Shake, shuffle and roll
Two things have made the headlines out of Howard's recent cabinet reshuffle – he has sacked Amanda Vanstone from his cabinet. She was rolled from her troubled position as Minister of Immigration and Multicultural Affairs.
And Howard has re-named the portfolio the Department of Immigration and Citizenship. DIC. I think that's about right.
Amanda Vanstone was in charge of the most troubled Department in federal government as a number of debacles came to light. First, we discovered the detention of Australian resident Cornelia Rau in immigration detention – a mentally ill women wrongly accused of being an illegal immigrant and kept in the horrendous conditions at Baxter until asylum seekers there alerted refugee rights advocates of her condition.
Then, it was discovered that Immigration officials had deported an Australian woman of Filipino background, Vivian Solon, to the Philippines – and then covered it up when they discovered the mistake!
The two cases exposed the Immigration officials as bullying, insensitive to the suffering of the people under their charge, and acting with one eye on the attitudes of their political masters rather than from their duty of care. It is quite rightly pointed out that these incidents actually occurred when the Ministry was under the former Minister, Philip Ruddock.
However, while Vanstone initiated some 'reviews' and talked about changing the 'culture' of the department, I think she fundamentally took on a position of covering her government's arse – usually at the expense of the people who were ground through the mill of immigration detention and applications for asylum. She maintained the government's long standing hard-lined stance against refugees with the usual bullying denigration of asylum seekers who arrived by boat, and defended the unconscionable way they are held in detention. She should have been sacked a long time ago.
Who replaces her, however, is no better. Kevin Andrews is the Government's new DIC head. He helped deliver the government's new anti-worker Industrial Relations laws. And he will oversee the department, in its new incarnation, that will dismantle the many, many gains that multiculturalism has brought Australia.
The removal of 'Multicultural Affairs' from the portfolio and its replacement with 'Citizenship' is not just cosmetic. It signals the Howard government's fundamental approach to winding back the efforts of migrants – who form Australia's diverse ethnic minorities – to win some space for our communities to practice our various cultures, foster our languages amongst our children, and help instill pride in our families' cultural practices in the generations succeeding those who came to this country with hopes for something better.
Howard and his followers celebrate and defend this move as a return to 'rationality' and assert 'integration' (into 'Australia') over the social and cultural disintegration they see in every incident of cultural conflict. However, in its essence, winding back multiculturalism is a return to the bad old days of assimilation.
However much the pundits wish to glitz this move as about 'integration', it's just plain old assimilation – ugly and hurtful, just as Howard intends it. Let's be reminded that this was the man who criticised Asian immigration when he was Opposition leader back in the 80s (that old fear of Asian hordes 'swamping' Australia), and who played coy with Pauline Hanson's anti-immigration, anti-Asian, anti-Indigenous populism in the 90s.
Just so you know where we're standing in the 00s.