Why an Institute?

Cultural diversity encompasses the full recognition of and participation by all Australians – whatever their origins – in defining and building our Nation and its future. Its two main dimensions – social inclusion and national development – make it a central concern for government, business and civil society.

The Institute for Cultural Diversity (the Institute) was established to contribute a non-partisan perspective to the positive role that a diverse population can play in building Australia’s future. The Institute is a think tank, a “broker” of relationships across communities and sectors, a communicator and an initiator of policy debate in the broad field of cultural diversity. The Institute initiates research, undertakes evaluation and consultancies, and other forms of partnership with stakeholders. The Institute aims to build these partnerships with government, business, academia and civil society by promoting informed debate, encouraging the dissemination of best practice in working with and across communities of difference, and promoting policy development on cultural diversity based on solidly researched evidence.

The Institute will

  1. open up communication between communities, civil society organizations, corporate Australia and the three levels of government on issues of cultural diversity through its web and real-world presence
  2. consult on, research and publicise issues associated with cultural diversity in relation to the workforce, education, the arts, the environment and community services, by mobilising national networks of expert researchers and practitioners
  3. help to build understanding between Australia’s Indigenous and culturally diverse communities in order to develop collaboration on projects of mutual concern
  4. advance a broader agenda associated with social inclusion, ensuring broad participation by Australia’s many diverse communities
  5. support and facilitate the recording and protection of Australia’s heritage through the recognition of the role of Indigenous, immigrant and well-established settler communities in the creation of a diverse contemporary Australian culture
  6. engage with key institutions in Australian society to enhance their capacity to respond to and include the nation’s cultural diversity in their planning, operations and evaluation of their effectiveness.

Why an Institute for Cultural Diversity?

The major changes in economic, social and security circumstances that Australia has experienced over the past two decades foreground the importance of cultural diversity in its two related facets – the contribution it makes to national development, and the demands it creates for overall social inclusion. The opening up of the economy to a globalising world, the increased inflow of immigrants from many new sources (over 200 national origins now present in Australia), the rapidity of communications, and the emerging sense of threat from overseas events and their local echoes, have all played a part in this process.

Australia is a culturally diverse society. Based on the 2006 census, about 30% of Australians have both their parents born overseas, and another 10% have one overseas born parent. Over 70% of Australians volunteer an ancestry other than Australian; of these over 60% identify an ancestry outside the British Isles. Indigenous people comprise just over 2% of the population. In the younger generation the majority of people in many localities are of culturally diverse origins. Australians today are a melange of peoples, who over time have developed a layered and complex culture that draws on many of these ancestries – often without awareness of their contribution. Cultures interact and produce new perspectives, sensibilities and capacities. Much of Australia’s creativity and energy come from these interactions.

In situations where we have ignored one or other facet of cultural diversity over the last decade, we have seen how intercultural relations can be sorely tested and how many Indigenous, immigrant and refugee communities have experienced marginalisation and social exclusion, while hostility and resentment has risen among less well-off sections of society. The contribution that cultural diversity could have made to the well-being of society has been reduced. We need to move beyond a polarised political debate on the issues associated with cultural diversity.

As the rate of population change quickens and we draw ever more people from many new sources, the challenge of cultural diversity moves more centrally into the mainstream of Australian policy and social life. We need to ensure that all Australians, whatever their origins, are included in the story of the nation, and that their many qualities are seen as resources to be drawn on for the future. There are very real dangers of cultural conflict, yet with an assertive strategy, potential points of tension can become the place for innovation.

The Institute was created out of this awareness. In late 2006, a meeting in Sydney of some 30 invited participants from across government, academic, community and corporate sectors explored the crisis in public policy in relation to cultural diversity. They represented different political views, many different ethnic backgrounds, and were drawn from across the generations. The consensus of the meeting was that a new initiative was required, one that could go beyond the arguments of the day to envision and support an inclusive cultural diversity for modern Australia. A core group of those involved proceeded to establish the Institute for Cultural Diversity (Institute), registered in September 2007 as a Company Limited by Guarantee (ACN 127 699 334). Upon his retirement from Federal Parliament, the Hon Bruce Baird accepted the Board’s invitation to become foundation Chair.

There are two major tasks for the Institute in the short term:
  • to promote sustained and informed debate about the nature of Australian society and the policy options we should pursue, drawing on our own and international experiences; and
  • to identify and support best practice in relation to cultural diversity throughout Australia, from corporate boardrooms and workplaces, to the sports field to education, to the community and to cultural industries.

