In the storm around proposed changes to the Racial Discrimination Act, it’s clear ethnic lobby groups are not as powerful as they once were. Except one, writes Crikey intern Ania Dutka.
Bob Carr complains the influence of parts of the Jewish lobby on federal politics is unhealthy. It certainly seems few other ethnic lobbies have as strong a voice in the halls of Canberra.
A parade of community leaders representing Arabic, Chinese, Jewish, Greek and indigenous groups met with Attorney-General George Brandis twice to lobby against the politically charged amendments proposed for the Racial Discrimination Act. But as figures from both sides of politics tell Crikey, many of the groups are much less powerful than they were.
Les Malezer, co-chair of the indigenous group the National Congress of Australia’s First Peoples, was present at the multi-community consultation with Brandis. He says Peter Wertheim, executive director of the Executive Council of Australian Jewry, has played a “very large part” in the consultation process with Brandis.
Pino Migliorino, past chair of the Federation of Ethnic Communities’ Councils of Australia, says the Jewish board of deputies and other representatives of the Jewish community have been “extremely proactive” in their opposition to the RDA changes.
Some representatives of the Jewish community have threatened to cut donations to the Coalition if the amendments go ahead. Bill Shorten spoke to the Zionist Federation of Australia last month calling for collective opposition to the Coalition.
So great is the concern to have the Jewish community onside that Brandis himself wrote an opinion piece for The Australian Jewish News last week to sway the community to support the changes:
“Nobody understands the evil of racism better than the Jewish people. And nobody cares more about the right to intellectual freedom.”
Migliorino says the Jewish community’s outspoken opposition to the amendments brokers serious political clout. “Everyone fears the Jewish board of deputies and the Jewish lobby, and I say thank God they do … for the maintenance of the principles of the Racial Discrimination Act.”
Race discrimination commissioner Tim Soutphommasane told Crikey the consultations with Brandis were limited only to the multi-community delegation not because of a lack of political activity from other community groups opposing the changes, but because of influence. “I wouldn’t necessarily regard this as a point of political activism … This is where the influence lies,” Soutphommasane said. “Given the importance of the issue I would’ve hoped the government would’ve conducted more extensive consultations.”
The peak national body representing ethnic and culturally diverse groups, the Federation of Ethnic Communities’ Councils of Australia, is yet to consult with Brandis on the matter. It represents more than 700 multicultural and ethnic community groups across Australia.
FECCA chairman Joseph Caputo says the organisation lodged a request to speak to Brandis about amendments to the RDA but has not heard back. “So far we haven’t made it to the Attorney-General … Hopefully it will happen,” he told Crikey.
Past FECCA chair Migliorino describes Brandis’ attitude towards community consultation before releasing the draft as “appalling”. He says Brandis has spoken overwhelmingly to the civil libertarians, rejecting other community requests for community consultation. Brandis’ attitude was one of “I’ll decide who I’ll consult and who I won’t”, Migliorino says.
Malezer, who was present at the consultations with Brandis, says the matter has been politically mishandled. “If the government did have concerns it could have easily conducted a public inquest,” he said.
However, the limited consultation process is reflective of a broad shift in ethnic political advocacy over the last decade.
Particularly during the Howard years, specific ethnic groups splintered away from FECCA and state ethnic community councils, once the traditional masthead of an “ethnic interest”. This occurred especially as groups representing a single ethnicity began to deliver key community services such as aged care, youth unemployment and health and received government funding directly.
Coalition MP Philip Ruddock, minister for immigration and multicultural affairs under Howard and a prominent Liberal figurehead in the multicultural sector, says ethnic lobby groups’ influence has waned over the years. Ruddock told Crikey “the lobby as we know it has largely vanished … I would be struggling to tell you who the individuals involved in organisations like FECCA are.”
Rudock saysoverall there has been a shift from an organised ethnic lobby to increasingly politicised activity of specific ethnic community groups. “Culturally diverse communities recognise the need to engage with local members,” he said.
Labor MP Laurie Ferguson, once the parliamentary secretary for multicultural affairs and settlement services under Kevin Rudd, says state ethnic community councils have also had difficulty in maintaining relevance with the emergence of migrant resource centres over the past decade. “At a state level migrant resource centres emerged as strong, and people did their activities through them,” Ferguson said.
However, Migliorino says this increased politicisation and advocacy by community groups has been stifled by their dependence on government funding for service provision. “The government says ‘yes, you have every right to lobby, but not with government resources’.” he said.
He suspects this has curtailed the “sleeping giants” in the RDA debate — the Chinese and Arabic-speaking communities — from achieving the same political impact as the Jewish community.
Migliorino says although the Chinese community has been prominent in the RDA debate, overall “the community will not fight publicly … but its influence will be felt in other ways”.
Ferguson predicts Brandis will need to find favour from within the Chinese community to enact the changes or risk serious political backlash across the large ethnic Chinese population, particularly in New South Wales.
The government is allowing community consultation and open submissions until the end of the month and says it will consider changing its controversial draft bill. The Attorney-General’s spokesperson declined to comment on the community consultation process before the exposure draft was released last month.