Opinion pieces, speeches & transcripts

Reimagining multiculturalism, restarting migration and remembering our regions

July 06, 2021

Modern Australia is a country built on migration.

Migrants have economically, socially, culturally and even physically reshaped this country - for the better.

From the goldfields around here, to the Snowy, as well as the vibrant centres of our big cities.

It’s common for politicians to say that we have built the world’s most successful multicultural society - and I agree that we have.

But, with the pandemic, we’ve seen some cracks appear in our social fabric, along with the rise of racism.

And we’ve been forced to confront both the implications of a closed international border, and wider challenges to our migration program.

The release of the Intergenerational Report a week ago focuses attention on this.

On the economic imperative of getting immigration settings right - the $260 billion question.

And the consequences of missing this boat, to growth and to the prospect of a very different demographic population profile. In the regions, where by and large communities are older than in our major cities, this is of particular importance.

This isn’t to say that our pathway to growth should be solely anchored by immigration. Labor is conscious of all the ‘Ps’, with our bold plan to lift participation through a major structural reform to make childcare and early learning universal, and to tackle our long-term productivity problem by investing in our people, and in productive infrastructure.

But population affects these too of course, and population in very large part means immigration policy.

Getting this right demands a clear-eyed approach, anchored in first-principles rather than a lazy assumption that we should just snap back to the way things were. As my colleague Kristina Keneally has argued.

Because firstly - that’s selling Australians short.

We can be better!

And secondly, there are aspects of our immigration system that weren’t fit for purpose.

Some of these were holding us back from realising our full potential, particularly in regional communities.

Others are more insidious, and in some cases inherently exploitative.

A successful migration program rests on a social licence. We can’t take this, nor our social cohesion for granted.

This forced pause in immigration to Australia must come with a pause for thought, so we can address the problems we had let linger too long as we also move to seize the great opportunities presented to us as the world reopens, whilst embracing and enhancing our greatest strength: the Australian people in all their diversity.


Bendigo’s history of multiculturalism

Not so long ago, many Australians wouldn’t have associated this city with immigration- except perhaps as part of its history.

In the mid-1800s, 20 percent of Bendigo’s population hailed from China.

And in the 170 years since, the Chinese community has provided enormous economic, social and cultural benefits to the wider Bendigo community.

The Bendigo Easter Festival remains Australia’s longest running cultural festival- celebrating its 150th anniversary this year, despite the challenges of the pandemic.

In recent years, the city has been transformed by other waves of migration.

Now, 5 per cent of people in Greater Bendigo came from countries where English was not their first language, and this number is only growing.

Thanks to Lisa, I’ve had the privilege of seeing first-hand the diversity of multicultural leadership in this city.

And I, like the Migration Council of Australia, recognise the extraordinary resource that is Bendigo Community Health Service. An organisation with an enormous impact, which has been critical in keeping people safe and connected through the pandemic.

But since the first arrival of Chinese people in Victoria, we’ve seen discrimination rear it’s ugly head.

From segregation and additional taxes imposed on the community in the goldfields in the 19th century.

To Liberal Senator Eric Abetz questioning the loyalty of Chinese Australians at a Senate inquiry just last year.



We can’t ignore this, and its consequences.

Tackling racism requires people in leadership to take responsibility and lead.

As the Race Discrimination Commissioner, Chin Tan, has stated: "it's not enough for governments to condemn racism: They need to actively support efforts to stamp it out both financially and also in terms of leadership."

Throughout the coronavirus pandemic, we’ve seen a substantial rise in racist activities, particularly those perpetrated against Asian communities.

The latest Mapping Social Cohesion report released by the Scanlon Foundation earlier this year found that 22 per cent of Chinese Australian respondents reported increased experiences of discrimination since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic.

This is why Labor has been calling for a comprehensive national anti-racism strategy for over a year.

Racism ruins lives and it divides entire communities.

It corrodes the foundations of what makes societies and communities a success, it undermines multiculturalism.

