CCCA said that multiculturalism in Australia 'was in deep sleep in the last 10 years', and recommended that the federal government:
redefine multiculturalism in the 21st century context for younger Australians;
publicly articulate its support for a multicultural Australia;
better promote Harmony Week; and
conduct an Australia wide consultation 'which should include First Australians'.
The Australian Psychological Society recommended that the Australian government introduce a comprehensive bill of rights and/or a Federal Multicultural Act, 'as part of the strategy to strengthen multiculturalism and address racism and discrimination':
A Multicultural Act has the potential to promote individual wellbeing across all communities. The evidence that racism and discrimination disrupt all dimensions of social cohesion is well-documented in the national and international literature.
The Diversity Council of Australia agreed there was a need to clearly articulate multiculturalism in government policy, saying '[w]e cannot have inclusion without having multiculturalism clearly defined and articulated in government policy'.
The Australian Historical Association added that national collections must 'accurately reflect the cultural diversity of the population'. The association recommended boosting funding to ethnic communities councils in states and territories, and the Federation of Ethnic Communities Councils Australia to ensure collections are done by those with community knowledge.
A number of submitters suggested that fostering social cohesion requires long term-strategy and planning. The Australian National University Social Cohesion Team argued for the creation of 'a whole-of-government social cohesion policy framework…to guide and integrate local and national initiatives to support and strengthen social cohesion'. Such a policy framework would ideally be supported by a Minister for Social Cohesion, a Research Institute on Social Cohesion, and increased data collection, to inform decision making.
Racism, intolerance and mistrust
I think that many of the successes in Australian history…have been when we've been more inclusive and tried to bring many more people in. Some of the problems in Australian history have been when we've been divisive.
Dr Ward, University of Melbourne, Committee Hansard, 14 February 2020, p. 33.
The department maintained that Australians 'are united by shared values that form the normative framework for civic engagement in our society'. The values 'set clear expectations for how we interact and behave', and are based on 'respect, equality, freedom and commitment to the rule of law'.
Participants noted, however, that these values are only communicated to immigrants and visa applicants, with the Diversity Council of Australia submitting Scanlon Foundation research showing 'relatively high levels of reported experience of discrimination' on the basis of 'skin colour, ethnic origin or religion':
In 2018, 19% of respondents indicated they had experienced discrimination on the basis of 'skin colour, ethnic origin or religion'. Of those, people of a non-English speaking background reported the highest experience of discrimination, at 25%...people of non-Christian faiths, reported experiences of discrimination two to three times higher than those of Christian faiths…Reported experience of discrimination ranges from 13% Anglican and 14% Catholic, to 22% Buddhist, 36% Hindu and 39% Muslim.
Diversity Council Australia reported that its Inclusion@Work Index 2017-18 found almost 30 per cent of Australian workers 'have witnessed and/or personally experienced harassment and/or discrimination at work', and almost 22 per cent have 'personally experienced harassment and/or discrimination', with individuals from minority groups twice as likely to report having experienced discrimination at work. Diversity Council Australia also reported that 23 per cent of LGBTIQ+ workers had been harassed.
In August 2020, Diversity Council Australia released new research looking at the impact of class, an area not previously studied in the Australian context. The research found that 'class has the biggest impact on people's experiences of inclusion at work and one of the biggest impacts on exclusion—that is, harassment and discrimination'.
According to the Diversity Council, Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples experience 'the highest rates of workplace discrimination and harassment of any demographic group' in Australia, with close to two-fifths, or 38 per cent of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander workers having 'personally experienced at least one incident of harassment and/or discrimination in the past twelve months'.
Mr Aleem Ali from Welcoming Australia argued that 'increasingly' the idea of free speech can be used to create 'fear and profit-making', leaving people from 'vulnerable' communities or minority groups exposed to hate speech.
