The following piece was published 3 December 2013, SBS World News Australia Radio.
By Ildi Amon
The federal Opposition has raised concerns about the Abbott government's commitment to multiculturalism, saying it doesn't understand the needs of the community.
But the government says it's still consulting with various community groups, who in turn say it's a little too soon to judge the government's approach.
Ildi Amon reports.
The Government claims the Multicultural Affairs merge to the Social Services portfolio will ensure new entrants to Australia have more streamlined access to various services.
But the federal Opposition disagrees and instead says what's important is not which minister is in charge or which department contains multiculturalism.
The Opposition believes one of the most important issues is 14 million dollars' worth of grants promised under Labor's Building Multicultural Communities Program.
Labor Multicultural Affairs spokeswoman Michelle Rowland says funding is at risk because the Government has not confirmed continuation of the scheme.
"You can't have a one-size-fits-all approach. I don't think it's exclusively the role of government to say, 'Here's a pot of money; go and make yourself cohesive.' I think non-government organisations and volunteer groups and multicultural groups on the ground are best-placed to go and do that. And by enabling them to do what they think is necessary by funding them appropriately. I think that is the best opportunity to make sure that everyone in our community is included, that everyone gets a fair go and that we get outcomes on the ground," said Rowland.
Social Services Minister Kevin Andrews says the Government is not required to honour the multicultural programs promised by Labor.
He says it does have to review all government spending, given the budget deficit.
"Certainly in a situation where we have got a 200 billion dollar net debt, where we have a Labor party that could not deliver a surplus for the whole of its six years in government and now we have to do something about it - well then, in all of those circumstances - and ask about as many of these grants as you like - the answer will be exactly the same: we will act prudently and that means we will review all of those matters," said Andrews.
While it's not yet clear whether the Government will cut the grants, Labor's Michelle Rowland says the grants are important for social cohesion.
She says grassroots funding for projects that meet the needs of individual groups is the best way to address their needs.
"Some needed recreation equipment because they had younger people from different communities who needed somewhere safe to have relaxation time. Others needed a multicultural men's shed to make sure older blokes in the community to feel included. And all these aspects have either been denied now or left in limbo. And I think actions speak louder than words when it comes to valuing multicultural communities," said Rowland.
Ms Rowland has also criticised the language used by the Coalition's Parliamentary Secretary for Multicultural Affairs, Concetta Fierravanti-Wells: "We become Australians and we assimilate at different paces. It's a process really, it's a journey."
Rowland says the term "assimilate" is outdated and devalues cultural difference.
"My focus and the focus of Labor in government has always been inclusiveness and empowerment, that people don't feel like they are not wanted, they don't feel like they are not needed in our communities and that they're valued for who they are. So I'm actually quite surprised. I haven't heard that term for quite some time in government circles. As I said I go to a lot of multicultural events including with many settlement services groups and I don't think I've heard that for quite some time," said Rowland.
Chair of the Federation of Ethnic Communities' Councils of Australia, Joseph Caputo, says he has proposed a Multiculturalism Act to the Government that would provide certainty about multiculturalism's place in Australia.
"It would actually say very clearly that the highest institution of the land, the parliament, actually believes that Australia is a multicultural country and will do everything to ensure the integrity of a multicultural Australia,” said Caputo.
Senator Fierravanti-Wells says while she is new to the role, she is listening to submissions about the proposed Act from various groups.
“So far the government has been listening to the concerns FECCA has raised about the challenges facing ethnic groups in Australia,” said Caputo.
While FECCA's Joseph Caputo says there are always concerns following a change of government, he says it is not yet clear what the Coalition government will announce.
"If we meet that challenge properly everybody will benefit. Australia will become a very solid multicultural society and it can become a model for the rest of the world," said Caputo.