Labor understands that the vast majority of Australians abhor racism, and that the Scanlon report I referred to a minute ago also shows a high, and increasing, level of support for multiculturalism, but racism anywhere is a threat to all of us.

This is something I know the Bendigo community understands.

In 2015, far-right extremists descended on Bendigo in opposition to the proposed Islamic Community Centre.

For a while, the impression of Bendigo gathered by those who don’t know this community was one of racial tension and division.

But the Bendigo community, through the work of local activists and the Believe in Bendigo campaign, stood up against these attacks, along with their state and federal MPs.

Businesses placing ads in the local papers showing their support, encouraging local community members to put up Believe in Bendigo signs or wear yellow, and running inclusive events celebrating the good in this community.

Bendigoians stood up for diversity and inclusion, and won.

Last week at the National Press Club, Nyadol Nyuon shared the story of the brutal racism and discrimination experienced by her and her family in Australia.

She called on us to reimagine this country.

As a place where we have a common bond, where racism is not tolerated and where a visa status is not a tool for coercive control.

We must listen to her.

To her experiences, and to her sense of the country we might be. As we consider the future of our multiculturalism, and reimagine immigration.

And we must work harder to hear other voices, which to date haven’t featured as prominently as they should have in our national conversation.

Particularly those of newly arrived migrants in the regions - our multiculturalism doesn’t end where the ring of steel around Melbourne used to be!

She also shared her experience of trying to address our failures in multiculturalism.

She said- “many people expect that because of what Australia has given me, I should simply be grateful. Discussions about race, or racism, are seen as biting the hand that fed you."

I think this captures precisely the challenge we must rise to. 


How we ‘do’ multiculturalism

Australia has been described as a multicultural society with monocultural institutions.

And it’s clear that many of the places of power and influence in this country don’t reflect its diversity today.

Our national parliament being a prominent example.

In fact, we don’t even do a great job of measuring who we are. Our census this year will be another missed opportunity to collect the data that shows how the ethnic and cultural backgrounds of Australians shapes their opportunities.

That’s why the first policy I spoke about as the shadow minister was to commit to better measuring our diversity.

So that we can better understand the challenge we are grappling with - otherwise, however good our intentions are, we will be fumbling in the dark.

I’m concerned that Australia hasn’t really grappled with the state of our multiculturalism since the 1990s, and that turning this around requires national leadership.

As a people we’ve changed enormously since then - it’s time for national government to catch up.

It’s been too long since we reflected on the state of our institutional framework, and this can’t continue.

We should both refresh our multicultural policy framework and look again at the institutions that support this.

In doing so, we must ensure that all the perspectives across modern Australia are represented in this conversation.

Without this, we will continue to have gaps in involvement and inclusion.

From the classroom to the labour market, and positions of leadership and influence across society.

Indeed, we’ve seen these gaps exposed during the pandemic, with public health messaging that failed to recognise the diversity of our community, and failed to make use of the strengths and understandings within communities.

I note we are yet to properly begin a campaign to encourage vaccination, and am concerned that we haven’t learnt these lessons of last year - that we don’t have the data, understanding, or will to tackle hesitancy in particular sections of our society.

The ability to participate fully in the economic, social and political life of Australia is something that must extend to all Australians regardless of where they came from or where - their parents or grandparents - were born.

While the costs of discrimination, direct and indirect, are borne by those held back or denied opportunities, this ultimately affects us all. As a nation we are lesser economically, as well as morally, when we don’t realise our greatest asset - the diversity that is modern Australia.


Temporary migration and what it means

Australians have seen immigration as a pathway to citizenship, it’s how we’ve built this nation.

But quietly, this changed quite some time ago.

Without a major debate, but bringing with it major consequences.

This drift to temporary forms of migration dominating our program is a legacy of John Howard, not Scott Morrison, but under this government it’s grown apace.

The Intergenerational Report, released last week by the Treasury, predicted that, unchecked, the temporary migrant population will almost double over the next 40 years.

We know that migration policy, done well, can lift wages and create job opportunities for all.

