a multicultural History of Australia

Making multicultural Australia

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Commentary on: An office for multicultural affairs »

Prof Andrew Jakubowicz.

Text Commentary

Cleaning up the mess?

1987 - A new agency in the Prime Minister’s Department to advise on multicultural policies

After the debacle of the 1986 Budget, the Hawke Government sought to mend its fences with the ethnic communities and affirm its commitment to a multicultural agenda. One of the results was the creation of the Office of Multicultural Affairs - the magazine Focus was one of its publications.

The Jupp Review of Migrant and Multicultural Programs and Services (ROMAMPAS) had proposed an Office of Ethnic Affairs in its report. The government initially decided to put this Office in the Department of Immigration and Ethnic Affairs, but after sustained lobbying from the ethnic communities it was moved to the Prime Minister’s Department, and made a Multicultural Affairs agency. This was significant on two grounds - it gave multicultural issues the same status as women’s affairs and Aboriginal issues, and indicated that the Office would not just be about “ethnics” and their interests, but about the multicultural interests of the whole of Australian society.

Foundation OMA director Dr Peter Shergold (an economic historian and an academic by background, as well as a former adviser to FECCA) says there was at first no clear idea of what OMA should do “except to symbolise to ethnic communities that the Government was, in fact, committed to ethnic communities and to multiculturalism”.

So Dr Shergold had a clear slate. He decided that OMA should try to do two things: to actually define and delineate multicultural policy, and by so doing to move it away from a cultural and welfare focus. The new focus was to be on the economic benefits of a culturally diverse society and how those benefits needed to be advanced through government policy. It was, therefore, to emphasise the economic dimension of multiculturalism as well as the cultural maintenance and social justice dimensions.

OMA was charged with advising both the Prime Minister and the Minister of Immigration and Ethnic Affairs and also with assisting the Australian Council of Multicultural Affairs, established at the same time under the chairmanship of Justice Sir James Gobbo. OMA and ACMA were to formulate a National Agenda for a Multicultural Australia. The Office was to survive through the Hawke years, but by the time of Keating’s ascendancy it was already being run down - giving up its research role to the Bureau of Immigration and Population Research (which became the Bureau of Immigration, Multicultural and Population Research in December 1994), and losing the confidence of its Minister (the Minister assisting the Prime Minister for Multicultural Affairs; also Immigration Minister) Nick Bolkus, in its last few years (its community relations agenda grants function being transferred to the Department of Immigration and Ethnic Affairs in March 1995).

The Liberal/National coalition announced it would close down OMA as part of its 1996 election policy, and at the end of June 1996 the new government carried out its promise. Its residual functions were transferred back to the Department of Immigration and Multicultural Affairs - but without any resources. According to the last head of OMA Bill Cope, the new Treasurer, Peter Costello, instructed the new Minister, Phillip Ruddock, that multiculturalism was to be “zeroed” - all funds withdrawn. This occurred in the August 1996 Budget - ten years after the Budget that had led to OMA's creation.

OMA’s contribution to understanding Australia’s cultural diversity has been very important. You can find references to some of OMA’s work in many places throughout Remaking Multicultural Australia.

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

Lack, John and Templeton, Jacqueline Bold experiment: a documentary history of Australian immigration since 1945, Melbourne, Oxford University Press, 1995.