When Scott Morrison was sworn
in as Prime Minister on August 24th 2018, he outlined three commitments that
would be his government’s focus: keeping our economy strong; keeping
Australians safe; and keeping Australians together.
Australia is a very different
place to what it was two years ago – with the COVID pandemic having a
devastating impact, particularly in Melbourne – but these commitments remain
Today I want to discuss the
third of these commitments – keeping Australians together – and what we need to
do to maintain our social cohesion, particularly in the current COVID climate.
COVID has already caused
hundreds of deaths and massive damage to our economy, but in Melbourne at
least, which remains under harsh lockdown and curfew, it has the potential to
tear apart our social fabric if we are not careful.
I want to begin this speech
with a message for my fellow Victorians, and indeed all Australians, to
continue to reach out to each other in these unprecedented times and make the
additional effort to maintain the community linkages which are the bonds that
keep our society together.
Today, I want to discuss at a
broader strategic level the challenges we face as a nation in maintaining our
unity – not just due to COVID – but challenges we have not previously faced as
a nation. At least not to the same extent as we do now.
Whilst our immediate focus is
on fighting the pandemic, we must also put in place the building blocks for the
medium and long term so that our society emerges in a stronger place.
A standard bearer in
When discussing social
cohesion, Australia’s starting position is one of strength.
Our nation is not perfect,
but it is as strong and united as any country on earth.
Consider some of the data.
According to the Scanlon
Foundation (which provides the most comprehensive annual assessment of Australia’s
social cohesion), 90 per cent of Australians had a “great” or “moderate” sense
of belonging in Australia; 84 percent were “very happy” or “happy” over the
last year, while 62 per cent were “optimistic” or “very optimistic” about
Australia’s future. Now these were pre-pandemic survey results from 2019, but
they are still illustrative.
The World Economic Forum in
their Global Social Mobility Index, finds that Australians’ social mobility is
high. Pre-COVID, our employment levels were also high and, importantly,
there was little difference in the unemployment rate between new arrivals to
our shores and those born here, whereas across the OECD, there was an average
2.9 percent gap between the migrant and non-migrant unemployment rate. In the
European Union it was a 4.1 percentage point gap.
Migrants create more small
businesses in Australia proportionately than non-migrants, despite 83 percent
of migrant business owners not owning a business before coming here.
What all this data shows is
that regardless of where you come from, everyone in Australia has the
opportunity to ‘have a go’ and succeed.
As the Prime Minister has
said, ‘if you have a go, you’ll get a go’ in Australia.
People aren’t excluded.
Individuals such as Hieu Van Le are living examples of this: a person arriving
as a refugee from Vietnam is now the Governor of South Australia.
Our social cohesion is
particularly remarkable given the size and diversity of our migrant intake.
There are people from every single country on earth living here. Almost 30
percent of us were born overseas and a further 21 percent have at least one
migrant parent. The United States, known as the “great melting pot”, has just
13 percent born overseas.
Further, we have not seen the
extent of religious or ethnic violence experienced in some other countries.
We’ve actually seen quite the opposite, and this has never been more on display
than during the bushfires and the COVID pandemic where multicultural
communities have stood up to support their fellow Australians.
When you see Buddhist monks
providing free massages to weary fire-fighters, Muslim builders putting on
barbeques for bushfire survivors, Irish truck drivers delivering hundreds of
thousands of litres of water, and Sikhs cooking and delivering curries to Melbourne’s
public housing estates during the COVID lockdown, you know we have something
special in this nation.
We have fought hard to build
and maintain our social cohesion. Of course, we began European settlement
without the class structures that are present in other countries. And
egalitarianism, articulated through mateship and the ‘fair go’, have permeated
our society. In recent decades, our policy of multiculturalism based on
integration (as opposed to assimilation or separatism) has also served us well.
The Government has put
policies in place to support people to integrate, including funding a $71
million package of initiatives to ensure that what we share and what brings us
together is always stronger and more important than any differences.
In the work my department
does, we have supported measures through the Fostering Integration Grants that
have enabled new arrivals to become part of and contribute to Australia’s
economic and social development; we have built interfaith and multicultural understanding
through sport, in classrooms, cultural institutions and through
community-driven programs and outreach; and we’ve promoted resilience against
harmful and divisive messages, particularly those that promote violence.
