Australia: Multicultural groups welcome federal government’s move to collect ethnicity data

Another long overdue step:

The federal government has announced it will begin collecting ethnicity data as part of measuring diversity in Australia, a move long called for by experts and multicultural community groups.

Key points:

  • Comparable countries like the US, Canada and New Zealand collect data about ethnicity to measure diversity
  • Experts say failure to understand the make up of multicultural Australia hindered COVID-19 responses
  • The federal government aims to collect ethnicity data at the next census

Country of birth and language spoken at home have historically been the main diversity indicators used by Australian government agencies.

But experts say this does not adequately capture the diversity of the community — not least because many Australians from diverse backgrounds are born in Australia and speak English.

“Australia does not effectively measure our diversity,” Andrew Giles, the new Minister for Immigration, Citizenship, Migrant Services and Multicultural Affairs, told a conference in Melbourne.

He said Australia’s failure to collect data on ethnicity or race — unlike the US, Canada and New Zealand — was a “fundamental barrier to understanding the issues that face multicultural Australians”.

“I looked at the sort of countries that we often compare ourselves to … and we weren’t compiling data that enables us to understand the representation of different population groups,” Mr Giles told the ABC at the Federation of Ethnic Communities Councils of Australia (FECCA) conference.

“This became a much bigger issue, of course, during the pandemic, where we saw really uneven health impacts, particularly in the vaccination rollout.”

Last year, the ABC reported that while the federal government had committed to sourcing ethnicity data during COVID-19 testing and vaccination, Victoria was the only state collecting data on ethnicity.

This was despite indications that culturally and linguistically diverse communities were being harder-hit by coronavirus outbreaks, such as those in Western Sydney and public housing towers in Melbourne.

“The pandemic showed us some pretty hard truths about our society,” Mr Giles said.

“The truth someone born in the Middle East was 10 times as likely to have died during the pandemic, than someone born in Australia, is unacceptable.”

Australian Bureau of Statistics (ABS) data to January 2021 showed that Australian residents born in the Middle East and North Africa were over 10  times more likely to die of coronavirus than people born in Australia.

Those born in South-East Asia and southern and central Asia, meanwhile, were around twice as likely to die of COVID.

“That is the most extreme example of many about our failures to ensure that everyone was counted, and everyone was supported, through a difficult time. I don’t want that to happen again,” Mr Giles said.

A culturally and linguistically diverse data collection working group with representatives from peak multicultural bodies, along with data collection and demography experts, would be established to develop national standards for diversity data collection, Mr Giles said.

The pandemic showed there was a “gaping hole” in the data collected about the Australian population, according to FECCA chief executive Mohammad al-Khafaji.

“COVID has provided that opportunity for us to actually look seriously at the systemic barriers for us to address this issue,” he said.

Mr al-Khafaji welcomed Mr Giles’s announcement, saying he was pleased the new government recognised it as a priority.

“We’ve been calling for this for the past few years, and we’re glad that that call has been answered,” he said.

“If you’re not counted, you don’t know that you exist, and the programs and the policies won’t reflect the diversity of Australia today.”

Ahead of the 2021 census, people from Asian and Pacific Islands ethnic minority backgrounds told the ABC the Australian Bureau of Statistics was not accurately capturing their ancestry.

Mr Giles said he wanted the changes to inform the next census in 2026.

“The data set we have about this is imprecise, because place of birth doesn’t really tell us the full story about who someone is, how they identify, and that’s why we do need to get better data,” he said.

Race Commissioner wants more data on racism

Australia’s Racial Discrimination Commissioner, Chin Tan, also welcomed Mr Giles’s announcement of the shift towards collecting more detailed data on diversity, calling it a “positive move”.

“We are now looking at focusing on an area that we should have taken care of a long time ago,” Mr Tan said.

“For me it’s a positive move to get more information that will support multicultural communities and support Australia in advancing multiculturalism.”

He told the ABC the Australian Human Rights Commission wanted to see greater data collection on race issues and racism.

“While we applaud and will support initiatives toward multicultural data collection, we are also looking at data collection that will capture race and race issues in this country as well,” Mr Tan said.

He said Australia was still “lagging far behind” other countries in terms of multicultural policies and programs.

“Our multicultural future needs to be enhanced, and needs to be strengthened, and reinforced,” Mr Tan said.

“We need to have policies and programs, and funding obviously, to support that.”

Source: Multicultural groups welcome federal government’s move to collect ethnicity data

About Andrew
Andrew blogs and tweets public policy issues, particularly the relationship between the political and bureaucratic levels, citizenship and multiculturalism. His latest book, Policy Arrogance or Innocent Bias, recounts his experience as a senior public servant in this area.

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