Political Aspects of Diversity - Social Justice in a Changing Australia

Senator the Hon. Nick Bolkus

Minister for Immigration and Ethnic Affairs, Australia


It gives me great pleasure to address this international assembly today. On behalf of the Australian Government, may I join with the Prime Minister, Paul Keating, in welcoming you all.

The reason we have come together this week, the reason so many of you have travelled so far, is that there is a new awareness of our global cultural diversity. It's an awareness born of the unprecedented mobility of people around the world, of changing borders and of new political and economic alliances. With the end of the Cold War, conflict within nation states has replaced conflict between nations. It's also an awareness born of the revolution we have experienced over the past decade or so in technological information exchange.

In a way, you could say that the world is constantly engaged in global cultural teleconference. On the macro-economic level, multinational business organisations are exchanging money and economic data in fractions of seconds. On the personal level, ordinary people on opposite sides of the globe are meeting and learning from each other sometimes falling in love on the internet.

In this challenging environment, all nations of the world are having to revisit their traditions of nationhood and citizenship. It is important that we take this time to focus in detail on how we're each going about it and how we can work together to reach a new understanding of how we differ, and what we share an understanding of how cultural diversity can work as a positive force in the world, rather than as source of conflict and bloodshed.

Australia in the 1990s

I want to outline today why, in Australia, our own cultural diversity has become a source not of fear but of richness and strength and how social justice and political participation have been fundamental to our success.

The social changes we have experienced in the last 50 years have been dramatic. Five and a quarter million migrants, born in 240 different parts of the world, have become Australians in that time, more than half a million fleeing their homelands as refugees and humanitarian migrants. Yet the transition from an inward-looking, monocultural nation tied to a distant power, to an outward looking, multicultural society finding its place in the both its region and the new global environment has been managed without bloodshed or conflict.

In the 1990s, with one in four of us from a non-English speaking background, every language of the world is spoken here, every culture is understood and every religion is practiced openly and with pride.

United, indeed underpinned by a strong commitment to our democratic system and our "fair go" ethos and to English as our common language, our identity as Australians has not weakened as a result, but become stronger and more dynamic.

Inclusiveness the Key

That's not to say that we don't still have our problems. Racism is not our dominant ethos but it is still alive, and there are major challenges we have yet to meet the greatest being that of full reconciliation with our indigenous people. Australia only embarked on that task wholeheartedly less than three years ago, with legislation recognising their prior right to this land.

But the reason we have come so far, and what places us well to meet the challenges of the future, is the Australian Government's enduring and maturing commitment to an inclusive social policy based on participation, consultation and access. For us, 'inclusiveness' is a fundamental aspect of our sense of democracy.m Inclusiveness the basic belief in a fair go and equality of opportunity for all underpins all that we have achieved. It is reflected in our commitment to social justice.

In fact it was, and continues to be, participation in the political process which ensured the appropriate social justice direction of government.

It needs to be said that until the mid 1960s many of our immigrants had very little in the way of assistance or cultural and linguistic tolerance in what was then a monocultural nation with an, at times, unsympathetic assimilationist approach. They too, were offered little social justice in their pioneering role. Yet the relative freedom they found here and their hopes for their children were underpinned by their identification with the values which had developed at the very heart of our national life and is best expressed in our notion of the fair go.

This simple, casual philosophy, with its positive, humane approach, is central to our distinctive social development and serves as a source of optimism for the expectations of every group in our society. It is also a touchstone for the courage to embrace necessary change.

The genesis of this was in the late 1960s and early 1970s. It was driven by our ethnic communities and was based on an acknowledgement that democracy means access to rights, and access to services.Since that time our framework for our social and cultural diversity has been known as multiculturalism, and social justice strategies have been developed and expanded to ensure inclusive policies and programs which are made accessible to every community sector. It was fundamentally based on an inclusive approach to political rights, and it continues to be.

Our inclusive citizenship policies and the right of all adult citizens to vote, for example, give potency and relevance to our people, as well as reducing the potential for the emergence of underclasses or outcasts. It is also based on the need for economic and social safety nets, as well as legislative protection of our cultural diversity by instruments such as the the Race Discrimination Act, and the Human Rights and Equal Opportunity Commission.

It has been the Australian Labour Party's understanding of social justice, which has evolved and deepened as a direct result of democratic participation by our diverse yet united ethnic communities, as well as by unions, by women and by other groups, which has led to this Government's social justice commitment. As expressed in the Australian Labour Party platform, the Government's social justice strategy is built on four objectives four political rights:

  1. Equity in the distribution of economic resources.
  2. Equal access to essential services.
  3. Equal opportunity to participate in the life of the nation.
  4. And equality of civil, legal and industrial rights.

