a multicultural History of Australia

Making multicultural Australia

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Commentary on: The 1986 Budget row »

Prof Andrew Jakubowicz.

Text Commentary

Consensus breaks down...

1986 - Major cuts to multicultural programs spark controversy

The headlines say it all - the rude shock of the 1986/7 budget and the outraged responses from ethnic communities. Any observers who thought that after almost fifteen years and several changes of government the policies of multiculturalism were firmly entrenched in federal political philosophy, had to think again. The Hawke Government was under great pressure to cut expenditure, all departments were told to look for savings - many found those savings in the areas of service to ethnic communities and immigrants.

The Australian Institute of Multicultural Affairs was closed, a move which had been predicted. But other cuts were not. The Multicultural Education Program was abolished at a saving of $5.1 million. English as a Second Language (ESL) programs were slashed by 45% from an expenditure of $62 million to $34 million. There was a 5% cut to the Ethnic Schools Program, a 4% cut to funding for the Adult Migrant Education Program, an 8% cut to the National Advisory and Co-ordinating Committee for Multicultural Education, and the threat to close offices of the Department of Immigration and Ethnic Affairs, particularly in regional areas like Newcastle and Wollongong, both with high migrant and ethnic populations. There was also a proposal to merge the Special Broadcasting Service (SBS) with the ABC.

It appeared to be a deliberate policy to undermine multiculturalism. But some observers like Dr Peter Shergold, later to head the Office of Multicultural Affairs, believes that it was not a co-ordinated government decision to “slash and burn” multiculturalism. He sees it as a result of incompetence and lack of interdepartmental consultation; multicultural programs were located in different portfolios, each minister and department had to make cuts and they chose to make cuts in multicultural programs. It showed, according to commentator Peter White, the tendencies of bureaucracies in times of economic stringency, “to defend their large, core programs at the expense of the small and peripheral ones”. But by demonstrating that departments and ministers considered multicultural programs peripheral, the budget cuts made a statement about the priorities of the Hawke Government.

This was not lost on the ethnic communities which lobbied intensively for a rethink of what they told Hawke was “a disastrous mistake”. The government’s credibility with ethnic communities was under threat, and “bus loads of little old ladies in black from Newtown and Stanmore” came to Parliament House in Canberra to protest.

The outrage was focused on cuts to ESL programs – without adequate English language skills ethnic groups and immigrants had absolutely no chance of achieving the sort of participation in Australian society championed by the Jupp review, for example. The effective mobilisation of ethnic communities over these budget cuts saw some of them modified, particularly in the ESL area, and the SBS/ABC merger plan was abandoned. But many people had their confidence in the march of multicultural progress severely shaken. That budget of 1986 marks a turning point in the development of multiculturalism in Australia, for it revealed that when pushed to the wall, the public service viewed the interests of ethnic communities as dispensable, and politicians were not aware enough or interested enough in the implications to see the dangers. In hindsight, it also indicates that the opposition to multiculturalism within the bureaucracy and government was finding its feet in the wake of the social trauma generated by the Blainey debate.

Further reference:
Castles, Stephen (et al) Mistaken identity: multiculturalism and the demise of nationalism in Australia, 3rd ed, Sydney, Pluto Press, 1992.