As the introduction of an Indigenous voice to parliament remains a hot button issue, there is support for multicultural consultancy to help shape Australia’s foreign policy.
Multicultural voices would benefit the nation’s foreign policy formulation, a Lowy Institute audience heard last week.
A Lowy panel of three experts discussed the topic ‘Migration nation: Australia’s foreign policy from a multicultural perspective’, looking at the impacts and shortfalls of diverse communities.
While in consensus that multicultural strides have occurred in the past 50 years, overall the panellists believe that real change was yet to come.
According to the 2021 census, half of all Australians were born overseas or have a parent who was born overseas, and Australia is home to more than 250 ancestries and 350 languages.
Panel participant Melissa Phillips, a lecturer in humanitarian and development studies at the School of Social Sciences at Western Sydney University, has looked at the impact of cultural and ethnic groups in Australia.
Engagement with multicultural communities “requires understanding their needs, and also understanding the different levels of engagement that they want to have”.
“For some people that might be as diaspora groups engaging on foreign policy. For others, it might be much more micro issues that are relevant to them,” she said.
“In recent times, during the COVID-19 pandemic, the distance between government and multicultural communities has become greater; you only need to see some of the actions that have taken place around border closures, attitudes and public statements towards people on temporary visas.”
Lowy Institute Public Opinion and Foreign Policy Program research fellow Jennifer Hsu asked: how has Australia fared in drawing on its diversity and diaspora as sources of soft power and engagement?
Referring to progress made since the dismantling of the White Australia Policy in the 1960s, Jason Chai, director of Market Access and Government Affairs for Cochlear Asia-Pacific and a former Australian diplomat, applauded Foreign Minister Penny Wong’s recent visit to Malaysia, which resonated across the region given her Malaysian heritage.
“This 47th parliament is… the most culturally diverse parliament. We have people from Laos, from Sri Lanka, from India, from China, from India, from Singapore, all represented within this parliament. That’s the political engagement piece that is now happening,” he said.
In 1980, Singapore’s then-prime minister Lee Kuan Yew warned that Australia risked becoming the “poor, white trash of Asia”, he noted.
On how multicultural communities serve Australia’s regional or international advocacy of a rules-based world order and democratic values, Alfred Deakin Professor Fethi Mansouri, who holds the UNESCO chair for comparative research on cultural diversity and social justice, sounded a cautionary note.
Perhaps Senator Wong’s vision to link multiculturalism to foreign affairs would attract communities and the role they might play, the professor said.
“Penny (Wong) wants a much more kind of macro scale, grand narrative about how to project Australia’s identity. But I’m also a realist,” Prof Mansouri said.
“Many people do not like to be characterised in terms of colour of skin or racial identity. But nevertheless, they still want and hold dear to their own self-notion of identity, their own cultural heritage.
“I don’t think we are there yet, because it is seriously a societal project. It is not a political leader project, even though leadership is extremely important. And I applaud this government for making all the right noises.”
The panel also considered what impact Australia’s foreign policy might have if multicultural voices were included as assets in policy formulation.
“We would be able to have a kind of relationship and liaison on emerging kinds of concerns, because diaspora groups have deep connections locally at social, economic, political and cultural levels in a way that no government department ever will,” Dr Phillips said.
Prof Mansouri said incorporating multicultural perspectives in foreign policy was challenging.
He focused on the difficulties facing Chinese-Australians amid the nation’s current tense relationship with China.
“If we’re not able to really reflect the nuanced understanding of the situation that Chinese-Australians can add to … do not ostracise Chinese Australians, do not conflate Chinese-Australians with China, rising Chinese power,” Prof Mansouri said.