All these social measures are critical to the financial, social and political empowerment of those who would otherwise be without particularly new settlers starting from scratch in a new land. To weaken our commitment to them would be to invite alienation and social division and discord, to entrench an underclass of second class citizens and create a nation of tribes. In 1989 these policies, goals and principles were consolidated and expressed as the National Agenda for a Multicultural Australia. The obligations incurred under this agenda include an overriding and unifying commitment to Australia, an acceptance of its basic structures such as the constitution and the rule of law, tolerance and equality, parliamentary democracy, freedom of speech and religion, English as the national language and equality of the sexes and the right of others to express and share their views and values.

History of Social Justice in Australia - Federation

Australia laid the foundations a century ago for a society of equal opportunity, a society based on a belief in the responsibility of governments to ensure a decent quality of life for all.

At the time of Federation, freedom of religion was enshrined in the Australian Constitution. This, combined with our size and small population, ensured the inevitability of religious diversity and, as a result it entrenched ethnic diversity. We tried to resist this for some years, with a White Australia Policy, but the foundations were laid nevertheless.

Among Australia's first constitutional and democratic reforms were the introduction of the eight-hour day, the secret ballot, the vote and industrial arbitration.

The principle of a basic wage was established in 1906, followed by old-age and invalid pensions. In the 1940s a broader social security system was put in place, and these basic services were joined by entitlements like sickness and unemployment benefits, child endowment, widows pensions, housing provision and rehabilitation services. Australia was indeed a land of opportunity for some.

But with the White Australia Policy, the disenfranchisement of indigenous Australians, and institutional discrimination against women and the disabled enduring for more than half a century, it was not until the 1970s that Australia became a land offering enhanced opportunity to all.

Post-war Mass Migration Assimilation and Integration

It was the mass migration of the post-war years which changed the face of Australia for ever. With a program driven by the imperative to "populate or perish", this was the epoch of assimilation, when a migrant's success was measured largely by the degree of invisibility he or she had managed to achieved.

Assimilation was a one-way process keep your head down, learn English quickly, and abandon an irrelevant past. There was no suggestion of changing or adapting our major institutions, government and non-government, to accommodate migrants it was up to the migrants to change and adapt.

By the time the children of the first post-war migrants were in their 20s, it was becoming clear that assimilation did not mean equality, it meant marginalisation.

The integrationist policy which replaced assimilation in the 1960s encouraged the assertion of ethnic rights. They found a place, and strength, within the Australian Labour Party the traditional representative of the Australian working class, including the new settlers.

Whitlam Years

It was no accident, then, that the emergence of multicultural policy in Australia coincided with Labor's radical social justice reforms of the 70s during the Whitlam era reforms which revolutionised the way Australians thought about themselves and each other.

Welfare services were expanded to embrace the needs of women, the disabled, sole parents, indigenous people and migrants.

A universal health insurance scheme was introduced and education reforms saw unprecedented numbers of women and low-income families, especially migrants, realise their professional potential.

Against this backdrop, the White Australia Policy was formally dismantled and the foundations were laid for active participation by migrants in decision making.

Reforms for which the newly-empowered "ethnic lobby" had been campaigning for decades were realised with the world's first Translating and Interpreting Service in 1974, the passage of the Race Discrimination Act in 1975, and a unique multicultural broadcasting service radio first, then television.

So this partnership between government and ethnic community representatives and organisations led to the entrenchment of this agenda in Australian social policy. And the essence of multicultural and ethnic affairs policies since the 1970s has been their development in partnership with ethnic communities.

This voice was soon to be heard in a structured manner.

In its post-white settlement history, Australia always had a myriad of community religious, cultural and social organisations which sustained the culture and welfare of migrants and their families. In 1975 they came together for the first time in NSW to form the first State-based Ethnic Communities Council. Other states followed suit and since 1979, ethnic groups have organised themselves under a unique peak body called the Federation of Ethnic Communities' Councils of Australia (FECCA).

FECCA played a valuable role in the establishment of the Office of Multicultural Affairs within the Department of the Prime Minister and Cabinet; in the establishment of the Australian Multicultural Foundation; the National Language Policy and the National Office of Overseas Skills Recognition.

FECCA has also deliberately sought to branch out and develop stronger links with national non-government organisations such as the ACTU, the Australian Consumers Federation, the Council on Ageing and the Australian Council of Social Services organisations which have traditionally represented the under-resourced in our society.

Under the Hawke Government in the 1980s, federal funding was provided for diverse representative ethnic communities in the belief that such groups must be incorporated into consultative mechanisms and given a direct voice.