During the past decade, the national consensus on the value of cultural diversity has dissipated, leaving a more fragmented, alienated and anxious society than before. It is important that cultural diversity now be reasserted as a valid and important characteristic of Australian society. We need to open up new relationships of collaboration and participation, processes which include Indigenous Australians, newly immigrant Australians and Australians of longer residence. We recognise that the government has voiced similar aspirations, as Kevin Rudd did in his election victory speech on November 24, 2007 when he said,

I will be a Prime Minister for all Australians. A Prime Minister for Indigenous Australians; Australians who have been born here and Australians who have come here from afar and have contributed to the great diversity that is our nation, Australia.

While government can and must play a central political role in this process, it is important that wide-ranging support and participation is secured from civil society, business and the wider community. The Institute for Cultural Diversity has been created to contribute to building this support, through the application of evidence-based analysis to the problems of social co-operation and participation in the wider society, and through opening up communication across our society. It is designed to be a forum where governments and the wider community can test ideas, develop policy options, and explore future possibilities. As we learn more about each other, stereotypes are dissolved and simplified images of others are replaced by more complex, nuanced and empathetic perceptions. We need now to ensure a secure society in which people are able to participate fully as active citizens, their contribution welcomed, and their capacities properly employed.

The Board of the Institute reflects this founding philosophy. Its first six members bring experience from government (at all levels), commerce, academia, the not-for-profit sector, the law and the media and a range of cultural backgrounds (Indigenous, established and newly arrived communities). While they are based in Sydney, they all have national experience and profile. The planned expansion of the Board and the Institute will recruit new members from around Australia. The current Board comprises of:

  • The Hon Bruce Baird, formerly Federal member for Cook, Minister in the NSW Government, Managing Director of the Tourism Council Australia and Trade Commissioner, Chair of the Refugee Resettlement Advisory Council (Chair)
  •  Dr Larissa Behrendt, Professor of Law and Director of Research at the Jumbunna Indigenous House of Learning at the University of Technology, Sydney, Chair National Indigenous Television, barrister, author
  • Dr Andrew Jakubowicz, Professor of Sociology and Director of the Centre for Cosmopolitan Civil Societies at the University of Technology Sydney, former member of Australia Council Multicultural Arts Committee, formerly member of the Board of Special Broadcasting Service (Secretary)
  • Mr Saeed Khan, Councillor Marrickville Council, Deputy Chair NSW Ethnic Communities’ Council, founding Member and current Vice President of the Urdu Society of Australia, Founding Coordinator of Pakistan Earthquake Appeal Coordination Committee in 2005, poet and formerly General Secretary of Pakistan Association of Australia (1999-2001)
  • Ms Mara Moustafine, author and consultant, President of International PEN’s Sydney Centre, formerly a diplomat and ministerial adviser, senior Telstra executive in Asia, immediate past National Director of Amnesty International Australia
  • Dr Anne Summers AO, author and journalist, formerly head of the Office of Status of Women, adviser to Prime Ministers Keating and Hawke, immediate past Chair of the Board of Greenpeace International, Deputy President of the Powerhouse Museum.

Whole of government approach

The concept of cultural diversity provides a good, working description of Australian society; it carries no specific ideological baggage. Indeed, the importance of cultural diversity in the lives of all Australians directs our attention to the recognition of its implications in all realms of government policy. From issues of social inclusion to the operation of the foreign affairs and trade portfolios, cultural diversity has increasing relevance. Whether we are concerned to ensure that marginalised individuals are empowered to voice their needs and have access to services that respect and respond to their own realities; ensuring that Australia can maximise its comparative advantages as a diverse and equitable society on the global stage; or seeking to stimulate the expression of a unique and changing Australian culture in the arts – a whole of government awareness of cultural diversity is essential.

While government needs to provide leadership, it will work most effectively in partnership with civil society organizations and the corporate sector. Given that cultural diversity questions affect every part of government and society, it is important that government’s civil society partners have the vision to move beyond the more constrained scope of past policies. Cultural diversity is not solely or even mainly the domain of ethnic or immigrant organizations or Indigenous communities. While multiculturalism has been presented in recent policy, often incorrectly, as the concern only of non-Anglo immigrant communities, cultural diversity perspectives are relevant to all Australians.

Cultural diversity has implications across many portfolios of Government. While the most obvious of these are Indigenous Affairs, Immigration and Citizenship, Social Inclusion and Foreign Affairs and Trade, there are also significant implications for Workplace Relations, Education, Women, Youth, Tourism, Communications and the Digital Economy, Health, Community Services, Ageing, Home Affairs and Prime Minister and Cabinet.


