My Column in Neos Kosmos on Multiculturalism during COVID-19

The COVID-19 pandemic has, as we all know, presented us with the challenge of rebuilding our economy and creating employment. Inevitably, this has reopened the perennial debate about immigration and population policy. These are legitimate issues for us as a nation to tackle, but we must be very clear that the debate should not descend into xenophobia or scapegoating.

Australia's unemployment rate reached 6.2 per cent in April, and is expected to grow even higher. There is hope that many people will be able to return to their jobs once the worst of the crisis has passed and re- strictions are eased, but we also know that realistically, this won't be the case for everyone.

It is simplistic to say, however, that migration should automatically be reduced as a response to high unemployment. As the history of Australia's social and economic development has shown, a well- managed migration policy actually helps to build our economy and create jobs. Australian nationhood has been built on migration. The various components of our migration program are central to our economic, social and cultural future, whether it is addressing skill shortages through skilled migration, enabling family reunion, or resettling refugees in urgent need of safety and security. Of course we must craft our migration program in a way that ensures access to jobs for current Australians citizens and residents.

We need to find ways to again welcome international students, to help rebuild our vital education export industry. These students are important not just economically for our university sector, but provide an important opportunity for Australia to build cultural links and to support the development of other nations in our region by building intellectual capital and capacity.

It may be necessary to readjust our migration intake in the short term, to accommodate for local employment needs, but our response should be measured, informed and developed within a vision for our nation’s long term future.

We also need to be un- ambiguously clear that an immigration program is quite a separate is- sue from multicultural- ism. As community leaders, we have a responsibility to demonstrate to the nation that, while we can review our immigration policy according to our social and economic needs, racial intolerance, abuse and discrimination are NEVER acceptable. Regardless of who might become Australian in the future, our national identity and social cohesion depends on how all those living in Australia today are treated. We must condemn the reported incidents of abuse and harassment of Asian Australians and international students in recent weeks. While people are clearly frightened by the disease, and frustrated by the impact of restrictions, there is no excuse for vilifying anybody on the basis of race, ethnicity or appearance. Multiculturalism has been built in this country over many decades, and is central to our social cohesion.

Our recovery from the pandemic will depend very much on both building our economy, and maintaining our national unity and inclusiveness.