a multicultural History of Australia

Making multicultural Australia

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Commentary on: State government initiatives »

Prof Andrew Jakubowicz.

Text Commentary

The Ethnic Affairs Commissions take shape

From 1975 - In Canberra's wake, the States create government bodies focused on ethnic affairs

Around Australia, every state set up some institutional arrangement to co-ordinate programs relating to ethnic communities. After all, initiatives at the Federal level had been driven by the acceptance of the Commonwealth's role in managing immigration - but what of the states, where the immigrants settle, live, work, and develop their communities? What role should they take, and how would they decide to move under the influence of the same kinds of forces that were already producing change at the national level?

By the mid 1970s a range of multicultural policies was emerging federally and grassroots organisations such as the Ethnic Communities' Councils had been established in the states. But as long-time ethnic affairs activist Bill Jegorow has said, there was still a long way to go “before the sap of multiculturalism pervaded all the interstices of the social tree”. One of the agents for delivering that sap further into the tree was the establishment of State Government offices or commissions solely focused on ethnic or multicultural affairs.

The movement began in NSW in 1975 with the establishment of an Ethnic Affairs Council under Liberal Premier Tom Lewis with its members largely drawn from the Ethnic Communities' Council management committee. Neville Wran became the new Labor premier in 1976 utilising ethnic leaders in his election campaign and winning by a slim majority - he was well disposed toward the ideas of multiculturalism, if somewhat suspicious of the roles of the more conservative groups in the ECC, who he knew were closely linked to the Liberal Party.

In 1977 Wran appointed Dr Paolo Totaro to head an Ethnic Affairs Commission to enquire into multiculturalism in NSW. It delivered a report called Participation in 1978 and its recommendation for the establishment of a permanent Ethnic Affairs Commission was adopted. Still under Dr Totaro’s chairmanship, in 1979 the EAC became a statutory authority to advise the government, promote harmony, inquire into community needs and provide an interpreter and translator service.

In 1981 South Australia followed suit, Victoria in 1983 and Western Australia in 1984. By the '90s all states and territories had either a statutory authority or special bureau or department to oversee issues concerning cultural diversity. They all have a similarly broad charter to examine community relations and engage in policy development and research, but the NSW Commission has the widest-ranging strategy. This was typified by its introduction in 1983 of Ethnic Affairs Policy Statements which required all government departments and instrumentalities to show annually what they were doing to make services more accessible to ethnic communities; local government was encouraged to issue similar statements but this was not mandatory.

In 1992 the NSW Ethnic Affairs Commission, with Stepan Kerkyasharian as chair, took another step forward by encouraging the government to implement the "Charter of Principles for a Culturally Diverse Society". In 1993 the state government endorsed the Charter and in 1997 the principles of the Charter were enshrined in NSW state law - the first time anywhere in Australia that principles of cultural diversity have been made law. Apart from a focus on the rights and responsibilities of all individuals and public institutions, the Charter specifically requires NSW public institutions to "recognise the linguistic and cultural assets in the NSW population as a valuable resource and utilise and promote this resource to maximise the development of the state".

This shift to the notion of what has come to be called "productive diversity" was the next step in the development of multicultural policy.

Further reference:
Allbrook, Malcolm and Pierluigi, Claudio Multicultural Western Australia: a report on community relations 1829-1987, Perth, The Multicultural and Ethnic Affairs Commission of Western Australia, 1987.

Ethnic Affairs Commission of NSW and Totaro, Paolo (chairman) Participation: report to the Premier, June 1978, Sydney, NSW Government Printer, 1978.

Queensland Department of Community Services and Ethnic Affairs Queensland ethnic affairs - a new era: introducing the corporate plan from the Office of Ethnic Affairs, Brisbane, Department of Community Services and Ethnic Affairs, 1989.

Review Group of the Ethnic Affairs Commission of Victoria and Bertelli, Lidio An issue of social justice: review of the Ethnic Affairs Commission of Victoria, Melbourne, Ethnic Affairs Commission of Victoria, 1986.

Totaro, Paolo and Faulkner, Don A report to the Minister of Ethnic Affairs on the review of the South Australian Ethnic Affairs Commission, Adelaide, 1983.

Victorian Ethnic Affairs Commission, The Multicultural Victoria Inquiry Report, Melbourne, Victorian Ethnic Affairs Commission, 1995.