The Harmony Alliance: Migrant and Refugee Women for Change Young Women's Advisory Group (Harmony Alliance) drew attention to the role of the Australian media in negatively representing refugees and migrants, which can 'further isolate these communities and subject them to racism'. The Harmony Alliance argued that 'reporting based on ethnicity feeds into public panic' and 'can amplify racism and intolerance by presenting refugees and migrants as a threat to Australian society'.
Professor Kam Louie, fellow of the Academy of the Humanities, drew the committee's attention to 2016 research entitled Australia's diaspora advantage. The research identified a perception among ambitious ethnically-diverse elites that they may not be able to 'make it' in Australia, as leadership positions are still very white-dominated. This leads to a loss of talent from Australia.
The Chinese Australian Services Society reported that 82 per cent of Asian-Australian survey respondents had experienced discrimination, 'mostly at shops and restaurants…in the workplace or educational institutions', and that Asian-Australians account for only 3-5 per cent of senior leadership positions in business 'while they represent 12 per cent of the population'.
Submissions from Chinese Australians and their representative organisations expressed significant concerns. The Federation of Chinese Associations of Australian Capital Territory said that 'Sinophobia and anti-China sentiment' in the media, and political rhetoric about 'foreign interference', is undermining 'the resilience and the continuing contributions of Chinese people to Australian civil society'.
Dr Wanning Sun submitted that Chinese Australians are 'becoming collateral damage in the escalating diplomatic tensions between China and Australia':
The media, public commentators and politicians imagine this community mostly in terms of transactional relationships – either as subjects to be managed for their potential connections with the Chinese government, or as ethnic voters to be wooed during election campaigns. In such imaginings, they're often reduced to individuals whose rights as Australian citizens have become less relevant than their pre-determined identity as ethnic Chinese, and they are called on to choose between Australia and China – us or them – as if they were individuals without any cultural, emotional or cognitive ambivalence and tensions.
The Federation of Chinese Associations of Australian Capital Territory suggested the Australian government needs to move past its 'fear' of 'Communist Party influence' over Chinese academics and fund more Chinese Australian academics to conduct research on the Chinese diaspora in Australia. Particularly those conducting research into the impacts of fear and tension among the Chinese diaspora on Australia's economy and social welfare and integration of the diaspora into Australian civil society.
Dr Jonathan Cole, who researches interfaith dialogue in conjunction with both Muslim and Christian scholars, said that annual reports show an increasing 'trend in Islamophobia':
Certainly the trend there is of an increase of incidents. These are incidents reported by Muslim Australians where someone might suffer verbal abuse or some physical harassment going about their business. So there's certainly an increase, but this research is quite new so we don't have a 10 to 20-year sort of base of data to go by.
Research also indicates that some Christians feel a growing sense of 'hostility' or 'intolerance' towards them and their faith. Dr Cole explained that this is largely limited to Christians who hold more conservative views, such as those who voted or campaigned against same-sex marriage:
I think a part of that perception is fed by social media. It only takes a couple of real incidents where someone is verbally abused or someone suffers what they might call a bit of persecution. They're plugged into large networks of other conservative Christians, so everyone learns about that story almost overnight.
This sense of persecution is then funnelled, Dr Cole observed, into the growth of organisations such as the Australian Christian Lobby, which provides a voice and advocates for these views.
Professor McCalman noted that religious intolerance is not a new phenomenon in Australia, which has a history of disputes between Catholic and Protestant communities.
Fr Frank Brennan SJ AO argued that freedom of religion needs to be protected 'by legislation with judicial teeth':
It's time to advocate and demonstrate that all rights including freedom of religion and the right to equality of treatment are universal and inalienable, indivisible, interdependent and interrelated…it is desirable that we at least have a Religious Discrimination Act.
The Diversity Council suggested there is a need to separate the idea of religious belief from religious expression, saying that people can hold any belief they wish, 'but expressing those beliefs in a way that is harmful to other people could breach anti-discrimination laws, and may also not be respectful in a workplace context'. The council argued instead for:
…recognising that community expectations are constantly shifting over time. At various times in history, religious beliefs were used to justify a range of practices including slavery, prohibitions on interracial marriage, and the criminalisation of homosexuality. But in 2019, thankfully, the views and expectations of the community have since shifted.
