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Multicultural Victoria Amendment (Independence) Bill 2022

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Samantha Ratnam
Leader of the Victorian Greens
17 August 2022

I welcome the opportunity to contribute to this debate on the Multicultural Victoria Amendment (Independence) Bill 2022. Victoria is rich in its multiculturalism, both in the size of our culturally diverse population in this state and the vibrancy and strength of our culturally diverse communities. The recent census found that 30.2 per cent of households in the state use a language other than English, which is higher than the national average of 24.8 per cent and the 29.5 per cent recorded in New South Wales. We also saw the census data reveal 41.3 per cent of people in Victoria said both their parents were born overseas compared with the Australian average of 36.7 per cent.

I want to acknowledge the incredible contribution of our migrant and culturally diverse communities across the state—their experience, their wisdom and the values they bring that shape and strengthen our society. Despite this, there is a problem in this state with how our political institutions interact with our culturally diverse communities. We saw this revealed in the starkest of ways in that recent 60 Minutes story and the IBAC investigation that followed, which showed how some politicians treat multicultural communities—treating them only as numbers in factional wars. The ways communities were referred to, as was revealed in the transcripts of the IBAC investigation, were appalling. While they are not representative of all politicians, it is an extension of the top-down approach that governments all too often take to multicultural communities.

Today this bill and debate is focused on one of the political institutions in Victoria, the Victorian Multicultural Commission. At the outset I want to acknowledge the incredible work the commission has performed over years and years—incredible work that has reached broadly and widely across our culturally diverse and migrant populations in Victoria and really strengthened us through their advocacy work, their social cohesion work and all the community building and capacity building that they undertake to this day. But what this debate today is urging us to consider are the potential challenges to that work, namely, the challenge to how it remains as strong and as independent as it can be given what we know about the threats to that work as demonstrated in the investigations that have been revealed over the last year.

The most important part of this debate today, I consider, is the reminder that it gives us all about the dangers of those types of top-down approaches when you are working with culturally diverse communities. Governments and government agencies would do well to work with communities, listen and be prepared to acknowledge that communities may actually know what is best for them rather than telling them what is best for them. I know there is a lot of good faith and goodwill when working with culturally diverse communities, but we can all do with this reminder in the positions that we hold and the work we do with these communities.

By way of an example, I have been working with a number of incredible women from our culturally diverse communities who are advocating for more investment and resources to combat family violence in their communities, and particularly for funding support for culturally specific support services when it comes to family violence and a culturally specific family violence refuge in Victoria. We have none to date in this state. Yet they too are finding it very difficult to get the ear of government. They are advocating for culturally sensitive approaches. That means not just having interpreters and translators when you go to services and not just adding on culturally specific services to mainstream services but having a truly, deeply, culturally specific service that communities can feel at home in, can feel like it is accessible to them and can know from the interactions and interactions of their community members who have experienced that service that it is a culturally appropriate place for them to go.

The experience of the COVID pandemic over the last two years, particularly in 2020 and 2021, served as another clear example of how top-down approaches to multicultural communities do not work. The government was slow to understand the impacts of COVID on communities, obviously under extraordinary pressure in this really unusual and unprecedented event. I acknowledge that it was a challenge for all governments at all levels across the country, and indeed across the world. However, there were challenges in the rollout of health advice in language and in understanding the different needs facing different communities. It demonstrated I think what had been building for many years about the need to strengthen trust with members of the community—for them to know what is best for them rather than taking solutions and presenting them to communities as a fait accompli. The work of really deeply listening and engaging probably had not been paid as much attention as was needed in the preceding years leading to those events. In those moments of urgency, if you do not have a strong system, the system collapses. It was clear that there were not the systems or political understandings to engage meaningfully with a number of these communities, who were disproportionately impacted by the pandemic. This was highlighted in the most dramatic way with the hard lockdowns of the public housing towers, which we know many of our culturally diverse and migrant populations live in, where it was the communities coming together and leading the support of their fellow residents in the public housing towers, ensuring that they were fed and had access to medicines and any other support that they needed, and obviously with the psychological distress and trauma of the really sudden event that was happening to them as well.