And in recent years we have also strengthened non-English speaking background community infrastructures, with a new emphasis on enabling smaller communities, and community-based organisations as well as refugee groups, to care for the needs of their members.

Access and Equity

It is this partnership between communities and government which resulted in 1983 in the Access and Equity strategy which charges the bureaucracy with the responsibility of client focus and an emphasise on the rights of clients.

The principle underlying access and equity is quite simple. The Australian taxpayer regardless of gender, religious, cultural or language background has a right to access to all government services in an equitable way. If barriers exist, they must be overcome to ensure such equitable access. The potency of the access and equity strategy is that it affects all services across the board including housing, income support, education and training, employment and health and human services.


At the core of all this is, of course, legal participation in our community. The foundation stone of this is our inclusive approach to citizenship. In its broadest sense, access and equity includes access to full participation in democracy which is why Australia offers citizenship and the right to vote after only two years' permanent residence in this country. Citizenship leads directly to participation, and in turn to representation.


If consultation is one side of the participation coin, representation is the other. Representation has led to the outcomes I have already mentioned. It has ensured a certain level of responsiveness, though there is still a way to go.

Despite the reforms of the 1980s, women and people of non-English speaking backgrounds remain seriously under-represented at the most senior government and non-government levels. In 1991, for example, less than half a per cent of legislators and government-appointed officials in Australia's three levels of government were indigenous Australians, and only seven per cent came from non-English speaking backgrounds.

The situation is improving in federal government statutory and non-statutory agencies, with a survey of 40 such agencies this year finding that 15.7 per cent of the 715 members identified themselves as indigenous or of non-English speaking background. We want that representation to increase, which is why the Government is currently compiling a register of names on which government and the private sector can draw for future appointment to boards and authorities.

National Identity

On another level, profound attitudinal changes are occurring in our outlook and identity. With the growing recognition that modern Australia can and does have its own distinctive identity as a multicultural nation, we have matured into a new appreciation and sensitivity to the cultural practices of all our peoples, including our Aboriginal peoples.

Our record of social justice measures has made us a world leader in terms of overall equality and overall standard of living our life expectancy is among the highest in the world, and other nations have come to recognise the value of our social wage and access to education, medical care, transport, housing, and our comparatively small percentage of homeless. All these contribute to our relative freedom from social tensions. Such tensions are defused by equality. It gives us our political stability and unity as well as the necessary social cohesion and ability to absorb and accept change.It is this sense of equity which has enabled our peaceful transition to a multicultural nationhood approaching the greatest complexity in the world and why previously existing tensions among migrant groups can find an accommodation here.

Productive Diversity

This growth in diversity is not undervalued here in Australia. Rather, we recognise that we have grown and changed and this newfound independence and sophistication is overwhelmingly appreciated.

Fifteen percent of our workforce are from non-English speaking background and under a new program called productive diversity, we are developing strategies so government and business can benefit from their skills, knowledge and resources.

While I do not deny there remain in our society, pockets of recidivist racism, our contention is that the deeper underlying belief in our society will prevail. And that belief, as I have said, lies in the positive concept of giving others a fair go.It will be through that concept, with familiarity and understanding, that tolerance will win through every time.

Whether you call it pragmatism or compassion, our aim is to also achieve a fair share for all through consultation and participation. This is a step beyond the many profound changes of the past as the institutions of the state became involved with trade practices legislation, consumer legislation, equal pay and affirmative action for women, landlord and tenant reform, land rights, anti-discrimination legislation and too many other fields to list here. The point is that the official change of focus, by stressing inclusiveness, is actively helping to overcome social isolation and lack of access.


A late, respected fighter for social justice in Australia once noted that "Government programs, both by alleviating poverty and by provision of services, have provided the majority of the population with the capacity to make individual freedom of choice meaningful." [Wilenski, ABC Social Justice Seminar 1986].

As befits such a diverse society, we have needed to be innovative and creative in our policy-making to make individual freedom of choice meaningful. Implementation has been a collaborative effort needing the goodwill of a decent and farsighted community.

We acknowledge that our multicultural future will be just as challenging but the determination is there to reach our full potential as is our faith in that future. Diversity has enriched our spirit and our national character. Diversity, and its expression through our shared aspirations, will determine the shape of Australia's national and international future.

The new global awareness is the reason you have come all this way to discuss diversity, and why this conference provides all of us here today with a remarkable opportunity to focus on its potential. If we can smooth the process of future diversity by contributing to international understanding in a meaningful way as I believe we can then this great assembly will have been a significant step along the road to its global acceptance.

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