The Australian Multicultural Council recommended the government focus on building stronger and more cohesive communities by 'addressing barriers to participation, including racism and discrimination', and 'promoting greater intercultural and interfaith understanding and dialogue'.
The department was asked to comment on reports that 'extreme right-wing individuals' and ideologies are now posing a significant risk to Australia's social cohesion and national security. Secretary, Mr Michael Pezzullo confirmed that there has been a rise in 'new types of politics', spread through social media, 'creating cross-border global communities of common interest'. These may relate to 'Neo-Nazism or other…extreme right-wing ideology' and attract…typically, younger men who are disaffected, disassociated and disconnected socioeconomically'. Mr Pezzullo confirmed that there had been 'scuffles' with the police, resulting in 'some injuries to officers' involving such groups.
The government is responding to these groups in a number of ways, Mr Pezzullo said. 'More extreme' or 'violent, abhorrent material' in the online environment can be taken down by the Office of the eSafety Commissioner, as specified in legislation. Mr Pezzullo also referred to a process underway in the United States in relation to the Communications Decency Act, a United States federal law which currently absolves social media platforms 'from any responsibility…for moderation, editorial control or publishing' of content, including fake news, misleading content, hate speech, etc. While Australia has significant take-down powers for extreme content, the broader issue, Mr Pezzullo indicated, 'will not be resolved in Australia'.
COVID-19 and social cohesion
There is evidence that the COVID-19 pandemic has put pressure on social cohesion. The department submitted reports of increased racism targeting people of Asian appearance.
Mr Pezzullo confirmed that Chinese Australians reported being subjected to increasing verbal assaults in relation to COVID-19. First Assistant Secretary, Mr Richard Johnson reported that the department was 'getting feedback' through its network of Community Liaison Officers (CLOs) that 'particular communities…were feeling targeted' in relation to the virus.
The department provided statistics from the Australian Human Rights Commission showing that in the 2019-20 reporting year, there were 55 complaints lodged with the commission under the Racial Discrimination Act in relation to COVID-19; and 587 written enquiries, of which an unspecified percentage related to 'racial hatred and abuse' (other issues of enquiry included 'mask wearing requirements' and 'quarantine').
The Australian Human Rights Commission stated:
The COVID-19 pandemic has highlighted how racism and xenophobia can threaten community harmony and social cohesion and cause disunity. Racial tensions are likely to remain an issue of concern moving into the post-pandemic recovery phase, and as the global and local economy remain weak…Today's release of a study of 3000 people by the Australian National University supports this analysis indicating that Australians of Asian descent had experienced racist incidents because of COVID-19. It found that almost 85 per cent of Australians of Asian descent had experienced at least one incident of racism between January and October this year.
After early media reporting highlighted the cultural diversity of COVID-19 'hotspots', concerns were raised that migrant communities were unfairly targeted as the cause of Melbourne's outbreak. The department submitted evidence from the Australian Bureau of Statistics debunking the myth that ethnic communities were not heeding government warnings in relation to social distancing and COVID-safe measures. It reported: 'those born overseas were more likely to have taken action due to the spread of COVID-19 than people born in Australia' and 'twice as likely to wear a facemask…than people born in Australia (40 per cent compared to 18 per cent)'.
The Australian government launched an information campaign 'to support and inform communities affected by COVID-19 related racism'. The campaign is targeted towards Australians of Asian descent, and provides 'accurate information about their rights and reporting mechanisms', encouraging people to lodge a complaint if they experience or witness 'racist behaviour'. The campaign includes print, radio, digital and 'out of home' advertising, as well as community engagement, and online information provided in 63 languages. The department reported:
The digital advertising component of the campaign delivered almost 20 million digital ad impressions and 70 thousand click-throughs to the campaign website.
