Dr Aly, the first Muslim woman to be elected to federal Parliament, told The Sun-Herald and Sunday Age it was time to revisit what multiculturalism “actually means”.
“It’s no longer just about celebrating our cultural diversity one day a year by dipping your sausage roll in soy sauce,” she said. “It actually has significant impacts on people’s lives as well.”
In the wake of its devastating 2019 election loss, the Labor Party is prioritising engagement with migrant communities. It will return to parliament next month with a new caucus committee tasked with reviewing legislation from a multicultural perspective and consulting with community groups about their views and concerns.
This follows the ALP’s post-election review, which recommended the party develop a “coherent strategy” to engage with culturally and linguistically diverse communities, including Chinese Australians, “to improve Labor’s standing with disaffected voters”.
It also mirrors concerns from some senior Labor MPs that the party “didn’t get it right” when it came to religious voters in 2019.
Dr Aly, who worked as a counter-terrorism expert before coming to Canberra in 2016, said multiculturalism had “not evolved” over the past 30 years. “When I go out and I talk to young people … they’re still facing issues of racism and discrimination.”
A 2019 Australian National University/ Western Sydney University study found 60 per cent of 4600 NSW and Victorian school students surveyed said they had witnessed racism.
The Labor MP also highlighted training and skills recognition as an ongoing problem. A November 2019 Bankwest Curtin Economics Centre report found only 60 per cent of migrants from non-English-speaking backgrounds were working in jobs that matched their skill levels. This wasted ability is estimated to cost the Australian economy up to $6 billion a year.
“My dad was an engineer. He came here and got a job as a bus driver,” Dr Aly said.
Labor’s multicultural affairs spokesperson, Andrew Giles, said Australia needed a new government-sponsored white paper on multiculturalism that asked “what can it mean to be Australian?”
“We haven’t really had a national conversation about our multiculturalism since the ’90s,” he said.
Labor’s election review noted that in the time since Labor last won a federal election in 2010, the mix of Australia’s overseas-born population had shifted towards people in Australia’s region. China, India, the Philippines and Vietnam are now in the top six countries of birth, along with England and New Zealand.
It also found campaign headquarters “largely limited” its engagement with culturally and linguistically diverse communities to digital campaigning, adding there were examples of engagement at the local level but “these practices were not uniformly pursued”.
Mr Giles, who will chair Labor’s new multicultural caucus committee, said a “big lesson” of the review was to make sure “we aren’t talking at people, we’re listening to them”.
“The one thing that we are all determined to do is to do everything we can to form government at the next election. And that requires both retaining the trust of those communities who supported us and reaching out to those who didn’t,” he said.
He conceded there were no “easy answer” but said the party needed to be prepared to listen, “and to act, having listened”.
Judith Ireland is a political reporter for the Sydney Morning Herald and The Age, based at Parliament House