What did we achieve with settlement assistance policy?

When I was the lowest ranking accountable officer (so described by my then boss when he was busily disowning some responsibility) on grants and MRCs, I set out to see what was being achieved. I found personal and psychic satisfaction; job satisfaction; busy-ness (always very busy); the need to write reports and attend conferences and training courses; and settlement needs being met and ‘unmet’. The latter was difficult to assess. …

Could I have a breakdown of service delivery, I asked, split between the diverse ethnic categories (by language); the categories of problems (or needs) dealt with; and how much time was taken up on service delivery as against other work (what other work, they said); and the extent and number of casework. A cross-classification was not necessary, I explained kindly.

No, said they uniformly across the nation (as I spoke to them face to face). We are too busy to keep statistical records. Since no one else had asked for them to date, why did I want them? What use had I in mind? Had the Minister been told? Had the ethnic communities been consulted? Ye Gods, I thought, I should be grateful that they did not ask if I brushed my teeth daily, if I remembered my dead mother each night, and whether I gave alms to charity!

At the coalface, there was obvious dedication and personal commitment. As for records, it was up to the policy people in head office and the administrative chiefs in regional office, and they had not hitherto asked what it was we were achieving! They themselves knew what they were doing. What were they doing? Grant workers assisted with immigration sponsorship forms, referred people to welfare agencies, advised on how to have the telephone hooked up, and so on.

In MRCs, there was some casework; other work involved the allocation of meeting rooms, and so on. Since there was only one ethnic language generally offered, how did the other language speakers manage? In English, of course, as they were normally accompanied by relatives. Why weren’t the relatives helping out? Their English wasn’t good. How did these relatives manage in their day? With difficulty.

Were these difficulties so great as to warrant the expenditure of millions of public money? Since 50% or more of the immigrants in recent times enter under the family reunion policy, why should not the sponsoring family guide the new arrival? Because everyone feels good having an ethnicity-focused service delivery, even if it is conducted substantially in English. In one centre, I found English-speaking Mauritians and Malaysians represented fifty per cent of casework in the previous year, speaking to an English-speaking MRC worker, who was Anglo-Celt and who knew no other language.

Just before I retired, I obtained agreement from regional office chiefs and the main MRCs to record data on a uniform basis. The plan was to identify the pattern of settlement needs manifest in the casework, with the intention of answering two evaluation questions: is this what we ought to be doing, and how well are we doing it? I did the same for grants. Five years later, I read that the department was planning to evaluate the effectiveness of MRCs and the grant systems. What happened to my evaluation mechanism?

With grants, I also attempted to draw up prioritisation criteria, so as to withdraw grants from some established communities. These had been around for so long, without much infusion of new arrivals. Consequently, the number of grants issued could be reduced. I was then sidelined, by being tasked with a policy review of settlement issues in general. My then chief later tried to sell my ideas as his own, but was overruled by the decision makers (so I heard).

My attempt to set up structures to obtain relevant data to enable evaluation was opposed by the grant agencies, too. They were too busy providing a much needed service, and the rest of it. With more resources, perhaps some record keeping might be contemplated. My section did set up a structure for evaluation before I retired but, presumably with all the continuing restructuring of the whole agency and changes in responsibility patterns, proposed changes usually finish up being filed and forgotten.

(These extracts from ‘Destiny Will Out’ confirm what recent federal governments have learnt: even significant budgetary pressures will not allow any diminution of middle-class welfare introduced for electoral advantage. Worse still, the newly-sewn flag of so-called ethnic disadvantage was being waved vigorously in the 1980s.

While mainstreaming was strenuously denied by the beneficiaries of the plural ethnic welfare industry, the ship of multiculturalism policy also ruled the quiescent waves of the sea of inter-ethnic co-operation in the 1980s.

However, all that was reversed when federal and state policy stressed citizenship (with its commitment to the nation) as a necessary bonding cement to ethno-cultural integration into a unified people.

Mainstreaming refers to all service providers (both official and private) ensuring that all residents had equal opportunity to access their services. They also offered greater accountability for taxpayer funds.)