A new policy in migrant settlement

My new team was of genuine migrant origin, both born overseas. They had arrived in their teens without any knowledge of the English language and were now fluent. They also had tertiary qualifications. One, a Greek, had work experience in the State government, the second tier of government in Australia; the other, a Polish-Jew, had private sector and political experience.

Our job was to be a conduit between the Federal government and the migrant communities; the latter would be more adequately aware of the government’s policies to help migrants settle more successfully into the community. On the other hand, they would be better able to inform the government of any unmet settlement assistance needs, especially in obtaining access to services, especially government services. These services would include immigration, welfare, legal, health, and so on. Improved access to services was the call.

To enhance this access, the Federal Government had already established a telephone interpreter service, a translation unit, (to translate documents of relevance to the immigrant’s settlement), migrant resource centres (MRCs), and schemes of grants. MRCs were small shop fronts offering meeting rooms for the local ethnic communities, and information, counselling and advice in some of the languages predominating in the district. Essentially, they were advisory centres for migrants, with all the attendant benefits flowing from that.

The grants-in-aid scheme or GIA enabled a community to employ a welfare worker to service those of its members who needed advice, in their own language, on what services were available and how to access them. Another grants scheme subsidised one-off projects relating to settlement issues, including research. Mainstream, i.e. Anglo-Celt, organisations were eligible. The project subsidy scheme was a sort of slush fund or grease to quieten or sweeten those who went public about some poor ethnic group or other being in need about something or other.

There were lots of professionally caring people suddenly coming out of the woodwork. Some projects, on the other hand, were of genuine value and reasonably desirable, even if not necessary, reflecting the views of very genuine and sincere people about real needs.

When I arrived upon this scene, there had already been a substantial public debate about the provision of settlement services by ethnic communities through public funding. The predominant issue was whether taxpayer-funded plural service structures would result and, if so, whether this would be detrimental to a cohesive nation. The underlying question was, and still is, why service providers at any level of government, or even in the private sector should not ensure that their services are uniformly accessible to those in need of such services.

If such access required the provision of interpreters and translators, and public relations and information campaigns to reach their non-English-speaking constituency, the service delivery agencies, whether public or private, had an obligation to do so. And many did move along that track. However, the Federal government decided to embark on the funding of ethnic-controlled access mechanisms (it was mindful of the ethnic vote); and, in the early Eighties, it decided to establish in Sydney and Melbourne small but high-powered, high-profile ethnic-staffed units to liaise with the leaders of the local ethnic communities.

In the process, we would obviously come to know not only the hot spots of need, but also the hot spots of unrest. My team’s focus initially was on communities we knew little about, and whose needs might be great but who did not know how to express these needs. But we did also pay our respects to the major communities through their power brokers.

(These extracts from ‘Destiny Will Out,’ written in 1995/6, and based on my experiences in the 1980s, might today raise such questions such as: Was this policy the beginning of a political approach by government to offer a degree of empowerment to the major ethnic communities, who were led mainly by second generation Aussies of non-British descent? Had service providers, whether public or private, actually been deficient in the extent or quality of delivery?

In this context, some members of the media, and a few junior academics of ethnic descent, had to be told persistently that there can be no second or third generation of immigrants (or refugees). When accepted, the entrant became a first generation Australian, the descendants obviously definable only as Australians of a second and successive generations.

There also arose the issue of defining an ethnic. I asked whether the following person is an ethnic and, if so, how he is to be defined: Malaysian by birth, Ceylon Tamil by ancestry, Hindu by culture, and Australian by citizenship.)