Labor, the Greens and some community groups say they are concerned about the direction multicultural policy could take under an Abbott government.

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The outgoing Labor government appointed Senator Kate Lundy to the position of Multicultural Affairs Minister last year after she had worked as the parliamentary secretary in the same portfolio since 2010.

But Tony Abbott’s incoming team doesn’t include a minister with the portfolio area.

Incoming Prime Minister Tony Abbott has announced that multicultural affairs and settlement services will not be managed by the Department of Immigration under a Coalition government.

Instead, it will fall under the control of a newly created Department of Social Services with Kevin Andrews the Minister, who will also be responsible for aged care services.

Mr Abbott has appointed New South Wales Senator Concetta Fierravanti Wells as parliamentary secretary for social services with special responsibility for multicultural affairs and settlement services.

The outgoing Minister for Multicultural Affairs under the Rudd Government, Senator Kate Lundy, says she believes the coalition is neglecting an important portfolio area.

“I think it’s profoundly disappointing for all of those people who devote themselves to that part of our community sector and are engaged in our multicultural communities. We worked very hard as a federal Labor government to lift both the status and the substance of the multicultural affairs portfolio and unfortunately the coalition government has taken some pretty giant steps backwards.”

Senator Lundy believes Labor put forward some strong initiatives including a National Anti Racism Strategy and an Australian Multicultural Council to provide policy advice to the government.

But she fears these programs now risk being axed or having their funding allocations drastically cut under the Coalition government.

The Australian Greens multicultural spokesman, Richard Di Natale, shares that concern.

He says he is also anxious about plans by Tony Abbott to repeal a section of the Racial Discrimination Act, which makes it unlawful to offend, insult, humiliate or intimidate someone on the basis of their race, colour or national or ethnic origin.

Mr Abbott argues the current Act does not sufficiently protect the right of freedom of speech.

Senator Di Natale believes repealing the Act could end up weakening the rights of migrant Australians.

“We’re looking at an Abbott Government that has already made some noises around abolishing particular sections within the Racial Discrimination Act. So rather than protecting those things and standing up for and making a robust defence of multiculturalism in making sure that racism is unacceptable in any of its guises, we appear to be moving in the opposite direction.”

The Settlement Council of Australia says it is also disappointed over Mr Abbott’s failure to appoint a Multicultural Affairs Minister.

But the council’s chairman Cedric Manen says he’s pleased to see a politician from a non English speaking background in Senator Fierravanti-Wells appointed to the role of parliamentary secretary for multicultural affairs and settlement services.

He is hoping that the NSW Liberal Senator will continue a tradition of bipartisan support across politics for strong settlement services.

“Last year there was the inaugural settlement services awards and there was very strong bipartisan support at those awards from both the coalition and the Labor government at the time. I certainly think someone with the lived experience of migration or someone with a great degree of empathy will be highly valued in that role.”

Labor’s outgoing Multicultural Affairs Minister Kate Lundy says in the lead up to the election, the Coalition failed to release a multicultural policy.

She says it also failed to use the word “multicultural” in any of its frontbench titles in opposition, preferring the term “citizenship”.

“There doesn’t seem to be a consistent position and it depends on who you talk to and what forum it is in terms of how supportive or not they are of multicultural affairs. I think in that regard they should just grow up. Multicultural affairs is a fact of life in Australia and it is an enormous strength. It needs to be not only acknowledged and celebrated but social policy should be built around that.”

Professor Andrew Jakubowicz specialises in multicultural policy research at the University of Technology in Sydney.

He believes the Abbott government is likely to axe a number of programs set up by Labor including the National Anti Racism Strategy.

Professor Jakubowicz says ethnic aged care services are likely to be a priority for the Coalition government, with aged care under the same department as settlement services.

However he believes other migrant services could be overlooked in the process, including childcare and disability services.

Professor Jakubowicz believes the Abbott government’s overall approach towards multiculturalism will be guided by the views of the incoming Prime Minister himself.

“Mr Abbott declared just before the election that he was a convert to multiculturalism saying at the time that he was making this proclamation because he understood that people came to Australia to join us, not to change us, in his terms. So he has a fairly assimilationist notion of what multiculturalism might mean, but at least he was prepared to use the word.”

 

(SBS contacted several Coalition MPs for this story but so far has not received a response.)

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