In collaboration with the Special Broadcasting Network (SBS), the department launched a COVID-19 'in language' website with 79 key documents translated into 63 languages, in collaboration with the Special Broadcasting Network (SBS). The website has had more than 1.25 million unique page views. Between 1 March and 16 August 2020, the department reported conducting over 6,700 engagements with multicultural organisations and leaders; a 500 per cent increase on the same period last year.
In response to especially serious threats, the department has removed online content that was 'particularly vilifying people on the basis of ethnicity or race' on social media platforms. Mr Johnson said, '[w]here we identified material…we referred that swiftly to the social media platforms for take-down or action'. In addition, if community groups feel 'particularly that they might be threatened', they can apply for funding through the Safer Communities Fund, which has an allocation of $83 million to improve physical infrastructure and security, such as reinforcing buildings and enhancing security systems.
The Australian Multicultural Council recognised the 'extensive efforts' of state and territory governments, and the federal government, in communicating with culturally and linguistically diverse (CALD) communities during the pandemic. The council specifically cited the 'virtual roundtables' held by Acting Minister for Immigration, Citizenship, Migrant Services and Multicultural Affairs, the Hon Alan Tudge MP, which enabled the council to 'provide timely, independent and robust advice to the Government in relation to the unique challenges facing CALD communities during the pandemic'.
However, the Multicultural Council submitted that traditional print and media advertising were insufficient, diverse communities filter information differently, and some may 'have a mistrust in government'. The council advocated for diverse and rapid forms of communication, including social media, and better use of community leaders.
The Multicultural Council noted that both the Prime Minister and Acting Minister for Immigration had spoken out 'publicly condemning racist incidents' but submitted:
It is important that any government messaging focusses on the fact that combatting COVID-19 is an issue for all Australians and that CALD communities are not to be singled out and blamed for any possible future regional spikes of COVID-19 cases. Positive narratives can also highlight the role that diverse communities are playing as part of the wider community in supporting response efforts and the sentiment that we are all in this together.
The social fragmentation caused by the decline in secure work and the weakening of older class identities has resulted in new forms of so-called 'identity politics', on both the left and the right.
The Oxford English Dictionary defines identity politics as 'a tendency for people of a particular religion, race, social background etc. to form exclusive political alliances, moving away from traditional broad-based party politics'. The effect of this new surge in identity politics has been to further increase social fragmentation.
On the left, identity politics often means that political engagement becomes primarily about issues of gender and sexuality, and on the right, it might emphasise religious adherence. Both left-wing and right-wing identity politics also often focus on ethnicity, in different ways: for the left, it is about resisting the exclusion of minorities, whereas for the right it is often a barely disguised form of xenophobia.
These new forms of identity politics have compounded the differences between political activists in the affluent inner cities and people living in the outer suburbs and the regions.
The rise of identity politics has also been exploited by populists who engage in rhetoric that divides the world between 'people like us' and everyone else: when people become defined chiefly by narrow group identities, it becomes easier to portray those groups as the enemy.
Participants in the inquiry were asked to comment on the role of current forms of 'identity politics' and whether they have had a damaging effect on social cohesion and Australia's democratic discourse.
Mr Ian Walker from the newDemocracy Foundation believed that only a small number of people were affected by 'polarisation', with most people taking more moderate positions, or being 'disaffected'. Most people, he said, hear 'a predictable set of arguments' and 'just switch off entirely'. This may cause problems for Australia's democratic culture as polarisation can erode a more civil political discourse and result in moderate groups choosing not to get involved.
Mr Chris Stamford from Civil Liberties Australia proposed that populism is 'an exclusionary form of identity politics', in which populist leaders define their base as 'the people' and everyone else as 'elites'. Mr Stamford said:
Identity politics is about 'us' and 'them'. You define yourself—you define 'us'—by virtue of looking at other people and saying why they're not like us. In Australia we're a diverse country. We have an enormous range of people here.
This kind of exclusionary populism, Mr Stamford said, undermines social solidarity, and undermines trust in government.