John Howard when speaking here
at the National Press Club in 2006 said that:
crowning achievement, borne of its egalitarian tradition, is its social
cohesion. No country has absorbed as many people from as many nations and as
many cultures as Australia and done it so well. The strength of a culturally
diverse community, united by an overriding and unifying commitment to
Australia, is one of our greatest achievements and one of our great national
He was right back then, and
the evidence suggests that this remains one of “our great national
Challenges to our cohesion
While we should be proud of
what we have collectively achieved, we cannot be complacent. There are
factors today, putting strain on our cohesion that weren’t there 14 years ago,
when John Howard made those comments, or even six months ago in some
So, far from being
complacent, it means we need to redouble our efforts.
Consider four big newer or
enhanced challenges we face today.
First, COVID itself.
John Ferguson from The
Australian newspaper wrote earlier this month that the Stage 4 lockdown
restrictions in Melbourne “will crudely tear the state’s social fabric”. I am
not as pessimistic as he is, but there is no doubt that the impact will be
devastating for many and challenge us all in ways previously unseen.
Even in other states,
everyday community activities which have traditionally been so important at
holding communities together are not as vibrant as they once were, or they are
still restricted: activities like community and national sport, church and
worship attendance, meetings or gatherings at the local RSL or pub, the local
Rotary or Lions meeting, or scouts. Even office working life has changed
dramatically, with less physical interaction with our colleagues.
Technology can only do so much to make up for this lack of physical community.
Most concerning, however, is
the impact of COVID on jobs. Compared to other countries, our economy is robust
and holding up, but Treasury is still forecasting the COVID effective
unemployment rate to rise to more than 13 percent in the September quarter.
This will be devastating for so many.
Moreover we know that when
unemployment rises, sentiment towards migrants can deteriorate. We have already
seen some disgraceful racist attacks against Asian Australians – actions that
have no place in the country. We must always guard against such behaviour and
call out racist acts wherever they occur. The vast majority of Australians
would agree 100% with this sentiment.
interference in Australia is at an unprecedented high. As Director-General of
Security, Mike Burgess bluntly put it earlier this year: “The level of
threat is higher now than it was at the height of the cold war.”
Foreign actors have multiple
objectives, but one is to seek to grow division in our society by pushing
people away from Australia and placing their loyalties elsewhere. They seek to
sow distrust in government and institutions.
Every sector of our community
is a potential target, including parliamentarians, their staff, and all levels
of government, the media, opinion makers, business leaders, and the university
I am particularly concerned
about the reach of some foreign actors into our multicultural
communities. Members of our diverse communities have been both victims of
interference and used as vectors to engage in foreign interference. Despite now
being proud Australians, some communities are still seen by their former home
countries as “their diaspora” – to be harassed or exploited to further the
Some who criticise their
former country are silenced through threats and intimidation, including to
family members back in their country of heritage. Others are persuaded or
forced to monitor or harass members of their own community who may hold views
contrary to those of the governing regimes in their former countries.
Further, malign information
or propaganda can be spread through multicultural media, including foreign
language media controlled or funded by state players. This can be particularly
influential if local residents’ English is poor and hence they are more reliant
on foreign language sources.
The third challenge is the
increasing number of those who cannot speak English. In 2006, about 560,000
residents did not speak English well or at all. By 2016, at the last Census, it
was 820,000. Based on those trends, it is probably close to a million by now –
with about half of those being of working age.
Having poor or non-existent
English skills is a huge disadvantage to anyone in Australia because of the
barriers it places in gaining employment and fully integrating into Australian
life. Indeed, there is no other factor that I have seen which has such a strong
correlation with employment. Only 13 per cent of those with no English skills
are in work compared to 62 per cent of those who speak English well.
And when the number of people
with poor English skills is high, our national cohesion is also affected. How
can we fully connect together without a common language? How can everyone fully
and comprehensively participate in our democracy?
We have seen this through the
pandemic where it has been difficult to communicate with all Australians
through the mainstream channels. During this time, we have significantly
increased our engagement with community leaders and organisations. Ministerial
engagement has been as high as ever during these COVID restrictions, with
technology being a major driver in these engagements – providing a regular
connection in bringing community leaders together from around Australia.
Since March there has been
more than 6,700 engagements with key multicultural groups and community
leaders. And whilst we have produced over 4,600 materials translated in 63
languages to accommodate this, the challenge in engaging with all Australians
This is not to blame anyone
whose English language proficiency is poor, but clearly full participation in
the community is difficult when there are language barriers.
Without English language
skills, migrants are less likely to get a job, less likely to integrate, and
less likely to participate in our democracy.
Moreover, living in Australia
does not guarantee that English will be acquired. Based on census data, it is
estimated that around half of the overseas-born who arrived with no English
still cannot speak English well, or at all, after 15 years of residency.
