Dr Peter Shergold discussing how he saw the National Agenda for a Multicultural Australia.
27 June 2002
Making Multicultural Australia 1994 and 1995
DR PETER SHERGOLD
Then Director, Office of Multicultural Affairs, and as such, a key player in developing the National Agenda for a Multicultural Australia
That is how I saw this National Agenda for a Multicultural Australia developing - not just as a grab bag of goodies that could be distributed, not as a shopping list of wishes, but as a strategy to get across what multicultural policy meant and why a multicultural policy was important to Australia, and having the rights and the responsibilities that go with that, in an ethnically diverse society...
I was trying to do two things. One was to actually define and delimit what multicultural policy meant so that the government could say, "Well this is what we mean by multicultural policy". And the second thing was, by doing so, to also move it away, not only from cultural frivolity - that is to say, an emphasis on food and singing and dancing, which is very important - but also to move it away from an emphasis on social welfare.
And therefore I took multicultural policy through the Office of Multicultural Affairs down a route that was fraught with some dangers but I thought was very important in terms of getting Australian society to understand its significance, which was to emphasise the economic benefits of a culturally diverse society and the way that those benefits needed to be enhanced through government policy - in other words, through a promotion of immigrant languages, using immigrant networks for business purposes, providing English language to the extent that it was needed to succeed in Australian society, in making sure government services were equally accessible to all Australians...
CONTINUATION OF INTERVIEW AS TEXT
The range of issues that might be involved in that Agenda were English as a second language, to the National Policy on Languages, to television and radio, employment, education and so on. It was an idea that was almost instantly seized...
It was apparent to me pretty quickly that, as long as multiculturalism was either seen as ethnic dancing or social welfare, it really wasn’t going to get the support that it required at senior levels. And so there was a conscious campaign to give it that economic dimension which has now been taken up and elaborated and called productive diversity.
It also meant that we had to deal with the real concerns in Government: that multiculturalism was a recipe for ethnic division. And hence, all the rhetoric the Prime Minister started to use, and which gets used in the beginning of the Agenda, was about rights and responsibilities and balances.
I think it is fair to say I was committed to that strategically, but probably less philosophically than most people. I mean, yes, it was a winner in terms of balancing rights and responsibilities and it cut off a lot of the opposition, particularly the opposition that had come from academics, the right wing attack. It essentially took the teeth out of that, and it also made Government Ministers, including the Prime Minister, much more comfortable with it.
Interviews for Making Multicultural Australia, 1994 and 1995.