Now, in 2022, we see a strengthened approach from government when it comes to health advice about COVID and an improved way of engaging differently with multicultural communities and keeping them safe. I want to acknowledge the work that the government have done to really strengthen their approaches, acknowledging that it was an unprecedented event—something that we had not predicted, which really tests the strength of your existing systems. But there are moments like that where, if your systems cannot withstand that pressure, it is really important to acknowledge the areas where it needs to be strengthened, and I certainly acknowledge that the government have done a lot of work to strengthen their systems. We are hearing back from communities that the information that is getting to them is much more timely. There are lots of areas still to improve, but it is certainly something that in the communities’ experience has been strengthened.

The pandemic has also showed us the economic intersection with our multicultural communities. We have a more starkly segregated workforce, with members of our multicultural communities more likely to be in low-paid, insecure but essential work in jobs that cannot be done from home but are necessary for our society to function. Indeed our multicultural communities need more than just MPs showing up at festivals and events and having photos taken and grants given out to friendly groups with an eye to an election. They need their issues and concerns taken very seriously, with proper engagement across time, across communities, that listens to and trusts people, and structural reforms that ensure we are still striving for social and economic justice for all to ensure no-one is left behind. Indeed that is what the pandemic is revealing to us about the sections of our communities that are left behind every day. A moment like that brings it into very stark focus and contrast. We must all listen to those lessons that the pandemic has revealed to us.

So in terms of the debate and what we are talking about here, I urge everyone—I understand that there will be contestation, questions and disagreements about the pragmatics of the bill and if that is the way and if those are the levers to be able to strengthen what we are talking about—to acknowledge and recognise what this debate is actually about, which is the approach we take to engaging meaningfully and deeply with our multicultural communities, acknowledging that it is a constantly evolving piece of work. It is not a set and forget, because our culturally diverse communities are always changing. Their needs are changing. The way they need governments and their political institutions to interact with them is always changing. We need approaches that acknowledge that the approach needs to be refreshed and revisited and strengthened constantly. We need to constantly listen to communities about how it can be strengthened and acknowledge that we have not always got it right. In fact there have been things that we have got very, very wrong. I think it is okay to admit when we have got things wrong. There are areas for much greater collaboration. Each MP that sits in this place, as we have talked about in debates over the last two years, has really strong connections with their respective geographic communities and other, for example, culturally diverse communities. There is real potential to use all those networks and links to bring communities together, to get information out to them and to help inform the ways our institutions make decisions with culturally diverse communities.

One of the most important things about this debate today—and I am glad we are having it; we do not talk about these issues enough in this chamber, so I really welcome the opportunity to talk about these issues—is the opportunity to stocktake what is happening with our work with culturally diverse communities, to address and acknowledge the areas where we are not getting it right and that need to be strengthened and then to recommit together to be able to strengthen those approaches. I think one of the biggest lessons is to move away from top-down approaches to collaborative approaches, which starts in the Parliament too. It starts with all the statutory organisations that are charged with doing this work to strengthen culturally diverse organisations, and with that commitment there is so much more work that we can do. We have vibrant, very, very strong, very wise culturally diverse communities who are saying, ‘We have the solutions. We are willing to try and test them out, but we need the opportunity, we need the area of government, we need some funding and support services. We need people to think differently about the way that things have always been done and try new approaches’.

In the work we have been doing, particularly with women from our culturally diverse communities looking for greater support and investment in culturally specific services, in family violence services for example, in Victoria’s first culturally specific women’s refuge for women escaping family violence, it is the kind of wisdom that they bring to the table that we need to be able to trust and invest support in because otherwise we will never learn, we will never develop the systems that we know can really improve the way we support our culturally diverse communities. So I really welcome this debate, and I hope what it has done is increase our awareness about what we might need to do more of and what we might need to do better and reaffirm our commitment and a recommitment to working together to get that work done.

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Samantha Ratnam
Leader of the Victorian Greens
17 August 2022
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