Helen Kapalos - new Commissioner to Chair the Victorian Multicultural Commission

Helen Kapalos – new Commissioner to Chair the Victorian Multicultural Commission

A few days ago the Victorian government appointed Helen Kapalos as a new Commissioner to Chair the Victorian Multicultural Commission. She is an outstanding appointment and continues the tradition of pioneers such as George Lekakis. Details of this outstanding appointment can be read here:

In recent times Helen has been doing some work in another area of interest for me professionally. For those not aware of it I am the CEO of the Epilepsy Association of WA. One issue that has consumed our attention in recent years has been that of the use of Medical Marijuana in the treatment and management of Epilepsy. Helen has been doing a number of interviews with people who I know, such as Michelle Whitelaw and others, who are advocating in this arena.

When the announcement of Helen’s appointment as Chair of the Commission came through the other night I posted a message on my Facebook page and it was along these lines:

“Victoria does Multiculturalism very well. They have been served by good commissioners and I am sure Helen Kapalos will maintain a tradition that people like George Lekakis helped establish. Congratulations Helen and hopefully this is a model that we could follow here in WA.”

Soon after posting that I began to think about the structure of Multiculturalism as a public policy in Victoria and also to look at the issue of why they do it so much better than most other states.

At the simplest level, the Victorian structure has an Ethnic Affairs Commission as its’ overarching administrator of the policy of multiculturalism. The Ethnic Affairs Commission (EAC) has as its charter the following:

“ Established in 1983, the Victorian Multicultural Commission (VMC) has provided independent advice to the Victorian Government to inform the development of legislative and policy frameworks, as well as the delivery of services to our culturally, linguistically and religiously diverse society.

The VMC is the voice of Victoria’s culturally and linguistically diverse (CALD) communities and is the main link between them and the government. Our unique multicultural society remains one of our state’s greatest assets and strengths.

Operating under the Multicultural Victoria Act 2011 the VMC consists of 12 commissioners: a Chairperson, Deputy Chairperson, a Youth Commissioner, a representative of a community organisation and eight other members.

Objectives and functions

As specified in the Multicultural Victoria Act 2011 the VMC’s objectives are to promote:

  • full participation by Victoria’s diverse communities in the social, cultural, economic and political life of Victoria
  • access by Victoria’s diverse communities to government services
  • unity, understanding, mutual respect and harmony among Victoria’s diverse communities
  • co-operation between bodies concerned with multicultural affairs and diversity
  • a better understanding of Victoria’s diverse communities
  • the social, cultural and economic benefits of diversity, and
  • to encourage all of Victoria’s diverse communities to retain and express their social identity and cultural inheritance.

What we do

A key function of the VMC is to provide honest and candid advice to the government on multicultural affairs and citizenship in Victoria. The work of the Commission includes:

  • state-wide consultations via a network of regional advisory councils to determine the needs of Victoria’s diverse communities
  • developing and maintaining partnerships between community organisations that provide settlement support and service delivery for diverse communities
  • developing and maintaining harmonious community relations
  • researching, advising and reporting to the Minister for Multicultural Affairs and Citizenship on any matter relating to the commission’s objectives, and
  • focusing on systematic and community-wide settlement and service issues.” “A key function of the VMC is to provide honest and candid advice to the government on multicultural affairs and citizenship in Victoria”. Our structure here in WA is of a Public service department (Office of Multicultural Interests) reporting to a Minister. By definition, this structure makes it difficult for the Office to have a degree of independence from the Minister. In our case it is Minister Nahan. I have no issue with the Minister and am aware of his strong commitment to the issues of Multiculturalism. (I also disclose that I am a member of the Multicultural Advisory Group providing input to the Minister and the Office relating to Multicultural Policy). But the charter of the Commission in Victoria to produce “Honest and Candid advice” has resulted in the following initiatives:
  • A significant and important part of the charter of the EAC is as follows
  • Multicultural Victoria Act 2011:
    • The purpose of the bill is to
    • establish the principles of multiculturalism;
    • establish the Victorian Multicultural Commission (the commission);
    • provide for the establishment of eight regional advisory councils;
    • establish reporting requirements for government departments in relation to
    • service delivery for diverse communities and the   principles of
    • multiculturalism;
    • establish reporting requirements for the commission;
    • repeal and re-enact the Multicultural Victoria Act 2004; and
    • provide for necessary transitional provisions.
    • Racial and Religious Tolerance Act
    • A Human Rights Approach to the issue of Multiculturalism
    • A Whole of Government Approach to the issue

There is much to be gained from the adoption of an EAC to advance the cause of multiculturalism. A commission reporting directly to Parliament along the lines of what we already have in the area of Disability is a model that has delivered appropriate policies in Victoria.

In recent years most governments in WA have not treated Multiculturalism with the importance and respect it deserves. At one stage soon after Dr Geoff Gallop vacated the position of Premier we went through a period of around 12 months when we had 5 ministers for Multicultural Interests. One of those ministers had the position for all of 17 hours (John D’Orazio (now deceased). In recent years the position has been seen as a “junior” position. The current Minister had the position as his first portfolio. After some experience therein he was appointed Treasurer (on the fall from grace of one Troy Buswell) but retained the Ministerial position in Multicultural Interests.

We can but hope that our government considers the appointment of a commission and then attract someone of the calibre of Helen Kapalos to chair it. One priority that should be considered by this agency is the adoption of a religious vilification act or provisions of some kind. In recent years most human rights violations have been against the people of Islamic faith. Yet the provisions of the Criminal Code that govern this area do not provide for vilification that is based on religious grounds. I have been calling for this type of legislation since at least 2004.

In a previous article that I wrote in The Stringer I had this to say:

“I raised with the Commissioner an issue that I had referred to the AHRC. The issue involved a Facebook page that had a number of posts from people with a decided anti Muslim position.  The matter had been noted by the AHRC but they had indicated that they were powerless to do anything about it. The Commissioner went to great lengths to explain that the definition of Racial Vilification in the RDA did not include vilification on religious grounds. Hence the commission were not able to pursue definitive action herein. This is an issue that we have been faced with in WA when we consider the racial vilification provisions of the WA Criminal Code. There is no provision for the protection of religious groups in our community. But due to a decision in the High Court of England that found that Sikhs and Jews were considered to be races rather than religions, protection would be accorded to those particular groups. It is an area that needs advocacy groups to be agitating about with their members of Parliament.”

Nothing has changed here in WA since that time. The EAC in Victoria on the other hand has managed to get a Religious and Racial Intolerance Act in place.

We will continue to advocate in this regard here in WA. In the interim, our sincere congratulations go to Helen Kapalos on her appointment and I look forward to working with her into the future to attempt to address some of these issues.