The Institute has identified some examples to indicate the possibilities for initiatives.

Immigration and Citizenship carries significant responsibilities for recruiting immigrants, managing settlement and supporting the process of citizenship. It thus plays a central role for all Australians in ensuring that population growth through immigration is planned, implemented and supported in ways that maximise the benefits of cultural diversity, while minimising the dangers that can result. The concept of active citizenship usefully points to the value of a national program that draws diverse communities into collaborative activities, at the local, regional and national levels, thereby building a stronger volunteer culture and enhancing so-called “bridging social capital”. These dimensions are of great importance in the integration of new and emerging communities. In addition an effective strategy that incorporates cultural diversity as a key component of settlement can help retain immigrants who might otherwise find themselves attracted to other countries.

Foreign Affairs and Trade can utilise Australia’s cultural diversity to represent the nation internationally, and build links into regions of origin of Australians. Reaffirming Australia as a culturally diverse society that respects difference and values inter-cultural competence can only strengthen Australia’s place in the region and the world.

In the Workplace Relations portfolio, there are issues such as ensuring that industry policy takes account of the cultural diversity of affected workforces, including positive action on workplace English language learning. Auditing the skills and capacities of newcomers ensures that overseas qualifications are recognised as soon as feasible to optimise contributions to Australian economy and society and deepen settlers’ desires to remain in Australia. Environment has to draw the diverse communities of Australia into its vision to ensure they are able to carry the demands that the future in a period of climate change might hold.

Education is a central concern of the Government and here cultural diversity is also important. Government needs to understand the issues associated with the digital divide and education in relation to cultural differences, thereby ensuring that structural discrimination is not embedded in educational policy and the broadband roll-out. It also needs to understand the importance of affirmative action or similar measures in relation to culturally diverse marginalised communities and families in relation to educational opportunity. Furthermore, in the wake of recent debates, it is important to ensure an appropriate role for cultural diversity in the development of national school-based history curricula. Perceptions of multi-lingualism as a social good are also affected by Education policy.

Indigenous Affairs has already started to come to grips with its challenges. It is important in that process to see bridge-building across cultural boundaries as an extremely important part of the future viability of diversity practices. The new Social Inclusion portfolio will immediately be involved with cultural diversity. The Government in conjunction with the states will be faced with the interaction of ethnicity, race, and social class on peoples’ ability to adapt to changing social and economic circumstances. Government will also be drawn to recognise the dangers associated with urban areas becoming “sinks” of poverty and social exclusion, characterised by concentrations of some culturally defined communities

Policies relating to Youth and Women spotlight the need for clear ideas about cultural diversity. This is particularly important where Indigenous and other cultural issues intersect. Facilitating the emergence and training of new generations of young leaders from across communities, through shared experiences of leadership development is one emerging area, while another is ensuring policies concerned with the status of women fully reflect the participation of Indigenous women and those of culturally diverse backgrounds.

The Arts and related portfolios will be able to identify the huge natural resource cultural diversity offers Australia, while preservation and recording of the cultural heritage of our diverse communities have already been identified by UNESCO as a priority. Meanwhile the cultural industries can be supported to build projects and audiences among and across communities, including more inclusive casting in the screen industries.

The role of PM and C as the coordinating Department gives it a role in ensuring cultural diversity is taken into account in Cabinet submissions and Budget development. In addition the symbolic representation of Australia’s diversity in government appointments should not be overlooked. Over the past decade the public face of government programs and services have become less reflective of diversity, sending an unfortunate signal to many of Australia’s culturally diverse citizens about how they are perceived.

We should also make mention of the role effective recognition of cultural diversity can play in building secure communities. This selection of issues and portfolios is provided as a way of highlighting the importance of cultural diversity awareness and inclusivity.

Institute priorities

During its start-up phase the Institute has identified a number of practical ways to advance a national agenda of inclusive cultural diversity.

Fostering an inclusive public debate

Public debate based on well-informed contributions underpinned by sound research plays a crucial role in building public confidence in diversity policies. Fragmented and limited research has characterised the past decade, so that public debate has not received the flow of argued policy perspectives necessary for informed decisions and community validation. While issues of cultural diversity can be controversial and sectional groups can and do use ignorance to promote fear and inter-group hostility, a wide public conversation about the many dimensions of cultural diversity can allay public fears and feed a more sophisticated and encompassing set of policy responses.