Whilst a 2019 ABS survey
showed that the numbers may have slightly improved, there still remains a significant
challenge for us to improve this overall trend. We particularly need to get
better results from our $1 billion Adult Migrant English Program (which I will
come to later).
During John Howard’s address
here in 2006, the iPhone hadn’t even been brought to market. It was still
a time when the vast majority of Australians read a daily newspaper that
largely competed for the middle ground. They, and the nightly news, set the
agenda of what was considered to be the common challenges facing our nation.
Today, with technology and
media disintermediation, people (and particularly younger people) are
increasingly living in online echo chambers with their news content filtered,
curated and personalised to reflect their own world view. A person with
left-wing views may never come across any content written or said by
conservatives, and vice versa.
These echo chambers are
particularly dangerous when they bring together those advocating violent
extremism or targeting a minority. Online algorithms can then direct them to
more hateful, violent, and divisive content and other like-minded individuals,
many of them anonymous.
Technology has also been a
key factor in allowing fake and malign information to be spread quickly, easily
Former Chief Rabbi of the
Commonwealth, Lord Jonathan Sacks, who has written extensively on this topic,
also notes that with technology almost any clash in the world can be imported
into a conflict locally. “What might, twenty years ago, have been a local
problem dealt with locally….can now set off a series of protests [on the other
side of the world] with a ferocity beyond anyone’s power to control. …The
result is serious and the danger may get worse.”
Don’t get me wrong. I am not
making an argument against technology. It can be brilliant at joining people up
and creating digital communities (and we have seen this in spades during the
COVID restrictions). But it also has immense power to divide individuals
and communities, as we have already seen.
There are other challenges to
our cohesion that remain, such as Islamic extremism and other forms of
extremism and radicalisation. But I raise these four challenges: COVID, foreign
interference, English language capability, and technology, because they present
new threats to our social cohesion which we must be alert to and make
additional efforts to address.
Maintaining our social
When I think about Australia,
I am an optimist.
We are a robust, resilient
people and as I mentioned at the beginning of my remarks, we start from an
Our social fabric is strong
with hundreds of thousands of volunteer and community groups which bring people
Moreover, we have already
done so much to counter some of our new challenges directly. For example, the
work that the Federal and State Governments have done, with community support,
to tackle COVID means that we are amongst the best positioned in the world.
Our economic supports have kept the unemployment rate five percentage points
lower than it would otherwise be. Job creation is now an even more critical
mission of the Government.
Outside of Victoria, some
states and territories are easing restrictions on social gatherings to allow
those community groups to flourish again, along with things that foster social
cohesion – like sport, community gatherings and entertainment. It is these
“little platoons” (as Edmund Burke called them) that are possibly the most
important thing of all in binding us together. Victoria will hopefully soon
follow and these platoons can once again flourish in our community.
On foreign interference, so
much work has been done and will continue to be done. The Government has
passed new laws and established the office of the National Counter Foreign
Interference Coordinator. We’ve established the ASIO-led multi-agency Counter
Foreign Interference Taskforce and developed guidelines with universities to
counter foreign interference in the tertiary education sector.
And we are also tackling
technology-based challenges. Agencies are working closely with digital industry
to identify and quickly seek removal of malign information, vile racist
content, and exploitative material. The Minister for Communications and the
Minister for Home Affairs continue their work in this area – towards ensuring a
safer, more open and secure internet.
As I mentioned earlier, the
Government has also significantly increased its engagement with multicultural
communities, providing reassurance, assistance and information and conveying
feedback to Government.
New measures to enhance
Today, I announce new
measures to further the work of keeping Australians together as these new
To start, we will be
initiating a renewed push on the most important element which binds us together
more than anything else: our liberal democratic values.
Our shared values
– of democracy, a commitment to the rule of law, freedom of speech and
association, mutual respect, equality of opportunity and individual
responsibility – are the foundations of our modern society, as is the value
that we place on a ‘fair go’ for all.
These values have
held us together over the decades and have underpinned the freedom and
prosperity that has made our nation so attractive for millions of migrants to
seek to come here.
Our values defend us against
challenges to our social cohesion.
Defending and promoting our
values is a task for all of us, but the government also has a special
responsibility in this area.
With this in mind, we will
develop a broader campaign articulating our national identity, our
multicultural success, and the Australian values which underpin our nation.
We will also place a greater
emphasis on Australian citizenship, encouraging people to take it up and
educating people about what it means to declare one’s loyalty to our nation and
its people. Over the last 12 months, we have made particular effort to
encourage and facilitate citizenship with a record 200,000 becoming Aussies,
and we need to maintain this momentum.