But our current over reliance on temporary workers has left wages unresponsive to economic conditions, has removed incentives to develop and retain skills.

This is too often bad news for the temporary migrants themselves, who are so vulnerable to exploitation, and also for other workers whose wages and conditions are affected by this.

It can be bad for social cohesion too, made worse when our national government tells people trapped here to ‘go home’ when they simply can’t and denies them access to any form of safety net.

In a policy-making sense, it’s the laziness I referred to earlier.

I’m passionately opposed to the Morrison government’s policy of offering only temporary protection to people who’ve been found by us to be refugees.

Because that places these people in limbo, unable to make the decisions that make a life. Having children, buying a house, investing in a small business - these are out of reach, if you can’t put down roots with any certainty.

The same applies, when we think about the consequences of the guest worker society - or rather, economy - predicted in the IGR.

While there will always be a role for temporary forms of migration in our program, Labor supports a reorientation towards permanency. So, people who choose to come here can make the choices that make their lives, and build their communities.

Outside of state capitals, this matters even more.

Even Barnaby Joyce yesterday came out in support for a path to citizenship for farm workers who enter on the proposed agriculture visa.

But we don’t need thought bubble -  we need a consistent and coherent plan.


Migration and the regions

Migration, both international and internal, is vital to the long-term sustainability of our regional communities.

To fill labour shortages, stimulate the local economy, turn around population declines and revitalise local services.

The pandemic has also opened the eyes of Australians and businesses to the possible benefits of relocating to the regions.

While this change was already underway in many regional centres, in the past year, we’ve seen increasing numbers of people departing capital cities for regional areas.

The Regional Australia Institute’s Regional Movers Index found that compared to March 2020, percentage of Australians moving from capital cities to regional Australia has grown 12.5%

In 2020, Regional Victoria had a net gain of more than 13,000 people, even while the state overall had a net loss of just under 13,000 people.

This is fantastic for local communities. Like this one.

But without appropriate investment in transport, healthcare, education (especially higher education, such a critical anchor for jobs) and community infrastructure, these regions won’t maintain the high levels of liveability that attracted migrants in the first place.

We can’t talk about regional migration without recognising this.

Regional communities have unique challenges, and advantages, when looking to attract migrants to their regions, and critically, to retain them.

The Morrison government proposed the subclass 491 and 494 visas in late 2019, providing a form of ‘provisional permanent’ visa for skilled migrants in the regions.

But the definition of ‘regional’ includes almost the entire country.

Including Perth, Adelaide, the Gold Coast and Hobart.

It’s another example of this Government’s lack of understanding of the needs of regional communities, and its unwillingness to listen.

And with the first of these visa holders becoming eligible for permanency next year, this Government is yet to present a plan or long-term strategy to encourage visa holders to remain in regional communities after their required waiting period is over.

We should be doing everything we can to help people get the support they need, to enable them to build great lives in these communities and to make a long term, meaningful contribution to the future of these regional communities. 

We’ve seen hollow rhetoric and a reliance on blunt instruments to achieve these goals, when what is required is a plan, informed by a sense of the strengths of community, and by a willingness to engage.


Regional refugee settlement and its significance

Moving to regional Australia can be a huge change.

Leaving your existing support networks, friends, family and communities is a big adjustment, at least at the start. For anyone.

That’s why it is so important we have a decent system of support in places where we want new migrants to settle, even skilled migrants.

Sufficient funding needs to be provided for housing support, education and training services, social supports and community assistance programs.

Without these supports, and without sufficient job opportunities, long-term retention of these workers in regional areas is unlikely.

It is clear the Morrison Government lacks a whole-of-government regional settlement strategy.

We know all about the Liberal Government's record of cutting support to settlement services.

And these services couldn’t be more important than to humanitarian visa holders settling in regional communities.

We know where newly arrived refugees and migrants do not gain adequate settlement and community, individuals and families will move from regional areas to metropolitan areas.