The Institute will contribute to fostering debate through a series of public seminars, lectures and conferences. These events will be held in co-operation with other organizations, including universities, arts organizations, community and service organizations, national and state/territory government and quasi-government bodies, civil society think tanks and media organizations. The outcomes will include pod and vod-casting, the wide dissemination of contributions through traditional publishing, issue and subject kits (for schools), online publishing and the general media.

The first planned event is a national conference in September 2008, to be held in Sydney, in partnership with university, education and civil society groups with the theme of “The 4 Rs: rights, respect, reconciliation, responsibility”. A longer term program of events is under discussion and development.

Building strong networks of communication

Contemporary Australia is a “network society”. Linking people with shared interests can trigger creative synergies that generate new ideas and circulate experimental but effective local responses to wider audiences. State initiatives, such as NSW Community Builders, Queensland’s Generate and VicNet, demonstrate how an infrastructure that delivers content of value will be used to build self-supportive groups.

The Institute will establish an Internet Portal to facilitate the creation of “communities of interest” of the following:

  • Researchers based in universities, government, civil society and commercial research organizations (drawing on and extending existing networks in related fields, including those stimulated by the Australian Research Council);
  • Civil society, government and other organizations involved in the development of policies and practices related to practical cultural diversity (in conjunction with state and national governments);
  • Artists and arts organizations committed to innovation and creativity based on identifying and advancing cultural diversity (in conjunction with organizations such as the Australia Council and state arts bodies)
  • Human Rights advocates, researchers, policy makers and civil society participants.

The Institute has identified the media as a potential partner in future program. As part of its development of communication networks, the Institute will partner with media industry bodies, including unions and corporations, to research, review and promote better creative and managerial practices. In particular, research has already demonstrated that the broad media in Australia have not contributed sufficiently to expressing and vigorously engaging with cultural diversity. The Institute will develop ways of facilitating creativity in this area, through partnerships, traineeships and other forms of encouragement and innovation. It will draw on international initiatives that may have local relevance.

Facilitating the collaborative creation of knowledge

One disturbing feature of current social awareness of diversity and its implications remains the low level of research in the field. The wider community and governments do not have access to the range and depth of information needed to grasp potential opportunities and face up to deep-seated challenges. Research agendas such as those advanced by the former Bureau of Immigration, Multicultural and Population Research have dissipated and the energy and activity sponsored by that framework have dissolved into small pockets. While this research has significance, its dissemination is limited and its impact constrained. Projects such as those being undertaken at the University of Western Sydney on social attitudes to cultural and religious conflict have exposed some of the tensions that exist in Australian society. They provided an early warning of the more widely spread problems that can erupt if ignored by policy. Events such as the Cronulla violence of December 2005 reveal the type of social problem that can erupt where policy in relation to social inclusion is ill-developed, and social programs have bypassed areas of great but unrecognised need.

The Institute will stimulate a national research agenda in cultural diversity and seek to broker relations between research groups on the one hand and government, corporate and civil society activities on the other. The Institute will publicise the opportunities for collaborative research, in relation but not restricted to the Australian Research Council Linkage grants. Particular emphasis will be placed on stimulating opportunities for young scholars from diverse backgrounds to join research teams in the context of the newly expanded Australian Postgraduate Awards scheme and its industry extensions.

Promoting innovation and best practice

While there have been many one-off initiatives in Australia that have yielded impressive results (such as the three-religions dialogues addressed to schools), there is no central clearing house of information in relation to cultural diversity in this country relating to best practice in Australia and internationally. As a core research and information project, the Institute will establish an on-line clearing house on cultural diversity, to collect, filter and disseminate reports and models of best practice across the range of government, corporate and civil society activities. In conjunction with existing sector-focussed bodies, such as the Australian Multicultural Foundation and the many Clearing Houses on social issues, the Institute will provide regular reviews of new programs and pointers to information and literature from Australia and overseas.

The Institute will facilitate the holding of regular seminars and link-ups to discuss innovation and to promote the criteria for developing, implementing and evaluating best practice across the range of issues and areas relevant to a cultural diversity perspective. As part of this process, the Institute will seek to develop action-research based projects in collaboration with stakeholders, to identify the ideas, processes and outcomes of greatest value to Australian businesses and communities. It will also participate in partnership with other bodies in the recognition of best practice through awards and similar public events.

The Institute will promote action research methodologies to explore and report on field projects in conjunction with innovators across sectors. In this process, knowledge created in the field can be transferred to the wider community, while recognising and respecting the environment in which it is created.