Greens take aim at PM's new multicultural vision as advocacy groups say it's overdue

Australian Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull
The government has released an official statement on multiculturalism in Australia, the first since the Gillard government. Source: (AAP Image/Lukas Coch)

The government's multiculturalism statement has been met with a largely positive reaction, apart from the Greens, with advocacy groups saying it's something they've been waiting for.

Advocacy groups have welcomed a statement on multiculturalism in Australia, praising its emphasis on shared values and national security.

The report is the first such announcement since the Gillard government.

At a ceremony at Parliament House, Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull commended the nation’s commitment to multiculturalism, citing the Snowy Hydro Scheme as an example of the “triumph” of diversity.

Dr Joe Caputo, Chairperson of the Federation of Ethnic Communities’ Councils of Australia, says the new statement is welcome, but that "we’ve been waiting for this statement for quite a while".

"It goes to show that in Australia, when it comes to multiculturalism we have a bipartisan agreement, independent of which government it is, we have a commitment for a strong, united, multicultural Australia," he said.

Chairman of the Australian Multicultural Council, Dr Sev Ozdowksi, said it’s about time this government made its approach to multiculturalism clear.

“We need to refresh our statement, we need to update it, we need to keep it relevant to Australia,” he said.

“We need to work together.”

Race Discrimination Commissioner, Dr Tim Soutphomassane, said the statement "affirms the strength and success of Australia’s multiculturalism".

"It is valuable to have an official statement about the meaning of multicultural Australia.

"While there is strong acceptance of multiculturalism, there is always a need to ensure that we maintain our social cohesion and harmony.

"Our debates about culture, identity and immigration must never undermine our national unity," he said.

Less pleased with the report however, is the Greens, with party leader Richard Di Natale saying it reinforces the view that new arrivals should adopt so-called “Australian” values.

"The new multiculturalism statement is an attack on multiculturalism," he said in a statement.

"The speech is more warning than welcome, with a focus on the risks of terrorism and border security and the need for migrants to embrace Australian values if they are to integrate."

Defending the new plan, head of the Indian Associations of ACT, Amardeep Singh, said he understands why subjects such as English language ability have been singled out.

“I come across different migrants, when they come to me and they say ‘we’re looking for a job’ and I tell them ‘mate, you’ve got awesome opportunities in your own field, but you need to work on your English’,” he said.

“I think it’s an integral part of being comfortable with the language.

Since 1945, more than 7.5 million migrants have come to Australia, and nearly half of all Australians have been born overseas or have at least one parent that was.

Several officials and groups put forward national security as integral to the country’s ongoing harmony.

Dr Ozdowski said he believes the topic is especially relevant given today’s political climate.

“When you have a lack of security in the nations, then you always look at some groups in the community, you suspect them, that they may have something to do with this lack of security, he said.

“It divides nations, it isolates certain groups, we can’t have it.

“Often we see that security aspect as being exploited by certain sections of politics, but we must not forget that security is for the migrants as well, so it belongs to 23 million people and it’s for each and every one of us,” he said.

Changes to Section 18C were also mentioned, with many advocates saying they wanted the legislation strengthened.

Mr Singh said he believed the Racial Discrimination Act should be altered to “prohibit all harassment based on race".

“I think how the legislation is framed now, it’s not helping. It’s stopping discussion, it’s putting a whole range of issues under the carpet, which will blow sooner or later,” he said.

“I think it’s better to have the discussion than to hide it away somewhere, and hope it never comes out.”

Dr Soutphomassane said the Racial Discrimination Act is “essential to setting a standard on what is acceptable public conduct in Australia.”

Migration Council Australia CEO Carla Wilshire said cooperation is the key to a successful multicultural society.

“That’s what works so well in our country - that we all have a commitment to multiculturalism and if you look at the polling around it, survey results show that 86 per cent of Australians support multicultural Australia,” she said.

“It’s all of us.”