I am announcing today that we
will be updating the Australian citizenship test and this will include new
questions on Australian values. I will have more to say on this in coming
weeks, but the stronger focus on Australian values in citizenship testing will
be an important part of helping protect our social cohesion into the future.
Australian citizenship is both a privilege and a
responsibility, and it should be granted to those who support our values,
respect our laws, and want to contribute to Australia’s future. We should
ensure that those who come here and those who want to settle here clearly
understand – and are willing to commit to – the shared common values that unite
us all as Australians.
The Government will also be
updating the Australian Values Statement – something that is signed by
temporary and permanent migrants as well as citizenship applicants. This
will make the Statement more meaningful so that it reflects the importance we
place on the values that define and shape our country and culture.
As well as these initiatives,
the Government is making substantial changes to our Adult Migrant English
Program (AMEP) so that English capability is more widespread.
This is a billion dollar
program, but it is presently not having a sufficient impact. It currently
provides migrants 510 hours of free language tuition (with a very small number
eligible for up to 1090 hours), but, on average, people only complete 300 hours
of classes and only 21 percent leave with a functional level of English.
This is not good enough.
The current program is mostly
classroom-based and doesn’t provide the flexibility needed for people working
or with caring responsibilities, and doesn’t sufficiently take advantage of the
massive opportunities from Ed-Tech. Moreover, once you have been here for
five years, a person becomes ineligible to take further classes. In many
cases, 510 hours is also insufficient, particularly for those whose native
language is not a European language, which is many of the major groups of our
new migrants today.
Hence, the Government will
lift the cap on class hours and remove the time limits. From today, this means
that any permanent resident or citizen who doesn’t yet have functional English
– that is, the basic language skills to enable participation in society – will
be able to attend classes free of charge until they acquire this language
I am encouraging those who
fit this description to take up this opportunity. Use this time to become
better equipped in learning English.
Further, once we pass
legislation, people will also be able to continue to undertake classes until
they reach vocational level English.
We will work closely with the English language
providers and the industry, including Ed-Tech, to ensure these reforms generate
the improvements we need and expect. I want to see better results from the
providers, starting now.
The Government will also
boost our successful Community Liaison Officer network to include more officers
with dual language skills – including in Arabic, Mandarin, Cantonese and
Vietnamese – to enhance our engagement with communities at a grassroots level.
This will help us to better understand issues in these communities and better
ensure they are receiving Government information and support. We started this
network when I was last Minister for Multicultural Affairs and it has been
effective in reaching out to communities. We will now go further.
Finally, there will be
further investment to understand and track our social cohesion in a more sophisticated
manner. This will include a focused research program designed to better
understand community sentiment towards social cohesion. For example, we will
partner with the Scanlon Foundation Research Institute to better harness their
research to inform our social cohesion policy-making and program delivery and
allow an ongoing public discussion about this area.
These initiatives will
reinforce our values, strengthen our common language and keep us further
The goal of social cohesion
is one for all of us to progress and to take action where we can at an
individual and community level.
This is particularly
important now during these very tough times – certainly for those in
For Victorians who endured
Lockdown 1.0, and now Lockdown 2.0 with an added curfew, the slogan that
somehow ‘staying apart helps keep us together’ has basically turned the notion
of social cohesion and community on its head.
Of course, no one wants to
lock people in their homes. Perhaps we need to think longer term, with the hope
that the silver lining in all of this might be a stronger community at the
other end. For instance, once restrictions ease more broadly, what if we all
commit to joining a new community group, or a Rotary or Lions club; or commit
to introducing ourselves to a neighbour or a new arrival in the community; or
commit to a volunteering pursuit; or commit to assisting the vulnerable or
lonely. Whilst we will eventually get through this terrible period, wouldn’t it
be good to strengthen our social cohesion when we do? To build on the great
community support we saw in the first lockdown.
2020 has already
shown us the challenges and uncertainty we face – from bushfires and
floods, a global pandemic, sophisticated cyber-attacks and
foreign interference. All of this has occurred against a backdrop of a
more complex geo-political environment in our region.
But when we look
around the world, we are in an enviable position.
Few nations could claim to enjoy the peaceful
unity that characterises Australia’s multicultural society, and our challenge
today is to ensure we remain one of the most successful multicultural societies
in the world.
The government is stepping up
to play its part.
It is my hope that the
community will continue to step up and do what Australians do so well – looking
after each other to build an even stronger Australia.