Written by Mr David French, Chief Executive, Commonwealth Institute, and Mr Hass Dellal, Executive Director, Australian Multicultural Foundation.
The Diversity Matters Forum was held in Brisbane, Australia between 3 and 5 October 2001. Conceived and organised by the Commonwealth Institute and the Australian Multicultural Foundation, the forum attracted seventy speakers, experts and delegates from nine Commonwealth countries who gathered to debate the case for a new Commonwealth initiative on the promotion of constructive cultural diversity in the Commonwealth, and to identify ways to incorporate diversity as an integral part of the Commonwealth’s policy agenda in the new Century.
The events of September 11 in New York and Washington gave the forum’s focus and themes a poignancy and timely relevance that the organisers could not have anticipated. The impact of international terrorism on intercultural relations thus provided a backdrop for the forum’s proceedings.
The rationale behind the forum and its agenda was that there is a powerful case for the Commonwealth to lead in championing cultural diversity on the world stage. Virtually every one of the 54 member nations has a rich multicultural heritage. Yet many of these societies struggle with the realities of prejudice, inequality and disintegration derived from racial, cultural or ethnic difference.
As globalisation develops, accelerated by the emerging technologies, the opportunities to cross the barriers of prejudice and difference remain limited, whether by circumstance or perception. These perceptions are formed young, often by the pressures of domestic life, the norms of the school, community or cultural environment. The organisers believed, therefore, that our challenge is to value and celebrate diversity so that we break down the barriers of mistrust and prejudices.
Although the Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting, due to take place in Brisbane between 6 and 9 October 2001, was postponed because of the prevailing international tensions resulting from the terrorist attacks, the forum’s recommendations would be transmitted to government leaders and the Commonwealth Secretary-General when they reconvened in March 2002.
The Commonwealth Secretary-General was unable to address the forum as originally planned, but his thinking on diversity was in the forefront of our minds throughout our proceedings.
“.diversity has to be strongly celebrated in a multicultural society for there to be peace, progress and stability. There is no guarantee that these things will fall into place, but governments do have an obligation to support and promote tolerance, liberation and celebration in a society that takes pride in being multicultural”. (Hugh Gaitskell Lecture: 21 March 2001).
The forum was held over three days and included keynote addresses at plenary sessions by experts from around the Commonwealth, with follow-up workshops on each issue. These workshops provided the opportunity for delegates to proffer ideas and draft recommendations which would contribute to the final resolutions of the forum.
At the outset of the forum, a ‘Welcome to the Country’ from the traditional owners of Brisbane was given by Maroochy Barambah, Turbal Songwoman and Law-woman.
The forum was officially opened by The Hon Philip Ruddock MP, former Australian Minister for Immigration and Multicultural Affairs and Minister for Reconciliation and Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Affairs. In his address, Minister Ruddock said that “we must continue to embrace diversity, encourage respect for cultural difference and the benefits it can bring”.
The official welcome was given by The Hon Sir James Gobbo AC CVO, Chairman of the Australian Multicultural Foundation. In his address, Sir James encouraged delegates to “endeavour to produce from this Forum a practical set of proposals to advance implementation of principles which are clear enough and need not be redebated”.
The forum was also addressed by Ms Jackie Huggins AM, Deputy Director of the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Studies Unit, University of Queensland. Ms Huggins emphasised “that partnerships should be mutually beneficial and aimed to achieve outcomes that are long term in nature and this was no difference for Indigenous people or people from other culturally and linguistically diverse backgrounds”.
Mr David French, Chief Executive of the Commonwealth Institute, London, addressed delegates on the issue of “Learning Across Cultures”. Mr French said that “for the Commonwealth to be meaningful to young people today, it is no longer sufficient to focus on learning about it as an institution. Rather, we need to engage them in issues, values and themes that make the Commonwealth unique and relevant to their lives. By doing so, we will provide an essential element in young people’s learning, giving them confidence to deal positively with a range of issues in the world around them: human rights, citizenship and especially life within culturally diverse societies; in short, to bring alive the reality of today’s Commonwealth.
For a copy of the First Diversity Matters Forum Report, download ‘1st_Diversity_Matters_Conf’ (Click here to install Adobe Acrobat Reader).