Dr Cole said that identity politics, which has historically been associated more with 'the left', has 'become a phenomenon on the right'. He talked about the way in which 'conservative Christian Australians' has become an identity for some Christians due to 'sense of growing hostility' to some of their views. According to Dr Cole, this has led to a 'kind of public Christianity' and conservative Christian identity politics.
Professor Greg Melleuish from the University of Wollongong suggested that the internet has heightened the problem of identity politics, because:
…it has moved out of the realm of personal interaction, where people are soft with each other, and it has become more abstract because it has been put in an abstract medium, so people solidify opinions. When we sit around this room we interact with each other, but if we had an interaction on Facebook or something we might be harsher with each other.
The shift from actual to virtual engagement, especially, but not exclusively, for younger Australians, poses serious challenges for Australia's democratic discourse, not least because it can lead to pathologizing political differences and offer unregulated access to populism, extremism and the 'politics of hate'.
Mr Ali identified three sources for the 'tension' behind identity politics. The first was people who are 'disenfranchised'. These people feel 'left out or…left behind by the Australian society and community'. The second was 'those who are fearful, people who don't necessarily understand cultural diversity because they don't have lived experience'. The third was 'those who profit from' the tension, such as those in the media or social media seeking to gain publicity.
Strengthening social cohesion
[S]uppleness…is an incredibly important feature of Australia. We continue to learn from the diverse knowledge base that we now have and to build new Australian ways of doing things and create more firsts. That is only possible if we actually invite and engage with the broader diverse population.
Ms Anthea Hancocks, Chief Executive Officer, Scanlon Foundation, Committee Hansard, 7 February 2020, p. 35.
Participants in the inquiry made a number of suggestions for further strengthening social cohesion in Australia. Dr Menzie-Ballantyne suggested the government focus on initiatives which provide 'education for global citizenship', an internationally recognised method for promoting social cohesion. Dr Menzie‑Ballantyne said the federal government has already funded two programs in rural and regional Australia after the Christchurch tragedy, 'High Resolves' and 'Together Through Humanity', as 'a recognition that that social cohesion element was needed'. Education for global citizenship provides 'a vehicle to explore controversial issues'.
A key vehicle for social cohesion, promoted by a number of submitters, is the Welcoming Cities initiative, launched by Welcoming Australia in 2016, and supported by the Scanlon Foundation. The initiative aims to attract migrants to communities around Australia, and help to retain the newcomers by helping to advance their social cohesion and economic participation, while 'supporting them to integrate successfully into community life'. The Welcoming Cities initiative works to build communities that 'are welcoming and actively engage with migrant communities'.
Local governments that aspire to be part of the Welcoming Cities initiative are assessed and make progress against the Welcoming Cities Standard, a peer-reviewed guide for 'increasing the impact of local government initiatives' and planning for changes to meet the standard.
Mr Ali talked about the Welcoming Centre in Adelaide, the Welcoming Cities initiative whose membership includes 54 local councils, 'representative of more than 30% of the Australian population', and 'Welcoming Sport': 'a sports inclusion program working with sporting codes and clubs to be more representative of the communities they serve'. Mr Ali recommended the federal government supports and resources communities to achieve accreditation under the Welcoming Cities standard.
Mr Ali further recommended that the government develops a national, multi-stakeholder settlement strategy with particular focus on regional communities, and works closely with migrant communities to better understand their 'needs and aspirations in relation to residency and citizenship'.
Professor Reynolds called for the government to create a 'minister for social cohesion practice'.
UWA proposed the government support organisations that monitor online hate speech, such as the Online Hate Prevention Institute.
The Chinese Australian Services Society suggested that more resources be allocated 'to expand culturally and linguistically appropriate services' such as interpretation services, and that existing settlement services must be expanded to meet growing demand and cover new geographic locations.
A number of participants commented on the need to improve the national research and evidence base in relation to culture and ethnicity. The Scanlon Foundation observed, 'there is very little research into the particular aspects of Australia's culture that have created and sustain our support for multiculturalism and cultural diversity'.
