Some basic steps toward cohesion

It is a sign of the times that on the International Day for the Elimination of Racial Discrimination, coalition MPs vote for a watering down of the race hate laws. But it is an age of political expediency (and survival) and those hoping to win some pendulum support in the anti-intellectual movement polarising tolerance and ‘common sense”  will understandably serve their own ends.  Yet this rancorous high level party debate seems to mean so little at a community level and it is at this level that diversity and intercultural tolerance have made the greatest inroads in Australia.

The dehumanised ‘types’ used in fear campaigns whether it is apex gangs, radicalised Muslims or even just those faceless (and therefore “valueless”) refugees languishing in offshore detention, make for suitable fodder for this populist branding that in turn fosters emotive ignorance. By contrast living next door to someone from Iraq or Sudan, sharing a park or playground  or just meeting them in the shopping queue or at a barbecue creates a very different impression. More than likely they are different but “not that bad after all”.

The point is that high level or elite discourse is paradoxically so out of touch with the street level reality or “common sense” it so much wants to appropriate. Bigger picture agendas obscure and derail the strangely persuasive common humanity which thriving communities are built on.

Interesting too that the concept of “interculturalism”,which encourages active and equitable interaction between groups over the passive tolerance of a simple “us and them”  has had more success at a village or community level . While national policy issues of multiculturalism languish in confusion or atrophy, bogged down in the hot-button topics of immigration or refugees, it is local government that has the most success at putting it into practice.

In December last year, Ballarat became the first Australian city to join the Intercultural Cities Network. The idea is to access the experience of 100 other cities worldwide and their programs and strategies on how they respond to increasing levels of cultural diversity. It isnt easy but precedents have been made and lessons learnt. The result is already Ballarat ranks fourth among members in the Intercultural Cities Index, the program’s evaluation gauge. The long term objective is to navigate the given  of cultural difference and protect social cohesion. That is something every community needs as part of its survival kit in this age.