The Shergold Review demonstrated the benefits of regional resettlement options, both for refugees and for regional cities and towns.

But it also made clear the failures of this Government - their failure to coordinate refugee resettlement services, to help skilled refugees find meaningful work, and to attract and retain refugees, and other migrants, to regional communities.

The Review also found that when migrants arrived, they found that the Commonwealth had done little to ensure that communities had what they needed to provide for them.

Instead, this task was largely left to state and local governments, without adequate support or funding.

Settlement Services International has noted that regional migration policy, at all levels, is constrained by a poor understanding of relative settlement capacity in different regions.

This undermines the establishment of targeted investment to overcome barriers in settlement and retention of migrants in regional communities.

We can see the benefits of the regional resettlement of refugees here in Bendigo.

Research conducted by AMES and Deloitte found that the resettlement of over 1000 Karen in Bendigo had contributed an estimated $67.1 million to the local economy in the 10 years to 2016.

Now, there are over 2,500 Karen community members in this region.

Not since the gold rush has Bendigo been home to such a significant migrant community from a single ethnocultural group.

This critical mass of Karen community members in Bendigo has enabled successful retention to the region.

It’s allowed for better connection of new migrants to the available support services, enabled multicultural community organisations to form and helped the community make space to practice their culture.

This is an example that should inform wider practice. Where we’ve seen a regional economy strengthened, and a community enriched - while people who’d been forced to flee their homes have found a new, welcoming home.

Consistently, we have seen regional communities go above and beyond to welcome migrants, and in particular, refugees. 

You only have to look at the commitment of the people of Biloela, who have advocated for more than three years for the Minister to allow the Murugappan family to go home to their community, to see support for and the value of regional resettlement.


Agriculture and horticulture

Earlier, I touched on the consequences of a guest worker economy - and nowhere are the effects clearer than in the agriculture and horticulture sectors

Despite widespread labour shortages, exploitation of vulnerable workers in these sectors is rife.

This Government has comprehensively failed to protect workers in these industries from exploitation, wage theft and abuse.

Research released by Unions New South Wales last month revealed some workers are paid less than $3 an hour.

Numerous reports and several parliamentary committees have clearly shown the widespread non-compliance with workplace laws and the poor regulation of the horticultural sector.

Unscrupulous labour hire firms exploit migrant workers, preying on the vulnerability arising from their precarious work status and their dependence on their employer.

This is still occurring, even though worker shortages have already led to more than $45 million in losses for producers from rotting crops.

While the Nationals have proposed a new agriculture worker visa, it’s too little too late.

It’s unclear what protections the visa will have for migrant workers.

Even the Minister seems confused about this.

And farms need workers now, not next year. 

With the Morrison Government failing to create appropriate quarantine after more than a year, farmers still have no way to access the labour they have long relied on.



Let’s answer Nyadol’s call and start reimagining this country. And all of it.

Let’s recognise the achievements of Bendigo, and the generosity of Bendigonians.

As a nation we are facing a series of big policy choices as we emerge from the pandemic.

How we restart our migration program is a critical part of this.

In Labor, we are excited by this challenge.

It’s a generational opportunity to fix the problems the pandemic has revealed, and to build on our strengths, particularly those in regional communities.

We can’t, and we won’t, rest on past achievements.

After 8 years of laziness, Australia can’t afford to continue down this path.

We are up to building a migration program for tomorrow, not yesterday.

And for assuming the mantle of national leadership on multiculturalism.

As Anthony Albanese has rightly observed, the biggest problem with Australia’s conservatives isn’t that they are stuck in the past - it’s that they want the rest of us to join them there.

That’s selling us short.

The question we need to be asking is - what can it mean to be Australian?

How good can we be, if we recognise and harness our diversity.

If we find the interest and the means to include and value everyone’s experience and perspectives.

If we have the confidence to confront our failings, as well as to embrace our successes.

If we can build a society in which no one is left behind, and no one is held back, wherever they come from, wherever the live.

That's the real promise of a renewed multiculturalism under an Albanese Labor government.