UWA submitted that there is no national research agenda on 'immigration, multiculturalism, extremism, inclusion and exclusion', which UWA considered should be coordinated nationally. UWA recommended the reinstitution and resourcing of a national research centre on migration and social cohesion to:
…monitor the flows of migration, issues of diversity and cohesion, nationalism and national identity, evaluation of service provision, and identification of gaps in existing research. This could be similar to the Bureau of Immigration, Multicultural and Population Research, disestablished in 1996 under John Howard.
According to UWA, the Bureau of Immigration, Multicultural and Population Research 'played an important research and consultative role', engaged with ethnic communities, and 'published independent findings'. UWA suggested a new research centre should have 'a distributed rather than centralised structure', with offices across both urban and rural centres.
The Australian Multicultural Council suggested research is required in relation to ethnicity and workplace participation. As a starting point, the council suggested amending the Workplace Gender Equality Act 2012 to require the Workplace Gender Equality Agency to collect data on 'ethnicity, language spoken, and/or country of birth information' in addition to its role in collecting data on gender.
Ms Cathy Brown, from the Diversity Council of Australia, agreed that there is 'no standardised way of counting cultural diversity in Australian organisations'. The Diversity Council is working on a project with the University of Sydney to develop a method to 'count and measure cultural diversity'. The team established includes representatives from the Australian Bureau of Statistics.
Professor Reynolds called for the government to create a research institute on social cohesion, and funding for the Australian Bureau of Statistics to collect data on measures on social cohesion 'more regularly and more systematically', to inform policy decisions.
Australia's relatively strong social cohesion is among its greatest assets. We are one of the most ethnically, culturally and linguistically diverse nations in the world, and have successfully integrated generations of migrants into a highly functional multicultural society.
There is much to be proud of, but we cannot take our social cohesion for granted. Increasing racist attacks during the COVID-19 pandemic have shown that in times of increased pressure, social cohesion can suffer.
The committee condemns the recent spate of racist abuse directed towards Chinese Australians. Racially motivated attacks on Asian Australians, Muslim Australians – or indeed on anyone – are deplorable and contravene Australian values and community standards. We are all in this together and we are stronger together.
We also note concerns raised by Chinese Australians and their representatives in relation to media and political commentary around political interference. While political interference is a genuine concern, ordinary Australian citizens with Chinese heritage should not be made to feel that they are suspect, nor made to feel unwelcome or targeted, simply because of their heritage or ethnicity.
The committee condemns racism and discrimination in all forms, including religious discrimination. The committee notes with sadness data from the Diversity Council of Australia that indicates Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Australians are the demographic group that reports the highest levels of workplace discrimination, with LGBTIQ Australians not far behind.
Certainly Australia has come a long way, but social cohesion must be nurtured. Tolerance of difference, intercultural and interfaith understanding can be learned and developed through positive interactions and messaging.
The committee encourages the government to continue to invest in measures to foster social cohesion, such as the Welcoming Cities initiatives and programs based on education for global citizenship.
We encourage further investment and efforts into monitoring hate speech and countering all extremist groups and online content, including extremist right-wing groups and ideologies, especially those that promote Neo-Nazism and white-supremacy.
High quality data and research is the foundation for promoting social cohesion. The committee commends the work of the Scanlon Foundation and others. We further recommend that the federal government funds a national research centre on migration, citizenship and social cohesion, to monitor flows of migration and migrant settlement, diversity and cohesion, affiliation and identity, civic participation, and adequacy of services.
Finally the committee notes the critical importance of English language learning to Australia's multicultural communities, and notes the changes announced in relation to the Adult Migrant English Program. Assuming the changes to the legislation pass parliament and are implemented, the impact of these changes should be reviewed around 24 months later, and a further expansion of the program should be considered, if necessary.
The committee recommends that the Australian government establishes and resources a national research centre on migration, citizenship and social cohesion, to monitor:
flows of migration and migrant settlement;
issues of diversity and cohesion;
affiliation and identity;
civic participation and engagement;
evaluation of service provision and access; and
gaps in existing research.