I received a surprising invitation this week from Fiona Wyllie of ABC Western Plains (based in Dubbo, NSW) to talk on air as to whether state governments or the federal government have responsibility for immigration policy; and could I also comment on the broader issues involved. She referred to my past as Director of Settlement Services, as well as all other related areas, in the then Department of Immigration and Ethnic Affairs.
Fiona had interviewed me, on behalf of ABC South Coast, 20 years or so ago, about my first memoir ‘Destiny Will Out: the experiences of a multicultural Malayan in White Australia.’ A scheduled 4-minute interview ended 22 minutes later.
Apart from my own settlement experiences, I had worked (as a Director) in all of the following policy and operational areas: ethnic affairs (and multiculturalism); citizenship (and national identity); refugee and humanitarian entry; and all areas of migrant settlement assistance (viz. migrant hostels – including childcare and recreation; the grant-in-aid scheme and migrant resource centres; community-assisted settlement – CRSS; and language services – translation and interpretation.
When I wrote that book, I was probably the only person in the country with direct experience of all these wonderful efforts to guide immigrants and refugees to integrate into a nation which offered equal opportunity. It was not surprising that the Department bought a copy of the book; it was, according to the senior academics who offered accolades, the first time that all of these policies had been set out and explained in a single package. As well, the policies had been interwoven into an Asian immigrant’s personal story of cross-cultural interaction.
Fiona also wanted to know why a prominent businessman had said that he would talk with a State Government about an immigration matter. Did State Governments have any responsibility for immigration approval?
My comments to Fiona were as follows:
- Only the federal Minister for Immigration has responsibility for migrant entry to Australia
- She would have to ask the businessman why he would approach a State Government about an immigration issue;
- Anyone in the community could ‘make representations’ to federal immigration officials or the minister about the entry of non-residents;
- That immigrant, refugee and humanitarian entry had, in my day, been stringently controlled. Applicants were assessed during a personal interview by immigration officials as to their ability to settle successfully in Australia.
- I am unsure whether there is now reliance on immigration agents in the country of departure to vet an applicant’s claims; that is, whether Australian officials actually sighted an applicant.
- With equal opportunity available to all accepted entrants, and a barrage of settlement assistance offered, settlement has been successful, resulting in a cosmopolitan nation, tolerant or accepting of cultural difference.
- I had previously questioned the need for a multiculturalism policy, with the government telling us how to relate to one another; and the expensive, parallel, ethnic community-based settlement assistance.
I did not point out to Fiona that PM Howard and Premier Carr had been correct in replacing the emphasis on cultural diversity (and its retention) in favour of a shared citizenship; or that all entrants had to accept and adapt to Australia’s institutions (especially the law) and its social mores.
In the light of my experience and observations of immigrant integration, I counsel against broad assertions about experiencing prejudice (which relates only to words and attitudes) and discrimination (acts actually denying equal opportunity on the basis of skin colour or culture). How prevalent and generalised are these? One can be unduly sensitive.