The importance of supporting Canberra's multicultural community

Thank you, Madam Speaker. I am delighted to bring this matter of public importance in my name to the Assembly today.

This is an important time of year to discuss matters relating to Canberra’s multicultural residents. This weekend we will enjoy the National Multicultural Festival, which promotes itself on its website as, quote, ‘Australia’s premier celebration of cultural and linguistic diversity’, with the words ‘and linguistic’ formatted in bold. The homepage also points out, again in bold text, that it will involve ‘more than 350 community groups, using scores of different languages’.

Then on Thursday next week the world will observe International Mother Language Day. Proclaimed by the United Nations in November 1999, this day promotes, according to the UN’s website, ‘linguistic and cultural diversity’. The descriptions for each of these events make clear the important link between language and culture.

In September 2017, a motion by the Canberra Liberals called upon this government to observe International Mother Language Day and also to ‘promote the active participation, revitalisation and maintenance of local Indigenous languages’ and to support ‘second language instruction in schools’. Speaking in support, I noted, quote, ‘As linguists, anthropologists and other scholars have repeatedly pointed out, language is closely tied to both culture and identity. Languages serve as libraries of cultural knowledge as well as enable the transference of that knowledge across generations’.

I remind members that, according to the latest census, 32 per cent of Canberra’s residents are migrants, and more than half of us have at least one parent who was. Linked to this reality is the fact that a non-English language is spoken in nearly one-quarter of the territory’s households. As a consequence, people care deeply about what this government says about multiculturalism and linguistic diversity. And, more importantly, they care about what this government does.

The ACT Government’s first languages policy, ‘Your Voices’, was released in 2012 and provided both policy statements and promised implementations for the period 2012 to 2016. According to Objective Three in the ACT Multicultural Framework, the policy should have been reviewed in fiscal year 2015–16, the final year of its intended lifespan. It wasn’t. Nor was it reviewed, from what I can tell, in either of the next two years.

This delay came without any explanation, which caused concern to quite a number of Canberra’s multicultural community members, who shared their worries and displeasure with me. As a consequence, over the past two years I have asked a number of questions on notice and made a number of statements in this chamber in support of the ACT Government reviewing and updating its languages policy so that people can honestly know what to expect.

Finally, four months ago, the territory’s multicultural community received a long-awaited update to the languages policy. This, however, was actually just an update to one section of the old policy, the language services section – a fact acknowledged by the minister when he tabled the document. This means, Madam Speaker, that nearly three years after its end date, most of the ACT’s former languages policy remains unrevised and without any updates – and no one that I’m aware of has been given any explanation why.

The original policy had a number of objectives, including the provision of language services, support for learning other languages, and an emphasis on the role of linguistic diversity in economic development. Amongst others, it promised that, quote, ‘every effort will be made to retain, preserve and use [Indigenous] Australian languages in the ACT region’. It also stated that, quote, ‘all Canberrans will be encouraged to learn and treasure languages other than English’, and it made important commitments to strongly support both the ACT Community Language Schools Association and the teaching of languages other than English in ACT schools.

The minister did state when he tabled the update that he looks forward to, quote, ‘hearing about how we can support languages more broadly in the community’, but in the meantime, a number of Canberrans are worried about what any future and long-overdue policy update might look like. As noted by my Liberal colleague and fellow migrant, Ms Elizabeth Lee, in a motion that she sponsored in November last year, ‘the ACT Government’s Future of Education Strategy does not make a single mention of the importance of language education in Canberra schools’. Such a glaring omission does not reassure many of those in Canberra’s multicultural communities or those closely engaged in teaching languages.

I have highlighted this issue, Madam Speaker, because it points to a number of issues more broadly. When a policy document that is important to culturally and linguistically diverse Canberrans is approaching its end date and is due for a review, it should be reviewed. If for some reason it can’t be reviewed, a good explanation should be provided. An expired policy does not communicate that this is a government that values or supports the multicultural community.

And this reality merges with other concerns shared with me by others. Culturally and linguistically diverse Canberrans expect to be genuinely consulted and not just dictated to. For example, I have recently been informed that policies for booking the Theo Notaras Multicultural Centre were changed this year. Community groups that have long held regular events at the centre – including weekly language classes and weekly events for seniors with language barriers – have been told that they are now limited to using the function room only twice a month. In addition, a new charge has been placed on using the centre’s kitchen, where previously this was included in a booking.

Community groups, however, claim that they were not consulted on this matter and were caught unawares by these changes. This causes friction and hurt feelings, not to mention creates logistical problems for community organisations that are fully staffed by volunteers and feel unsupported by this government, even when their activities help to fulfil stated government priorities. Many community groups feel they can no longer use the centre now, and the Canberra Multicultural Community Forum have asked for better communication with centre users and have recommended a tenants management committee to oversee bookings in order to restore a sense of fairness.

Culturally and linguistically diverse Canberrans also want help in both preserving and promoting their cultures and their languages. They want to see better support for refugees in particular but also for new migrants. They want to feel better supported when accessing health services in Canberra, including mental health services.

As I have noted in this chamber in the past, people from culturally diverse backgrounds often attach severe stigma to mental illness and can be reluctant to access health services. Data demonstrate that these people have significantly lower levels of access to mental health care and support in the wider community, shifting the burden of responsibility onto family members, who often lack the adequate training or support to cope.

It is my hope, Madam Speaker, and the hope of many Canberrans that this government will do a better job of supporting the territory’s multicultural community, including by delivering an updated languages policy that will be the envy of other Australian jurisdictions.

Thank you.

#MattersofPublicImportance #MulticulturalAffairs

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